The agenda pursued by Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021) primarily entailed reaching a nuclear deal with the West so U.S. sanctions could be lifted and Iranians’ economic situation would improve. However, these hopes were dashed when the July 2015 nuclear deal failed to improve the country’s socio-economic prospects. Instead, increasing income inequality led to growing social frustration. The situation came to a head three years later when Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement and reimposed crippling U.S. sanctions.

Fallout from Trump's de-certification of the nuclear deal

A dramatic devaluation of the Iranian rial ensued, along with horrendous inflation on a scale never before experienced in the Islamic Republic’s history, which subsequently led to more widespread impoverishment. Official figures indicate that two years ago 19 million people, as many as one in three city dwellers, were living in slums.

This state of affairs sparked the uprisings in 2017/18 and 2019 that challenged the entire regime. Although the Islamic Republic and many local observers have portrayed the protests as a direct consequence of sanctions, their root causes lie in social injustice, poverty, and corruption, not to mention the dearth of opportunities for political participation and the predominance of authoritarian structures – factors that predate the U.S. sanctions.

 

This distinguishes the current struggle from previous unrest, for example in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 elections or the student protests in 1999, where it was mainly the urban middle class making its voice heard. Those demonstrations focused on civil rights, with scant attention paid to social issues. The 2017/18 and 2019 protests, in contrast, were sparked mainly by socioeconomic factors.

Challenging the entire system

The trigger for the November 2019 uprising, for example, was a threefold rise in gasoline prices, literally overnight. These protests took a somewhat different form, employing more radical slogans that challenged not only one camp but the entire system: reformists and hardliners alike, clerics and the Revolutionary Guards. In response, the regime adopted an unprecedented rod-of-iron strategy: during an Internet blackout that lasted more than a week, an estimated 1,500 people were executed, some quite openly on the streets.

Despite this explosive situation, none of the candidates has thoroughly engaged with the social question in the run-up to the presidential election. Even reformist Mostafa Tajzadeh, now banned by the Council of Guardians from standing in the election, has not commented on the social question, even though he has made radical demands in other contexts, calling for example for constitutional amendments.

It comes as no surprise, however, that politicians are turning a blind eye to social issues. Reformists, who view the middle class as their primary electorate, have attempted to lure these voters to the polls over the past 20 years by calling for civil liberties and individual freedoms, while also pledging to reconcile Islam and democracy.

The lower class, often categorised as conservative and religious, has traditionally tended to support the principlist or hardliner camp. However, the protests during Rouhani’s presidency revealed just how much support the regime had lost among the lower classes, previously seen as its bedrock within society.

The countrywide protests that erupted in 2017/18 came barely two years after the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions – in other words, at a time when Iranians should have been beginning to experience the deal’s economic impact. However, the general populace did not feel the benefits of economic recovery, which mainly favoured members of the elite with close links to the regime. One of the most striking aspects of the protests in recent years is that the lower middle class and the lower class, people in small towns and villages right across the country, are spearheading the dissent.

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