The Silenced Screams Fighting Impoverishment in Iran

by Mina Khanlarzadeh

First published in

This article by Mina Khanlarzadeh explores the reasons for the recent uprisings in Iran, the fight against poverty of the Iranian People, and why certain opposition groups are aimed at either instrumentalising or silencing the protests.


It started one morning when I woke up to one gray tick next to a WhatsApp message to my mother. A day passes, and one gray tick still won’t turn into two. In a state of suffocating confusion, I eventually realize that none of the messages I’ve sent to my folks in Iran have been received yet.

I run through the possibilities in my mind: Usually when this happens, it’s because one person may not have Internet access—but in this instance, it’s an entire collective of people. I tune into social media, and images of protestors standing amidst fire, taken before the net was shut down, cover my feed, and voices shouting “down with the dictator” reverberate in my phone’s tiny screens.

The entire population of Iran has lost all means of communication that requires Internet. And the government hasn’t simply shut down the net: Borders have now turned into walls of confinement, muting peoples’ voices, so barring them from receiving information from entire neighborhoods within the country, and outside of it. This move has imposed a unique kind of silence: Instead of the absence of sound, all that’s heard is one continuous scream.

These protesters, who’ve been on the streets, have a lifetime’s worth of stories to tell, but only a few seconds to narrate them. Their stories are chopped into various, wobbly videos that only capture a snapshot of their reality, amid widespread presence of security forces and the fear of death. The government is, as the Iranian scholar Kamran Matin wrote, “practicing a shoot-to-kill policy from the very start of the protests.”

On The Necessity of Crisis  

Communication and the flow of information isn’t the only thing on hold in Iran—the official calendar has also been suspended. Universities, schools, sports’ stadiums, and public transportation have been canceled in several places: “Dozens of protesters have been killed and hundreds of buildings have been burned.” Demonstrations don’t have a center, and can’t gravitate towards any particular location. They are spread all over Iran, and the more marginalized areas scream louder and are killed harder. Internet blackouts have been employed by several other states before: Sudan’s ruling military council blocked the Internet as a means to crash political resistance in April.

The IRI used the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) to obliterate resistance by carrying out a project of mass murder of political prisoners, and, in the last decade, has been using the US economic sanctions to adjust the economic structures towards an Iranian government styled neoliberalization of the economy, a devastation of the disenfrachised working classes, and a weakening of the more liberal section of the reformist faction of the government. [1] The Iran-Iraq war was used as a machine of propaganda to cast any form of resistance against the government as an obstacle towards the unification of the nation against war. Just as the war was considered a blessing (nemat) for the state to distract public opinion from domestic policies, the economic sanctions have been used (both by the government and its apologists) to justify corruption, the unprecedented widening of the class gap, and harsh economic policies affecting the impoverished majority. These harsh policies include cutting off social services, and faithful adherence to the steps carved out for Third World countries by the World Bank.

From Ahmadinejad’s presidency onwards, the intensification of neoliberalism (a particular translation of which has been made to fit the political structure of Iran) has occurred, simultaneously with the reinforcement of the economic sanctions against Iran. In 2009, the IRI invested all of its resources for Ahmadnejad to become the president to follow the economic policies of the World Bank, and for reformists to not be in power when the negotiations with the US take place. The IRI, similar to other states, translates neoliberalism to policies that adjust to its political structure. Political economist Mohammad Maljoo argued that privatization, for the IRI, can mean handing public wealth to various sections of unelected officials to guarantee their loyalty, while this is not the same as privatization, it functions in a similar fashion.

The Fight Against Poverty in Revolutionary Consciousness 

Despite fabricated images framing the fight against poverty in Iran as: 1. Belonging to a less politically conscious or lumpenproletariat, 2.  Being merely an immediate response to the skyrocketing of egg or petrol prices, or 3. Even as the protesters being manipulated by MEK or monarchists; the redistribution of wealth towards the abolition of poverty was one of the main causes of the 1979 revolution. In his 1970s speech “Religion vs. Religion,” Ali Shariati, the most prominent intellectual before the 1979 Revolution, quoted Abu Dharr Al-Ghifari’s (one of the earliest converts to Islam) statement on poverty: “Abu Dharr said, ‘I am perplexed by a person who finds no bread in his house. How is it that he does not arise against the people with his sword unsheathed?’”

Indeed, one of the main reasons Shariati argued that Islam can be interpreted as an emanicipatory ideology was for its consideration that one person’s poverty had the potential to be a source of guilt for the entire society. In his 1960s short stories, Samad Behrangi, a Marxist social critic, elementary school teacher, and a pioneer of Iran’s modern children’s literature, grappled with the question of class based violence and the right of people on the margins to fight against poverty. In 24 Hours Between Being Asleep and Awake, Behrangi tells the story of a young street vendor named Latif. Latif escaped the harsh realities of life through his fantasies of riding all over the city of Tehran on a camel that he saw in a children’s toy store. At the end of the story, a father and daughter buy the toy camel from the store. Destroyed by the event, and facing his incapability to escape his harsh life conditions even in fantasy, Latif follows their car and is injured. While lying on the ground in pain he tells himself that he wishes he owned the toy gun that was also on display in the window of the store. Behrangi starts the story by clarifying that he is not advocating for violence to be followed as a social template, but wants the readers to contemplate the conundrum of social class and the experience of Latif:

“Dear readers, I have not written this story for you to use it as your social template; my concern was for you to get to understand the children of your country and ask yourself what their solution is.”

