Jan 30, 2018

2017 Protests in Iran: Economic or Ideological Reasons?

Photo courtesy:  Al-Arabiya

President Hassan Rouhani, who refers to himself as a “moderate”, always warns that Iran should not become another Syria but continues to give the Iranian people false hope of reforms. In the end, Rouhani never fulfils his promises and whenever there is a protest, the responsibility to maintain order is left to those closest to the status quo.

For example, Mr Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the Chairman of the Iranian Committee for Foreign Policy and National Security, repeatedly claimed, over the course of two days, that the reason behind the uprising is economic and tried to encourage the European Union to invest in Iran. Meanwhile, Iranian people on the ground see the poor management of the country simply as another symptom of the interference of religion in politics and of a theological ideology that dominates the system of governance in Iran.

The system of governance put the Iranian people in the position of having to choose between a rock and a hard place in all elections, such as when in the recent presidential election voters leaned towards Hassan Rouhani because of fear of his opponent, Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi. Therefore, the candidates did not really need to present nor were they judged on their political and economic plans for the country.

Due to the pressure by feminist activists, in his campaign Rouhani promised to give three ministerial positions to women. But when elected, he only chose three women as consultants and none as minister. One of these women is Masoumeh Ebtekar, who previously headed the Department of Environment. During the tenure of Ms Ebtekar, - who, in her youth, was one of the students who broke into the American embassy in Tehran and took American diplomats as hostages – there has been an environmental crisis in Iran.

Women have become more visible in government elsewhere in most of the Middle East. For instance, six young women in the United Arab Emirates, all around the age of 30, have recently been given ministerial positions. This shows that Iran is dramatically trailing behind when it comes to implementing promised reforms – even though the discussion around these issues have started already in the 1990s.

Given that it has taken nearly two decades for very little progress on reforms to materialise, it is understandable that the majority of Iranians has lost hope and trust in reformist rhetoric of the government and politicians.

Societies should not force citizens to sacrifice their economic and social rights to enjoy their civil and political rights. With the priority clearly set on social and economic rights, it is understandable why wealthy Arab countries remain relatively stable, as citizens are not ready to jeopardise their economic situation by demonstrating or demanding more political rights.

During the recent protests in Iran, demonstrators chanted “reformists & conservatives: the game is over” to show that they do not believe that reformist politicians are any different from the conservatives. Currently, one of the most used hashtags in Persian is #برندازم which translates to “I am an over-thrower”. This clearly demonstrates that there is a widespread lack of belief in the credibility of reforms and instead a demand for an overhaul of the Iranian political system. This hashtag first began to trend when former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who held office between 1997 and 2005, gave a speech in opposition to an earlier wave of country-wide protests.

The fact that the Iranian government threatened that Iran may become another Syria made Iranian protesters even more unsettled, especially when looking at the case of Bashar Assad, who is claiming that he is a secular leader who fights political Islam. When Syrian women came to Iran in support of their football team, they were allowed to enter the football stadium without headscarves. The comparably greater social freedoms which citizens in economically worse-off countries such as Lebanon enjoy make Iranians wonder why they donate money  to such countries to preserve Hezbollah or Bashar Assad and spread Iran’s ideology in the region, while, at the same time, remaining deprived of the basic social freedoms which citizens in these states already possess. Not surprisingly, Hassan Nasr Allah, stating that all of Hezbollah’s budget comes from Iran, during recent protests made protesters repeatedly shout “No Gaza, No Lebanon and I’m scared for our lives for Iran”.  Thanks to social media, information on the situation in other countries is made public and easily circulated. This relatively free flow of information is regarded as a threat by the Iranian ruling class.

