December 18, 2018

By BBC Monitoring

Over the past six months, protesters in Iran have taken to the streets somewhere in the country almost every day. The country has been suffering from economic turbulence since the US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal (officially known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – JCPOA) in May and the two rounds of US sanctions imposed in August and November.

Despite the government’s optimism about its ability to stabilise the country’s finances, the sheer number of protests occurring almost every day confirms that the country continues to experience economic instability. The state’s budget for next year, too, reveals a sanctions-induced strain on the country.

Still, the popular dissatisfaction cannot solely be attributed to US-imposed sanctions. Other factors, including economic corruption and stagnation, and a range of civil and political issues, should also be taken into account.

Why were there protests?

BBC Monitoring has observed that at least 345 protests were held across Iran in the second half of 2018, most of which were related to the country’s challenging economic situation. Some 246 of these resulted from economic issues such as delayed wages, job insecurity, and low income. This was exacerbated by high inflation, rising prices and a subsequent increase in living costs.

Poor public services such as road and housing conditions and lack of government support were the second major reason for the protests. At least 43 of these can be attributed to poor or deficient public services.

As the country dealt with a severe drought over the summer, a water crisis disrupted farming and agricultural livelihoods and became one of the key grievances in Iran’s central and southern provinces.

Labour disputes and civil and political rights also featured prominently in the protests, which included mostly peaceful labour strikes, and demonstrations against the arrests of political prisoners, “unfair” employment processes, and gender inequality.

BBC Monitoring gathered the data shown in the graphs from major Iranian news agencies and the foreign based Human Rights Activists’ News Agency (HRANA) website. Protesters and protests were categorised, before being placed in parent groups.

Who is protesting?

Workers constituted the most frequent protest group, holding at least 132 protests over the past six months against delayed wages, job insecurity, and labour disputes.

Workers of the Haft-Tapeh Sugarcane Company in southwestern Iran protested several times for four months’ delayed wages. In their protests, workers chanted “We are hungry”, saying that they could not feed their families. The peaceful protests escalated and spread to other towns, with students in Tehran holding demonstrations in solidarity with Haft-Tapeh workers.

Teachers also went on strike on several occasions against their low income and poor employee rights. According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), one of the strikes in November spanned at least 16 provinces.

The second largest group was investors who purchased shares and property but did not receive their assets, dividends or compensation. They held at least 86 protests since mid-July. A number of these investors lost the money they had invested in financial middlemen.

Small businesses, including merchants and truck drivers, are the third largest group of protesters, holding some 45 protests. Truck drivers held nationwide protests at least four times in recent months, some of which covered multiple locations and lasted up to 20 days at a time. They complained about the increasing price of equipment, their decreasing income amid high inflation, and lack of government support to help them get back on their feet.

Farmers and residents of southern and central parts of the country protested several times because of the water crisis. Many farmers said their lands have become uncultivable while residents, especially in southwestern Khuzestan Province, complained about their limited access to drinking water.

Students held at least 36 protests over the past six months, mainly complaining about poor university facilities. In October and November, a number of medical students protested at not being allowed to attend classes because of overcrowded lecture halls and limited places on courses. Some of them said they were “disappointed” and had “lost hope”.

How long did the protests last?

The average duration of protests was roughly two days, with most ending after one day. A number of protests lasted for about a week, with a few continuing for up to 30 days.

Workers of the Haft-Tapeh Sugarcane Company and the National Steel Group in southwestern in Khuzestan Province protested for about a month over their delayed wages.

According to the pro-reform Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA), about 350 hospital staff in northern Alborz Province went on strike for about two weeks for the same reason. They held protests more than 30 times between March and December as they awaited a year’s worth of unpaid wages.

The semi-official ISNA news agency reported that some of the hospital staff said they were considering selling their kidneys in order to pay for their living costs.

Where were the protests?

Protests were held in 28 of Iran’s 31 provinces, with most taking place in the capital, Tehran, with Tehran Province as a whole seeing at least 124 protests in six months.

Another major protest centre was the southwestern Khuzestan Province, which saw almost 60 demonstrations erupting in this key hub for Iran’s economy.

About 18 demonstrations hit northern Gilan Province, most of which involved people who had lost their investments. Central Isfahan Province, affected by the water crisis, was the scene of at least 16 protests.

Multiple but less intense protests took place in other provinces including northeastern Khorasan Razavi, northern Alborz and Qazvin, northwestern East Azarbayjan, and western Kordestan Province.

What has been the government’s reaction?

Iran’s government has shown a degree of tolerance towards the demonstrations. Though the protests reflect the country’s economic situation, they stop short of threatening the Islamic Republic’s existence or challenging its security forces.

Some hardline news agencies have even sympathised with groups of protesters and held the current government responsible for the country’s volatility. Hardline Keyhan newspaper implicitly criticised the government for pinning its hope on the 2015 nuclear deal in an article entitled: “The bitterness of Haft-Tapeh sugarcane [company] is the result of tying the economy to Barjam [JCPOA].”

A number of officials vowed to provide support for lower income groups and to follow up the delayed wages of some of the protesting groups.

However, despite the supposed support, a number of arrests were made during the protests. The Haft-Tapeh protests resulted in the arrest of at least 20 protesters. Workers’ representative Esmaeil Bakhshi was taken to hospital after allegedly being tortured in detention. His reported torture outraged the public and his name became a trending hashtag among social media users condemning the mistreatment of workers.

Truck drivers’ and teachers’ strikes also received harsher treatment from officials to the extent that 14 teachers and 261 truck drivers were reportedly arrested. As the protest of truck drivers escalated, some even faced death penalty threats.

What is likely to happen next?

A number of protests are still going on. Most notably, workers of the National Steel Group in Khuzestan Province continue to strike. Although the intensity and number of protests have increased in 2018, their non-violent nature and the demands of participants suggest that, for the time being, their primary goal is not to topple the establishment.