Now that the wave of recent protests that swept across Iran is over, let us be humble. There was much disagreement about the causes of the protests, but let us admit we were united in amazement: participants, state and polity elites, activists, pundits and observers inside and outside the country, and the people of Iran, everyone. Humility requires avoiding constructing grand schemes or narratives and cherry-picking to attribute single causes and forces to a phenomenon that consist of many elusive elements and many unknown facts.
Yet, one thing is certain: it is a unique phenomenon in the history of Iran that a wave of protests spontaneously and simultaneously swept into small towns and big cities—70 to 80, according to unverified reports—across all of the country’s provinces with the exception of South Khorasan.
Serial protests in Iran are not unprecedented. In 1891, the Tobacco Protest was defused in major Iranian cities. In the spring of 1978 and on the verge of the Islamic Revolution, about 40 to 50 cities were the scene of protests in honor of the Tabriz Uprising that had been crushed 40 days prior. But in all those protests there was always a level of prior planning and coordination, and it was easier to determine what had sparked the protests.
The recent example in Iran is not unique in the world. In 2013, there were simultaneous protests in about 80 to 100 cities across Turkey and Brazil. In the spring of 2017, Serbia witnessed widespread protests in 15 cities. There, as in Iran, the protests erupted suddenly and were communicated via social media, the organizers were anonymous, and, most interestingly, the participants had highly diverse political, economic, and cultural preferences.
Despite catching many observers by surprise, the protests were not unexpected. As labor researcher Zahra Ayatollahi writes, since the beginning of the current Persian calendar year in March, there have been over 900 strikes and labor pickets in Iran. Add to this protests by retirees and those who lost their savings to bank failures, environmental rallies, student protests, urban and rural rallies and it would seem that protesting has become the new normal in Iran. The government has always been alert to the risk of protests becoming troublesome. For instance, in January 2011 when then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad launched his subsidy cuts plan, police were stationed on the streets to prevent any possible protests.
Yet it is also meaningless in retrospect to call the recent protests inevitable. Iran’s larger socio-economic malaise can explain neither the manner in which protesters mobilized in such scattered yet small local sites nor the velocity by which the protests spread so widely.
The prevalence in Iran of technology such as smartphones and Telegram may have helped the diffusion of protest, but it did not cause the unrest.
In the Provinces
In Iran, the social mood seemed to mimic natural phenomena. The protests occurred amid a series of small and larger earthquakes in different parts of the country, including Tehran, as well as inversion and air pollution and sand and dust storms. Not surprisingly, politicians and analysts are using natural metaphors to discuss the present events and to warn of “aggravating fault-lines of discontents.” There are indeed as many tectonic fault lines running through Iranian plateau as there are social grievances. Dissatisfaction can be found everywhere, from the Supreme Leader at the pinnacle of the regime to 70-year-old Mah Malak of the invisible strata of marginalized society in Pakouh-Siah Village of Bashagard County in Hormozgan Province who lives in a hut without any access to hygiene and sanitation.
The prevailing perception among analysts, even the astute ones, is that protesters were primarily from the working class, an ambiguous term, or that they were from the impoverished strata of society. This assumption, rarely scrutinized, comes from the fact that unrest broke out in various provincial locations or shahrestan. The word for people who live outside of the capital, shahrestani, has the same implication in modern Persian as provinciaux in French. It has a negative connotation if used in certain contexts suggesting poor and uncultured. The national media, mostly comprising armchair journalists, rarely cover the news of these provinces. The shahrestan is a terra incognita to most of them.
Undoubtedly, people suffering from serious economic hardships have participated in the protests, as this video of a woman from Khoramabad, Lorestan demonstrates. But coming from the provinces—speaking with an accent and not abiding by the capital’s dress code—does not automatically put someone in a different economic and cultural category in which their only concern is food and fuel. Moreover, the majority young male protesters are very diverse and cannot be reduced to a single economic or cultural class. Nor can they be clustered under the umbrella of a specific issue such as an increasing sense of inequality as their primary source of the discontent. This is why I am hesitant to compare the recent protests with the riots in Mashhad in 1992 and Eslamshahr in 1995, two protests started by the urban poor and often invoked these days.
