The Iranian Protests: It’s all the Economy

Ben Dinsdale

January, 2018

Iranian protests, 31 December 2017

Iranian protests, 31 December 2017


It has been almost 9 years since the beginning of what was perhaps the largest political uprising in Iran since the 1979 revolution, and once again, Iranians have taken to the streets to demand change. However, unlike the Green Movement of 2009, the protests that have recently sparked across Iran are not calls for democracy or for more freedom of the press, but simple issues such as the price of bread and gas.

The protests began in the country's second largest city, Mashhad, on December 28th following the release of the government’s austerity budget for 2018. The budget called for significant cuts to cash subsidies to citizens as well as increases in fees for vehicle licenses and prices of basic goods. These cuts were paired with increases in funding for the elite religious class in Iran as well as the country’s military forces who are fighting across the Middle East in what many Iranians see as foreign wars that cause the government to direct their focus abroad rather than on the challenges at home.

A significant liberalization push has been undertaken by the current President Hassan Rouhani following the lifting of sanctions that came with the Iran Nuclear deal. Although this has led to significant economic growth, it has not yet had the impact on the basic goods that all Iranians consume. With unemployment relatively high, disconnect was festering amongst the people, giving rise to the protests that have occurred over the past month.

The largest protest in Iran that occurred prior to the most recent unrest was the Green Movement of 2009. This movement followed the highly contentious elections of June 2009, which saw the conservative incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected by almost a two thirds margin. Immediately after the results Ahmadinejad’s chief opponent reformist Mir Hossein Moussavi declared that mass voter fraud had occurred and called on his supporters to take to the streets.

After several days of large demonstrations which called for not only the election of Mr. Moussavi but broader political reform, Iran’s supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared that the margin of President Ahmadinejad’s victory was too large to overturn the victory, and although protests continued into 2010, his decree generally quelled the movement.

The Green Movement was easier for the Iranian government to handle because it was seen as a leftist movement, led by reformists and student groups with very little involvement from the rural and religious base of the Islamic Republic. However, the current protests stand in stark contrast to this, as they are occurring across the country, in areas that are often considered to be the support base of not only the current government, but the Ayatollah himself.

Because of the economically focused nature of the movement, its message has had broad appeal outside of the urban centres like Tehran, into cities like Qom which voted 70% in favour of Ahmadinejad and numerous rural areas across the country.

Additionally, this set of protests will be much harder to stop because unlike the Green Movement, there is no clear set of leaders who can be jailed or silenced. There is no Moussavi to dethrone, or clerics to place under house arrest. The movement comes from the Iranian people, leaving only two realistic potential solutions -  change in the government’s legislation, or a weakening of the people’s will.

These protests carry the same underlying discontent that fueled the revolution of 1979. It is not about calls for democratic reform or economic liberalization, but a general discontent with the ruling elite. The Iranian people are feeling the brunt of years of economic hardship caused by their government’s economic policy and the weight of international sanctions and are ready for change.

They are challenging the powers that be to do better for the average citizen; to shift their focus from foreign wars and wealthy clerics to the simple things like the price of gas and bread. This movement may not yet have the power to threaten the Iranian state, but it sends a clear message that a reorientation towards concern for the quality of life of every Iranian needs to occur. If it does not, then the future of the movement and the current Iranian government becomes much more clouded.