Shirin is unsure about what to make of the recent protests that have rocked Iran, including the 35-year-old's hometown of Sanandaj in the heart of Iranian Kurdistan. The region is afflicted with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. “The atmosphere in Sanandaj is intimidating, with so many armed security forces standing by the side of the streets,” she told Al-Monitor on the popular messaging app Telegram, which had 25 million daily active users inside Iran before the authorities reportedly moved to start filtering it. “People’s patience is wearing thin; they have lost the ability to meet their basic needs.”
Simmering discontent with mismanagement of the economy, high unemployment and the government’s declared intention to soon remove some of the critical subsidies that the poor have come to rely on for survival — all while spending huge sums of money on adventures in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen — are voiced by some protesters in confrontations that have left at least 22 people dead.
While Kurds in the main urban centers in western Iran have taken to the streets to voice their anger, many of their ethnic brethren in small towns and cities have refrained from joining the protests. They say the regime uses Kurdish separatism as an excuse to militarize the Kurdish areas and use brute force to crack down on protests. This fear appears to have some merit in the light of a reported Jan. 3 confrontation between Kurdish militants and Intelligence Ministry agents.
The Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) has claimed that its forces inside Iran, known as “urban peshmerga,” clashed with security forces in the village of Ziwa, near the town of Piranshahr on the border with Iraqi Kurdistan. The KDPI claims that six members of the Iranian security forces were killed in the incident. The following day, on Jan. 4, the Tasnim news agency, which is close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), quoted a “security official” who linked the clash to the recent wave of protests. The official said the confrontation in Ziwa was carried out by “armed counter-revolutionaries” whose aim was to carry out “explosions, killing and to prolong the recent riots in the country.”
Iran’s economic woes have, however, cut across religious and ethnic lines and united the poor in their opposition against the establishment — including the government of President Hassan Rouhani, which hoped to improve living standards by removing the crippling sanctions via the nuclear deal. But dispute has lingered between Washington and Tehran with the coming to power of President Donald Trump, who campaigned with a pledge to abolish the landmark accord.
“Many people hoped that ‘Barjam’ would improve the quality of their life, but it did not,” Shirin said, referring to the nuclear deal by its Persian acronym. Quality of life has gone down for many Iranians since the UN Security Council first imposed sanctions over Iran's nuclear program back in 2006.
While the official unemployment rate stands at 12%, the real figure is believed to be much higher — particularly in the country’s Kurdish areas. Kermanshah, which has seen constant protests in recent days, has the highest official unemployment rate in the country at 22%. This level of joblessness coupled with endemic corruption are two of the main reasons why people have taken to the streets in Iranian Kurdistan.
A 31-year-old female teacher from Sanandaj who knows several protesters who have been arrested in the city cited "unemployment, poverty, injustice, lies, theft and discrimination" when asked by Al-Monitor about the root causes of the current protests.
Amer Kaabi, a member of the Iranian parliament’s economic commission, said the government lacks a genuine will to fight corruption. In a recent interview with Tasnim news agency, he said, “There are numerous laws enacted in the parliament to fight corruption and poverty, but there are no guarantees for their implementation, and [successive] governments have not taken serious steps.” He added, “Corruption destroys the economic pillars of the country.”
Economist Hossein Raghfar said the lack of genuine will to control unchecked corruption is a result of the entry of some sectors of the security forces and the clerical establishment into the economic sphere. In an interview with the Fararu news website Jan. 1, he said, “With the entrance of these institutions and individuals, there was no chance to uphold transparency, and the corruption that we see in the country is the result of a lack of transparency.”
However, officials in Tehran have focused on foreign enemies rather than corruption as a cause of the unrest. "In recent events, the enemies of Iran united by using different tools in their disposition, including money, weapons, politics and intelligence, in order to create problems for the Islamic system," Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a congregation Jan. 2, promising more detailed remarks “when the time is right.”
Several Iranians Al-Monitor spoke with ridiculed the idea that foreign governments were behind the protests. "Severe economic pressure is the reason why people are on the street protesting,” one resident of Sanandaj said. “The honest truth is that people in Iran cannot afford to eat three meals a day.”
Even though she has intentionally avoided the protests for fear of a vicious crackdown by the authorities, Shirin sympathizes with the demonstrators. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in Persian literature and has finished a separate course in accounting. Yet she only earns 250,000 tomans ($69) a month working for a food wholesaler in the city. She lost custody of her only son two years ago when she separated from her husband because she was not deemed to be earning enough to care for him by the judge. She now lives with her parents. Still, Shirin considers herself one of the lucky ones, being able to rely on family support. She told Al-Monitor, "One of my friends who has a degree in graphic design is earning even less than I am. She earns 150,000 tomans ($42) per month.”
Shirin added, “Many single women who cannot even find a low-paying job are resorting to other means — prostitution. In a country with so many natural resources, why should the majority of people be poor?"
For now, Iranian Kurds, who are often at the forefront of protesting against government oppression, are weighing their options, even as Kurdish opposition groups support the protests. A possible crackdown by the IRGC is a double-edged sword that could either put an end to the protests or embolden Iranians — including in the country’s Kurdish areas — to widen the rallies against the regime.
“These problems [protests] are neither caused by imperialism nor by celestial forces," Raghfar said in his interview with Fararu. The economist added, "These are the results of three decades of postwar management that has created a deep crisis in the country."