Shariati and Behrangi offer us a picture of some of the sensibilities, concerns, and demands that existed among revolutionaries before the 1979 revolution, such as the abolition of poverty and social responsibility towards class-based violence experienced by marginalized sections of the society. The IRI tried addressing these demands in the first decade after the revolution, but has been trying to reverse them since then. Ervand Abrahamian asked how the IRI had survived, and he responded:

“The real answer lies not in religion, but in economic and social populism.  By the early 1970s, Iran had produced a generation of radical intelligentsia that was revolutionary not only in its politics — wanting to replace the monarchy with a republic — but in its economic and social outlook.  It wanted to transform the class structure root and branch. […] This [pro-equality] populism helps explain not only the success of the revolution but also the continued survival of the Islamic Republic. The Republic’s constitution — with 175 clauses — transformed these general aspirations into specific inscribed promises. It pledged to eliminate poverty, illiteracy, slums and unemployment.  It also vowed to provide the population with free education, accessible medical care, decent housing, pensions, disability pay and unemployment insurance.”

Economic sanctions have played an essential role in concealing the IRI’s economic policies towards the privatization of health and education, the monopolization of public wealth by government figures and institutions called Iranian government style privatization.

Why Pro-Reza Shah Slogans?

The compromise of life conditions inside Iran, the continous depreciation of marginalized peoples’ purchasing power, their great suffering due to poor economic management, and harsh international treatments against Iranians (via economic sanctions, and restrictions on Iranians’ mobility by the Muslim Ban and similar policies) have resulted in a collective dream of a strong nationalist leader who would heal the injuries by priorotizing the development of Iran over outside adventures, and bringing international racists policies against Iranians to an end. That is one of the reasons the name of Reza Shah can be heard in some of the street slogans, even as those very people are not necessarily monarchists or in favor of monarchism replacing the current regime.

Over the last several years, nostalgia is understood to be a false consciousness created by satellite television channels (such as Manoto TV) that have convinced Iran that the Shah was great. This false consciousness argument does not help us in our analysis of the complexities and differences within the phenomenon of remembering the past affectionately. Contrary to narratives of a TV channel selling Iranians the idea that Reza Shah was great, the reference to Reza Shah is due to the complex political circumstances which lead to the glorification of a strong patriarchal figure. Inherent to this glorification is the idea that a figure like Reza Shah could lead the nation in the international realm and protect Iranians from being bullied under the rubric of the Muslim Ban and economic sanctions. Moreover, before the 2009 election, there was some hope in reformists to rely on their popular base in the society to conduct transformation, but the hope began getting demolished by internal government conflicts. Reformists moved towards hardliners to receive acceptance, and to keep a space for themselves in the government, and society became more radicalized facing closed doors to its most negligible desire of survival, presented in electing Mirhossein Mousavi in 2009. These internal government calculations and divisions translated into harsher oppressive policies (during Rouhani’s presidency), and further impoverishment, both as a means of control of the society and as a consequence of vast corruption, and deeper (consequently, costlier) involvement of the Iranian government in more countries outside the borders of Iran. The weakening of reformists is, in fact, another reason that Reza Shah’s name is heard in the slogans.

Time Machine 

This is not to say that there is not a desire to put the entire nation’s history into a time machine and wake up to a reality in which the exiled figures of popular culture, such as Googoosh and Dariush, could sing on national television, and one in which there are no traces of human and socio-economic damages—including the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) and the economic sanctions—or all the repressive policies of the last forty years. The Shah’s regime is one of the possible governments in power when we enter that time machine, but it isn’t the only possibility. That’s why the nostalgia for the Shah’s regime cannot be understood without considering nostalgia for pre-1979 Iran.

I suggest, keeping in mind Svetlana Boym’s concepts of reflective and restorative nostalgias (Future of Nostalgia, 2001), that we divide Iranians’ nostalgia for the past into two divisions: patriarchal past-oriented nostalgia and critical future-oriented nostalgia. The patriarchal past-oriented nostalgia tries to restore the past homeland in the future, the figure of the late Shah is at its center. The main cause of it is determined to be a defense of the past (mainly the Shah’s regime) against all of its past and current dissidents, and the past is re-imagined time and again with the wish to annihilate all the discourse and figures that ever challenged the former regime, to its final absolute restoration. The critical future-oriented nostalgia, however, relies on the past and its fragmented affective memories, to reflect on the present, to imagine a non-linear path to the future, while considering all the marginalized side roads that were neglected in the past while their traces in society and culture are still visible.

