In Tehran and 80 other cities across Iran, anti-government protesters — both men and women — are chanting ‘Woman, Life, Freedom!’, ‘We will not give up!’ and ‘Death to the dictator!’ It started on 13 September, when the morality police (Gasht-e Ershad, ‘guidance patrol’) arrested Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman of Kurdish origin, for not wearing her hijab properly. Thousands of Iranian women are challenged every day because their hair is showing, but this was different: Amini fell into a coma and died three days later in hospital. After her funeral, in her home town of Aychi, in Kurdistan Province, anger spread across the country.
Women are overcoming their fears and taking considerable risks by going out on the streets to protest, and despite Internet shutdowns, images of them burning their hijabs are spreading on social media. Amini’s family dispute the official cause of her death (a pre-existing medical condition) and suspect it was really a beating while in custody, given the frequent violence of the morality police. Amini is widely regarded as a martyr.
Despite growing repression — with the police sometimes using live ammunition — the protesters have expanded their aims. At the start, they focused on challenging the morality police’s powers and the requirement to wear the hijab in public (which dates back to 1983). But soon they started attacking the regime itself, shouting ‘We don’t want an Islamic Republic!’
The standoff between reformist opposition politicians and hardliners, which dominated politics in the first years of the Revolution, ended during Rohani’s second mandate. Its importance has faded, and people now reject both camps
Iran has seen plenty of protests in the past, but none have attracted so much support, both at home and abroad. In June 2009 the Green Movement contested the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, accusing the government of ballot box stuffing. The slogan ‘Where’s my vote?’ mobilised the upper middle class, but the movement failed to take off in rural areas.
In late 2017, a number of social groups from Iran’s poorer classes independently protested against the reduction of various subsidies and rises in the price of fuel and a number of basic foodstuffs. In 2019, working-class and lower middle-class Iranians protested for similar reasons, especially in small towns and poorer suburbs of big cities. All these protests were stopped by ruthless repression on the streets and thousands of arrests.
When enough is enough
This time, the government is facing an entire population that has had enough, especially women and the young. Half of Iran’s 86 million people (three quarters of whom live in cities) are under 30. These young people are fed up with restrictions on their daily lives that mean they can get into trouble for things seen as normal in other countries — even listening to music in the street with friends (1).
Iranian American sociologist Asef Bayat says, ‘Human dignity is at the heart of this movement. It’s as if people wanted to recapture their stolen youth, and they are expressing a demand for a normal and dignified existence.’ Moreover, the protests are not limited to cities but have reached regions distant from the capital. Some of the most violent clashes have been in Kurdistan and Baluchistan provinces (notably the city of Zahedan).
With inflation at over 40%, Iran’s economy is another major cause of anger. One of President Ebrahim Raisi’s campaign promises was to improve Iranians’ daily lives. But little has changed since his election in June 2021. In fact, the government has introduced a series of austerity measures and reduced subsidies on some basic foodstuffs, claiming this is necessary because of Western sanctions designed to prevent Iran from pursuing its nuclear programme. ‘Iranians’ purchasing power has fallen substantially and they are struggling to buy basic foodstuffs. Consumption of meat, eggs and dairy products has fallen by 50%,’ business daily Jahan-e-Sanat said on 12 May, noting that around 45% Iranians are living below the poverty line and 10% don’t have enough to eat.
Then there is also endemic corruption, which seems impossible to eradicate. Despite the authorities’ promises, fasad (corruption) and reshveh (bribery) permeate daily life and business, a serious problem in a country where more than two thirds of GDP is generated by public or semi-public enterprises and organisations. In late August the official press reported on a parliamentary investigation into embezzlement totalling $3bn at Mobarakeh Steel Company, Iran’s largest steelmaker. The Tehran stock exchange suspended trading in its stocks, but people on social media had few illusions as to the likely outcome of any prosecutions.
Where are the political leaders?
A notable feature of the protests is the absence of a political leadership or identifiable organisers, largely as a result of ongoing repression. The movement has reached such a large audience thanks to the active support of Persian-language media financially supported by Western countries and the Gulf states, which have widely shown video clips of the demonstrations. In 2018 the Guardian suggested that UK-based TV channel Iran International was funded by a Saudi company (2), though that has been denied.
A few months before the protests, with the economy already in decline, the government decided to crack down socially, increasing the morality police presence on the streets and arresting filmmakers and members of the Bahai religious minority. At the same time, the protests have not strengthened the position of reformists within the government since the protesters are united in rejecting the entire system. As Iranian sociologist Yousef Abazari explains, ‘The standoff between reformist opposition politicians and hardliners, which dominated official politics in the first years of the Revolution, ended in 2021, during Hassan Rohani’s second mandate. Its importance has faded, and people now reject both camps’ (3).
This rejection is all the stronger because the government seems unlikely to make any concessions (4). Indeed, counter-demonstrations in support of the regime have been organised, and on 24 September Raisi, just back from the UN General Assembly, called on the police to ‘act firmly against those who undermine the security and peace of the country and the people’. The head of Iran’s judiciary, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, on a surprise visit to riot police headquarters on 25 September, underlined the importance of resolute action against the leaders and organisers of the riots.
The Supreme Guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared that ‘these riots and insecurity are the work of the United States [and] the usurping Zionist regime.’ He claimed that the hijab issue was being used as a pretext to destabilise Iran, and added that ‘many women in Iran who do not cover their heads perfectly are strong supporters of the Islamic Republic.’ He ruled out withdrawing the hijab requirement.
Will workers join in?
The government did, however, make a few conciliatory gestures, with the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution setting up ‘national houses of free dialogue’. One of these has hosted a meeting attended by 90 carefully selected academics. But despite this apparent willingness to talk, as of mid-October, more than 2,000 people had been arrested and at least 200 protesters had been killed, including some 20 minors. And these provisional figures don’t take account of the victims of clashes inside Tehran’s Evin Prison, which holds common law offenders and also political prisoners and foreigners accused of espionage, such as French Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah (temporarily released in early October).
These riots and insecurity are the work of the United States [and] the usurping Zionist regime. [The hijab issue is being used as a pretext to destabilise the country and] many women in Iran who do not cover their heads perfectly are strong supporters of the Islamic Republic
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
How far can the movement go? It remains to be seen who else will join the protesters. Workers at the Veniran Apadana Petrochemical Company’s Assaluyeh petrochemical complex are on strike, but as yet their action has not spread. Walkouts by teachers are as yet small-scale. Traders in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar — who played a key role in hastening the fall of the shah in 1979 — have yet to signal firm support for the protesters.
The position of the regime’s support base, and, especially the Revolutionary Guards, also remains to be seen. With negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal suspended and Tehran moving closer to Moscow — Iran became a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on 15 September — it’s likely that the hardline wing of the regime will say this is not the time for major concessions. Indeed, on 20 September Khamenei removed a number of members of the Expediency Discernment Council of the System whom he considered too sympathetic to the West, including former president Rohani.
However, Iran’s young people, especially women, are calling for change. Whatever becomes of the movement, it already seems to have made important gains. It’s possible that the morality police will be dismantled, or at least reined in. And women may no longer be forced to cover their heads. But will greater political openness follow? For now, that seems unlikely.
https://mondediplo.com/2022/11/06iran-protest How far can Iran’s protest movement go?, by Mitra Keyvan (Le Monde diplomatique