Fahad Ali narrates a situation that appears beyond repair
The Non-stop protests in Iran against the regime tyranny in Iran has spilled over the country and was witnessed reverberating among protesters at the Football World Cup 2022 ahead of Iran’s first match against England. A few dozen men, women and children were seen wearing t-shirts saying “Zan, Zindagi, Azadi” (women, life, freedom), a famous chant from the protests in Iran. These protests are in continuation of the spate of nationwide agitation taking place across Iran since mid-September. In the past few days, protests have been most intense in northwestern Kurdish-majority provinces, with videos continuing to come out from several cities, including Mahabad, Bukan and Piranshahr in West Azerbaijan and Javanrud in Kermanshah.
Crossing a so-called red-line, protesters in Iran set fire to the ancestral home of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Khomeini is said to have been born in the house which is now a museum that commemorates his life, and after deposing the country’s pro-Western leader, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi ushered in the theocratic state that still exists today. He served as the first supreme leader of Iran until his death in 1989 which is still marked by a day of mourning each year. The fire at his ancestral house is one of the latest incidents in a wave of nationwide demonstrations directed at his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his government.
Meanwhile, funerals for young Iranians said to have been killed by security forces sparked fresh demonstrations. Crowds chanting “death to Ali Khamenei” gathered in the south-western city of Izeh for the funeral of a nine-year-old boy, Kian Pirfalak who was shot dead by security forces although officials have denied this. There were further protests in the cities of Tabriz, Mahabad and Zahedan over civilian deaths blamed on security forces. Iran has arrested two prominent actors who expressed solidarity with the country’s protest movement and removed their headscarves in public. Hengameh Ghaziani and Katayoun Riahi were both detained after being summoned by prosecutors looking into their provocative social media posts, Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency said.
Many observers describe the non-stop protests as a broader movement fueled by middle-class anger over the country’s collapsing economy. Iran’s large urban middle class has mostly driven the demonstrations in dozens of cities since 16 September and this agitation has exclusively been organised by word-of-mouth and amplified on social media. Quite quickly their complaints turned from women’s rights to demands for an end to the country’s Islamic system of governance that controls all aspects of society. The consensus now is that the triangle of women, technology and poverty is the fuel behind the demonstrations as young people feel their lives are being literally wasted by the heavy restraints they are facing.
The middle class kept Iran stable after its 1979 Islamic revolution and was its economic engine amid sanctions from the US and others over its nuclear technology, ballistic missiles and support for terrorism and militias in the region. Iran’s middle class kept growing over the past four decades to 60% of the population, with a strong education system churning out doctors, lawyers, engineers and traders despite a devastating war and several oil-price crashes. Now, the middle class is under pressure from 50% inflation and Iranian rial has fallen to its lowest levels ever this year. It is reported that currently more than one third of Iran people lives in poverty compared with 20% in 2015 with the middle class shrinking to comprise less than half the country.
The economic down turn has increased the anger brewing amongst the population and now it has erupted in unsustainable agitation. Small-scale businesses have been badly hit and are now running out of savings with inflation threatening their middle-class lifestyle. They once owned several properties but have sold some to raise cash. US sanctions that target Iran’s oil industry and financial sector are the main factor crippling the Iranian economy, cutting the country off from the dollar, most economists agree. The employment for college graduates dropped by 7% in the aftermath of sanctions and wages of male skilled workers went down by almost 20%. Even so, about 63% of Iranians blame domestic economic mismanagement and corruption, rather than sanctions, for the country’s financial woes.
Once one of the world’s biggest oil producers, Iran now pumps about 2.5 million barrels a day, down from more than 6 million in the 1970s and 4 million as recently as 2016. Economists say the benefits of any post-pandemic growth are partly offset by runaway inflation. A first wave of demonstrations began earlier this year, led by trade unions representing oil-industry workers and teachers who saw their wages fall below the poverty line. Workers say they have trouble affording Iranians staples like spaghetti or hamburger meat. In recent days, students at Allameh Tabatabai University in Tehran have picked up the theme, chanting: “Poverty, corruption, tyranny; Death to this dictatorship.” They claim that the scale of Iran’s resurgent poverty is unprecedented in the last 100 years and could destabilise the country.
The situation has now completely reversed for most of the Iranians who were sustained for the last four decades by the relative freedom to do business and make money and this maneuvering space helped take the edge off their discontent over political repression and the imposition of conservative Islamic values on a secular society. The clerical government also redistributed oil wealth that had been concentrated among elite under the Shah, offering free healthcare, schools and family-planning programs. Iran’s strong educational system gave the country’s rural poor a path to social mobility and homeownership, with a university degree unlocking access to professions such as medicine and law.
The clerical regime also devoted financial resources in developing health facilities and by 2015 according to UN approved Iran’s Human Development Index that includes social equality, education levels and life expectancy ranked above those of Mexico, Ukraine, Brazil and Turkey. In 2015 also Iranians hoped that an agreement with the US, European powers, Russia and China would end years of international isolation over their country’s nuclear programme and that in exchange for tight but temporary limits on the nuclear work, Iran was freed from most international sanctions and able to do business again with much of the West. However, the impact was limited as many Western companies shied away from deals with Iran then after the election of President Trump in 2016 when he pulled the US out of the nuclear deal and re-imposed American sanctions, more middle class Iranians have slipped back into poverty.
Middle-class Iranians once put their faith in reformist political candidates such as Hassan Rouhani, who led the country from 2013 to 2021 but they lost faith in change through ballot box after it became clear that Khamenei would not allow even a token reformist candidate to run for president. Rouhani’s successor, Ebrahim Raisi, who previously headed Iran’s repressive judiciary, has emphasised economic self-sufficiency and trade with Russia and China, rather than with the West. The observers sum up the crux of the issue facing Iran by saying that the problem is that there is no release valve—no economic opportunities, no social opportunities, no political opportunities in Iran and what is there is just a cloud of repression. TW