Iranian society examines political groups and ideologies based on their attitude towards public and private happiness, and pleasure, as the primary component of measuring their political progressiveness. The state was trying to save people from their sins to pave their path to the religious utopia. Similarly, the intellectuals often attempt  to save people from their lowbrow pleasure to pave their path towards cultural elitism. If the criminalization of considerable section of the popular music, after the 1979 Revolution, had occured in the name of avoiding distraction from superior values and defending the authenticity of Iranian traditional music, intellectuals’ looking down on popular culture is most of the time in the name of saving the society’s soul from banality, consumerist pleasure, and poor taste.

The former regime and their supporters have come to represent acceptance towards pleasure, happiness, and understanding of popular art. As a result, another reason for remembering the past affectionately is the IRI’s privatization of happiness, and oppositions’ equation of pleasure with lack of social responsibility and political consciousness. The private space is accessible to the more affluent strata of the society; moreover, protecting the private space form state’s control is more attainable to propertied people than the marginalized groups. Furthermore, relying on tourism for pleasure and happiness is within the reach of those who are more  well-off, both for obtaining visas and being able to afford the travel expenses. This is why, for most of society, moving towards any promised utopia, if not possible to be accompanied with, for instance, the popular music songs (banned by the IRI after the revolution) of the exiled musician, such as, for instance, Hasan Shamaeizadeh, is viewed as moving towards dystopia.

Anti-imperialist Apologists and The Authentic Neoliberals

The considerable section of the current reaction to the IRI, outside Iran, consists of two main groups. The first group is anti-imperialist apologists who, at times, superficially criticize IRI, but overall perceive its policies to be justifiable responses to outside imperialist forces. Their refrain is that the IRI is preventing Iran from becoming Syria, but they often fail to consider the role of their government, along with several other governments, in Syria becoming Syria. This mantra magically explains away most of the IRI’s decisions and policies. The second group is authentic neoliberals, who criticize the IRI for not being a true authentic force of neoliberalism like they would be, in case they come to power. They are similar to religious fundamentalists who believe there is an authentic reading of the religious scriptures, they share with the IRI their hatred of Marxists, and their fanatic faith in the World Bank and the IMF. They are also as anti-liberal as the IRI is when it comes to dealing with their critics, some of them even justifying the 1953 coup against Iran. Augusto Pinochet is their favorite leader, and they hope Trump will make Iran great again.

Both groups, authentic neoliberals and anti-imperialist apologists, agree with the IRI’s economic policies. Authentic neoliberals openly express the teachings of the IMF and the World Bank to be their faith, whereas, to anti-imperialist apologists, everything outside the West is irrelevant unless it is defined in favor of or against imperialism. Within both groups, criticism has been more focused on the ways in which the IRI has conducted such policies, and not on the policies themselves.

What to Do with The Disappointed Hope?

A recently surfaced video shows Sepideh Gholian, a labor rights activist who was arrested shortly after her protest, holding a sign that reads: “You increased the price of fuel. Did you also increase the incomes?” Gholian’s simple question not only targets today’s corrupt policies towards impoverishment and weakening of society, refers to the hopes and dreams that led to the 1979 Revolution. The revolutionary hope that the IRI still finds intractable, and in turn uses crises to justify policies that stand against them. As Ernst Bloch wrote in 1998: “For if hope could be annihilated, that is, if it could literally be made nihilistic, it would never have proved so intractable to those despots who represent its opposite.” [2] Behind Gholian’s question, Samad Behrangi’s “Latif,” and Ali Shariati’s “Abu Dharr Al-Ghifari” stand, and the dreams and hopes that were whispered (or screamed) by the former generations that led to the 1979 Revolution. While their hopes have been disappointed, they have not been annihilated, as they are recorded in Gholian’s video and all other videos that never got the chance to be shared online in the past few days of the outage.


[1]: Ervand Abrahamian explains the isolation of political prisoners before the mass execution of the 80s (before the Iran-Iraq war ended)

“In the early hours of Friday, 19 July 1988, the regime suddenly, without warning, isolated the main prisons from the outside world. It slammed shut their gates; canceled scheduled visits and telephone calls; banned all newspapers; cleared the cells of radios and televisions; refused to accept letters, care packages, and even vital medicines; and forbade relatives from congregating outside the prison gates […]. What is more, the main law courts went on an unscheduled vacation so that concerned relatives would not gather there seeking information. […]The wardens isolated not only the prisons from the outside world but also each cell block from other cell blocks in the same prison. Inmates were confined to their cells. […] One ingenious inmate assembled a wireless set to find out what was happening only to discover that the radio stations were not reporting news about the prisons. They were observing a news blackout. Thus began an act of violence unprecedented in Iranian history-unprecedented in form, content, and intensity. It even outdid the 1979 reign of terror. The curtain of secrecy, however, was so effective that no Western journalist heard of it and no Western academic discussed it. They still have not.”

ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN, Tortured Confessions: Prison and Public Recantations in Modern Iran (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 279

[2]: Ernst Bloch, Literary Essays, trans. Andrew Joron and others (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 344.

Thanks to Atoosa Moinzadeh for her insightful comments.

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