In Iran’s surprise uprising of the poor, dents to revolution’s legitimacy

After a week of violent anti-establishment protests across Iran, in which anger welled up most vociferously among the country’s poor, even a perfume seller in Tehran knows the harm that has been done to one pillar of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The Islamic Republic was “based on the ideal of a better world for the oppressed and the poor,” says Ashkan, a 32-year-old with a master’s degree in chemistry, who has had to settle for a job selling perfume in a friend’s shop.

“In the early years there were efforts to materialize this, because we used to have sincere and hardworking authorities,” says Ashkan, who was contacted by phone and asked that only his first name be used. “But as time went by, corruption replaced those principles, and the hardship of economic life continued to press that very layer of society…. This explains why they are now frustrated with the system that they once rose up for.”

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Iranian leaders have been surprised by the scale and location of the protests that first erupted over economic grievances on Dec. 28, then quickly turned political and spread to more than 70 cities and towns – many of them long-considered conservative bastions of regime support.

Posters of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have been burned, as chants rang out of “Death to the Dictator!” and government offices and security force bases were attacked and set alight.

The shock to Iran’s ruling elite has not been that some Iranians detest them – posters of Ayatollah Khamenei were torched in 2009, too, when millions of protesters in Tehran and beyond took to the streets over a disputed election – but instead which demographic fearlessly voiced its anger this time.

The result that has so unsettled power centers in Iran is that protesters are complaining about broken promises that stretch back to 1979, about guaranteed prosperity and attention to equality and “social justice.”

Recent revelations about vast spending on clerical institutions, especially, and cuts in welfare and subsidies while Iranians have often seen wages stagnate or decline in recent years, have fueled the sense of pervasive inequality. For many, that has dented the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and damaged its long-standing revolutionary social contract.

“There has been a long assumption that the so-called base of the Islamic Republic is the shoeless peasant and the religious…

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