In the closing days of 2017 and the early ones of 2018, Iranians began taking to the streets of cities, towns, and villages across their long-historied nation to demand economic reform, social liberalization, and enhanced personal freedom while hoping at the same time that they might finally succeed in removing the theocratic regime of the past thirty-nine years. Their protests mirror Iran’s recent history in issues, demands, and responses. Most strikingly, as in their previous struggles against the theocratic government, Iranians will have to persevere in their quest without counting on tangible assistance from others.
“Death to the dictator!” chanted protestors in late 1978 and early 1979 as Iranians successfully mobilized to oust Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi despite the monarch’s violent resistance. Thirty years later the phrase “Death to Khamenei” was commonplace when Iranians tried unsuccessfully to undo a presidential election rigged by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his cronies in 2009. That revolution was brutally squashed by the mollahs and their hardline supporters while the free world alternated between pleas and empty threats. Khamenei prevailed because other nations did nothing to aid those seeking reform—quite a difference in action and outcome from December 1978 when the United States pushed the last Shah into capitulating to popular demands that he step down.
Yet the underlying political, economic, and social conditions that have fueled these popular uprisings have not changed. Citizens’ have long resented that they have been denied meaningful participation in a farcical “democratic” political process. For starters, only regime vetted and approved “opposition candidates” may challenge the status quo in an election. Fiscal mismanagement and rampant corruption by and within state bureaucracies and quasi-official foundations has rewarded elites allied with the regime, while ordinary citizens watch their standard of living stagnate or decline. Unemployment, underemployment, and lack of appropriate job opportunities are a depressing fact of life, especially for young men and women. Restrictions on social and individual liberties, including detention of activists and constant public harassment of individuals viewed as transgressing state-mandated norms, may wax and wane somewhat with changes in presidential administrations but are always maintained within fundamentalist parameters by unelected members of the Guardian Council, Judiciary, and Office of the Supreme Leader.
So, not surprisingly, the current protests resemble those of the earlier revolts. Now as then, hardline elements within the regime sought gains by provoking and exploiting societal tensions. Now as then, initial pro-regime words were quickly overwhelmed by the cries of many who experienced decades of inequity. Now as then, the protests began without a centralized or coordinated internal organization or external influences. Now as then, the protests have become widespread with protestors from diverse economic, demographic, and social backgrounds with one major exception in that few mollahs are involved because the protests threaten the clergy’s control over Iran. Additionally, these current protests began at the time when the regime commemorates its suppression of the 2009 uprising. Now as then, demonstrators are declared enemies of the state and threatened with draconian measures including penalties of incarceration or death. Now as then, the state’s official and semiofficial security apparatuses have begun clamping down by violently dispersing demonstrators, and arresting or shooting those who do not obey the enforcers.
Yet, make no mistake about it—Iran’s population of 82 million is undergoing massive transformations, and the rate of change has picked up since the failed uprising of 2009. More than half of Iranians have grown up knowing only the Islamic Republic as the source of totalitarian government. Citizens are highly literate, 85 percent overall and around 97 percent for persons under 50 years. Primary and secondary education reaches over 80 percent of children. More than 5 million Iranians attend universities within the country. But GDP per capita still is less than the equivalent of US $21,000, and the unemployment rate is over 12 percent officially and over 26 percent among those under 25 years. Corruption among the political elites costs the country the equivalent of billions of dollars annually; indeed Iran ranks as a highly corrupt 131st out of 176 countries.
Constant social oversight, rigid codes of dress and behavior, enforced by the regime are regarded as out of sync with personal and communal desires, the modernity of upper and middle classes, and especially by citizens under the age of 40. Regular edicts and chastisement by the mollahs add to the mounting frustration of the population. Iranians are tired as well of their leaders’ confrontations with the West, the country’s foreign adventurism in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, and Afghanistan and the cost of those activities in Iranian lives, revenues, and international engagement. The protests echo Iranians’ demand that their national leaders be more positively engaged with the rest of the world rather than confrontational.
Additionally, the flow of information inside Iran today is very different from the late 1970s and even 2009. More than 56 million Iranians, nearly 70 percent of the overall population, have internet access. There are 20 million new mobile internet users since 2014, with total users now exceeding 28 million. Over 40 million smartphones provide nearly 100 percent connectivity in the most populace provinces and cities. Social media is widespread too—Facebook reaches 45 percent of Iranians, Instagram 33 percent, Telegram has 40 million plus users. As the current demonstrations spread, has tried to cut off access to Instagram, Telegram, and WhatsApp. Despite the regime’s efforts to regulate information sharing and to censor dissident sentiments, its citizens remain connected with each other and foreigners by utilizing VPNs. Moreover, the state alienated small business owners who rely on those apps to communicate with customers.
Due to e-connectivity, these protests appear to be largely decentralized and spontaneous, making them more difficult to anticipate or control by the authorities given that there is no organizing or coordinating body within the protest movement, as well as fewer identifiable leaders who can be imprisoned in order to deflate the movement. Today’s protests have an organic and self-perpetuating component that makes it different from past revolts.
The question is, will the rebellion’s outcome be different this time around? On the one hand, the Islamic regime may step up the violence against the protestors and then seek political cover from its totalitarian, fundamentalist, isolationist base as it did after suppressing the 2009 protests. Indeed, the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Basij paramilitary are being deployed to assist the police in beating up and arresting protestors. But with each set of uprisings, whether successful or unsuccessful, the Iranian people are learning and adapting, and, as the past indicates, will return to their struggle until one day they succeed.
Jamsheed K. Choksy is Distinguished Professor of Global and International Studies and Professor of Iranian Studies at Indiana University.
Carol E. B. Choksy is Lecturer in Strategic Intelligence at Indiana University.
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