The ACRPS weekly seminar held on Wednesday,
3 January 2018 was devoted to the Iranian protest movement which coincided with
the New Year. Addressing the seminar, which was the focus of enthusiastic
public interest across Doha, were noted Iran experts Mahjub Zweiri (Qatar
University) and Hamid Dabashi (Columbia University in New York and the Doha Institute
for Graduate Studies).
Introducing the speakers and moderating
the discussion was ACRPS Researcher Dr. Marwan Kabalan. Before handing over to
Dabashi and then Zweiri, Kabalan explained the importance of the Iran protests
to an audience in the Arab region, still itself trying to understand the Arab
Spring and its implications for them. Kabalan was careful to describe
present-day events in Iran as “not yet a revolution”. Nonetheless, Kabalan did
point out that the demonstrations currently underway in Iran could potentially evolve
into a full-scale revolution if the social base of those taking part expanded
to include the middle classes. Kabalan also an important difference with the
Arab Spring: since the outbreak of popular rebellions across the Middle East
and North Africa in 2011, Iran’s repeated interventions in the domestic affairs
of its neighbors meant that there were now a number of regional actors waiting
for an opportunity to cause domestic trouble for Tehran.
Dabashi, the first speaker, made the observation
that Iranian protests were far from unexpected: indeed, said Dabashi, Iran had witnessed
a large protest movement practically every decade since 1906 “Constitutional
Revolution”. The period since the birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979 has
been no exception, with the 1988 constitutional crisis followed by student
protests of the 1990s and, of course, the 2009 “Green Movement” protests.
Dabashi also continued to develop the theme of the connection between Iran’s
protest movement and the very recent Arab Spring.
Beyond that, Dabashi offered a number of
observations on the 2018 movement. Firstly, that the numbers protesting in the
present-day wave of demonstrations was not as great as the 2009 Green Movement
protests. A second observation was that the fact that the present-day protests
were driven by low-income, marginalized sections of society, suggested to Dabashi
that poverty was a main driver of the protests. Finally, Dabashi suggested that
the impact of the geopolitical environment on Iran’s present-day protest
movement could not be ignored.
In the absence of a free press which
would make it possible for outsiders to truly understand the protestors’
demands, Dabashi offered the slogans chanted during the demonstrations as “indexical
references” to use. These slogans, said Dabashi, were expressions of frustration
with the economic circumstances of Iran seasoned with some expressions of
anti-Arab chauvinism and calls to end involvement in Iranian areas of influence
in Lebanon and Syria. Fleshing these out, the speaker pointed to some
indicators of the difficult economic circumstances in which Iranians found
themselves: while three million sat for the high school certificate exams, state
sector universities in Iran could only accommodate 250,000 students, leaving
hundreds of thousands of young Iranians to fend for themselves in a capital
intensive, oil-based economy which had few if any employment opportunities for
them. What the present protests lack, said Dabashi, was any clearly articulated
narrative to give them a place in Iranian political history.
Dabashi’s presentation declined to give
a complete prognosis for how Iran’s political situation would evolve, but the
speaker did offer that one potential turning could be the involvement of the
Revolutionary Guards, a development which he claimed would have far-reaching consequences.
Watch Hamid Dabashi Speak.
Mahjoub Zweiri began by reaffirming the
historical arc set out by Dabashi, adding that the consequence of the sum of
all of these protests did create meaningful change in how Iran was governed.
Zweiri’s reading of the early 2018 protests in Iran began with a socio-economic
analysis of the Islamic Republic. According to the speaker, while the Islamic
Revolution which brought the present regime to power in 1979 served to elevate
the then-poor sections of society into the middle classes, economic policies in
the last two decades have put that process in reverse, and served to impoverish
large sections of the Iranian middle class. Detailing this trend, Zweiri cited
the figure of 30 million Iranians living under the official poverty line in the
country. These very real economic strains were enflamed by the feeling of many
Iranians that the children of the elite were pilfering away small fortunes on
flashy lifestyles. Said Hamid Dabashi, the new post-revolutionary generation
was busy engaging in “conspicuous consumption,” something which their parents’
generation did not care for. According to Zweiri, all of this combined with increasing
levels of irreligiosity amongst young Iranians in particular to create a truly threatening
prospect for the future of the Islamic Republic.