As the dust settles on Iran’s recent bout of protests, the surge of commentary, punditry, and analysis is likely to continue, no longer working to explain these apparently ‘spontaneous’ protests, so much as to understand why they have petered out. Much of the commentary on what has been labelled the ‘greatest challenge to the Islamic Republic since 2009’ has been insightful and penetrating. Unfortunately, a significant amount of commentary has also been at the best, misinformed, at the worst, deliberately misleading.
In the narrative of Iranian exile groups – monarchists, the authoritarian People’s Mujahedeen, and others, many of whom have virtually zero support on the streets of Tehran, Shiraz, or Tabriz – there is a simple, seductive logic that goes something like this: Iran is an oppressive dictatorship, economic woes make life difficult, and ipso facto people come onto the street to overthrow their government in search of greater freedoms. Such statements are deplorably lacking in nuance or sophistication, adhering to an oversimplified linear logic that desperately calls out for further unpacking.
Naturalising the West
For those of us who live in the West, there is a pervasive, ingrained assumption that democratic governance and free market capitalism constitute the only logical outcome of an inevitable historical trajectory. Even among liberal thinkers, those who traffic in the kind of generalisations like, “the arc of justice is long, but it gets there in the end” work on implicit assumptions about the naturalness of our values, and their universal attraction. States that are authoritarian, undemocratic, etc., are frequently read as being ‘caught’ at a step along that path, with ‘democratic transition’ maybe just a generation away. It is only reasonable then, this line of thought goes, that they should come out on the street and call for its overthrow. Indeed, non-democratic states are often interpreted as inherently unstable, waiting to fall, only requiring the push of the ‘downtrodden’ masses. But there is nothing innate about parliamentary democracy, representative government, freedom of the press, or all the other values that we associate with ‘Western’ society, nor is there any reason to assume that all people on the planet necessarily desire the same thing.
To turn critique of Iran on ourselves, does that mean that, in turn, we should see protests in the United States as evidence of an oppressed people waiting to throw off the shackles of a cruel government? As Joel Robbins notes, anthropology has long attempted to denaturalise assumptions about the universality of Western notions of individual freedom.
In suggesting that all protest in Iran is a cry for freedom, we simply impose our own beliefs about what we understand to be the only legitimate form of social organisation, i.e., one that allows the ‘agent’ full expression of their ‘inchoate self’. This is not to suggest that all Iranians do not care for what we understand to be political freedoms. Many do. But to read political liberalism as the singular desire of all people is a gross misrepresentation of complexities on the ground.
Likewise, I take issue with simplistic analyses that fail to nuance realities of other political systems. A reading of the country as “just another dictatorship ripe for collapse” glosses over meaningful differences in its unusual model of governance. Certainly not a liberal state, Iran’s complicated polity is better characterised as “semi-democratic” or “competitive authoritarianism”. While the confines of political participation are certainly limited, elections do take place, and the results matter, especially in terms of defining the cultural atmosphere of the country at a street level.
It’s “always” the economy
In tandem with this is the problematic tendency to assume that economic uncertainty, distress, or hardship, is likewise an automatic catalyst for protest. Without wishing to downplay the clear grievances of those in Iran who feel like they are under economic pressure, other countries have suffered through various periods of inflation and unemployment comparable, if not significantly worse, than Iran, without civil unrest. Current inflation rates are, at least compared to as little as three years ago, relatively low, having come down to about 12-13%. Similarly, while unemployment is high, particularly youth unemployment, many other countries have suffered through higher levels of joblessness without people taking to the streets.
Again, I do not mean to dismiss the idea that Iran’s economic woes are essential for understanding why people came onto the streets. They are. But reading them as a singular or direct catalyst misses important social factors. What I think is absent in this mix is Iran’s particular combination of potent nationalism and the sense of exceptionalism that it breeds unrealistically high hopes, and the crushing blow that comes when such expectations meet the grind of reality.
An historic and honourable nation
The notion of national exceptionalism usually conjures images of the United States with its own particular mythos, stepped in early Puritanism, later ideas of manifest destiny, and the like. But there are other permutations as well. Thailand’s status as the only south-east Asian nation to have resisted colonialism has fostered a sense of Thai exceptionalism among the country’s elite. So too Russia, and its particular destiny as the “Third Rome”.
