In multiple cities across Iran, violent public protests against the current regime continue unabated. What are the causes of this sustained revolt occurring after 44 years of hardline Islamic clerics ruling the country? What could possibly lead to the fall of this regime?
The first step in assessing contemporary unrest in Iran is to dispel some popular misconceptions about the country. It is particularly pertinent to pay attention to the following three:
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Was the 1979 revolution an Islamic revolution or a popular revolution?
One of the most common misconceptions about the 1979 revolution is that it was simply an Islamic revolution. The truth of the matter is that the revolution was a popular revolution as well as an Islamic one. It involved a broad spectrum of groups and interests, some of whom were previously in conflict, now sharing a keen desire for radical change. These groups included Islamists, intellectuals, socialists, Marxists, nationalists, democrats, bazaaris, workers, technocrats, students.
Many demonstrators expected the development of a secular parliamentary democracy with pluralistic representation, as well as an end to US dominance, in addition to the end of the corruption of the Shah’s tenure. It was, without a doubt, the Islamic Revolutionary Party, led by Ayatollah Khomeini following his return from exile in February 1979, that finally assumed power as the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). However, they only accomplished this after mercilessly eliminating all other political groups seen to be dangers in 1979 and 1980. Popular aspirations and expectations for democracy and the abolition of corruption were quickly disappointed. Details are provided by Professor Ali Ansari (2006, 2019).
Female Emancipation – Does It Exist?
Females have played an important role in the anti-regime movement that erupted in September 2022. They shout on the streets, “Zahn, Zendeghi, Azadi” (or “Jin, Zen, Azadi” in Kurdish) – Woman, Life, Freedom.
Gender inequities are visible and difficult to deny. Nonetheless, women enjoy significantly better levels of human rights and equality than in many other nations in the area.
Iran has had an industrialised oil economy for almost a century, and its people have a strong work ethic. Women go to work and hold various positions at all levels of government, the majlis (parliament), financial institutions, government agencies, and businesses. Female student enrollment in Iran’s 236 universities is about equal to male enrollment. Women have enjoyed the right to vote since before the formation of the IRI. They are free to drive their autos.
So, what is the source of the latest outpouring of rage among Iranian women and girls? At one level, it is the everyday exposure to small and banal indignities resulting from the IRI leadership’s totalitarian edicts. These edicts are implemented at every level of society by a hierarchy of devoted apparatchiks, typically the ‘Morality Police,’ the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and lower level baseeji enforcers.
For example, the IRI dress code prevents women and girls from wearing clothing that does not entirely cover their torso, arms, and legs in public; they must wear a hejab or scarf to cover their head; and they must not wear ‘excessive’ make-up, sunglasses, or flashy jewellery.
Other constraints, which impact both men and women, limit women’s and men’s freedom of speech in the arts, journalism, and social media, among other areas. There is no freedom of the press. Any active support for political parties not sanctioned by the IRI regime is likewise prohibited. For their misdeeds, many people have been imprisoned or sent into exile. Many others have just left.
Female resentment, irritation, and rage have been simmering for years against all such arrogant, invasive, and condescending micromanagement. Women have grown more confident in protesting what they believe to be governmental repression headed by a gang of finger-wagging, po-faced, ghoulish old men (boz-ha-ye pir, or ‘old goats’). These leaders are viewed as dictatorial misogynist hypocrites disguised as gentle paragons of religious rectitude.
A situation like this was a slow-burning fuse hunting for an accelerant, a disaster waiting to happen. One was provided in September 2022 by the strange death in prison of a young female demonstrator, Mahsa Amini, as related in a subsequent section.
Or Do Iranians Hate the West?
There are TV news clips from the past 40 years of street crowds in Tehran chanting in unison’marg bar Amrika’ (death to America) and’marg bar Shetan-e Bozorg’ (death to the Great Satan, i.e. the USA), as well as the burning of American and British flags, giving the impression that the people despise the West. This venting by tiny groups of devoted IRI supporters, however, has little to do with the sentiments of the country’s 86 million-strong people.
The author has personally noticed in Iran that there is no indication of widespread antipathy for the British or American citizens. Iranians like and admire many aspects of the West.
Many Iranians admire Western higher education and seek professional and entrepreneurial opportunities in the West. This is done on a huge scale by the offspring of the IRI leadership and its elite supporters. Protesters have accused them of glaring self-righteous hypocrisy for enabling their children to break dress regulations and live overly self-indulgent lifestyles in nations that the IRI publicly condemns.
Since last year, Iran has been shaken by protests that have extended to several cities. Thousands of people have come to the streets. For once, the dictatorship appears to have taken a step back. Iran’s attorney general announced in December that the government had abolished the morality police and was contemplating altering its restrictive hejab rule for women.
However, demonstrators criticised this change as as cosmetic, given that the IRGC and other troops continue to enforce the hejab rule. The issue is, what provoked such a massive public uprising?
Plunder and Corruption.
Most Iranians who remember the 1979 revolution have exhibited ‘adapt and survive’ stoicism, an unwillingness to see Iran entangled in internal conflict once more. They learnt how to manipulate the system in order to avoid being caught up in the IRI’s draconian micro-management diktats. Indeed, many just appeared to support the IRI system in order to gain favoured position, advantages, access to political elites, insider business intelligence, and government contracts.
Over the last 40 years, a new class of mega-wealthy opportunists has emerged, living in sumptuous villas in north Tehran’s affluent Niavaran, Elahiyeh, and Tajrish districts alongside numerous IRI officials and elite bureaucrats and sympathisers.
The personal wealth of the IRI leaders and top commanders of their IRGC’security organisation’ are not made public, although research shows that Khamenei may have acquired a personal fortune of US$ 200 billion. Nonetheless, in most Iranians’ minds, the country is ruled by kleptocrats who have pillaged the country’s oil wealth and other public assets for their personal gain. Their lifestyle, obvious assets, and alleged millions in offshore accounts have influenced the elite’s perception of deception and avarice.
The IRGC, which was founded as an elite internal national security force, is said to have grown into a de facto organised criminal gang sanctioned by Ayatollah Khamenei. The IRGC has been permitted to operate with little restrictions. The IRGC can utilise brutality against protestors, dissidents, and anybody believed to undermine the IRI status quo with no repercussions, as well as opportunistic misuse of state-funded operations (e.g., bonyad charities; countless infrastructure contractors) for personal benefit. They are also said to be the masterminds behind drug trafficking. Whatever the truth is, the general public believes the charges.
Poverty, Ignorance, and Incompetence
Over the last 20 years, Iran has seen intermittent moments of loud but mainly nonviolent public upheaval. Typically, they have had particular economic causes, such as the elimination of cost-of-living adjustments.
By 2017, some street protests have devolved into violence. While chaotic and unplanned, these protests for the first time included a majority of working-class people who had previously been staunch supporters of the dictatorship. There have been open demands for regime change. Further public protests and strikes by bazaari shops (traditional IRI regime supporters) took place in June and July 2018 in response to austerity, water shortages, and the currency’s near collapse.
Regional instability has increased in tandem with a national trend of growing frustration with day-to-day problems. This is the product of decades of neglect by Tehran’s central authority. Oil-rich Khuzestan, on the southwest border with Iraq, and Sistan-Baluchistan, on the southeast border with Pakistan, are particularly hard hit.