Nationwide protests in Iran have reached their fifth day—and they show no signs of slowing down despite continued threats and repression by the regime.
This is the first time in eight years, when protests erupted against alleged electoral fraud in 2009, that Iran has been at the forefront of such protests and unrest. But there are fundamental differences between the recent protests and that of 2009 in terms of size, leadership and objective.
Protests reach the countryside
In 2009, the main focus of protests was in major cities such as Tehran, Tabriz and Isfahan. The protesters had demanded the votes be recounted over alleged electoral fraud and Tehranis were the first to protest on the streets.
Current protests, however, have spread throughout the country. The protests began in Mashhad and spread to more than thirty small and large cities throughout the country. This time many people demonstrated in such cities as Izeh, Shadegan and Mahdasht, small towns that many Iranians have never heard of—and it's these places that became the scene of intense protests and clashes.
The demands of the "middle-class" protests in 2009 were political. Protesters that year did not want to change the government; they only wanted their votes to be counted. This week, however, 39 years after the Iranian Revolution, concerns over the economy have led protesters out to the streets. The gaps between social classes have reached their largest yet in Iran, and now protest slogans demand a regime change.
Unemployment and corruption
While the lifting of sanctions following the 2016 nuclear accord has helped the economy overall, most of the improvement has been limited to the oil sector. Unemployment in the wider economy is above 12 percent, and double that among young people.
President Hassan Rouhani's policies have helped rein in inflation, but certain goods prices have spiked, with eggs now twice as expensive as a year ago. In addition, his policy of cutting state handouts offered by his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has left households more exposed to price volatility.
Speaking to protesters at the first major demonstration in Mashhad last week, one man described how he was suffering from joblessness: "We've had enough of life without jobs, life without money," he said in footage posted on social media.
But it's not only low employment figures that have spurred protests this week. Corruption allegations, financial mismanagement, and the military's involvement in economic matters are also seen as factors in class divisions within Iranian society. Much sharper political slogans such as "Death to the dictator!"and "Down with the Islamic Republic!" have been spotted on the streets.
Young protesters and poor cities
Some of the cities that have widespread protests are among the poorest cities in Iran. So far, more than 450 people have been arrested, and the Interior Ministry says the average age of most detainees is between 20 and 25 years old. These figures mean that most protesters are under the age of 25. Taking into account the age and other demographics of protesters, such as location, suggests that the majority of protesters do not have a direct connection to the 2009 movement.
One of the most important slogans of the Islamic Republic during its early days, in 1979, was the support of the disadvantaged and oppressed people in society. That's why in 2009, Iranian authorities introduced the protesters as fortunate and intrepid to discredit opponents. But with the current protests, the same "deprived and oppressed” people have come out to the streets, so the Iranian regime hasn't figured out how to deal with them. This is a new phenomenon for Iranian authorities as it becomes more challenging to predict how the protests will evolve.
In the early days, the driving force behind these current protests was social networks, especially the Telegram Messenger. As of Sunday, Iranian officials have completely blocked Telegram and Instagram. The Internet is also blocked at many hours. As I talked with some people in Iran the best way to communicate between protesters “is to distribute the declaration for the next rally and demonstration”. So this is easier in smaller cities than in big cities.