Iran: Why the revolutionary process is likely to persist
Last September marked the beginning of Iran’s nationwide protests calling for regime change. This winter, street protests have waned, but the revolutionary process is poised to gain momentum again. After all, the socio-economic and political crises engulfing the country will continue to be the driving forces, with a regime unable to address both.
The Islamic Republic of Iran suffers from acute political and socio-economic crises and their ramifications endanger the regime’s stability and even survival. As a result, over the past decade, Iran has seen more frequent and more radical nationwide protests: At the turn of the year 2017/18, in November 2019 and since mid-September of last year. Alongside these, there are also important ecological as well as socio-cultural crises, which underpin a wide gulf separating state and society. The 2017/18 protests marked the beginning of a long-term revolutionary process in Iran, not unlike that witnessed by the Arab world since 2010/11. Last year’s protests calling for regime change showed that, for the first time, the demonstrations have spanned various social classes – in fact, the missing link compared to previous uprisings. As such, these protests have constituted a veritable threat to the regime.
A look at key political and socio-economic indicators reveals the extent to which the two crises have paved the way for the revolutionary protests that have engulfed the country since the tragic death of Mahsa “Jina” Amini last September. The first concerns the political crisis – indeed the center of gravity –, while the second pertains to the economic conditions that also undergird the socio-economic crisis. Crucially, both of these are structural and thus intimately linked to the regime’s politico-economic constitution and (mal-)performance.
Political crisis: Political transformation and governance
Iran’s political crisis is linked to the quasi-impossibility of reform within the Islamic Republic, which has sustained political authoritarianism and made political transformation elusive. In fact, this unreformability is, in particular, due to the utter failure of the establishment’s reformist faction, from which the bulk of Iran’s post-war presidents hailed, in bringing about or pushing for much-needed reform. For this reason, the regime’s reformists, or so-called moderates, emerged as a target of popular rage with the 2017/18 protests, reflecting their loss of legitimacy. While the idea of reform within the Islamic Republic has seemingly been irreversibly buried, the mal-performance of the Hassan Rouhani administration, backed by the élite’s reformist faction, constituted the final nail in the coffin. Profound popular disillusion with the entirety of the political élite, including its hardline and reformist factions, was on full display with the historically low participation rates in the February 2020 parliamentary and June 2021 presidential elections. In both cases, the wider conservative camp prevailed. Yet, given the latter’s monopolization of power, one and a half years into the presidency of the ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi, it has so far proven unlikely that the hardliners will use their grip on resources to benefit the many Iranians struggling to make ends meet. This has deepened the nation’s downward socio-economic spiral.
Moreover, the Islamic Republic has one of the most repressive and authoritarian systems globally, for example, its repression of women, students and workers movements (all forming the backbone of Iran’s civil society), its dismal human-rights record, its lack of the freedom of assembly and press freedoms among others. Therefore, it is no surprise that the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) 2022 had labeled the country a ‘hardline autocracy,’ making it the 11th lowest rank worldwide – slightly worse than Sudan and a bit better than Saudi Arabia or Syria.
In terms of governance – defined by the BTI in taking into account inter alia steering capability, resource efficiency, consensus-building, and international cooperation – the country fares the worst, ranked 6th lowest in the world, giving it a category of ‘failed’ governance, with even South Sudan and Libya better placed. This poor showing reflects the élite’s incompetency and corruption that are plaguing Iranian society.
Iran’s raging socio-economic crisis is arguably a combined result of an ideologically grounded political economy that favors regime loyalists, an oligarchic élite and regime policies that barely address the burning social question. In terms of economic transformation, Iran was downgraded to the worst category, ranking 13th lowest globally, almost on equal terms with Taliban-ruled neighboring Afghanistan and worse than its other immediate neighbor Iraq. Over the last decade, poverty has considerably expanded in Iran and has engulfed large parts of the middle class, a process facilitated by stagflation – i.e. a stagnating economy with high inflation rates now reaching over 50%.
Iran is not only consistently placed in the BTI 2022’s lowest categories but even at the very bottom in international comparison. The accumulation of anger and frustration resulting from those structural economic-cum-political crises fueled 4,000 protests over 2021 and 2022 respectively (according ACLED, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project), before giving birth to the “revolutionary episode” (in the words of Asef Bayat, a leading scholar on social movements in the Middle East) starting last September.
The long-term revolutionary process is set to continue
In this protest wave, four groups are at the forefront: women, the youth, students, and marginalized ethnicities. Their common denominator is that they all suffer disproportionately socio-economically and to a great extent also politically and socio-culturally.
At present, Iran’s revolutionary process is in a stalemate. Neither the regime nor the protesters are able to overwhelm the other for good. This winter, the number of street protests have – except for the demonstrations after Friday Prayers in the country’s south-eastern Sistan and Baluchestan province – clearly plummeted, probably due to repression and the seasonal cold weather. Yet, strike actions still take place.
Looking ahead, it is likely that street protests will re-emerge again this coming spring, not least given the unprecedented loss of value of the national currency and inflation rates of over 50 percent. But, as seen in the past, protests fueled by socio-economic woes often swiftly turn political and anti-regime. In other words, the revolutionary process looks set to continue, in no small part because of a likely irreversible gulf separating state and society, with an unreformable regime that is unable – or unwilling – to cater to society’s most vital needs.