The Moral Economy of the Iranian Protests

Beset by inequality and corruption, Iran’s provincial working classes are revolting against the revolution’s broken promises.

Protesters around Shahyad Tower (later Azadi Tower) in Tehran, Iran, 1979. Aristotle Saris / Wikimedia

The recent demonstrations in Iran have been noteworthy for their geographic scope and range of grievances. Triggered by discontent over persistent unemployment and inflation, long overdue wages and pensions, the reduction of cash subsidies, environmental degradation, and the collapse of murky financial institutions that turned out to be Ponzi schemes, the protests have been taking place primarily in provincial towns. At their core, these protests are a moral outcry of the marginalized periphery against what it perceives to be a callous center and its betrayal of the social justice vision that animated and united the revolutionary forces of 1979.

Local dissent has been a regular and widespread feature of Iranian politics, especially since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988. Yet, these receive little attention in the Western media, which focus instead on the views of the Supreme Leader, factional rivalries among elites, and the nuclear program. Even a cursory glance at the Iranian press in the past three decades reveals a constant current of protests by teachers, nurses, bus drivers, industrial and agrarian workers, conscripts, students, pensioners, and others over broken promises and work conditions. They persist despite being dealt with harshly by the authorities.

These citizens are not all poor, propertyless, or uneducated, but they have been suffering from high youth unemployment, a housing market disfigured by speculation, relaxed labor regulations, and the general inability to live the life promised by their educational status or even to match their parents’ standard of living. Because the Islamic Republic is adept at repressing formal avenues of grassroots representation like functioning political parties, independent associations, and trade unions, these grievances previously remained isolated and contained. Now they have exploded.

The Revolution in the Hinterland

There is a political dimension to these protests that cannot be captured by the broad-brush label, “anti-regime.” Rather, they are rooted in the checkered legacies of the 1979 Iranian revolution. The revolution was a provincial revolt as much as it was “Islamic.” This was an important but overlooked factor in determining how politics were shaped after the revolution. Scholars and journalists have emphasized the role of religion and the Shi’a clergy, and the massive urban protests that brought down the monarchy. But many of the participants in the revolution were recent economic migrants, or had traveled from villages and small towns to join big-city marches. What motivated their anger was the uneven modernization that had marginalized the rural and provincial periphery.

Theirs was not a resistance to modernization, but resentment of their exclusion from its perceived benefits, both economic and social. Once “the modernizing monarch” was toppled, these men and women from the provinces joined the new revolutionary state institutions like the IRCG, or the Construction Jihad, dedicated to developing the countryside. They were elected to the parliament, appointed as governors and bureaucrats, and fought in the Iran-Iraq War. After the war, they attended newly formed universities in the hundreds of thousands, and became the professionals and technocrats in charge of postwar rebuilding. Whether reformists, conservatives, or simply professionals, they planned and implemented the massive development projects and bureaucracies that transformed the countryside. They were beneficiaries and the embodiment of the revolutionary moral economy that promised upward mobility and valorized egalitarianism in return for “sacrifice” and active participation in preserving the regime.

But if the state’s social composition changed after the revolution, its ultimate approach to development did not. While the war-torn 1980s witnessed a remarkable transformation in the provinces driven by grassroots mobilization, infrastructure building, and greater access to health care and education, the postwar reconstruction saw an about-turn toward commercial priorities and top-down policy making.

To understand the grievances propelling today’s protests, the tragic example of the Karun, Iran’s largest river, is instructive. Located in the southwest of the country, the river traverses the mountainous, tribal province of Chaharmahal, the neighboring oil-rich province of Khuzestan, and eventually forms the border with Iraq. Since the end of the war several major dams have been built on the river. Former president Mohammad Khatami hailed these projects as a symbol of national progress: “These dams will prevent a single drop of water from going to waste.” Though built in the name of national progress, these projects were undertaken with little regard to their severe environmental and social side effects. Initially planned in the 1960s but only built after the 1990s, these projects were modeled on the US Tennessee Valley Authority — in fact the TVA administrator David Lilienthal was the main consultant. Yet once built, they displaced tens of thousands from their ancient communities, and flooded agrarian and pastoral lands. Displaced populations were mainly ethnic minorities (Arabs and Bakhtiari Lurs) and impoverished villagers with little political clout. Huge tracts of land were confiscated for reservoirs (with enormous loss of water due to evaporation) as well as for massive sugarcane agribusinesses, an exceptionally thirsty and wastewater-polluting crop.

An environmental crisis followed, as the river became too polluted for drinking and agriculture. Fragile marshlands suffered ecological disaster. This affected millions of people living downstream in villages and major cities like Ahvaz, Abadan, and Khorramshahr — populations that had already been harmed by the eight-year war with Iraq. While official propaganda hails the sacrifices made by these border regions during the wartime “sacred defense,” local populations feel betrayed and outraged by the heavy hand of highly centralized budgeting carried out by Tehran’s technocrats, who seem oblivious to local welfare. Further plans to divert river water to fertile but water-starved interior provinces like Isfahan and Yazd have caused further controversy.

