Iran's elite politicians ignore the burning social issues

Despite promises to the contrary, the social and economic situation in Iran deteriorated under President Rouhani, prompting two nationwide revolts in recent years. Yet the social question continues to be neglected by all factions of the elite. Meanwhile the country urgently needs social reform. By Ali Fathollah-Nejad and Arash Sarkohi

By Ali Fathollah-Nejad & Arash Sarkohi

On 18 June Iran will elect a successor to President Hassan Rouhani, who will be stepping down after eight years in office. However, although the socio-economic situation in the country has deteriorated dramatically during Rouhani’s presidency, the Iranian elite continues to sideline the question of social justice.

Iran’s acute socioeconomic crisis is manifested in a largely poverty-stricken lower class and a dwindling middle class – both potential political powder kegs. Moreover, Rouhani’s presidency has been punctuated by a series of social protests. Recent years have seen almost daily demonstrations by workers, teachers, pensioners, and other groups. These culminated in nationwide protests in late 2017/early 2018 and in November 2019, brutally repressed by the state in both cases.

Although the "social question" is such a burning topic, none of the presidential candidates – whether from the reformist, centrist, conservative, or principlist camp, or from the ranks of the Revolutionary Guards – have given it the attention it merits. Politicians instead merely pay lip service to these concerns, with only intermittent calls to fight corruption. On the other hand, foreign policy issues, such as renewed negotiations with the United States regarding the Iranian nuclear programme, are placed high on the agenda.

Revolutionary promises merely hollow phrases

It is worth recalling in this context that social justice numbered among the principal aspirations of the Iranian Revolution that led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic. However, it rapidly became apparent, especially after the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, that revolutionary promises made to the "downtrodden", such as an apartment for every Iranian or free electricity and water, had been merely hollow phrases – Khomeinists appropriating the left-wing discourse that defined the zeitgeist of that era.

Caricature by Mana Neyestani on the upcoming presidential elections in Iran (photo: Mana Neyestani/DW)
Sidelining the question of social justice: Iran’s acute socioeconomic crisis is manifested in a largely poverty-stricken lower class and a dwindling middle class – both potential political powder kegs. Recent years have seen almost daily demonstrations by workers, teachers, pensioners and other groups, culminating in nationwide protests in late 2017/early 2018 and in November 2019, which were brutally repressed by the state. Despite being such a burning topic, none of the presidential candidates – whether from the reformist, centrist, conservative, or principlist camp, or from the ranks of the Revolutionary Guards – have given the "social question" the attention it merits

Reviewing presidential elections since the Iran-Iraq war reveals that 2021 will not be the first time that the "social question" has been ignored. President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-97) advocated economic reconstruction in his campaign slogans and pushed ahead with privatisation throughout the economy in the name of "development", but his efforts triggered severe social unrest, which was suppressed in 1992. His successor, Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), focused on civil liberties and democratisation (within the Islamic Republic’s rigid boundaries). He did not, however, put his slogans into practice and proved unable to implement any significant changes. On the social and economic front, he simply continued his predecessor’s policies.

Populist attempt to counter 'illiberal neoliberalism'

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-13) was the first president to bring the social question to the fore. After two and a half decades of Iranian "illiberal neoliberalism", the social divide had grown wider, making a mockery of the revolutionary ideals of an Islamic Republic that would provide for the "downtrodden". Ahmadinejad’s campaign pledge that income from oil exports would translate into improved food supplies for Iranian households degenerated into a populist manoeuvre.

He pursued a programme of social housing and universal health insurance – and is one of the few senior politicians in the Islamic Republic who has not been shown to have lined his own pockets. Having adopted a number of populist promises and policies, he enjoys widespread popularity to this day, especially among the lower class. The targeted monthly cash payments he introduced when reforming subsidies on food and energy went some way to reducing income inequality in the country, albeit with the downside of high inflation.The agenda pursued by Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021) primarily entailed reaching a nuclear deal with the West so U.S. sanctions could be lifted and Iranians’ economic situation would improve. However, these hopes were dashed when the July 2015 nuclear deal failed to improve the country’s socio-economic prospects. Instead, increasing income inequality led to growing social frustration. The situation came to a head three years later when Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement and reimposed crippling U.S. sanctions.

