Despite its deeply conservative reputation, in late December 2017, nearly two thousand protesters—mostly young, educated and from middle-class families—gathered in Qom’s wealthy neighborhood of Shahid Dastgheyb square, better known to residents as Meydan-e Shahid Bastani (Martyr Ice Cream Square) for its famous ice cream shops. The protesters chanted slogans against a variety of social problems and even called for the return of Farah Pahlavi, the former Queen of the deposed Pahlavi monarchy. While this unprecedented dissent in Qom echoed long-standing grievances and growing social discontent in other parts of the country, it was notable for revealing deep schisms in the heart of one of Shiism’s most important centers of learning and the wellspring of so many of the Islamic Republic’s most iconic nomenclature.
The national wave of protests that began in the northeast city of Mashahd on December 28, 2017 before spreading throughout Iran, including Qom, surprised many both inside and outside of Iran. Even the normally astute observer and reformist, Abbas Abdi, commented in the first days of the protests that given the recent improvements in the economy “there must be something [happening] behind the scenes and beyond the spontaneity of the protests.” Nevertheless, a few months later, when trying to analyze the protests, he re-affirmed his initial bewilderment.
In many respects, the nation-wide protests were unique in recent Iranian history. Their scope was simultaneously broad—at least 70 cities experienced one or more demonstrations during a 10-day period—yet in terms of the overall number of participants they were limited. Unlike previous rounds of protests in the major urban centers of the country such as Tehran, these protests were centered in the provinces (mostly in small cities of less than five hundred thousand people). The protesters expressed a diverse range of grievances that included chronic unemployment, economic stagnation, inequality, endemic corruption, non-payment of wages and the collapse of highly unregulated financial institutions. The protester’s blamed all political parties—from reformists to hardliners—and held the longtime Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, responsible, while nostalgically calling for the return of the Pahlavis.
The fact that the protests took place at the same time in dozens of cities and towns across the country does not necessarily mean, however, that they were caused by the same grievance or that protesters came from the same social classes. Local triggers and persisting structural causes such as inequality and unemployment were all factors generating the eruption of nation-wide protests. In cities like Kermanshah, Mamasani and Izeh, with unemployment rates of 24.1 percent, 18.4 percent and 18.3 percent, respectively, the primary factor for many taking to the streets was the demand for employment and income support. But in cities like Qom and Kashan, with unemployment rates at 10.2 percent and 7.8 percent, both below the national average of 11.7 percent, it is unlikely that unemployment was the main cause of the protest. Moreover, new social media tools, specifically Telegram, which has 40 million users in Iran, helped spread news and gossip far and wide, suggesting a viral aspect to the protests. Thus, while national in scope, the protests were also highly localized.
This complex and diverse mix of factors was readily apparent in the protests in Qom, which I observed during an extended visit to Qom and Tehran during these heady days. But these protests also revealed that social fragmentation in Iran runs so deep that even within a community as intimately related to religious learning and the state as Qom, the divisions and boundaries go beyond easy distinctions between regime and opposition, hardliner and reformer or secular and pious. In Qom, a particular set of contradictory governmental policies implemented during the hardline presidency of Mahmud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) that aimed to bolster religious educational institutions have exacerbated injustice and inequality at personal and social levels. This inequality has been felt most strongly among younger and middle-class Iranians. The uneven nature of Iranian society, which is being exacerbated by international sanctions and ever-expanding modes of privatization and deregulation, has worked its way into all sectors of a society that is at once cognizant of this condition and also still divided. Yet while it has bred resentment, this inequality has not yet given rise to a political organization or cross-class empathy.
Clerical Class Privilege in Qom
I returned to Iran on December 18, 2017, ten days before the first protests took place in Mashahd, for a one-month visit that included a two-week stay in Qom, where I had grown up, visiting family and friends. Over meals and many cups of tea, politics was continuously discussed alongside pleasantries, a familiar ritual of Iranian social and family gatherings. It was during these conversations that I discovered something I had not heard before in Qom: There was a profound anger towards the clergy, or the ulama, and it was shared by almost everyone regardless of their political or class affiliations. This anger was not simply directed towards their conservative political attitudes or support for the regime, a commonly heard complaint, but it was now directed towards the clergy’s way of life and their economic privileges in comparison to those not connected to the clerical system.