Despite the institution of local elections by reformists, this over-centralization and unaccountability has been reproduced at all levels of government. Adding to this explosive mix is a sustained natural drought that since the 1990s has devastated agriculture and greatly intensified rural migrations. Some of these displaced people migrated to large urban cities or their immediate satellite towns, but more often officials relocated them to the smaller provincial towns that have been the centers of the recent protests.

These man-made disasters are replicated across the country. Highways, oil refineries, cement factories, steel mills, mines, and other big projects are built in the name of development and economic independence. But almost without exception, their workers go unpaid for months, endure hazardous work conditions, have no job security or stable benefits, and are repressed when they attempt to organize or voice their grievances. A seemingly endless string of visible disasters contributes to moral outrage: the drying of the country’s largest lake, Lake Rezaiyeh, due to over-irrigation; the collapse of an iconic high-rise in Tehran and a mine disaster in the northeast that took the lives of dozens of firemen and miners respectively. Virtually every node of recent protests has a similar story to tell.

Social Crisis

Compounding these scandals are the mafias rooted in military and security power centers, the conspicuous consumption of unscrupulous speculators, and the structures of international sanctions. In lieu of industrial planning, free trade zones and private-public initiatives have generated a class of profiteers, often collaborating with partners in Dubai, Turkey, and beyond. Yet for every sports car or luxury apartment in posh Northern Tehran, there are news articles about the homeless poor sleeping in empty graves or traders carrying backbreaking loads of consumer goods across the mountainous border with Iraq and Turkey.

Some branches of the state have tried to find innovative solutions to address chronic poverty; the welfare sub-ministry, for instance, has tried to register street peddlers, which would entitle them to some health and welfare benefits, and decriminalize their work. At the same time, the police and municipalities continue to harass these peddlers as well as thousands of child workers, treating them as criminals who are encroaching on middle-class urban spaces. While it’s too soon to know who the Iranians were that dared to participate in the protests, ample evidence suggests that they were neither the abject poor nor the beneficiaries of this uneven political economy. Rather, ordinary people’s aspirations have been shaped by a paradoxical mixture of anger against social and economic injustice and consumerist desires cultivated by the developmentalist state’s promises of material security and affluence.

Protesters frequently demand recognition for independent associational voices. But while some courageous labor activists and environmental organizations have carved out space to monitor and articulate demands, too often these have been ignored by the state, whose security forces repress attempts to scale up these activities. In the wake of the protests, a fruitful avenue for addressing the social crisis would be for the state to legalize, rather than criminalize, these institutional forms of participation. Yet the political establishment has shown little sign that it is ready to tolerate this form of social power. President Hassan Rouhani has focused on improving the “business climate” to attract private foreign and domestic investment, while drafting austerity budgets in each of his five years in office. Meanwhile, the reformist factions of the elite have shied away from either mobilizing the working class or thinking through their demands in relation to a reformist agenda.

Yet, the state is ill-equipped to manage the herculean task of confronting the multiple causes of discontent. Resources are limited, and the effects of sanctions and low oil prices are still being felt throughout the economy. Meanwhile, the elected government lacks control over large segments of the budget reserved for organizations controlled by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The 2005-2013 populist presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proved particularly disastrous for state institutions. Unlike his predecessors, Rafsanjani and Khatami, who were wedded to technocratic solutions to social problems, Ahmadinejad actively sought to undermine and circumvent the professional class, whom he viewed as political opponents. By politicizing the bureaucracy he hoped to maintain direct channels of patronage and control. His actions demoralized public-sector employees and increased corruption.

In November 2017, an earthquake struck the Iran-Iraq border in Kermanshah province, killing more than 600 people. Many of these deaths were due to the collapse of the public housing estates recently built during Ahmadinejad’s tenure. The damage exposed more than Iran’s seismic vulnerability: it laid bare the corruption and incompetence in the building of well-publicized public projects for the poor. Unlike earlier and much larger earthquakes, emergency organizations were unprepared and slow to respond — reports suggested there were not enough helicopters to reach the mountainous region and many supplies that arrived were not distributed to the needy. Two months later, 50,000 are still homeless and live in tents.

The Iranian demonstrators share the familiar anxieties produced by global capitalism’s rampant inequalities and environmental destruction. For now the protests seem to be petering out under state repression and the protesters’ inability to broaden their support. The government acknowledges that 21 have been killed and almost 4,000 have been arrested in a national sweep. The government may try to alleviate tensions by rewriting the budget and reinstating the subsidies and cash payments that it had planned to slash. A new round of highly publicized anti-corruption cases may also be a means for the regime to argue that it is taking action and responding to social demands. But the social realities of those living on the jagged edges of Iranian society will persist. What makes the demonstrations against malfeasance and the calls for political change and social justice powerful is the fact that the protesters are accusing Iran’s rulers of violating the revolution’s commitment to a moral economy.

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Kaveh Ehsani is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at DePaul University. He is a contributing editor of Middle East Report and Goftogu (Dialogue, an Iranian journal of critical social analysis),

Arang Keshavarzian is an Associate Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. He is a member of the editorial committee of Middle East Report/

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