Iran: Three waves of urban protest, 1992-2019

Ardeshir Mehrdad

Since the beginning of the 1990s, Iranian society has witnessed successive waves of protest movements. One could argue that it has been in a perpetual state of “insurrection”.

Over these three decades, it is possible to identify three long waves that are linked through a chain of mass protests movements, large or small-scale, whether political, work-related or social.

First wave: May 1992 – April 1995

Over this time, there were about 10 large or small protest in different towns or cities. The main theatres for these protests were: Mashhad, Shiraz, Zehedan, Zanjan, Urumieh, Arak, Mobarakeh, Qazvin, and Eslam Shahr.

The social base for these protests were the underprivileged and deprived urban mass (the lowest layers of the working class with the greatest fragility to change). This is the underclass that has nothing to lose and are to pay the price of starting a fire. The main body of the population motivated to protest were segments of the working class, yet without a clear strategy, tactics, program, demands, and lacking a clear class presence. In this period, with the exception of the protests in Qazvin, one could not really identify any significant participation of the middle class.

These protests took place against the background of mounting discontent of varying degrees and intensity that one can sum up as inequality and deprivation. At the heart of it is class inequality imposed by economic, police, and ideological determinism.

 The immediate stimulus for these protests was the collapse of living standards brought about by the shocks of the structural adjustment policies imposed on the country by the government of Hashemi Rafsanjani – the main aim of which was a redistribution of wealth and incomes, resulting in widening class divisions and inequalities.

The protests began in opposition to these policies and were defensive in nature. They quickly acquired political dimensions and were radicalised. Typically, these rallies began with different motives but rapidly morphed into protests against the political system, questioning its legitimacy. The inner versatility of these protests meant that any struggle for survival or any attempt to absorb them into the system rapidly turned into a struggle for change and a leap towards political demands.

These spontaneous movements were mobilised and led principally through their own inner organic development. What crystallised the individual and atomised elements of this mass and connected them was their immediate identity: the identity of the class unit rising out of their objective conditions. Neither political parties, nor trade organisations or civil groups played any role in their mobilisation or organisation. Such groupings as workers, teachers, nurses, women, students, lawyers or writers organisations not only did not take a lead in these movements, but scarcely gave them their support them.

The geography of these movements was predominantly in the outskirts of cities and satellite town, places where there was a widening gap between the needs of the people and the demands of the system of power and wealth and where inequality was more palpable.

These groups of protests had a high potential for reciprocal violence in response to repression. Yet in using violence we were not witness to a blind revolt but movements with relatively clear political logic and which targeted the centres and representatives of power, wealth and inequality for attack and destruction.

These movements took place under a total information blackout and lacked any ability for independently disseminating news of themselves. Meanwhile, the official media kept their silence even after the suppression of these uprisings. Even the rare mention was a distorted version handed out by security and intelligence agencies.

This wave was restrained in bloody crackdowns, and in Islamshahr alone, at a cost of more than 50 people shot dead by helicopter, hundreds injured and thousands detained.

Second wave: July 1999 – June 2009

Two huge protests movements occur at either end of this decade: In July 1999 students in Tehran and Tabriz Universities protested at the closure of the reformist daily Salam and the police assault on the student dormitories, and in June 2009 we witnessed widespread protests at the rigged presidential elections in Tehran, Isfahan, Mashhad, Shiraz, Qom, Tabriz, Kazeroun, Neishapour, Najaf Abad, Babol, Arak, Astaneh, and Urumieh. That of 2009 lasted longer than all previous the protest movements since the Revolution, lasting until the end of December (Ashura – the day of mourning for Imam Hossein). Official reports speak of 37 people killed in Tehran, hundreds wounded and 300 arrested.

The movements of this second wave differed in social base, initial provocation, sources of mobilisation, and geography from previous unrests. 

The middle class formed the main social body of these movements and protests circled around civil and political rights and was directed at the core of political power. The presence of the more deprived urban masses and those living at its periphery was difficult to detect.

At their birth and early spread, these movements had a centralised leadership and were mobilised in an organised way. Moreover, by placing themselves within the cracks in the ruling power blocs, they gained a certain mantel of security.

The political line behind these protests was reform of the political structure, and its predominant tactics were civil disobedience.

Unlike the first wave, these protests benefited from extensive media coverage and had at their disposal effective levers of communication.

But ultimately, brutal repression radicalised these movements both politically and tactically. The popular movement increasingly distanced itself from its leaders and the leadership slowly passed to its base. Finally, mass action ended in mutual violence and a movement for political reform morphed into a movement for a radical political change.

