The unrest in Iran is in several ways unprecedented. Until last week, all the nationwide protests since the revolution either began in Tehran before spreading to other cities, or erupted simultaneously in Tehran and elsewhere. Events in the capital were the driving force in political upheavals. This time, however, people in small towns took to the streets before Tehranis. The front lines are far from the capital, university hubs and other sites of political or economic power. The protests were started by the most marginalised Iranians.
Reformists have for the first time visibly lost their legitimacy among protesters, and are looked on as either helpless or corrupted. They are condemned in the demonstrators’ slogans along with centrists and conservatives, as well as the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia. Much of the anger is directed at the supreme leader. ‘Down with Khamenei,’ they are chanting on streets where the state propaganda posters say ‘Down with the US,’ and where 38 years ago people yelled: ‘Down with the Shah.’
The slogans are less religious than they used to be. Before the revolution, people would take to their rooftops and cry ‘Allahu Akbar’ regardless of what they believed. In 2009, too, people would call ‘Allahu Akbar’ from the rooftops in pitch darkness. Islam gave form to political protest, as well as providing protection against the authorities: it was hard to arrest someone for shouting ‘Allahu Akbar.’ There are fewer Islamic slogans this time, even though people from small towns are considered to be more religious than the residents of large cities. ‘Independence, Freedom, Iranian Republic,’ they are chanting, omitting the word ‘Islamic’.
Most previous protests in the Islamic Republic came after an important political event, such as Ahmadinejad’s disputed victory in the 2009 presidential election (when millions of people took to the streets), or the Women’s Day march in 2006, or the Basij attacks on Tehran university students in 1999. But this time, and not only to outside observers like me, the protests appeared out of the blue. They have taken Iranian commentators and government officials by surprise, just as the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory surprised commentators in London and New York.
The only clear message I get from videos and the coil of contradictory analysis is that the protests are centrally about bread, or the lack of it. Most of the demonstrators are too young to remember the revolution or the war with Iraq. They have had enough of the hardship brought on by years of US sanctions, domestic mismanagement and corruption, when the officials who controlled imports and exports stuffed their pockets, while the middle class was thinned and the poor grew poorer.
On my path of exile – I left Iran in 2005 and have been a US citizen since 2015 – I feel I’m precisely at the point of non-belonging. Trump’s election was a shock, and showed me how little I know about middle America. It turns out that, away from Iran, I know just as little about what goes on outside Tehran. And nobody seems to know just where, if anywhere, these protests will lead. But one thing they show is that reform within the establishment is a failed promise which people no longer believe in.