Instead of a single meta-grievance there were multiple, highly localized grievances. In Izeh, Khuzestan Province, the rich and poor alike are worried about drinking and farming water. In Ganaveh, Bushehr Province, the local bazaaris are unhappy with the government for banning the sales of merchandise imported on Lenj boats from the south of Persian Gulf without paying the customs tariffs. In Tuyserkan, Hamadan Province, the walnut production on which the local economy depends has taken a hit because of the cold, drought, and hail storms of the past few years. In Najafabad, Isfahan Province, a large part of the retired population is worried about losing their pensions due to the bankruptcy of the Foulad Fund, while in nearby Zarrin Shahr, people are worried about the ban on planting the premium quality and highly profitable Lenjan rice.
The Problem of Governance
These various grievances reveal an oft-overlooked aspect of the protests. Many Iranians are frustrated by faulty governmentality, the impression that too many things are long overdue to get fixed and problems are becoming overwhelming. The complexity and granularity of the problems that people face also offers an insight into why the cities and towns in which protests erupted don’t follow a particular political pattern in terms of how they voted in recent parliamentary and presidential elections. Fury surpasses political factions. Michel Foucault once wrote that “government is the right disposition of things [economy, environment, population etc.] arranged so as to lead to a convenient end.” Governmentality is about informed and calculated policy making aside from transcendental and religious forms of reason; it is about conducting affairs, solving problems and ultimately optimizing the welfare of inhabitants of a territory. In contrast, the machinery of Iranian governance—legislative, executive, and disciplinary—is engineered to produce discontent and resentment. Deputy Interior Minister Hossein Zolfaghari perhaps inadvertently revealed that many people who had lost their savings in bank failures participated in the protests even though they have already been compensated by the state. People redirected their grievance and pain to ressentiment.
Grievances are constructed, but they are also performed. Every one of the geographical sites of protest has its own repertoire of contention based on local culture and public memory, history of interaction with the administration, and the traditional web of relations with political, economic, and religious actors. This is why protests in each city have had their own trajectory. For instance, Shahin Shahr, Khomeyni Shahr, Falavarjan, Najafabad, and Lenjan—all in Isfahan province—are where according to official statistics at least 9 have been killed in the recent protests. Even though they are all close to one another, each has its own ethnic and demographic texture, as well as cultural and religious features.
In all of these cities there is a history of unrest and clashes among local groups, with neighboring towns and counties and also with the local government. In Shahin Shahr, which has a diverse population of first- and second-generation immigrants from other provinces, a group of protesters attempted to set fire to the same Basij base that had been targeted in 2009. Khomeyni Shahr is one of the places that has resisted all government attempts over the past two decades to ban the practice of mourning known as tatbir. Najafabad, birthplace of the late dissident Ayatollah Montazeri, has repeatedly witnessed the presence of security forces on its streets. In Qahderijan, local revolutionary armed groups had violent clashes with one another.
The Nature of the Protests
Many commentators claimed that the anti-regime slogans chanted during the protests are unprecedented. This is simply not true. Harsh slogans were present in many other instances of local protests in Iran, such as Mashhad in 1992, Mobarakeh in 1993, Sabzevar in 2001, Semirom in 2003, and Izeh in 2004. In all those clashes, protesters attacked and set on fire government and even religious buildings.
At least 21 people have been killed in the recent wave of protests across Iran. But the death toll belongs to only six cities—all of which reportedly experienced incendiary vandalism and violent clashes—of the 70 to 80 cities where protests are taking place. This shows that the overwhelming majority of protesters were non-violent. Contrary to what Ali Motahari, a prominent member of Majlis has claimed, the people indeed have a “culture to protest.” Of course, this could also indicate that local governments, guided by local Councils of Security while coordinating with the capital during times of unrest, have been cautious about using brute force and have instead relied on widespread detentions. It does not, however, mean that the Iranian establishment or nezam, has suddenly become “compassionate”—as the interior minister said condescendingly. Rather, the government has become smarter in managing such crises.
The different political factions—reformists, moderates, principlists, and even their radical offshoots—have been verbally cautious in reacting to the protests. Although each blamed the other, contrary to 2009, they have refrained from further provoking and enraging people. Accidentally but on purpose, all have asserted that protesting is the people’s right, But like every beautiful but conditional proclamation in Iran, they immediately added that of course unrest must be resolutely confronted. Still, the state apparatus cannot avoid annoying the public. While the whole nation is talking about the recent protests, the government suddenly decided to ban the teaching of English in primary schools, even during extracurricular hours.
For a country that behaves in ways that defy prediction, mass protest is like a medical treatment that is both poison and cure. It could expand the scope of participatory politicking or shrink it into more exclusionary and authoritarian forms of government. The onus is on Iran’s ruling elite to decide which pill to take: blue or red. For now, though, with the protests quelled, they are busy debating which is which.
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