Third wave: December- January 2017-18 and October-November 2019

The third wave was in many ways a return to the protests of the early 90’s. The groundwork for these two great uprisings was laid in a large number of small and large mass protests and movements that took place in the early 2010s: Neishapour (July 2012 against rising prices), Tehran (October 2012 strike and protest by the Bazaar), Urumieh (July 2012 strike and demonstration against the drying-up of Lake Urumieh), Tabriz (July 2012, strike and taking sanctuary), Tehran (March 2013, demonstrations against rising prices, Tehran and a number of other towns (October 2012 protest at the house arrest of reformist leader, Mehdi Karrubi), the region of Varzaneh (October 2012 protest and sanctuary by farmers), Nahavand (August 2012, protest at the rise in the price of electricity and bread) and tens of other protests of various sizes. These experiences, by augmenting one another acted as a dress rehearsal for the uprisings of 2018 and 2019.

The material basis for these protest movements was the economic crisis that escalated from a crisis of reproduction into a crisis of mere survival of a large section of society. The rapid and horrendous collapse of the living conditions of the working class and various strata of the lower classes, alongside the rapid decline of the middle layers of society into poverty, widens the gap between capital and labour to an unprecedented level.

Thus, the most dispossessed sections of the labour force made up the main bulk of the protests, atomised and in multitude. The presence of the middle class was less apparent. The leadership remained internal and spontaneous but, compared to the first wave, we could observe a greater ability to be swayed by outside factors. It spread uniformly through areas with greater deprivation and those forced into greater inequality.

But several important differences distinguish this wave from the first:

There was a fundamental development in the use of media, including social media for information and communication and for mobilising and organising. The internet, satellites, smartphones, and social media networks provided new communication tools. At the same time, TV networks abroad (with huge financial supports of the US and Saudi governments) and with a wide and popular coverage, are active and not only end the news blockade of the movements, but also play an important role in coordinating the sporadic demonstrations. Aided by these facilities it became difficult, if not impossible, to disrupt communication between the various centres of protest and play an important role in co-ordinating them.

There was also a qualitative change in the extent of spread of protests that now extended from tens to hundreds of neighbourhood and town districts (in one estimate up to 500 different location in 2019) and brought millions out into the streets at the same time.

In comparison to three decades previously, there was a significantly greater presence of unemployed youth within the crowd, allowing the emergence of an organic leadership from within these movements that was qualitatively much better than before and permitting a greater tactical creativity in confronting the apparatus of repression.

Right from the beginning, the uprisings had a radical political focus and almost immediately each grouping challenged the main centres of power. While it is true that the dominant discourse in these protests was a rejection of the existing political order, a ‘negation’, here and there one could observe transient and fleeting veins of a number of a more ‘affirmative’ views which shows that sections of this population are open to being influenced by propaganda coming from outside the country and have the possibility of being canalised by the network of satellite televisions being beamed on the country from outside.

Over the last three decades a large part of public resources in Iran has been spent on strengthening the arms of repression and the military and security apparatus. These are now equipped with the latest technologies, their internal organisation are constantly reviewed and improved, their institutional make-up revised, their personnel expanded, their equipment and training constantly updated. Regular manoeuvres ensure their preparedness for future unrest, yet the severity and extent of the latest uprising took them by surprise, such that in some areas they lost control for a time and could not regain control without bringing to play virtually their entire repertoire of repression and even real urban warfare, to finally rein in the uprising.


A mixture of political, economic, social, and cultural issues lies at the roots of the widespread discontent. It fans inequality, discriminations, and structural corruption. The feeling of injustice, lack of rights, and betrayal becomes universal and act as psychological and subjective drivers of protest action among a wide section of the population.

The never-ending worsening of these tribulations, crises and provocations have pushed Iranian society into an explosive condition such that any social, political or economic problem has the potential of escalating rapidly into an acute crisis and ultimately into social protest and revolt.

Under such conditions, any independent and direct group action, regardless of motive, aims or demand, and whatever political course it takes or tactic it adopts comes into inevitable conflict with the ruling political order and ends up by resorting to violence and rebellion.

The reason for this is clear and an inescapable sum of a number of economic, political and social and structural factors.

The economics of the country has reached a form of impasse. With the economic crisis seemingly endless, and prospect for any improvement of the living conditions of millions bleak, the political structure is in total paralysis. Where there is no possible opening for freely expressing discontent; at a time when faced with pressures and hardships, there are no legal, institutional or official routes to protest at policies and actions; where any form of participation in changing and reforming conditions are closed, some form of revolt would appear inevitable.

