This commentary appeared in Foreign Policy on April 22, 2013.
As Iran's economy continues to deteriorate, the labor movement is a key player to watch because of its ability to pressure the Islamic Republic through protests and strikes. Iranian labor, encompassing unskilled workers from rural areas and lower-class urban laborers is not a homogenous group. And thus far, Iranian laborers have not joined the opposition Green Movement en masse. But the economic pains caused by the Iranian regime's mismanagement, corruption, and international sanctions have dealt serious blows to worker wages, benefits, and job security — enough reason for Iranian laborers to organize and oppose the regime. Parallels can be drawn between the Islamic Republic's treatment of the labor movement today and the Shah's treatment of Iranian workers before his overthrow, particularly in the regime's denial of the right to organize, the quashing of protests and strikes, and its refusal to address worker's rights.
Labor participation in the 1979 revolution was the result of long-standing frustration and resentment toward the Shah's industrialization efforts. The Shah's 1963 White Revolution, which brought major land and industrialization reforms, and Iran's rising oil prices from 1965 to 1975, compelled millions of Iranians to move from rural villages to major cities. The White Revolution's reallocation of rural property from wealthy landowners to farmers led to a steep decline in agricultural productivity. Farms were not as efficient in the hands of farmers as they were under the business-savvy elite. As a result, farming jobs dwindled in the late 1960s, forcing farmers to look to the cities for opportunity. Many of these rural migrants took jobs in construction, factories, and the energy sector.