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Iran's socioeconomic protests are inherently political

Iran's socioeconomic protests are inherently political
From Al Jazeera - January 12, 2018

"We are workers. We are not political". This was a slogan that appeared on a series of banners raised by Andimeshk Municipality workers in southern Iran during their protests over unpaid wages earlier this year.

At a first glance, the slogan seems to be a confirmation of some of the recent analysis and commentary on the protests that shook Iran in the last two weeks. They were described as a "socioeconomic uprising" or an "economic revolt" devoid of political roots, despite the fact that many slogans did directly target the political establishment.

The Iranian authorities have capitalised on such a distinction in order to differentiate between those who in their view have "legitimate" economic frustrations and those who merely create "political unrest".

Undeniably, the economy is at the heart of grievances that have brought the people's dissatisfactions with the status quo to a boiling point. Economic mismanagement and entrenched corruption have given rise to a high rate of unemployment, inflation and widening socioeconomic inequalities. The government's austerity measures have not only affected the working class, but they have also increasingly impacted the lower sections of the urban middle class.

This has been compounded by the effect of economic and financial sanctions that are believed to have contributed to deteriorating living standards. In 2013, Human Rights Watch reported that workers rights activists had told the organisation how sanctions had "worsened the plight of workers"by negatively affecting manufacturing units. Moreover, the administrations' expectations of an inflow of foreign investments in the aftermath of the nuclear deal have thus far remained unfulfilled.

False dichotomy between socioeconomic and political demands

Despite the clear role of economic factors in recent protests, deeper scrutiny points to the inadequacy of creating a sharp dichotomy between "socioeconomic" and "political" demands.

The suggestion that working class protests are devoid of political demands derives in part from a class-biased reading of social movements. The claim tends to allocate a series of demands based on the social and economic status of those involved, whereby the working class (unlike the middle class) is presumed not to have political aspirations.

Moreover, such a dichotomy could falsely imply that addressing economic grievances is possible without major political concessions and fundamental structural changes. In reality, political demands are intrinsically woven into socioeconomic grievances in the case of Iran.

A revealing example of this interconnection is the budget controversy that emerged in the weeks preceding the protests. President Hassan Rouhani's budget bill, introduced to the parliament in December 2017, targeted the cash transfer programme to lower income families, cutting the number of recipients by 30 million. At the same time, it disclosed the names of conservative religious and cultural institutions that receive large budgetary allocations with little or no oversight and accountability.

Many of these institutions are aimed at the propagation and preservation of specific and state-sponsored visions of governance in support of the current political system (in particular velayat-e faqih or the principle of the guardianship of the Islamic Jurist).

The administration's inability - if in fact it has the political will - to deprioritise funds allocated to these institutions is a testament to the very design of the country's political structure that effectively limits the government' authority when it comes to when and where to spend public funds.

Last year, a presidential deputy complained that the administration's hands "are tied". Affirmation of such constraints of course does not absolve the government's failings and violations of people's rights, but points to the very structure of the political system in Iran.

It is therefore not surprising that a system that places major constraints on one of its main elected bodies severely limits and controls channels for societal political expression and participation. This is particularly evident when it comes to trade unions.

Trade unions under attack

Trade unions and an independent labour movement are amongthe most effective channels for collective bargaining and influencing economic decisions. In Iran, however, independent trade unions have been under consorted attacks since the 1979 Revolution. This is reflected in Iran's classification under Category 5 ("no guarantee of rights") of the International Trade Union Confederation.

Iran in need of major legal reforms

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