At the social level, the accumulation of discontent caused by inequality, and sexual, ethnic, national, religious, and linguistic discriminations can no longer be reined in and have acquired an explosive potential. The contrast between official cultural principles, standards, values, and behaviour with the changes that have taken place in the cultural and intellectual developments of society has become critical. This has forced the rulers to resort to the only tool at their disposal: the use of repression and naked force. This merely inflames the discontent of women, youth, ethnic and national groups and other minorities, and has exacerbated the existing social tensions and added to the rebellious potential of society.

At the structural level, the absence of significant workers organisations, and the absence of wide-ranging social organisations makes any mass social movements in an organised way difficult and forces protests into small groupings, separate from one another. The constantly swelling unemployed population are faced with diminishing prospects of finding any fixed employment. For those with no jobs the medium of protest is predictably channelled towards gathering in open spaces, occupation of streets and confrontation with anti-riot police (note that their ability to organise in any form of trade or vocational union faces serious obstacles).

In such a situation, while protests can be reined in, they cannot be stopped. While the sea is turbulent one wave can subside, but another is on its way.


What I have enumerated above are not hypotheses, but self-evident in the uprisings of the last three decades.

But many questions remain: the dialectic of individual and group struggle, small-scale and large, the street and behind the street, neighbourhood and national, union-based and political, workplace and living-space, resources for mobilisation and for organising, political opportunities, inner agency, the degree of ability to be influenced and transformed, the degree and capability to influence and effect change, and… and finally the horizon, prospects and future waves.

In the present discussion, with the assumption that there is no end to these waves, I will concentrate on one of these questions: what are the prospects facing the next waves of popular movements?

I think it’s most useful to see this broad uprising not as a phenomenon but a process, an entity in the process of ‘becoming’; a space between fear and hope. It is flexible and affected by permanent struggles between heterogenous, and at times incompatible, interests. It oscillates between those forces and motivations that propel it forwards and those that impede its progress. Wherever and whenever it begins the end is not necessarily preordained. Its direction and prospects are dependent on the changeable balance of inner forces, and the effects of shifting external conditions, and ultimately dependent on the interaction between objective and subjective elements.

These issues apply particularly to the type of uprisings that took place in the third wave (2018-19) – uprisings that took place on a horizonal structure, the foundation of which was based on large and small circles and centres and grew like creeping roots that can spread in any direction, and at times multiply with particular rapidity. This is a model of arrival and expansion, with self-governing units, and relations that neither follow a given hierarchy not necessarily under a unified hegemony or leadership. In such a structure (at least at its inception and early growth) there is neither a single and inflexible direction, not can we expect a unified or unchanging set of slogans, demands or conduct.

The protests of the last years were full of potentials and limitations, strengths and weaknesses, with much to consider about their potential. In the same way, the prospects for future uprisings, if they are not crushed, can be a transfer to the hands of a wide spectrum different players with a broad range of roles. These could range from being merely the instrument and helping one or other faction haggle for some changes in the existing structure of power, ultimately saving it, to even falling in the trap of being swallowed up and integrated into the system; succumbing to a role of being canalised to becoming a tool for the interests of global powers; succumbing to fulfilling a proxy role for this or that power; falling into a futile cycle of unlinked and separated actions that set aflame briefly and fizzle out; or finally taking a leap towards being an effector for a historic transition towards freedom and equality.

With such a diverse trajectory to refute or reject these movements is as indefensible as premature fascination and exaggeration in giving it a positive sheen and assigning it a clear perspective.

In the framework of the multiple potential outlooks that I outlined, I would like to pose this question: is there a realistic possibility that a future protest uprising can turn itself into a movement of political and structural transformation. The answer in brief is both yes and no! Yes, only if it can overcome its weaknesses, limitations, and impediments in its route, and no if not – and both are possible.

To unravel these, we need to consider a large series of complex interactions of inter-dependent variables. For the sake of clarity and to facilitate analysis we could classify these variables under four separate preconditions:

The first important precondition is “sustainability”: the ability to avoid being reined in.

That popular movements can go beyond repeating the mistakes of the past, not fizzle out after an explosion of anger, and not act solely as a psychological safety valve ending up as just another entry in the record of popular struggles; yet another experience of defeat, with all its negative psychological and political toll. 

The great challenge facing the movement here is the sum total of all the resources that have to date been assembled to crush popular struggles and the means to resist them.

The second precondition is organizability and reaching a certain level of internal cohesion and class solidarity.

