Iranian riot police prevent university students from joining other protesters  in Tehran on Dec. 30. (AP)

The swift spread of Iran’s protests through socially conservative and traditionally apolitical small cities is perhaps their most notable feature. Participation in anti-government protests in such locations carries potentially high costs. Why did the protests garner such support in these areas?

The protests started with a small rally against Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, in Mashhad, a conservative-leaning city. It was staged by conservative activists, who initially blamed Rouhani’s administration for high prices and poor economic performance. But this small demonstration rapidly attracted more people, spread to other cities and, finally, saw its message broadened to include the entire political establishment.

Protests against government economic policies are not unprecedented. In the first half of the 1990s, there were a series of riots over economic and administrative issues in the peripheral areas of big cities, during which at least eight people, including six members of the security forces, were killed. Later, the government executed four protesters.

But the geographical distribution, radical slogans and endurance of the current protests make it different from those of the 1990s.

To get a more concrete sense of the actual scope and nature of the protests, I collected data from online Persian media, local websites and interviews with local Iranians. The data show that from Dec. 28 to Jan. 3, protests took place in 72 cities and 29 of 31 provinces. This map shows the widespread geographical distribution of the demonstrations and the number of protest days at the district level.

One of the most important patterns to emerge from the data is that the protests were concentrated in small cities. Of the cities where at least one protest rally took place, 73 percent had a population of less than 380,000. The population size for 25 percent of cities was lower than 105,000.

These numbers are quite surprising for three reasons. First, small cities in Iran are generally apolitical. Second, small cities tend to be more religious, so the Islamic Republic’s restrictive policies on social issues — a major source of dissatisfaction for the middle-class population of big cities — do not concern most inhabitants. Third, since residents know one another and are aware of each other’s activities in small localities, joining anti-government protests in small cities mean they are more likely to be identified and arrested by the government. This makes anti-government protests extremely costly in small cities.

Unemployment rates and protesters

Government officials recently warned about unemployment and its possible sociopolitical consequences. Just three months ago, Iran’s interior minister said the 60 percent unemployment rate in some cities could create “social issues.”

To understand how unemployment might have affected the participation of small cities in the protests, I collected available data from 32 out of the 52 small cities on the unemployment rate in cities with a population of less than 400,000. I used data from interviews and speeches given by government officials (governors, parliament members, ministers, mayors). While the Statistical Center of Iran publishes the unemployment rate at the provincial level, it is difficult to draw a valid conclusion based on province-level data. Hence, data at the city-level, although incomplete, can be more helpful in understanding the protests’ locations.

As this chart suggests, the unemployment rate in 81 percent of small cities that joined protests is higher than the average of the country, which is 12.7 percent. It is difficult to demonstrate that all individuals who took part in the protests were unemployed — or came from lower socioeconomic statuses. However, in the absence of individual-level information, city-level data is the most effective tool to provide insight into the protesters and the socio-economic context from which they come.

And protesters’ slogans showed how much economic dissatisfaction drove their demonstrations. With nostalgia for the perceived economic prosperity under the Pahlavi dynasty, widespread pro-Pahlavi monarchy slogans included “Reza Shah, Rest in Peace,” and “We Did the Revolution, What a Mistake We Made.” The common slogan “Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, I Sacrifice My Life for Iran” showed protesters demonstrating against Iran’s long-term financial aid to Palestinian groups and Hezbollah, which has advanced the Islamic Republic’s ideological aspirations beyond its borders at the expense of ordinary Iranian citizens.

Other concerns

Emphasizing economic grievances does not necessarily deny the possible effect of other factors. In fact, the most violent, provincially widespread and longest-lasting protests took place in two provinces, Khuzestan and Isfahan, suffering from severe environmental issues such as air pollution and water scarcity. These environmental issues resulted in several protest rallies over the past two years.

Some protesters, especially in big cities where a substantial number of students and political activists live, could be primarily motivated by political grievances and democratic demands. However, as available evidence suggests, the unanticipated involvement of small cities is most probably driven by economic grievances. In fact, the protests in small cities are not a struggle for democracy, freedom or women’s rights. Rather, they are the fury of the common folk against a stagnant economy and worsening living standards, which, in their view, originate from ruling elites’ mismanagement, corruption and incompetence.

As the available data on unemployment show, the recent protests in small cities are likely to be associated with high unemployment rates. The data suggest that joblessness rate is not merely an economic issue and could have political implications. In fact, the unexpected involvement of towns and small cities in the recent demonstrations exhibits how unemployment can become a basis of political action and trigger radical anti-government protests that challenge the entire political system.

Peyman Asadzade is a PhD student in security studies at the University of Central Florida.