Fallout from Trump's de-certification of the nuclear deal

A dramatic devaluation of the Iranian rial ensued, along with horrendous inflation on a scale never before experienced in the Islamic Republic’s history, which subsequently led to more widespread impoverishment. Official figures indicate that two years ago 19 million people, as many as one in three city dwellers, were living in slums.

This state of affairs sparked the uprisings in 2017/18 and 2019 that challenged the entire regime. Although the Islamic Republic and many local observers have portrayed the protests as a direct consequence of sanctions, their root causes lie in social injustice, poverty, and corruption, not to mention the dearth of opportunities for political participation and the predominance of authoritarian structures – factors that predate the U.S. sanctions.


This distinguishes the current struggle from previous unrest, for example in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 elections or the student protests in 1999, where it was mainly the urban middle class making its voice heard. Those demonstrations focused on civil rights, with scant attention paid to social issues. The 2017/18 and 2019 protests, in contrast, were sparked mainly by socioeconomic factors.

Challenging the entire system

The trigger for the November 2019 uprising, for example, was a threefold rise in gasoline prices, literally overnight. These protests took a somewhat different form, employing more radical slogans that challenged not only one camp but the entire system: reformists and hardliners alike, clerics and the Revolutionary Guards. In response, the regime adopted an unprecedented rod-of-iron strategy: during an Internet blackout that lasted more than a week, an estimated 1,500 people were executed, some quite openly on the streets.

Despite this explosive situation, none of the candidates has thoroughly engaged with the social question in the run-up to the presidential election. Even reformist Mostafa Tajzadeh, now banned by the Council of Guardians from standing in the election, has not commented on the social question, even though he has made radical demands in other contexts, calling for example for constitutional amendments.

It comes as no surprise, however, that politicians are turning a blind eye to social issues. Reformists, who view the middle class as their primary electorate, have attempted to lure these voters to the polls over the past 20 years by calling for civil liberties and individual freedoms, while also pledging to reconcile Islam and democracy.


The lower class, often categorised as conservative and religious, has traditionally tended to support the principlist or hardliner camp. However, the protests during Rouhani’s presidency revealed just how much support the regime had lost among the lower classes, previously seen as its bedrock within society.

The countrywide protests that erupted in 2017/18 came barely two years after the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions – in other words, at a time when Iranians should have been beginning to experience the deal’s economic impact. However, the general populace did not feel the benefits of economic recovery, which mainly favoured members of the elite with close links to the regime. One of the most striking aspects of the protests in recent years is that the lower middle class and the lower class, people in small towns and villages right across the country, are spearheading the dissent.

Ignoring a potential timebomb

The potential political consequences of shifting class dynamics remain difficult to predict. While some within the circles of power repeatedly emphasise that social issues are a ticking timebomb, according to renowned Iranian social historian Touraj Atabaki the Islamic Republic seems to have lost all interest in improving the situation of workers and other groups facing economic insecurity. This neglect of social issues is presumably related to the huge influence of Iran’s oligarchic elite.

Ahmadinejad, who deliberately addressed the lower classes, at least in his slogans, and presented programmes designed to assist them, was an exception to this general rule. Other politicians have repeatedly attempted to emulate Ahmadinejad’s recipe for success. In the 2017 presidential elections, for example, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a military man and then mayor of Tehran who is now the speaker of parliament, ran on a pledge to address social inequality, claiming that 4% of Iranians had seized the country’s wealth whereas he represented the remaining 96%.

Ebrahim Raisi – chief justice for three years and former custodian and chairman of the religious/commercial Astan-e Qods-e Razavi bonyad (charitable trust) – has also attempted to score points by taking an anti-corruption stance, both in 2017 and at present. Four years ago, he drew attention to Iran’s 16 million slum dwellers in order to attack the incumbent Rouhani, who had failed to keep his economic promises.