That means the body of the mass movement is fortified by a certain level of organisation that can provide the dispersions and internal divisions with a certain degree of inner cohesion and solidarity.

To understand the importance of this precondition, one need only to look at the class content of the movements, particularly after 2012. Here, not only were its main sections devoid of cohesion and organisation, but its various groups suffered seriously from the absence of necessary bonds. In this makeup, the shapeless mass of urban destitute occupy a particularly central role.

This section is waiting for a political opportunity to return to the street. With three decades of experience in a route full of the ups and downs of trial and error it has slowly trained cadres, achieved an important level of communications and its disparate sections have, with the help both the regular and of social networks, create a level of communications, albeit unstable and disjointed, between itself. The exercises of these three decades has provided it with a store of practical and tactical knowledge. More importantly the forces directing it continue to be fed by their material and social foundations. One can infere that the movements of this sector is not easily diverted or crushed.

Moreover, the urban destitute have a population in bringing up their rear that has until now been passive and can potentially be activated, changing the balance of power towards achieving a structural transformation. But this sector remains atomised, dispersed and unorganised, leading to the question, how can this problem be overcome, and a way found to mobilise and interconnectedly organise its inner elements? A question that has tens of other questions in train.

– That we know specifically what different layers, sectors and groups of society constitute this shapeless mass?

– What are their individual specific demands?

– How does one organise each group around these specific demands and simultaneously link them in a wider network? And by what means and mechanism?

– What are the shared interests among the layers, sectors and groups of the urban destitute? In what shape and around what needs and demands can this disparate mass be mobilised in a broad circle and organised in solidarity with one another?

The other important issue is the more advanced and progressive labour force. Over the past decades, this force has never let go and at no time remained passive against the worsening of punitive economic conditions. The struggles of workers, teachers, nurses, the retired and other toilers in the last years bears witness to this. In current conditions, a wide-ranging and more determined presence by these sectors in the political arena of the country and augmenting their influence over the other sectors is a real possibility. Yet a large section of existing organisations in this sector have been unable to connect fully with their base and mobilise those passive and inactive sectors. A large part of the potential of this sector remains untapped, and we are only seeing the embryonic horizontal extension of its potential.

Even now, this sector has no significant leadership or mobilising role, and its distinct presence is barely noticeable. This raises the question of how the gulf between the protest of this section and that of the street protest of the mass of urban destitute can be filled. What are the paths to creating solidarity and coordination between these two movements into some form of integration? Can this sector fill the gap of a centralised leadership in the spontaneous urban protest movements?

The role of the middle classes and strata in future political developments and movements is undeniable. Although under the influence of the acute economic crisis this section is rapidly splitting, and a significant part the middle class has sunk into poverty and destitution in the last decade, this development does not necessarily mean the end to the irresolution, both political and intellectual, of this class. Neither does it necessarily mean that in the class struggle they can directly enhance the movement potential of the working class.

Over the past decade, these middle layers have been radicalised politically, but what shape might their turn towards a full confrontation with the established order take? And what proactive role will they adopt? What tendencies have the potential to grow among them: Will they take part directly in a broad popular movement from below to create a better and more humane society? Or will they rely on for intervention by foreign powers and promote this view among the masses of the deprived in order to achieve a developing secular capitalism? Or would they turn to the military and endorse some form of restructuring the present system?

These days the price of participation in protest is large, and the more affluent sectors of the middle class who have more to lose are less inclined to participate.  However, in conditions where there is a possibility of participation with lower risks, this sector could have a very strong presence and with a possible decisive effect on the political direction, demands and general slogans of that movement.

The third precondition is digging into the untapped resource of the inactive working class to bring them on to the scene and unearth their enormous potential.

The issue here is to mobilise the labour force both horizontally and vertically, such that the inactive sectors of the working class at every level are brought into the class struggle. The question becomes what specific demands can effectively mobilise and what approach can be effective in rousing these passive elements.

The fourth precondition is a raising of political and class consciousness and overcoming ideological straitjackets and political illusions.

The failure to overcome this weakness can open the way for the protest movements being either absorbed into the existing political structure or channelled into pathways favourable to imperialist powers, or for different factions within the regime to use the discontent of the deprived masses to their advantage.

Overcoming the danger of absorption into the existing political structure is as vital as overcoming the threats of suppression of the movement. When hungry and fleeced people protest in utter desperation, a dozen sworn enemies also line up to try and get something for themselves. All that is necessary is to shrewdly enter through the cracks in peoples’ perceptions and fuel misconceptions.

