Iran: The Emerging Revolt of the Working Class

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on April 6, 2011

Every time someone opines that the Green Revolution in Iran is as good as dead, articles like this one come along to remind fair-minded readers just how precarious the Islamic regime’s hold on power really is:

On Feb. 28, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boldly declared, “Iran is among the few countries in the world where no one goes to bed hungry.” It’s hardly the first grandiose claim the Iranian president has made about the state of the Iranian economy. He recently announced that unemployment would be eradicated in two years. And the president defiantly insisted last November that Iran’s economy is booming, despite international sanctions.

These sorts of hubristic pronouncements once made Ahmadinejad popular among his base of lower-working-class supporters, who benefited from government handouts. But these days, the president’s exaggerations are running up against economic reality: For the average Iranian, times are tough. The country’s economy is weak, unemployment has skyrocketed to 14.6 percent officially (real numbers are surely higher), and inflation is creeping up as the government cuts subsidies on energy, food, and other consumer goods. So stark is the contrast between the government line and reality that, for the first time, Ahmadinejad’s perpetual optimism is losing — rather than winning — supporters.

The president’s claim about hunger in Iran went down particularly poorly with his base among the lower class. The next day, on March 1, when Ahmadinejad delivered a speech in the industrial city of Khorramabad, whose working-class population once warmly embraced him, he found the mood rather cold. A sign held up above the crowd read, “We the workers of Parsilon [a factory] are hungry.” Another sign in the crowd read, “Swear to God, we’ve come to a breaking point from all the discrimination and injustice.”

Such workers have historically made up a significant portion of Ahmadinejad’s base. Their loyalty cemented with generous government largesse, they mostly stayed on the side of the president after the contested June 2009 election, when thousands of protesters took to the streets to denounce the results. Those discontents called themselves the Green Movement, drawn primarily from the ranks of the middle class, intelligentsia, and students. The underclass, still loyal to the regime and Ahmadinejad, became known as the Blues, to underscore the fact that, to the extent that they had jobs, they were primarily engaged in blue-collar professions.

Although the Greens and Blues were once split by socioeconomic and political lines, the parlous state of the economy is making the line between them less distinct: The Blues are going Green.

If I were a leader in the Islamic regime, reports like this one would scare me. The delusions that are so typical of the regime’s leadership class only serve to drive more and more Iranians into the opposition camp. The Green Movement will acquire overwhelming political power once general strikes shut down the bazaars, and there is no surer way for the bazaars to become vulnerable to general strikes than for the regime to antagonize blue collar Iranians.

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