Screenshot from video of protests in Tehran from January 4, 2018. Available on YouTube: https://youtu.be/hNNVlONyNGs
This piece was cross-posted on the website of Arseh Sevom website, a non-governmental organization that promotes peace, democracy, and human rights for Persian-speaking communities.
“Where’s my money?” That’s what many in Iran have been asking over the past few years as they’ve watched inflation and corruption decimate their earnings.
Inflation has hit the poor and working class the hardest. The costs of food, utilities, and healthcare have risen dramatically over the past five years. In 2013, the cost of food increased by just over 57%; in 2017, it rose by a further 13.9%. Meanwhile, the youth unemployment rate hovers at about 25%.
Simply put, there is plenty of economic despair to go around. But it doesn’t end there. Desperate people have invested in pyramid schemes that enriched a few at the cost of the many. Workers all over Iran have waited up to a year to be paid for completed work. This traps them in inescapable debt and many land up in prison for using bad checks, placing even more stress on already struggling households.
In the last half of 2017, there were near-daily protests in front of Iran’s parliament. Teachers, laborers, and bus drivers demonstrated to demand higher pay and better working conditions. This is not new: these protests are more than a decade old now.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has been unable to deliver the freedoms and financial stability that its citizens long for. Some of this is the result of sanctions imposed by the United States; much of it, however, is due to corruption and bad governance.
US-imposed financial sanctions have actually provided excuses for bad planning and rampant corruption. As long as they are in place, the Iranian government can hide behind them, blaming everything from milk shortages to poor aircraft maintenance on sanctions.
Meanwhile, those who learned to game the system have raked in the big bucks. A perfect example is Iran’s Babak Zanjani who became a billionaire many times over thanks to international sanctions against Iran and his clever manipulation of his position as the Islamic Republic’s money launderer. In late 2013, he was arrested.
Paykans in Northern Tehran. Photo by Wikipaykan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
In 2003, Iran’s streets were filled with the boxy white Paykan sedans and the occasional foreign-made compact car. Cafes were rare; any public signs of wealth, subtle. Many people lived on salaries that wouldn’t pay even a month’s rent — $1,000 a month seemed like an extravagant amount of money.
By the time I left Tehran in 2007, consumerism was on the rise. International companies and luxury products were finding a market in Iran. Soon after, couples would be eating gold-flaked ice cream in tower-top restaurants and flaunting their wealth in Jaguars and Porsches. Soon, there would be a rise in evictions of long-term tenants in order to build apartment towers. Soon, all pretense of shared struggle would be gone.
Screenshot from Al Jazeera Earthrise documentary: Iran's Water Crisis by Gelareh Darabi
Tehran is being smothered in smog. Bad air days are increasing. People are suffering. In 2011, the Iranian government reported that nearly 3,000 people died every month because of complications resulting from pollution. That number may be higher, as research begins to show that many deaths from cardiovascular disease are actually the result of pollution, not lifestyle or diet.
Poor water management worsened during the Ahmadinejad administration from 2005 to 2013. During that time, newly constructed damns led to dry rivers, lakes, and aquifers. Once-fertile areas have been destroyed.
Private industry, with connections to the state, warned people against “exaggerating” the magnitude of the environmental crisis in Iran. An investigative report by environmental researchers found that scientific research on the crisis is often stifled.
Meanwhile, analysts predict millions of internal climate refugees. That's something to prepare for, not ignore.
Many people in Iran have looked at the conflict in the surrounding region and felt lucky to have been somewhat insulated from it. They feel threatened by Daesh (also known as ISIL or ISIS, the brutal militant group that has taken over areas of Iraq and Syria) and by Saudi Arabia. They are afraid of the possibility of national disintegration and the type of government violence seen in Syria. This fear has put a damper on public protest.
The director of non-governmental organization Arseh Sevom (and also my life partner) Kamran Ashtary stated:
This current wave of protests was apparently sparked by hardliners who initiated demonstrations in the eastern city of Mashhad against the moderate administration of Hassan Rouhani. The hardliners soon lost control, though, and people took to the streets in anger and desperation.
For the first time in decades, many people on the streets of Iran have been openly calling for an end to clerical rule. Some chanted for reinstatement of the Shah, while others have railed against the president and supreme leader.
This is in stark contrast to demonstrations in the aftermath of the 2009 elections, which was the last time masses of people took to the streets in Iran. Those protests called for a recount of the vote, for “small changes”. People sang nursery rhymes, not political slogans. One of the most chanted was:
The people of Iran have been struggling for just governance since their 1905 constitutional revolution. The country's democratic hopes have been dashed again and again. This is most notable in the case of the 1953 US- and British-led coup against Iran's democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadegh (see this Twitter essay by @_chloi for a good overview). In recent years many inside Iran have spoken of evolution, not revolution. These protesters are different though. Many feel that there is nothing left to lose.