Rapidly rising food prices, sparked by the government’s withdrawal of subsidies, have led to renewed protests calling for economic and political change in Iran. These follow in the footsteps of previous protests against fuel price rises and water and electricity shortages. The collapse of a building in May provoked further protests against mismanagement and corruption. The government has reacted as it customarily does: by vilifying protesters as agents of foreign powers and with violent, often lethal, repression. With a government that refuses to act on people’s pressing concerns and other routes to air grievances blocked, the cycle of protest and violence seems set to continue.

A sudden sharp rise in the price of essential foods has provided the latest trigger of protests in Iran. The increase was predictable: it came when the government cut food subsidies in May. Protests were not surprising either. In recent years Iran has seen multiple protests over everyday but essential issues, including fuel prices, lack of water and electricity and pollution. Repression is also guaranteed: the authoritarian regime reacts to any protest with brutal, often lethal, violence.

New president, old problems

Subsidies that kept food prices down were introduced in 2018, when the Trump administration pulled the USA out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sweeping sanctions. Subsidies helped buffer people from the worst impacts. But Iran’s economy has come under growing pressure. Nuclear talks taking place in Vienna since last year are stalled, meaning sanctions remain in place.

Annual inflation runs to at least 40 per cent. The war being waged by Iran’s ally Russia on Ukraine is worsening the situation: Iran is one of the world’s top importers of wheat, almost 40 per cent of which comes from Russia and Ukraine. Limited supply is driving up prices. At the same time, with western countries moving towards ending their use of Russian oil and gas, Russia is developing its Chinese market by selling at a discount, potentially making it harder for Iran to sell its fossil fuels to China.

The impacts of the withdrawal of subsidies has been dramatic. The price of staples such as bread went up 300 per cent. There have been knock-on effects on the cost of cooking oil and dairy produce. People living on fine margins have been pushed to the edge. Many of those taking part in recent protests are public sector workers whose wages no longer cover the basics.

People aren’t just blaming the government for not doing enough to shelter them from the impact of sanctions and high global prices. They also accuse it of mismanagement and corruption. People reacted with outrage, for example, when the speaker of parliament was exposed to be on a shopping trip to Turkey even as the economy deteriorated at home.

In June 2021, in what passed for a presidential election, a reformist administration gave way to a hardline one. With pro-reform candidates prevented from standing, hardliner Ebrahim Raisi was assured of an easy passage to the presidency. Since then the hardliners have consolidated their control. Ultimate power remains with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, in unelected office since 1989.

Nothing about the election spoke to the concerns of everyday Iranians, particularly young people, who have taken part in successive waves of protest. Defiance was communicated through the lowest-ever turnout and a record number of blank or invalid votes.

For many Iranians, the president has changed but little else has. They are not seeing any improvements in their daily lives or action on issues they have protested about. President Raisi is accused of lacking an economic plan and giving key jobs to his inner circle rather than competent people.

Protests across Iran

May and June have seen protests in towns and cities up and down Iran. Among these, teachers protested in early May, despite the government’s attempts to stop them: numerous activists were arrested the previous month when the Coordinating Council of the Iranian Teachers Associations called for a nationwide strike to demand pay reforms. At a teachers’ protest on 1 May, International Workers’ Day, several teachers were beaten and arrested.

In June came protests in multiple cities as retired people demanded pension increases. Protesters point out that their pensions haven’t kept up with soaring inflation. In the city of Tabriz in northwest Iran, bazaar merchants also went on strike, protesting at a recent increase in sales tax.

Many recent protests have taken place in Khuzestan province, southwest Iran. This is where much of Iran’s oil and gas comes from, but where many live in poverty, exposed to the impacts of extraction but not benefiting from it. Most of the country’s Arab minority live in Khuzestan and complain of being marginalised.

It’s also one of Iran’s hottest regions, and in July 2021 people protested at severe water shortages. People saw much of their water being used for industrial uses or transferred to other regions, meaning that when drought struck as a consequence of climate change there wasn’t enough left to go round. People also protested at lack of water in the central Iranian city of Isfahan in November 2021, and at power cuts in several cities, including the capital Tehran, earlier that year.

In Khuzestan this May, further protests were sparked by the collapse of a high-rise building in the city of Abadan. Over 40 people are reported to have been killed. Locals point the finger at corruption: the building was reportedly five storeys higher than it should have been and numerous other regulations were said to have been breached. The building’s owner was alleged to have bribed officials to look the other way, exploiting connections with the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. The former governor of the province quickly fled to Dubai to escape investigation.

When Khamenei’s emissary visited the scene of the disaster, his speech was interrupted with boos and shouts of protest, forcing him to stop. The gathering that greeted him was then declared an illegal protest and security forces waded in with beatings and teargas. Thousands of security personnel were sent to Abadan to suppress further protests.

Violence the customary response

Iranian protests almost always lead to security force violence. The government has a siege mentality, seeing any act of opposition as directed by its enemies in the west or its Middle Eastern foe, Saudi Arabia. Protests in Abadan were followed by a televised speech by Khamenei in which he said Iran’s enemies were to blame, and were seeking to overthrow the government. As protests unfolded around the country in May, part of the government’s response was to call protesters ‘rioters and provocateurs’ and arrest several prominent activists, on the accusation of cooperating with foreign powers to overthrow the government. A couple of visiting French union members were also arrested, the latest of the government’s foreign hostages.

Protesters in Iran do attract international support and protests against the government are often held abroad. This is not because, as the Iranian government claims, protests are orchestrated by foreign powers, but because repression by the ruling theocracy has fed the growth of a global Iranian diaspora that demands democracy.

Iranian protesters do often call for the fall of the government – not because they are sponsored to do so by foreign powers, but because they have no say over their own destinies and the government doesn’t listen to them or make any attempt to address their problems. For this reason, protests at the impacts of a failing economy often articulate demands for democracy. For its part, the government evidently finds it easier to repress protests than offer a constructive response. Its vilification of protesters as foreign-motivated enables violence.

It’s impossible to get accurate numbers of instances of state violence, including killings of protesters, since there is no media freedom in Iran. But there have been reports of killings of protesters in recent months, and this is consistent with a broader pattern. In Isfahan in November 2021 the security forces reacted to water protests by opening fire on protesters and torching their tents. Several deaths were also reported when forces fired on protesters in Khuzestan in July 2021.

The worst recent violence was unleashed in reaction to protests triggered by a sharp rise in fuel prices in November 2019. It will likely never be known precisely how many were killed, but estimates suggest at least 1,500 people died. An international people’s tribunal has been hearing evidence on the 2019 atrocities and is soon expected to issue its judgment, in the hope that one day those responsible will be held to account.

Protests are ongoing and have recently spread to Tehran. A rumoured imminent fuel price rise could only intensify public anger. People will keep protesting in Iran whenever price spikes leave them struggling and when the essentials of life become scarce. They will do so because there is no other way of getting their message across, even though they know the risks involved are great. The government needs to stop calling protesters foreign agents and shooting at them. It should instead show some willingness to listen, for its own good.


  • The Iranian government should stop using violence against protesters.
  • The international community should hold the government to account over its use of violence.
  • The Iranian government should commit to genuine social dialogue about its economic policies.

Cover photo by Iran Freedom Network