In Iran’s surprise uprising of the poor, dents to revolution’s legitimacy

Iran's recent violent protests surged among the nation's poor, presumed bedrock supporters of the regime, who have been angered by recent crass displays of wealth by the elite and other perceived inequities. Even the opposition intelligentsia was surprised.

In this photo, taken in Tehran by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, university students attend an anti-government protest inside Tehran University on Dec. 30, 2017.

After a week of violent anti-establishment protests across Iran, in which anger welled up most vociferously among the country’s poor, even a perfume seller in Tehran knows the harm that has been done to one pillar of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The Islamic Republic was “based on the ideal of a better world for the oppressed and the poor,” says Ashkan, a 32-year-old with a master’s degree in chemistry, who has had to settle for a job selling perfume in a friend’s shop.

“In the early years there were efforts to materialize this, because we used to have sincere and hardworking authorities,” says Ashkan, who was contacted by phone and asked that only his first name be used. “But as time went by, corruption replaced those principles, and the hardship of economic life continued to press that very layer of society…. This explains why they are now frustrated with the system that they once rose up for.”

Iranian leaders have been surprised by the scale and location of the protests that first erupted over economic grievances on Dec. 28, then quickly turned political and spread to more than 70 cities and towns – many of them long-considered conservative bastions of regime support.

Posters of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have been burned, as chants rang out of “Death to the Dictator!” and government offices and security force bases were attacked and set alight.

The shock to Iran’s ruling elite has not been that some Iranians detest them – posters of Ayatollah Khamenei were torched in 2009, too, when millions of protesters in Tehran and beyond took to the streets over a disputed election – but instead which demographic fearlessly voiced its anger this time.

The result that has so unsettled power centers in Iran is that protesters are complaining about broken promises that stretch back to 1979, about guaranteed prosperity and attention to equality and “social justice.”

Recent revelations about vast spending on clerical institutions, especially, and cuts in welfare and subsidies while Iranians have often seen wages stagnate or decline in recent years, have fueled the sense of pervasive inequality. For many, that has dented the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and damaged its long-standing revolutionary social contract.

“There has been a long assumption that the so-called base of the Islamic Republic is the shoeless peasant and the religious conservative and the [Iran-Iraq] war veteran family, and I think that era of Iran is not what Iran today is like,” says Kevan Harris, assistant professor of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The nature of the protest “is surprising not just to the political elite, which is split and don’t know how to react. It’s also surprising to even the opposition intelligentsia in Iran, which always thought they were leading the charge on issues of political and social change,” says Mr. Harris, author of the 2017 book, “A Social Revolution: Politics and the Welfare State in Iran.”

After a week of unrest, the violence appears to have abated in most towns, though video uploaded on social media indicated that sporadic protests continue. The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, declared the “end of the new sedition,” after two days of pro-government counter-rallies in many cities on Wednesday and Thursday. The Guard only “briefly intervened” to quell rioting, he said.

No more than 42,000 people protested nationwide, Interior Minister Abolreza Rahmani Fazli told reporters, adding that protests continued for days because the Islamic Republic “showed mercy.”

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
Iranian worshipers chant slogans in support of the regime and against anti-government protesters at a rally after Friday prayers in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 5, 2018.

Revolution's social contract

From its inception, the Islamic Revolution aspired to offer Iranians a new social contract, alongside its anti-imperial, independent foreign policy that castigated the US, Soviet Union, and Israel alike.

The father of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, set the standard decades ago, during the monumental event that toppled the pro-West shah and his regime’s elitist, secular worldview.

“Only those who have tasted poverty, deprivation, and oppression will stay with us to the end,” Ayatollah Khomeini declared. Following through, revolutionary officials established a vast welfare and charitable network and a far-reaching education and health system, and raised standards of living across the board.

But as the revolution and its leaders matured, so too did ingrained social problems and political infighting, and an ever-increasing gap between Iran’s haves and have-nots that has bred resentment.

“Unlike during the first decades of the post-revolutionary Iran, the rich now heedlessly flaunt their wealth,” wrote Iranian novelist Amir Ahmadi Arian in an opinion piece in The New York Times this week.

The generation of the revolution “cared about appearances and never dropped the veneer of fealty to the ideals of the 1979 revolution,” while their own offspring “hardly care,” wrote Mr. Arian.

“They brazenly drive Porsches and Maseratis through the streets of Tehran before the eyes of the poor and post about their wealth on Instagram,” he wrote. “Iranians see pictures of the family members of authorities drinking and hanging out on beaches around the world, while their daughters are arrested over a fallen head scarf and their sons are jailed for buying alcohol. The double standard has cultivated enormous public humiliation.”

Elite is 'out of touch'

The protests have “challenged and in many places broken the social contract of the promise of the revolution. It’s a sense that the elite is so out of touch with what’s going on in regular people’s lives that they didn’t even see this coming,” says Narges Bajoghli, a postdoctoral research associate at the Watson Institute at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

Authorities will have no trouble controlling the unrest, says Ms. Bajoghli, author of the forthcoming book, “Anxieties of Power: Sustaining the Revolution in Iran,” but it is the manner in which protesters showed their faces and shouted against Khamenei in small and more remote towns that is resonating in Tehran.

“It’s one thing to do that in the big city, where you can get lost in the crowd, but it’s something else to do it in a place where you are very easily identifiable,” she says. “I think it shows they have lost fear of the state itself, which is a very big deal.”

Officials have said some 90 percent of those hundreds arrested in the protests are under 25 years old, and so have little experience of the 2009 Green Movement protests, she notes.

“They are very young; this is a whole new generation, and they are protesting beyond the politics of the regime. It’s not about the reformists anymore,” says Bajoghli. “They are going above the ways we traditionally define politics within the system in Iran.”

Foreign enemies?

And yet, while analysts widely cite economic and political issues – and the protesters’ own slogans – as fuel for the unrest, Khamenei and senior officials this week accused “foreign enemies” of orchestrating the violence in a bid to undermine the Islamic Republic.

That unsubstantiated claim has been easier to sell inside Iran, due to clear support for the protests voiced by President Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and leaders of Saudi Arabia, who had vowed that the next clash between the two regional rivals would take place “inside” Iran.

But not all are convinced.

“The entire world plays a role in these protests except the Iranian people themselves, and there is nothing to be blamed on the establishment’s political, economic and social performance,” the reformist analyst Sadegh Zibakalam wrote sarcastically in an open letter to Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, who had blamed foreign players.

“I wish only for once, you [authorities], instead of resorting to conspiracy theories and accusing the Western world, would get down from the Ivory Tower, talk to the people who are weary to their bones of your policies, and ask them what their pain is,” wrote Mr. Zibakalem.

Uneven growth

That disconnect has put a sharper point on the fact that Iran’s economic growth since the 2015 nuclear deal has been uneven, with nearly all benefits accruing to Tehran while rural areas and those beyond the capital have not improved.

“If you look at the pictures of the young men who’ve been killed … these guys look like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever,” says Harris, the Iran scholar at UCLA. “They have that spiky hair, coming from Jersey and hoping in New York they are going to make it – essentially a working class hero-type.”

“It’s not that there’s a huge increase in people living hand-to-mouth,” says Harris. “It is the perception of, ‘I’m going to be stuck here for the rest of my life, and my dad was my age when we heard the same promises.’”

The result is that such protests, even if controlled now, are likely to come again, he says: “These kinds of grievances of course aren’t going to go away, and who knows what the next spark is going to be?”

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