For a while, a group, whose only speciality is exploitation, can appear side by side with their erstwhile victims, only to ride the popular movement of the destitute the moment they spot an opening. From their, viewpoint the people who have revolted are flocks waiting for a shepherd. There is no shortage here. Neither their past actions, their social grouping, their political past, their ideology, or their past ethical behaviour matters: all that is necessary is skill in deception. Some appeal to imperialist powers, others are internal factions within the country, and one or other offspring of Pahlavi kings are all skilled in this. All they need is a few chests of money one or two 24-hour television networks and a handful of political middlemen and lackeys.


Finally, I will speculate on ways of achieving the first precondition: that is, assuring its “sustainability” and its ability to “reign-in” the suppression of the movement. It is clear that for a government that had reached a dead-end and no longer able to rely on “reform” to continue its control of society, a recourse to naked repression becomes its main tool. As the crisis deepens and conditions worsen, the propaganda that accompanies it is fanning fear for the future: the fear of falling into the fate of Libya or Yemen or Iraq or Syria, or a break-up of the country and other horizons that are in reality part ways to divert attention from the structural logjam in the country.

In order to confront the threats of crushing the popular movement, the most important tool is to increase their costs so that those forces of repression hesitate to resort to force, to alter the balance of profit and loss in such a way that the cost of raining-in the protests becomes heavier and heavier. Parallel to this it is important to neutralise the effects of psychological pressures, and indeed to turn back the direction of these pressures towards the force of repression. Here there exist countless mechanisms particularly in a creative use of the means of communication to confuse, weaken and cause cracks in the main body of the machinery of repression.

The very fact of resistance has a huge potential for stirring and mobilising protests. In reality, many of the skirmishes and movements that today are scattered actions belong to this category and can act as models for a much broader and more persistent movements. There have been many such examples globally.

Creating variety in both the method, terrain and shape of protest is equally essential.  Here uniting movements in the street and behind the streets, in the workplace closely coordinated with struggles at the neighbourhood level are essential. Similarly, if the relatively costly group struggles can be combined with less costly individual acts, then there are few individuals or group among the mass of workers and toilers who could not participate according to their own ability, and find a role for themselves in this struggle.

Protest movements that employ only limited forms, by geography or method, can easily be harnessed. If a protesting people cannot doggedly and creatively find ways to surround and bring to its knees those who they resist, sooner or later they will be brought to their knees. If they do not burn down the edifice that oppresses them, they will self-immolate. An uprising that does not advance when challenged will inevitably have to retreat. If it does not surround, it will be surrounded. If it does not create cracks it will crack. If it does not defeat it will be defeated. 

If mass movements are unable to shrewdly manoeuvre tactically or show flexibility in their methods, then those possessing the instruments of control will overcome them. Only through the engineering of a large network of very small and dedicated centres can the repressive arm of the state be neutralised.

Of course, the definitive end point must come with a qualitative overturn of the balance of power. Such an outcome is only achievable through the mobilisation of all the untapped potentials and channelling all the creative resources, the audacity, the sense of solidarity, the demand for rights, equality, and for liberation. Yet although a continuous struggle along these lines is a necessary condition for success, they are not however a sufficient condition. The sources of popular movement belong to the geography with the various cracks in society full of trade, job, ethnic, sexual, religious, and linguistic divisions. This is the geography that can have a conflicting dual effects on the popular movement.

The sufficient condition for success is the ability to move beyond these divisions and cracks. Were this to be achieved, it opens the door to a resource that’s both powerful and invincible. For the same reason failing that would be both costly and damaging. These potential conflicts and cracks, if not brought on side, will not necessarily become neutralised. Indeed, they can easily be mobilised against the movement and one part of the objective base of that same protest movement can find itself opposing  it. This is a tactic that the machinery of control is well versed in exploiting. We have all witnessed many such reactionary conservative movements, whether religious, nationalistic, ethnic, sexual, race, or populist.

Those who protest and the powers that confront them camp on two sides of a social divide. Victory for one camp demands that these fissures are crossed, and rifts overcome, and for the other camp survival depends on deepening and activating them. In short, this geography is a land where there are no bystanders.

To integrate the diversities within society is only possible once you recognise them.  Reliance on and employing all your resources and potentials is only possible when the solidarity and bond between the existing diversities becomes close to an objective reality. In practise this means overlapping and integrating general and specific demands; dependent on solidarity being made conditional on recognition of the diversity of the numerous identities existing within society.

December 2020

Feature image: Iranian protesters gather around a fire Nov. 16 during a demonstration in Tehran against an increase in gasoline prices.(AFP)

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