Analysis of the social grievances behind the protests, including environmental degradation. Based on a presentation on January 21, 2018 at a meeting of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization in Los Angeles on “Iran 2018: Facing a Poor People’s Uprising and Deadly Threats from Trump’s USA” — Editors
[Photo is of drought-stricken Karun River in Ahvaz.]
The multi-city protests in Iran from December 28, 2017 to early January 2018, which were widely covered in the media, have roots in the deep dissatisfaction among the great majority of Iranian masses, including youth, woman, and the provincial poor.
As you may have noticed, I referred in my title to the notion of the protest starting with February 2017. It’s because there was an anti-government protest in Ahvaz, my home town, which is the provincial capital of the oil rich province of Khuzestan, in February of 2017. The New York Times covered it via its only reporter stationed in Iran, who was not allowed to go to Ahvaz to cover the protest. The article appeared on Feb 19, 2017 and was also covered by ‘Al Arabiya’. The latter has an interesting title “Ahvaz protests in Iran: A sign of things to come?” for an article by Heshmat Alavi on Feb 22, 2017. So in a way the most protests in Iran were not that unexpected, at least for some. However, the extent and the geographic width was something very different from the past protests against the Islamic regime:
- Protests broke out in smaller towns and cities from north to south and east to west of Iran. Places like Ahvaz, Izeh, Dorood, Mashhad, ‘Chah-Bahar’, Khomaini shahr, and so on.
- Tehran’s movement was not as strong as the Green Movement in 2009.
- The protesters chanted slogans against all regime leaders, including burning portraits of supreme leader Khamenei. This is somewhat of a crossing of a line and a new development.
- The movement did not have a figurehead; even the leaders of 2009 were not present in their slogans.
- Slogans were chanted against unemployment, high prices, and religious governance.
- Protests in Ahvaz have another dimension and that was environmental degradation and dust storms. Ahvaz has been transformed from a small agrarian city with a big river to an industrial oil and petro-chemical town with a million people and the worst air pollution in the world! This year it recorded a temperature of 129 degrees.
- Some people stayed away from protests because they deemed them a quarrel between regime factions, or, like in Tehran, they thought it would be credited to US’s Trump or Israel’s Netanyahu. Of course, these two figures play a reactionary role despite their ‘support’.
Unemployment among youth reaches up to 50% and there is an estimate of 1.5 million youth wanting to leave Iran. There is also a low birth rate, as prospects for earning a livelihood are dim, especially in Tehran and major cities.
‘Tehran is a city between Iran and the rest of the world’ as one says in Ahvaz. The Islamic Republic political system is a centralized dictatorship and it is rampant with favoritism and cronyism at an economic level based on some Shia religious standards. It’s not a meritocracy but a theocracy. A minority of people connected to the state and the rich semi-private and religious foundations support the regime.
There is a generation gap between the regime’s ayatollah’s and most youth.
The Middle East continues to be the most strategic and geopolitical region of the world, as admitted candidly by four former US diplomats during a US Senate Committee Armed Services hearing on Dec 19, 2017. The region contains half of the world’s proven oil/gas reserves, a third of all world oil production, and two of the world’s three major energy chokeholds. The hearing indicates how the US wants to manage the states in the region and to create a certain order of power as a geopolitical trump card. The US wants to push back on Iran’s advances and Iran’s regime spends money and resources to keep and expand influence in the region as a guarantee for its continuation of power.
The people of Iran are opposed to transnational expenditure in the state budget. There are two takeaways from this. Before this outburst of protest, the budget that Iran’s president presented to the Majlis MP’s listed explicit allocation, which identified what institutions and individuals are getting funding. This angered many people, who already know about the regime’s corruption. The other aspect of this is how people are turning away from Islam and celebrating Iran’s pre-Islamic heroes, such as Cyrus the Great. There is now a spontaneous annual celebration of his birthday that the regime sees as a threat. The recent protests reflected this anti-Islam tilt, but this kind of nationalism could create its own problems.
What holds for the future of these protests:
- Although the regime was able to quiet down the public protests, the underlying causes are still there and it’s certain that there will be more of them in future. When? Perhaps during the next presidential elections or in response to other economic, environmental, or political triggers.
- The movement has crossed a line and now the entire regime, including the reformists, is rejected.
- Iran’s next generation will be lot less religious or turning to other faiths.
- As state capitalism fails in Iran and the country is being cut off from international investment, the people of Iran get poorer. Iran is posing a challenge to leftist and emancipatory ideas, including Marxist-Humanism. It’s that question of organization and leadership that is holding back the movement in Iran. When and if that gets solved, and a clear picture of a future society emerges, that’s when the masses will get a huge boost from the Idea, and can go into battle against Iran’s counter revolution, which organized itself in the post-1979 state.