A new kind of anger has engulfed the Islamic Republic. On December 28, 2017, a small street protest over high prices in the city of Mashhad rapidly spilled over into some 85 cities and provincial towns. The crowds decried joblessness, uncertain livelihoods, and oppressive rule, with a few invoking Reza Shah, the Persian king who is credited for modernizing Iran in the 1930s. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, joined the royalists and Mujahedin-e Khalq dissidents to “support the Iranian people.” One mask-wearing protestor captured on video urged his countrymen to join the uprising, but also sent a message to these strange bedfellows to “go to hell and leave us alone.” A police crackdown on protestors and social media ended the unrest, leaving 25 dead 3,700 arrested.
How do we explain the eruption? Among the numerous observations, two broad explanations stand out. The first views the unrest as a prelude to a revolution. The other understands it as an example of how Iranians typically air their public concerns. The reality, however, seems different. Neither simply an extension of routine protests, nor a prologue to revolution, what transpired in Iran recently was an extraordinary popular revolt. At its core: The “middle-class poor,” the rising angry class produced by a neoliberal age in which people’s welfare is left to the mercy of the market. With the opening of Iran’s economy, this class has benefited from educational opportunities, but failed in the job market; their expectations are high, but their livelihood less certain. With a disposition distinct from both the middle class and the poor, this disenchanted and restless class is poised to haunt indifferent authorities.