In particular, many college-educated young Qomis emphasized the difficulties and unfairness encountered by those trying to find a job, even one with a salary lower than the minimum wage, who were not linked to the clerical system. The 2017 labor law had set the minimum wage of 9.3 million rials ($250) per month for “non-professional” jobs—employment deemed as less skilled than the professional positions held by other family members. Nevertheless, the daughter of my cousin, for example, a recent college graduate with a degree in electrical engineering, and another acquaintance with a degree in civil engineering and three years of work experience, were both paid the same monthly salary of 8 million rials ($210). The daughter of another cousin who held a master’s degree in social sciences had been looking for a job for the past three years, only to finally obtain a job with a 10 million rials ($270) monthly salary. The best compensated young person I encountered was a woman with a master’s degree and five years of work experience who received 15 million rials ($400) per month.
By contrast a religious student (talabeh) on average receives a stipend of approximately 10 million rials ($270), paid by several ulama, which varies by various factors such as educational stage, good academic standing, marital status, and the ulama who pay. The money that religious students receive to support their studies is called tuition (shahrieh) while at the same time most of non-clerical university students have to pay tuition to the government to attend university. Fellowships for seminary students is nothing new, but what is new is the much higher amount of money they currently receive, especially when compared to the tuition paid by non-clerical students and the low salaries encountered by non-clerical Qomis.
To understand this inequality more broadly, Qom’s seminaries (hawzeh elmieh) and their associated institutions and schools consist of an estimated 80,000 seminarians, a figure that is unprecedented in its history. In addition to stipends for the seminarians, these educational complexes employ a whole host people in Qom ranging from cooks to custodial staff, some of who have also benefited from the unequal resources directed to these institutions. Strikingly, a friend of mine who is a security guard at one of the seminary schools informed me that with five years of work experience and only a high school education, he earned 35 million rials ($930) per month and frequently garnered raises and low-interest personal loans exclusively reserved for people associated with the seminary system.
The unequal economic structure of Qom is also expressed in everyday consumption patterns. In the last five years, large and well-appointed grocery stores such as Shahed (Witness), Isargaran (Devotees) and Janbazan (Disabled Veteran) have been opened, funded by several para-governmental organizations (bonyads), the government and hawzeh elmieh. In my visits to some of these new grocery stores, I detected two distinct patterns of consumption among two groups of shoppers: While most people carefully examined price tags in order to select affordable goods in their carts, a new class of clerics and seminarians come to the stores and fill their carts with the best brands seemingly without bothering to check the price tags. More interestingly they did not pay with cash or debit cards, but instead often paid with high-value gift cards that they received from their religious institutions. Not all clerics or seminarians enjoy or take advantage of these resources, but it was clear to my friends and family that a new social class of clergymen with a high standard of living has emerged in Qom in recent years, and this inequality had become a source of growing discontent, reflected in the unprecedented protests.
Welfare for Clerics, Neoliberalism for the Rest
What is revealed by the protests in Qom is that during the last decade a robust and multilayer welfare system has developed for clerics and seminarians, as well as others connected to the clerical system, that includes free comprehensive health insurance, low-interest loans, high-value gift cards, housing supplements and well-paid wages to cover their needs, all of which are unavailable for ordinary people. This comprehensive system began to form during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tenure as president (2005-2013) when he sought to improve the standard of living of religious students in Qom by dramatically increasing the government’s budget allocation for seminary schools: By 2011 the overall allocation for seminaries was 17 times larger than the level when Ahmadinejad took the office in 2005. As a result, there has developed a contradictory and bifurcated system that differentiates between people in Qom—a welfare state for an exclusive set of seminaries assumed to be loyal to the regime and a neoliberal state for the rest.
None of the welfare benefits and financial packages on display today existed a decade ago. In fact, in earlier times the people in Qom used to equate being a student of religious studies, or talabegi, with poverty and low quality of life. But this image and even self-presentation has been radically overturned in the past decade. Simultaneously, the state has been following neoliberal policies for the vast majority of society by privatizing universities and schools, deregulating labor laws, suppressing unions and cutting public budgets, while it has fashioned a welfare state in Qom for a few would-be its loyal subjects. All of this happened while Iran’s economy was ensnarled by ever-expanding international sanctions and the standard of living of many Iranians deteriorated due to persistent unemployment and inflation levels over 20 percent.
