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Human Rights Specialist Says Iranian Demonstrations Have Several Complex Causes

Unemployment, inflation, religious/political practices add to reformist fury over elections

Release Date: January 4, 2010

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UB political scientist Claude E. Welch Jr. says there are many complicated reasons behind the current protests in Iran.

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 time."

He points out that most demonstrations have taken place in Iran's cities, which have larger working and middle classes than found elsewhere.

"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 low.

"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 the regime."

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 circumstances.

"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 demonstrations.

"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 come.

"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.

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