Former president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad failed to make the approved list for the 2021 elections
A threat to the system? Many polls suggested that populist former president Ahmadinejad would have been a promising candidate. Yet the Council of Guardians has repeatedly refused to allow him to stand, also in 2021 – security forces recently surrounded his home as a precautionary measure after it was announced that the Council of Guardians had prevented him from running

However, these populist endeavours proved unsuccessful in the last elections in 2017, as Ghalibaf and Raisi lacked credibility and a convincing programme. It is therefore no surprise that many polls suggested Ahmadinejad might still be a promising candidate in those presidential elections. Yet the Council of Guardians has repeatedly refused to allow him to stand, also in 2021. It recently became apparent how much the regime fears him when security forces surrounded his home as a precautionary measure after the announcement that the Council of Guardians had prevented him from running.

The disappearing middle-class

There is no reason to believe that the social question will become less of a burning issue in the Islamic Republic – quite the contrary. The middle class goes on shrinking. Poverty and sky-high rents that push tenants out of city centres long ago ceased to be lower-class problems and are increasingly affecting the middle class. A few months ago, it was reported that many middle-class families could no longer afford meat, and that queues had therefore formed to buy chicken skin. Some sources indicate that demand for meat and fish has fallen at least 50% over the past year.

In addition, the Islamic Republic suffers from a glaring lack of political freedoms, which also thwarts social justice. Left-wing, socialist or social-democratic parties or movements – although part of the country’s modern political culture alongside nationalism and Islamism – are not allowed to operate or present candidates in elections. Independent trade unions face massive pressure and key labour leaders are repeatedly arrested.


Social justice nevertheless remains an important issue for the people of Iran. Given the lack of parties or movements that focus on social issues, Iranians are looking for alternatives. However, none of the protagonists that operate within the system prioritise this topic. Reformists, long overrated in Europe as offering new hope, pay it the least attention of all: key representatives of the reform camp made clear statements opposing both nationwide protests in recent years as they unfolded, insulting the protesters as inferior or "vultures". Reformers and conservatives alike belong to a power elite that explicitly opposes social democratic values and policies: neither seeks true democratisation nor tackles the vital social issues.

As a result, a vicious circle has become entrenched: as a result of ignoring social issues, reformist presidents or those lauded as moderate by the West (such as Khatami and Rouhani) repeatedly pave the way for the rise of right-wing populist challengers (Ahmadinejad and today Raisi).

A need for genuine structural change

The social question is a true powder keg. Addressing it seriously would entail challenging almost all of the Islamic Republic’s power centres. Structural corruption and nepotism, monopolisation of political and economic power, and animosity towards the United States (and thus the burden of sanctions) are among the important factors that generate social disparities. Yet it is impossible to fix these problems without making structural changes to the system.


Against this backdrop, the social question will remain unresolved no matter which candidate becomes president in June. (At the moment, many indicators point to Raisi). Further social protests, which often rapidly take on a political twist, are thus inevitable.

Reviving the nuclear deal could certainly help the regime stabilise the economy to some degree and obtain financial resources to subsidise vital goods like flour, meat, electricity, or gasoline, making these products more affordable for more Iranians. The system’s inherent social inequalities, though, would still persist. Instead of long overdue structural reforms, a resurgence of populist economic policies looks more likely.

The regime continues to fear another eruption of popular rage. The many protesters who took to the streets in 2019 – as many as 200,000, even according to official figures – have little to lose. The pseudo-choice between reformists and conservatives no longer stems public fury. This makes protesters unpredictable and dangerous for an elite that holds power, yet has no response to the demands raised by demonstrators nor anything whatsoever to offer them, either economically or politically.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad & Arash Sarkohi

© Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung 2021

 Ali Fathollah-Nejad is a political scientist and author of the recently published Iran in an Emerging New World Order: From Ahmadinejad to Rouhani. He formerly worked as an expert on Iran at the Brookings Institution in Doha (BDC) and the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). He received his doctorate from SOAS University of London.

Arash Sarkohi received his PhD in political philosophy from the Free University of Berlin and works as a research assistant in the German Bundestag. He publishes in German and Persian on Iranian politics, culture and contemporary history. He is also the author of Der Demokratie- und Menschenrechtsdiskurs der religiösen Reformer in Iran und die Universalität der Menschenrechte (2014).