On December 1, the price of bread in Iran increased sharply, by approximately 30%. At a special press conference, government spokesman Mohammad Baqer Nobakht declared that the government had not initiated the price increase, but would permit the rise in order to compensate bakeries for the increase in production prices during the last year. He further noted that the higher price would lead to better quality, because the quality of bread had been declining due to bakeries’ efforts to save on production costs.
Predictably, the price increase was the subject of severe criticism on Iranian social media. Many citizens used these services to publicize the new prices, which were, in some districts, as much as 30% higher. Many users were outraged by the price hike for a basic consumer product, and augmented their criticism with complaints that, in recent years, average wages have risen by a substantially smaller percentage than the cost of living. For example, one user of the website Asr-i Iran noted that while his salary as a teacher had only increased six-fold since 2003, the price of chicken had skyrocketed to 20 times more than it was then. Another user wrote that he is especially concerned for poor children who have no choice but to work from morning to evening, subsisting on bread alone. The price increase will now force them to divide their portion.Other users complained that while the government refuses to cancel the stipends to citizens with high salaries, it increases the price of bread in a way that harms those earning low wages. A few responded to price hike sarcastically. For example, one user wrote that bread will soon become so expensive that people will begin uploading “selfies” of themselves when eating it. There were, conversely, some responses that agreed with the government’s position that it is necessary to compensate bakers for the increase in their production costs. One of them introduced himself as the son of a baker and said that the price of bread had not changed for several years while the cost of producing it had at least tripled, making it necessary to consider the bakers’ plight, too.
The discourse on social media regarding the price of bread quickly became a political debate between supporters of President Rouhani and his opponents. While some of the president’s supporters blamed his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his opponents fiercely criticized Rouhani’s policies and accused him of breaking campaign promises to improve the economic situation. After criticism of the president was published by a Facebook page identified with his political opponents , one user wrote that anyone who had supported Ahmadinejad had no right to complain about higher prices since the previous president was responsible for the economic crisis.
Responses to the higher price of bread generally reflected the despair felt by many Iranians, including those who consider themselves former supporters of Rouhani. Many shared the disparaging comments echoing one of the most prevalent victory slogans on social media after Rouhani won the elections last summer: “Thank you, Rouhani.” In some cases, users expressed their overall disappointment with the Islamic Revolution that had not kept its promise to improve the economic situation of Iranian citizens. One complained that the Revolution, which was supposedly an uprising of the oppressed, had only lead to increased poverty, and referenced one of the formative speeches of the Revolution given by Ayatollah Khomeini when he returned from exile in February 1979. In that speech, he promised to provide free electricity, water and transportation to the citizens of this country. Mockingly, one user tweeted: “Good morning. We’ll supply electricity, water and buses for free, so what if the price of bread went up by 30%?”On the margins of the public discourse there were a few responses, primarily from Iranian exiles, calling for more active protests. One of them criticized the Iranian public for not taking action to improve its situation, and noted that while Europeans protest price increases and drivers go on strike when the price of fuel is increased, Iranians lack the courage to do anything.
The timing of the price increase – a few days after the failure of the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West in Vienna, at which the deadline for concluding the negotiations was extended by seven months – led some users to connect the two events. While the supporters of the government emphasized the importance of the nuclear agreement as a means for the removal of sanctions, which would improve the economic situation, the president’s opponents claim that the government both agreed to significant concessions regarding the nuclear program while failing in its efforts to improve the economic situation. Remembering Rouhani’s well-known declaration during the election campaign, “The centrifuges should spin, but the life of people and the economy should also move forward",” one user wrote mockingly, “The centrifuges stopped and citizens’ life has also stopped.” A few users also criticized the regime’s preference for the nuclear program over the welfare of its citizens, including one user on the Facebook page of BBC Persian language journalist Mehdi Parpanchi, who wrote , in jest, that Iranian citizens have no bread, but they do have 800 kg of uranium.
To conclude, the responses on Iranian social media services to the steep increase in bread prices reveal the complex attitude of the Iranian public to the ongoing economic crisis. On one hand, the responses express a feeling of despair and an increasing gap between the public and the government that has yet to keep its promises to provide a response to the economic distress of citizens. These feelings are likely to be further accentuated following the expected decline in the national revenues following the steep drop in oil prices and the lack of agreement between Iran and the West on nuclear issues, which could lead to removal of the sanctions. On the other hand, protests have not yet expanded beyond cyberspace and into the streets. Although Iranian citizens are expressing their frustration online, it seems that they currently have no intention to protest actively in a way that might pose a political challenge to the regime.