These uneven and unjust policies are now expanding into the built environment. While the city’s skyline is tarnished by unfinished projects and public spaces and facilities need serious maintenance, new luxury buildings belonging to seminaries are mushrooming everywhere in Qom, particularly in the well-off neighborhoods. Newer organizations that enjoy modern conference halls, cafeterias, libraries, computer centers and high speed internet access include Jame‘at al-Mostafa al-‘Alamiah, the Seminary School of Ayatollah Khansari, the Institution of Imam Khomeini, the Institution of Amir al-Mo’menin, the Seminary School of Vali ‘Asr, the Institution of Imam Sadiq, the Institution of Imam Hasan and the Institution of Imam Kazim. The religious schools were earmarked to receive 24 trillion rials ($570 million) of the 2018 budget. This was just half of the budget allocated for religious and propaganda institutions. On the other hand, the budget allocated for environmental issues was 2.5 trillion rials ($60 million), even less than the 3-trillion-rial budget allocation for Jame‘at al-Mostafa al-‘Alamiah. It is not surprising that people were outraged by the drastic increase in spending on religious institutions while soaring living costs have primarily impacted the poor.
The aesthetics of these buildings suggest an apparent competition between seminaries and clerical administrators over who can build the shiniest, most ornate and most spectacular structures/conference halls, dormitory facilities and libraries. I visited one of the newly built dorms for religious students. It was a four-story building with a sunroof and pond in the center that was surrounded by fully furnished rooms with the newest furniture. The floor was covered by dazzling light-green marble stones, the walls were decorated with elaborate Islamic tilework and the ceiling was adorned with a giant gilded chandelier. A large marble slab was engraved with the biography of the founding ayatollah, who was the benefactor of the dorm and the school. Again, gold was deployed for the lettering. In addition, there were many CCTV cameras everywhere in the dormitory facility and a fully equipped language lab and library in the basement. This ornate and technologically up to date infrastructure was in shocking contrast to the experience of students at even the top universities, such as Tehran University, whose dorms were often old, un-renovated and dirty and cafeteria food, as I recall, was barely edible.
The prevalence and visibility of these extravagant buildings for those confronting dire economic conditions has led more and more people in Qom, many of whom have family members who work or frequent these facilities, to wonder why state resources are expended in such a fashion. The anger and grievances I witnessed in Qom, on the streets of Iran and aired in private encounters, were not just about the overall poor economic situation or high levels of unemployment, but also included a sense that there was a growing inequality at the personal and societal level between a privileged clerical class and the rest, which for many was deemed unjust and violating the moral compact of the revolution and the sacrifices of the Iran-Iraq war.
Contradictions and Grievances Beyond Qom
The paradoxical nature of the state under the Islamic Republic and its often impractical and temporary solutions have generated a multitude of unfinished and unresolved issues for many Iranians. While in some cases the system is working through different processes of negotiation, cooperation, pragmatic shifts in the governments’ ideology and competition among factions, there are many tensions that have festered while state officials have taken incremental and contradictory actions that only aggravate public opinion. Personal conduct in everyday life—such as private parties, public dress code, women’s attendance in sports stadiums and women’s compulsory hijab—as well as complex juridical, economic and political large-scale issues—such as freedom of speech, partisanship, foreign investment, political crime, the role of the pressure groups, the death penalty law and the Guardian Council’s “approbation supervision”—have led to deep divisions within the public and political establishment.
A major public concern in media and conversation has been widespread economic corruption and ongoing financial crises, with people expecting the government to divulge a list of corrupt officials or to institute policies to address these urgent issues. Instead, in July, 2018 state TV broadcasted the “confession” of an 18-year-old girl, Maedeh Hojabri, who was arrested for “breaking moral norms” by dancing and uploading her video on Instagram. In another case, in December, 2018 workers at the Haft-Tapeh sugar company in Shush in Khuzestan province, southwest Iran, began to strike for their unpaid wages. But instead of making a deal or initiating an investigation regarding the allegedly corrupt process of privatization of the company, state television broadcast a “documentary” of the protests in which Esmail Bakhshi, a leader of striking sugarcane workers, and Sepideh Gholian, a student activist—both of whom were recently jailed for organizing and supporting the strike—were “confessing” their connections to a Worker-Communist party in Europe.
