The Islamic Republic of Iran is facing one of the most difficult periods in its history. Recurring protests, labor strikes, and other forms of civil unrest have become common, drawing in Iranians from all classes, ethnic backgrounds, and regions of the country. Protesters decry the country’s faltering economy and systemic corruption while turning a deaf ear to the regime’s incessant blaming of all things wrong in Iran on U.S. sanctions. Many Iranians, in fact, see the regime, more than just the sanctions, as the primary cause of the country’s poor economic and social conditions.
On July 16, residents of Behbahan – a city in Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province and one of the first places where violent force was used to repress protests in November 2019 – flooded the streets. Facing temperatures of up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit and the risk of the coronavirus, protesters carried banners and chanted slogans critical of the regime. A series of videos posted on social media showed protesters chanting “Death to Khamenei,” “Mullah’s regime, we don’t want it,” and “Iranians would rather die than accept humiliation,” while denouncing the government’s mishandling of the economy, crackdown on peaceful protests, and incompetence in managing the country’s affairs.
Iranian authorities were quick to respond to Behbahan’s peaceful gatherings, cutting off the internet, and deploying security forces to the city, swiftly quelling the protests and arresting several “agitators” involved with organizing and participating in the “illegal and norm-breaking gathering,” as Iranian authorities described it. Although the protests – as evidenced by videos on social media – didn’t surpass a few hundred people, they quickly spilled over into Shiraz, one of Iran’s largest cities, prompting authorities to deploy security forces to other major cities like Mashhad, Tabriz, Isfahan, and Tehran.
The anger displayed in massive fuel price protests in fall 2019 has not disappeared. Segments of Iranian society continue to blame the regime for the country’s economic collapse and systemic corruption. Inflation, hovering around 34%, has ravaged businesses and consumers alike, as the value of the country’s currency, the rial, has declined by up to 70% since the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal. According to some estimates, around 10 million to 12 million Iranians live in poverty, while the cost of goods has grown exponentially – the price of bread, for example, has increased threefold.
Meanwhile, systemic corruption in both the public and private sectors has made it difficult for Iran’s public to have faith in the government’s ability to foster clean and transparent institutions. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Iran ranks 146 out of 180 countries, up – meaning corruption has worsened – from 130 in 2017. High profile cases of corruption in the government, particularly in the country’s judiciary, have played out in front of the Iranian public. Recently, for example, several judiciary officials, including a prominent judge and even the institution’s former executive deputy, have been charged with collecting bribes from defendants seeking a favorable outcome in their trials. Even President Hassan Rouhani’s own brother, Hossein Fereydoun, was sentenced by the government to five years in prison on corruption and bribery charges.
In the private sector, poor government oversight has allowed corruption to spread across various segments of the economy, including the automotive sector, currency trading, oil and gas, medical equipment, steel production, paper manufacturing, and maritime shipping. The regime has imprisoned or executed countless businessmen – often dubbed “sultans” – implicated in crimes such as illegal trading, embezzlement, and bribery. Such corruption, however, doesn’t affect only a few wealthy business leaders; it broadly impacts working-class Iranians.
Corruption and mistreatment of employees, as well as economic hardship, have led to numerous labor strikes across Iran. On August 2, workers from different industries, including factory employees, nurses, municipal workers, and coal miners, staged labor strikes in Tehran, Isfahan, Khuzestan, Ahvaz, Tabriz, and elsewhere. They complained about unpaid wages, low pay, corruption, and, perhaps most important given the country’s chronic unemployment, a lack of job security – many workers in Iran are employed on temporary contracts. In the country’s struggling oil and gas sector, labor strikes have impacted several refineries and petrochemical complexes in Iran’s southwest, where workers echoed complaints of unpaid wages as well as horrendous working conditions as temperatures in the oil-rich parts of the country reach 122 degrees Fahrenheit.
Iranians’ anger with their country’s foreign policy agenda has also become a recurring theme in protests. When Major General Qassim Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (the individual most closely associated with Iran’s destabilizing activities across the Middle East), was killed by a U.S. drone strike in January, many Iranians, rather than paying respects to the national hero, instead shared the tweet #Iraniansdetestsoleimani. In protests, people often chant slogans like “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, I sacrifice my life for Iran” in a rebuke to the government’s policies of supporting militia groups in countries like Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. In 2018, one Iranian protester said: “The protests we see are out of desperation.” He continued, “I don’t want even a penny of my country’s money to be spent outside this country because of our people’s bad economic situation.”
Rather than addressing its citizens’ grievances, the government often responds with brute force, arresting, torturing, and even executing protesters, only furthering Iranians’ anger toward the regime. When the government recently sentenced three men to death for participating in the 2019 fuel price protests, Iranians from across the country and around the world came together on Twitter to protest the harsh sentence with the hashtag #do_not_execute. In only a few days, the hashtag was retweeted more than 7 million times.
Despite Iranians’ contempt for the administration of U.S. President Donald J. Trump and its “maximum pressure” campaign, many Iranians see the regime as the main source of the country’s economic and social problems. While Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini and other government leaders may continue to blame the United States for the country’s problems, frustration and anger toward the government could lead to larger, more organized protests calling for change in the country.
Yet, if history is any guide, the Islamic Republic’s authoritarian government will not make fundamental changes that cater to the needs of citizens demanding greater transparency, the rule of law, accountability from public officials, and democratic reforms. Instead, the regime’s record over the past 41 years suggests that it will resort to the methods it has used repeatedly throughout its history: brute force and suppression of dissent.