Protests in Iran’s holy city of Qom reveal 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. 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.
In fall 1978, Abadan’s oil refinery workers played a decisive role in the Iranian Revolution by joining the national mass strikes. Just two years later, Abadan and the adjoining port city of Khorramshahr were shelled by the invading Iraqi army and effectively destroyed during the Iran–Iraq war (1980–88), which scattered their population of over 600,000 as refugees across Iran and abroad.
Iranians have repurposed, reconfigured and transliterated the psychiatric concepts of depression and trauma as depreshen and toroma. In this wide-ranging interview, Orkideh Behrouzan speaks with Sheila Carapico about the politics of Iranian mental health care policy, public discussion of the effects of 40 years of revolution and war and the ways in which a younger generation is forming identities through depreshen-talk. Behrouzan is a physician, medical anthropologist, scholar of science and technology and the author of Prozak Diaries: Psychiatry and Generational Memory in Iran. She teaches in the anthropology department at SOAS, University of London.
Trumpism has discombobulated Iran. Revulsion against President Donald J. Trump’s rhetoric and policies has achieved the rare feat of unifying the disgruntled Iranian public and the fractious ruling elite. This nationalist backlash barely conceals the internal crises facing Iran at every level—social, political, environmental and economic.
It is wrong to code what is happening in Yemen as a Sunni-Shi‘i conflict. The Houthis are not an Iranian proxy but a predominantly local political movement founded in long-standing, Yemen-centric grievances and power struggles. The cynical use of sectarian language casts the conflict in Yemen as part of an epochal, region-wide struggle rather than a local civil war made more deadly for Yemeni civilians by Saudi and Emirati intervention.
The protests reveal a widespread disaffection with all existing political factions. New slogans calling for the “death” of “the dictator” and for a “referendum” alternated with those in favor of the Pahlavi monarchist regime that ruled Iran before the 1979 revolution. This public enunciation of an all-or-nothing approach to political change in Iran is an unexpected development, and is indicative of a new level of rejectionist “blue” alienation, especially among Iranian youth.
In early 2011, the world watched as millions of people took to the streets across the Arab world to demand the fall of regimes, or at least substantial political reforms. As the weeks and then months unfolded, the broadcast media adopted split screens to show simultaneous live footage of crowds in multiple countries. Some regimes were toppled and many were seriously shaken, but no regime in the region was left untouched. The high visibility of the uprisings, together with massive street protests on nearly every continent, led Time to name “the protester” as the 2011 Person of the Year.
Speaking to a journalist days after the February 26 elections in Iran, leading reformist Mohammad Reza Aref stated, “When I saw the results for Tehran coming in, I was shocked.” Aref had expected the top of the list he headed to do well in the contest for Tehran’s 30 seats in the Tenth Majles, or Parliament, of the Islamic Republic. Most pre-election polls, in fact, had predicted that Aref’s slate would come out ahead in the capital. But its first-round sweep of all 30 seats, including many wins by unknown candidates, was a stunner for all involved.
Pamela Karimi, Domesticity and Consumer Culture in Iran: Interior Revolutions of the Modern Era (New York: Routledge, 2013).
When I was interviewing Afghan refugee writers and intellectuals in Iran in the mid-2000s, I soon realized that there was a gulf between their occupations and their aspirations.  The young poets who were the subjects of my research in the northeastern city of Mashhad often earned a living as manual laborers, construction or factory workers, or small-time street vendors. Some had woven rugs or made handicrafts as children, or engaged in other piecework in small workshops. They came together to read their poetry and short stories to each other on Fridays, their one precious day off. Most of them—both men and women—had benefited from at least a secondary education in Iranian state schools, and most hoped to continue on to university.
On November 4, 2012, there were two snapshots of a deeply unequal struggle between labor and capital in Iran—a struggle that had begun two years earlier with a strike of temporary workers at the Mahshahr Petrochemical Complex. In Mahshahr, at the head of the Persian Gulf, Faraveresh, one of the five public-sector companies at the Complex, reached an agreement with the strikers, committing to remove the private middleman who had hired the workers and to sign direct contracts with them as soon as possible.
The victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the presidential election of 2005 came as a shock to many segments of Iranian society, particularly the reformists within the Islamic Republic who believed they had pushed aside such arch-conservatives for good. Ahmadinejad prevailed thanks to the massive participation of the urban poor in the election, along with the decision of the majority of the middle and upper classes to boycott the vote with no thought that their abstention would have such a consequence. Whereas conservatives boasted that Ahmadinejad’s triumph proved the allegiance of “the people” to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the reformists explained their failure in an entirely apolitical way.
For years discussion of Iran’s nuclear program and how best to address the surrounding impasse focused on international relations—chiefly, the extent to which the United States and the Islamic Republic could and should trust each other to reach a negotiated settlement. Amidst all the conjecture, the domestic Iranian politics of the nuclear issue were often reduced to Kremlinology-style questions about the motives and capacities of hardliners in the Islamic Republic and the unknowable mind of the Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Persian, like any other language, is laced with references to class, both blatant and subtle. With idioms and metaphors, Iranians can identify and situate others, and thus themselves, within hierarchies of social status and privilege, both real and imagined. Some class-related terms can be traced back to medieval times, whereas others are of modern vintage, the linguistic legacy of television shows, pop songs, social media memes or street vernacular. Every day, it seems, an infectious set of phrases appears that make yesterday’s seem embarrassingly antiquated.
The dominant narrative of the 1979 Iranian revolution granted a pivotal role to a new political actor—the downtrodden masses. Over the past two decades in Iran, a different protagonist gradually replaced them, equally captivating and elusive—the middle class. While neither category fully represented the reality of Iranian society, each idea was deployed as a weapon to reshape the political order.
January 16 was implementation day for the summer 2015 agreement between the Islamic Republic of Iran and six world powers known as the P5+1 regarding Iran’s nuclear research program. By the terms of this accord, Iran is to curtail its nuclear activities, soothing Western fears that it aims to acquire an atomic bomb, and the West is to lift the sanctions that have isolated Iran from the global economy. The deal is a major diplomatic achievement that nonetheless throws the sheer scale of the Middle Eastern conflagration into sharp relief.