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Iran’s Protests Are Not Just About Gas Prices

Repression Won’t Solve the Deeper Problems Bringing Iranians to the Streets

A protester in Shiraz, November 2019 Middle East Images / Redux

A wave of protest swept across Iran last week. The government had abruptly hiked gas prices in order to offset its budget deficit at a time of high inflation and negative economic growth. Angry protesters clashed with security forces, set government buildings and banks on fire, and blocked roads. The government responded with an iron fist, killing more than 200 protesters, arresting thousands, and shutting down the Internet across the country for about a week.

In a country where anti-government demonstrations are not allowed, widespread protests with an explicit anti-regime tone are significant. But to understand the meaning of these protests—to know what motivated protesters and why—is exceedingly difficult, given the restrictions on free expression and international communication that currently prevail in Iran. The identities and agendas of the protesters matter for their own sake. They also matter because Iran is a country eternally in the spotlight and often misunderstood.

It is not possible to question every protester or to reliably survey public opinion. But meaningful data about Iran do exist and can be fruitfully matched to the map of protests. We identified the counties that witnessed at least one day of protest, based on the videos that protesters uploaded to both domestic and foreign websites. Then we examined socioeconomic and political data for those counties. Using a simple logistic regression, we were able to estimate the effect of such factors as electoral participation, development, wealth, population size, and unemployment rates on the outbreak of protest.

Angry protesters clashed with security forces, set government buildings and banks on fire, and blocked roads.

Our study shows that the current wave of protest is geographically widespread and most likely motivated by more than acute economic pain. We found that 20.5 percent of all Iranian counties had at least one day of protest in this wave (89 out of 429). Economic grievances sparked the initial surge of action, but once the protests began, they appeared to activate deeper, preexisting dissatisfactions with the Islamic Republic as a

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