What started as a localized public demonstration in Khuzestan Province in July 2021 turned into a widespread protest that swept across Iran, intensified further in 2022, and persisted thereafter. However, in considering the most recent events in its history, the entire 2021-2023 Iranian Protests is part of the continuing clamor of Iranians against their government. The main cause of the Iranian protests centers on what dissenters have perceived as a corrupt, incompetent, and repressive government institution.
Examining and Discussing the Causes of the Iranian Protests
Pervasive Corruption: Widespread Claims of Electoral Fraud
One of the objectives of the Iranian Revolution that spanned from 1978 to 1979 was to remove social classes. Protesters staged massive demonstrations that overthrew the Pahlavi royal dynasty and replaced the Imperial State of Iran with the Islamic Republic of Iran. However, decades after the historical revolution and despite reforms, inequality remains rampant.
Some people attribute the persistence of social inequality to government corruption. For example, after then incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared victory in the 2009 Iranian Presidential Election, protests broke out in major cities across the country due to the belief that massive electoral fraud was committed.
Ahmadinejad had been accused of corruption despite his publicized efforts to attack plunderers and corrupt officials. This stemmed from the fact that he appointed close associates despite having no qualifications and his engagement with billion-dollar no-bid contracts. Allegations of election cheating were rationalized as an attempt to remain in power.
Researchers M. R. Farzanegan and R. Zamani used the Vector Autoregression model on data collected from 1962 and 2019 to understand what sparks protests in Iran. Results revealed that there is a significant relationship between corruption and internal conflict and negative news about military spending and economic growth led to more protests.
The mass protests arising from the results of the 2009 election represent the beginning of modern public dissent and one of the causes of the Iranian Protests. Political sociologist Hossein Bashiriyeh explained that the election results solidified further the belief among Iranians that their votes had no bearing on the future of their country.
Government Incompetence: Several Instances of Public Dismay
Some observers and reporters have attributed the 2021-2023 Iranian protest to the water shortages in Khuzestan Province that resulted in the 2021 Iranian Water Protests that broke out on 15 July 2021. The shortages spread across the country. People from different cities and provinces organized rallies in solidarity with Khuzestan.
The water crisis in Iran has been a long-standing problem. High climate variability due to the ongoing climate emergency has been considered one of its causes. Moreover, in considering the other causes of water scarcity and water stress, the problem has also stemmed from the inability of the government to secure and distribute water resources.
However, prior to the public dissent due to the prevalent water crisis, Iran experienced several series of public demonstrations in which people aired their grievances against the government and specific government officials or agencies. Perceived incompetence remains the common denominator among these instances of protests.
The Bloody November which took place in 2019 and 2020, for example, was initially caused by a 50 percent to 200 percent hike in fuel prices. It spilled over to other protests such as the outcry following the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps mistakenly shooting down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 on 8 January 2020.
Iranian Protests have centered on calls to overthrow the government and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The earlier 2016 Cyrus the Great Revolt was a pro-monarchy Iranian protest that favored bringing back the monarchy. The series of protests in 2017 and 2018 stemmed from economic hardships and overall government dissatisfaction.
Repression of Rights: Autocratic Regime and Strict Islamic Laws
Iranians and analysts have also noted that the causes of the Iranian Protests can be traced further to the autocratic regime of the Iranian government, the unbendable rule of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and the strict implementation of Islamic teachings. These issues have contributed to the repression of modern human and civil rights.
The more recent series of protests and civil unrest beginning in 2022 started with the death of Mahsa Amini. The then 22-year-old Amini was arrested on 16 September for wearing an improper hijab. Eyewitnesses claimed that she was beaten by the Guidance Patrol officers. She died in a hospital in Tehran under suspicious circumstances.
Legal ethics professor Ann Elizabeth Mayer published an explainer in the Iranian Studies journal. She noted that the country has wrestled with a dilemma between Islamic rights and human rights since the Imperial State of Iran and it pervaded even in the arrival of what was supposed to be a more democratic form of government.
The government through its Supreme Leader has also refused to acknowledge the rights of women and members of the LGBTI community. Responses to protests also showcased its lack of regard for fundamental human rights. Amnesty International noted that protesters were unfairly imprisoned and prosecuted. Some were even executed.
It is important to underscore the fact that Iran has a sectarian form of government under a unitary theocratic Islamic republic. Sociologist and political scientist Juan José Linz described the country as having a combination of totalitarianism, authoritarianism, and several features of democratic inclinations as evident from its regular elections.
Understanding the Causes of the Iranian Protests in a Nutshell
Protests and even civil unrest have become an integral part of the history of Iran. The Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s started as a public demonstration of disappointment toward the monarchial regime. The more modern series of protests also followed the trend of Iranians expressing their apprehension toward their leaders.
Nevertheless, in considering the aforementioned discussion, the causes of the Iranian protests can be grouped into three categories: the pervasiveness of corruption in the government, the perceived incompetence of government officials, and the repression of human and civil rights. Iranians will continue to protest until all of these three factors are resolved.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Amnesty International. 2023. “Iran.” org. Available online
- Farzanegan, M. R. and Zamani, R. 2022. “The Effect of Corruption on Internal Conflict in Iran Using Newspaper Coverage.” Defence and Peace Economics. DOI: 1080/10242694.2022.2108571
- Linz, J. J. 2020. Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes. Lynne Rienner Publishers. ISBN-13 : 978-1555878900
- Mayer, A. E. 1996. “Islamic Rights or Human Rights: An Iranian Dilemma.” Iranian Studies. 29(3-4): 269-296. JSTOR: 4310998
- Safaei, S. 2023. “Iran’s Protests Are Nowhere Near Revolutionary.” Foreign Policy. Available online