Iran, I think, holds itself to a similar standard. Deeply invested in certain readings of history, this sense of Iranians as a particularly noble and culturally rich people draws on the mythology of the ancient Persian empires, on its adoption of Shi’ism in the 16th century, on a commonplace interpretation of ethnic difference from their neighbours, to name just a few. But it is also tinged with a sense of greatness lost, of wounded national pride, and, legitimately, of being victim to a vicious program of colonisation by European powers.
Most importantly here, though, is the degree to which it fosters a sense that there is a distinct Iranian people, who are – and I think this is critical – deserving of more than history has dealt them. Whether Islamist or secularist, monarchist or republican, wealthy or poor, among my informants, and I would suggest palpably across the country, there is a type of shared ethos that Iranians lack their rightful respect as a world power, as a great civilisation, as a producer of high culture.
The Restoration of hope
In his 2017 book, Swedish-Iranian anthropologist Shahram Khosravi talks about the hopes of young people in Iran, and the increasing sense that many have that their lives are without hope. I think Khosravi’s reading is overly pessimistic, but I do agree that understanding the role of expectations and feelings of hope are pivotal to understanding the sudden rash of demonstrations. Arguably, the idea of hope is one of the major threads that has run through Iranian national discourse since at least the Revolution, if not before. Hope for a better life, a more dignified life.
The election of Hassan Rouhani in 2013 clearly tapped into a sense of optimism for a better future, and a restoration of Iran’s fortunes after the interlude of the Ahmadinejad era, which, by its end, was largely understood to have been engulfed by cronyism, corruption, and failed government projects. Rouhani’s first election campaign ran on the slogan of “Government of Prudence and Hope”, and in many ways, delivered on many of its promises, negotiating a partial end to Western sanctions, and something of a revival of the country’s diplomatic clout as the graceful Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, pressed flesh with senior figures in from the US, EU, and across the world. The duumvirate’s successes were widely praised in Iran, with celebrating crowds on the streets of Tehran, and posters across the major squares heralding the President’s efforts. While the mood among my own informants remained cautious, an optimistic air swept the nation, and was almost certainly responsible for Rouhani’s landslide re-election against conservative rival Ebrahim Raisi in 2017.
Yet, as others have noted, Rouhani’s presidency has failed to turn rhetoric into material outcomes. Some of this is outside of the government’s control. The international political clout that Iran held in in 2016 seems to have evaporated. This is not least because the Trump administration has seemingly made it his personal ambition to antagonise, marginalise, and humiliate Iran and Iranians wherever possible.
I have written earlier about the contemptable “Muslim ban”, and the extent to which it was a slap in the face not just to the government, but to all Iranians. Domestically, however, there has been little windfall from the ending of sanctions, economically or culturally. The prices of goods continue to rise, even as the government embarks on a program of ‘neo-liberal’ inspired economic changes with the aim of stripping back the country’s historical welfare net.
Concluding thoughts: The price of eggs
The initial wave of protests in Iran seem to have been sparked by a demonstration about the rising price of basic commodities. The spark that lit the fire was a sudden jump in the cost of eggs after a number of chickens had to be euthanized to prevent the spread of avian flu. This has been widely reported elsewhere, but usually as a throwaway line.
After all, who cares about eggs? But I think it is actually worth meditating a little longer on the egg as a cultural locus in modern Iran. In the hierarchy of domestic consumption in Mashhad, at least when I was there, eggs were cheap, and on the bottom of the food ladder. When having guests, the aim was always to serve meat, preferably red, if not, chicken. But other than as a breakfast omelette, I was never once served eggs. When visiting the poorest parts of Mashhad, squatter settlements inhabited by Afghan migrants, we were told the most destitute rarely ate meat, sometimes not even vegetables. Just bread, yoghurt, and eggs.
What I sense, then, is that the latest demonstrations in Iran represent a protest against a creeping sense that people are being dishonoured. Having promised a return to its rightful position among the great nations of the world, Rouhani now presides over a government that cannot even keep the price of the humble egg low. For the gardener who moonlights as a taxi driver to make ends meet, the unemployed second son who, despite his master’s degree, cannot find gainful employment in his chosen field, or the tea shop worker who stares emptily out of the café window dreaming of fulfilment, all raised in an atmosphere that cried out for justice for the betrayed honour of the people, when the day comes that even eggs are too expensive to buy, it is an unbearable loss of face.
[Image by Alicia Wilson]