For a few days at the start of 2018, nationwide protests hit the streets of several Iranian cities, blindsiding the government and briefly drawing the world’s attention. The government sponsored counter-protests in support of the status quo, but anti-government protests continued. It all signals that the arrangement of Iranian politics has radically changed – and in particular that the mainstream political project known as reformism is no longer the decisive force it was.
Until now, the only visible protests on the streets of Iran since 2013 revolved around economic issues. They have mostly been organised by Iranians lower down the social ladder; the bus drivers’ union, teachers, and those who lost their savings to fraud and embezzlement by top officials or financial institutions affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard.
The largest demonstrations since the the 2009 Green Movement came in November 2016 and were held by workers against the government’s bill to reform labour laws. In May 2017, hundreds who lost their deposits to Caspian financial institutions protested in front of the Iranian parliament wearing white shrouds – implying they were ready to die for their cause. Union leaders, meanwhile, have made enough political trouble to become the largest group of political prisoners during Rouhani’s presidency. In January 2015, 17 gold miners from Agh Darreh were arrested and lashed on orders of the judiciary for protesting the firing of 326 miners.
The signals of discontent these protests sent were completely ignored by the government and the pro-government elite, who forgot that Rouhani’s first campaign revolved around the idea that economic hardship could be ended through the nuclear negotiations. But even though he was re-elected president in 2017, he has ultimately never lived up to his initial promise.
State of denial
He offered a last slap in the face for Iran’s lower middle and working classes with his 2018 budget bill. With workers in state-owned factories and pensioners facing months of delayed wages and the victims of recent earthquakes still sleeping in tents during western Iran’s deadly winter, the bill allocated billions of dollars to numerous religious institutions owned by high-ranking clerics, mostly focused on missionary activities abroad.
In one case, the government channelled IRR280 billion (about US$7.8m) to a religious institution owned by Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a radical cleric who was allegedly behind murders committed by Islamist fanatics in Kerman. This institution has been receiving annual allocations since the second term of the last reformist president, Mohammad Khatami.
Ayatollah Khomeini called the 1979 Islamic Revolution a “revolution of the barefooted”, a powerful image that helped the regime establish its hegemony and eradicate leftists from Iran’s official political spectrum. But three decades later, pro-government reformists too are using the epithet “barefooted masses” in quite a different way: to denigrate and scorn anyone who protests against the established order.
In total denial about their economic and political failures, the majority of reformists tried at first to blame the most recent protests on their conservative rivals. This was not true. From the beginning, the most recent protests were aimed not just at economic problems, but at the very foundations of the Islamic Regime and its religious leaders.
A week before the main wave of the current protests, pensioners in the pro-Rouhani city of Isfahan gathered in front of the office of the governorate chanting “pensioners’ wages are under the mullahs’ cloak” and “revolution, our mistake”. Then came the protests in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest and most religious city; in less than a day, the protests flared up and spread to 14 cities across the country. On the sixth day, at least 21 people were killed on the streets.
The reformists’ response was all too predictable.
Decline and decay
Mohajerani, a former minister of culture and a pro-government reformist living in exile, has called the protests a rootless movement, attributed them to Israel, and reproached the media for covering them. Reformist journalist Ebrahim Nabavi, meanwhile, mocked the protesters as “beetroot sellers and cherry pickers”.
Once a democratic and civil movement, reformism in Iran has now been totally absorbed into the hardliners’ authoritarianism. Confronted with an apparent third force in Iran’s bipolar political spectrum, they chose to become one with their former adversaries on the hardline religious front. Once outraged when former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the Green Movement protesters “dust and dirt”, they are borrowing the same rhetoric to describe the new movement – right down to the shop-worn cliche of tying them to the hostile US.
In the last several elections, reformists successfully mobilised dissident middle and upper middle-class Iranians. This they did mainly through fearmongering; the fear of hardliners and of war got many, even among the most radical opposition of the regime, to the ballot box.
But the truth is that since Khatami’s second term, Iranian reformism has been constantly backing away from its own principled demands to the point that it is now almost unrecognisable. In a same way, the apparatus of the Islamic Republic of Iran has now lost any legitimacy as a “revolution of the barefooted”. The regime, as professor of political science Fatemeh Sadeghi puts it, “is no longer a system, but a pure reign without any justification”.
The diversity of today’s protesters looks set to become a pattern for the reconstruction of the opposition, whose prominent figures and leaders have been systematically assassinated over the last four decades. For the first time in the history of post-revolution Iran, an opposition is at the verge of forming a real and functional coalition of all the country’s secular forces, from socialists to liberals and all the factions in between. As the reformists’ agenda shrivels into cynicism, that opposition’s time may just be coming.