New Data Shed Light on the Dramatic Protests in Iran

by Peyman Asadzade, security studies Ph.D. student

The swift spread of Iran’s protests through small cities is perhaps their most notable feature. Of the cities where at least one protest rally took place, 73 percent had a population of less than 380,000. The population size for 25 percent of cities was lower than 105,000.

These numbers are quite surprising for three reasons. First, small cities in Iran are generally apolitical. Second, small cities tend to be more religious, so the Islamic Republic’s restrictive policies on social issues — a major source of dissatisfaction for the middle-class population of big cities — do not concern most inhabitants. Third, since residents know one another and are aware of each other’s activities in small localities, joining anti-government protests in small cities mean they are more likely to be identified and arrested by the government. This makes anti-government protests extremely costly in small cities. Why did the protests garner such support in small towns and cities?

Available data from 32 out of the 52 small cities on the unemployment rate in cities with a population of less than 400,000 show that unemployment in 81 percent of small cities that joined protests is higher than the average of the country, which is 12.7 percent. Given the available information, the recent protests in small cities are likely to be associated with high unemployment rates.

Emphasizing economic grievances does not necessarily deny the possible effect of other factors. In fact, the most violent, provincially widespread and longest-lasting protests took place in two provinces, Khuzestan and Isfahan, suffering from severe environmental issues such as air pollution and water scarcity. Some protesters, especially in big cities where a substantial number of students and political activists live, could be primarily motivated by political grievances and democratic demands. However, as available evidence suggests, the unanticipated involvement of small cities is most probably driven by economic grievances.

The piece has been translated into German and Persian.

This article first appeared on the Monkey Cage blog, from the Washington Post.

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