Meanwhile, the United States has re-imposed unilateral economic sanctions on Iran and the standard of living of many Iranians is rapidly deteriorating once again due to the drastic decline of rial, but instead of formulating a broad strategy to address the dire consequences of this decline for the poor and those on fixed incomes, from April to July the Central Bank has allocated $312 million in subsidized government currency to people travelling abroad, though it was canceled after public pressure. Environmental issues have been another area of contradictions and inequalities. Water shortages have become a pervasive problem throughout Iran, particularly in Khuzestan province, in the southwest of the country. While several factors including global climate change and reduced rainfall are part of the problem, water shortages in Khuzestan are intimately related to politically charged water transfer policies. Since a significant number of Iranian policymakers are from the central desert provinces of Isfahan, Yazd and Kerman, they have had the political leverage to pass several controversial bills during the past three decades to transfer water from the Karun River in Khuzestan to Isfahan, Yazd and Kerman.
These contradictory policies, deemed unjust by many, similar to the clerical inequalities at the heart of the protests in Qom, give rise to the accumulation of anger and grievances among different social groups. Whether the result of local or structural causes, one after another, these grievances periodically surface in the public sphere and quickly create a new crisis for the regime.
 Roy Mottahedeh, The Mantle of the Prophet, Revised Edition (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2009).
 Abbas Abdi, “Behind the Protests in Mashahd,” Fararu, December 29, 2017.
 “Comprehensive Report: Seven Days of Protests in Iran,” Hrana – News Agency (blog), January 10, 2018.
 Hamidreza Jalaeipour and Abolfazl Hajizadegan, “Identifying Effective Factors on the 2017-Protests in Iran,” Koucheh (blog), May 2, 2018.
 See Kaveh Ehsani and Arang Keshavarzian, “The Moral Economy of the Iranian Protests,” Jacobin, January 11, 2018; Ali Reza Eshraghi, “Grievance Against Governance in Iran,” LobeLog, January 10, 2018; Asef Bayat, “The Fire That Fueled the Iran Protests,” The Atlantic, January 27, 2018; Shervin Malekzadeh, “Protests in Iran are an Extension of the Islamic Republic’s Founding Ethos,” The Iranian, January 2, 2018.
 Center for Strategic Studies of the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labour and Social Welfare, “The Unemployment Rates in the Cities in Which the Protests Took Place,” in Daily Iran, p. 13, January 3, 2018, No. 6683.
 “10 to 15 Percent Increase in Minimum Wage for the Next Year,” IRNA, January 1, 2018.
 The conversion rate used here is based on the official price of dollar exchange rate in Iran in March 2018: $1 = 37535.50 Iranian rial.
 “86 Thousand Seminary Students Training in Qom,” Mehr News Agency, August 17, 2015.
 The average personal loan interest rates were between 15 to 18 percent in 2017. See “How Much is the Ideal Interest Rate?” The Economist Online, March 12, 2018.
 The initial plan to improve the standard of living of students in the seminary schools was suggested and supported by the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei in 1991, but it developed in practice in the Ahmadinejad period.
 Mohammad Maljoo, “Worker Protest in the Age of Ahmadinejad,” Middle East Report 241 (Winter 2006), p. 30; Arang Keshavarzian, “The Iran Deal as Social Contract,” Middle East Report 277 (Winter 2015).
 “A Report of Unfinished Projects in Qom,” IRNA, October 22, 2017.
 “How Much does the Government Spend for Religion and Religious Institutions,” IranBudget, accessed July 5, 2018, https://iranbudget.org/blog/religious-budget/.
 Najmeh Bozorgmehr, “Rouhani’s Budget Transparency Stokes Iran Unrest,” Financial Times, January 17, 2018.
 “$312 Million Subsidized Government Currency to People Travelling Abroad,” IRNA, July 17, 2018.
 “Doubts Regarding Transferring Water from Khuzestan’s Rivers,” Hamshahri, September 3, 2017.