In addition to the lack of social freedoms in Iran, officials in high positions often send their children to live and study in Western countries, with money that Iranians believe is in many cases stolen from the people. There is a large number of corruption cases with obvious connections to high position Iranian officials or their family members. For example, the Minister of Justice, Sadeq Larijani, used 63 personal bank accounts to collect judicial administration fees that citizens had to pay. Mr Larijani had accumulated more than 200 million US dollars in these accounts. This is of even greater concern as his older brother is the head of the Iranian parliament, the so-called Mjles. In this way, one family controls the most important legislative and judicial authorities of the Iranian system at the same time.

The smuggling of goods by the Revolutionary Guards is estimated to amount to 13-25 billion US dollars a year, yet those who carry the goods on their backs, the Kurdish kolehbar(workers who carry good on their backs) , are paid less than 50 dollars a month and are at risk of being shot.

There is a cycle of hatred in Iran because of the regime’s ideology which promotes the suppression of religious, ethnic and linguistic minorities, as well discrimination and suppression towards women and youth.

The conflict between the youth and the official discourse of Iranians, which was described by President Rouhani as “imposed 10th century life style”, led to clashes with the clergy’s ideology that even manifested itself in anti-social acts in the city, burning mosques and religious schools and even attacks on members of the clergy.

The poor management of natural disaster relief by the government further angers Iranian people. On 12 November 2017, an earthquake killed 400 people and destroyed a large government housing project, which had been cheaply built to accommodate thousands of Iranians. The government did not compensate these people who had lost their homes and did not feel the need to react quickly. Some clergies from the ruling elite reportedly said that the earthquake was “God’s punishment for the sins of the people”. In the last month, 12 victims of the earthquake committed suicide due to these poor conditions.

It can also be argued that there are significant economic causes behind the recent uprising. Statistics regarding these economic problems have been collected from statements issued by various political parties inside Iran. A catalyst for the demonstrations in Mashad city, the second biggest city in Iran after Tehran, was that private financial associations which have 110,000 citizen investors, recently declared bankruptcy. On top of this, in 2017, 15 million chickens, a staple food supply and a large income generator, died from the bird flu, leading to an increase in the price of eggs by 50 percent. These factors combined resulted in largescale protests on the streets.

In the last year, more than 500 strikes took place and around 8,000 workers lost their jobs. The clashes between the police and demonstrators became violent in several circumstances and later were heavily beaten and, in many cases, arbitrarily arrested.

The new budget redirected funds away from the welfare system and into improving security forces, depriving 33 million Iranians of access to welfare. Meanwhile, the security budget was raised to 40 percent comparing to last year.

More than 5 million people with higher education backgrounds are unemployed and almost the same unemployment figures can be found among people of low-skilled background. Every year, 1.2 million young Iranians enter the country’s workforce, but even the most optimistic numbers indicate that only 800,000 jobs are generated by the government annually, leaving more than 400,000 young people unemployed.

Iranian money has fallen in value by more than 30 percent and, according to the Welfare Ministry, 40 million Iranian live well below the poverty line and are in need of immediate assistance to provide for their families. According to official statistics, more than 11 million people are living in slums and there is not much hope for any positive changes.   

The environmental crisis, poor water management and increased air pollution have also led to constant protests in Iran which began 5 years ago, especially in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan. In 2017, sand storms led to power cuts and consequently oil production was significantly reduced. These protests are ongoing, with three individuals recently died from asthma attacks caused by the sandstorms.   

In addition to economic challenges and unemployment, social problems are spreading in Iran. Today, more than 17 million judicial cases remain in the courts, suggesting that half of the population is somehow affected by the frustrating procedures of bureaucracy and corruption.

To conclude, while reformists claim that the reasons behind the protests are the ideological differences between the young and the ruling elites, due to the imposition on the population of an extreme religious lifestyle, conservatives blame the reformists for the economic crisis in the country. In reality, however, the protests are due to a combination of different factors and underlying elements that cannot be resolved by minor ideological or economic reforms, but rather require re-evaluation of Iran’s political system. Only then can a sustainable and inclusive system be found to make sure that all Iranians – regardless of which religious, ethnic or linguistic background – have an equal chance to prosper and have their voices heard in Iran.