BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Many Iranians are very upset at their
government and that is the principle reason for what a number of
observers have called the largest protests since the downfall of
the Shah in 1979, although without press access it is difficult to
accurately determine crowd size.
"But there are many and complex reasons for the size of the
protests besides the recent disputed elections in Iran," says noted
political scientist Claude E. Welch Jr., PhD, SUNY Distinguished
Service Professor and professor of political science at the
University at Buffalo.
"Iran continues to suffer from double-digit unemployment and
inflation, which climbed to an annual rate of 28 percent in 2008,"
he says, "and underemployment among Iran's educated youth has
convinced many to seek jobs overseas, resulting in a significant
'brain drain.' This has provoked furor at the government for some
He points out that most demonstrations have taken place in
Iran's cities, which have larger working and middle classes than
"Those living in rural areas are more poor and less likely to
have such ready access to the computer and cell phone
communications that facilitate the organizing of demonstrations,"
he says, adding that rural dwellers also tend to have more
immediate and pressing problems, like having enough to eat and
getting heating oil, because Iraq's refining capacity is quite
"Although the president and those around him draw support from
members of the urban underclass, a great deal of their support
comes from these poverty-stricken rural regions," Welch says.
"It is from these regions that the government draws members of
the Basij, the well-armed, pro-government militia," he says, "and
government employment is a great economic boon to the Basij members
and to their large, extended families, which is why they support
Welch says high levels of unemployment and inflation have been
part of Iranian life for some time, but these are not the principle
causes of the recent uproar.
"The presidential elections were the immediate spur," Welch
says, "but the protests are particularly very large because last
weekend was the culmination of Ashura, the Shi'ite Muslims' most
important religious commemoration, a period typically marked by
political and/or religious demonstrations under any
"In this case," he says, "the expected demonstrations were
fueled by reformist outrage over the election and, then, on Sunday,
during Ashura ceremonies, several reformist protestors were killed
by police. This further enraged protestors and provoked larger and
angrier reform demonstrations than usual.
"In addition to that," he adds, "a week had elapsed since the
death of the reformists' spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Hossein
Ali Montazeri. The requisite seven-day period of mourning for such
a religious figure is frequently broken by religious or political
"Ali Montazeri's central cultural and political role swelled the
legions of protesters considerably," he says, noting that these
kinds of demonstrations are held again on the 40th day after the
death of such a figure, so we may see more of the same in weeks to
"Finally," Welch says, "in response to the reformist protests,
tens of thousands of supporters of Iranian President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad took part in staged state-sponsored demonstrations
throughout the country, swelling the ranks of the protesters.
"So, this season of reportedly huge demonstrations can be blamed
on unemployment and inflation, political fury over the disputed
elections, the common political-religious practice of demonstrating
during Ashura, a response to the killings of reformists during
Ashura ceremonies, the death of the reformists' religious leader
and the government's staging of counter protests."
Welch is an internationally respected expert on the impacts of
non-governmental organizations, notably on human rights,
civil-military relations and democratization following
authoritarian rule. His specialty is political transitions, notably
in Africa, and the effectiveness of non-governmental organizations
in dealing with human rights.
His books include "Human Rights in Asia" (1990), "Protecting
Human Rights in Africa: Strategies and Roles of Non-Governmental
Organizations" (1995), "NGOs and Human Rights: Promise and
Performance" (2001) and "Economic and Social Rights in Canada and
the United States" (2006). "Protecting Human Rights Globally:
Strategies and Roles of International NGOs" is in progress.
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public
university, a flagship institution in the State University of New
York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's
more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through
more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree
programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of
the Association of American Universities.