Iran Risks New Nationwide Protests As Economy Keeps Sinking

A homeless man walks past a mural in Tehran, Iran.
A homeless man walks past a mural in Tehran, Iran.
Roshanak Astaraki


LONDON — "We're at the end of our rope," is a phrase you may hear these days among lower-income Iranians struggling to survive in a country heaving under economic sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic. It's also a statement recently issued by a national pensioners association, which has been seen as a "warning" to a government that may be quietly preparing for widespread protests. Under the Islamic Republic, these always threaten to spin beyond material concerns. The last ones were in 2018.

The crisis of the poor in Iran, be they pensioners or workers, is a matter of very basic concerns like the ability to pay rent or buy food. Figures indicate a wilting economy, with negative growth, inflation and widespread unemployment. Businesses are closing down and workers being laid off in a context of gaping, and growing, inequalities. The price of staples like eggs, rice, dairy products and pasta have risen an estimated 25% over a fortnight. Rents have reportedly risen by 48% in the last year, with a 30% rise in the first three months of the Persian year, which began on March 21.

Wages however — for those still working — have not kept up with inflation, whittling down the purchasing power of most Iranians. There is thus a growing army of poor people in Iran, fueling authorities fears' of resurgent unrest.

Worsening economic conditions have direct social and cultural consequences. One-quarter of all Iranians are estimated to be living in marginalized or degraded areas, with scant access to suitable welfare, education and health care facilities. These areas are turning into criminal dens, in part due to overcrowding and a constant flux of residents.

Several days ago, police reportedly busted a gang selling babies and children on social networking sites, or even "giving them away." Many were children of the poorest families or mothers working in the sex trade who could not afford to keep them.

People living in this continuous state of degradation may thus find reports of corruption among regime insiders intolerable, and there is no dismissing the possibility of protests or a general strike. In political terms of course, Iran's government brooks no dissent, and may resort to violent if not criminal methods to reach its ideological goals.

Trade and labor groups have been increasingly restive in recent weeks, with some gatherings lasting several days. Workers of the Haft Tappeh sugar mill have been on strike for two weeks now, with workers marching through the premises and chanting slogans. Instructors working for the state's Literacy Movement who have been waiting for years for regular jobs in the Education ministry, recently gathered for three days outside parliament.

There have also been protests by workers of the state electricity firm in the province of Khuzestan, bakers in the province of Kohgiluyeh-Boyerahmad, ceramic workers in Isfahan, some railway workers and even municipal employees. Teachers and pensioners have also threatened to gather if the government ignores their demands.

Homeless men at a shelter in southern Tehran. — Photo: Rouzbeh Fouladi/ZUMA

Ministers and legislators have been meeting in private in recent days, to consider the public mood. Most recently, Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli attended parliament to discuss security conditions. The Oil and Information ministers and their deputies discussed "economic and security affairs," and foreign threats and "infiltrations," before Parliament on June 9. Before them on June 2, the heads of the Central Bank and of the Plan and Budget Organization briefed Parliament on the economy. The Planning and Budget chief, Mohammad Baqer Nobakht, reminded parliamentarians that Iran's oil revenues had dropped from $119 billion a decade ago to $89 billion last year, saying he would reveal this year's likely revenues at a closed session.

There is a difference between rioting and protests.

During his recent parliamentary hearing, Interior Minister Rahmani-Fazli discussed the latest bout of unrest in Iran, and heard warnings on the possibility of more protests. A parliament member for Malayer in western Iran told him workers earned "so little" but faced "so many problems especially with housing. These issues can create insecurity." A representative from Isfahan, Hossein Mirzay, urged attention to deprived areas but also "more police resources." Legislators blamed the 2018 protests on economic problems, but also heavy dust pollution in Khuzestan and a critical water situation. Rahmani-Fazli suggested pursuing the briefing at a "private meeting." Separate meetings with the Ministers of Culture and Education to discuss teachers' demands were also held in private.

The state's concerns were better expressed by the Judiciary Chief Ibrahim Raisi, who recently told state television "there is a difference between rioting and work related protests. People may protest about working conditions, and this should not be prosecuted. It is for judges to discern a criminal or security offense."

But protesters are often charged with "rioting." This was the case of 42 workers of Azarab, a manufacturing firm, who took part in a November protest over unpaid wages. Labor activists say these protesters were later sentenced to prison, whipping and forced labor, though the Judiciary denies it issued any such sentence.

Such denials may be another indicator of the state's concern over public "exasperation." The Judiciary has likewise denied confirming death sentences for three young people also held in November, and currently reported to be in prison. There has also been a recent spike of journalists, students and activists being summoned to court or jailed.

This would not be the first time economists warn of hardships provoking unrest in Iran. In the absence of mechanisms to meet demands or the state's ability to better the economy, full-fledged nationwide protests may be inevitable.

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Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung


BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

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