The Sound and the Fury of Iran’s Protest Movement

The ongoing demonstrations have been years in the making. What do they portend for the country’s future?

The Sound and the Fury of Iran’s Protest Movement
Iranians protest outside the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran during a rally to defend women’s rights in Iran on Sept. 28, 2022. (Chris Jung/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Walking the streets of Tehran just a few months ago, the sight of women without head coverings in the city’s northern neighborhoods was not uncommon. Having visited Iran regularly for many years now, it has been clear to me for some time that the rules requiring women to wear the hijab were no longer followed to the extent they once were.

Over the course of four decades, many Iranian women have gradually transformed the way they wear the mandatory veil, sliding it back from the tops of their foreheads to their shoulders. In the process, they have reintroduced headcover fashion in a variety of ways. This has not just been a matter of how they want to look: It’s a response to a political system they see as impeding their freedom to decide the way they dress.

This shift marks a reversal of what Marvine Howe rightly observed in Tehran in the late 1970s, just before the Iranian Revolution. The New York Times correspondent was reporting from a very different Iran, then still under the rule of a secular monarchy. In a dispatch from July 1977, she wrote that “more and more women are seen on the streets of the Middle Eastern capital wearing the chador, a long enveloping veil, in what looks like a women’s backlash.” Howe interviewed Iran’s then-Minister for Women’s Affairs, Mahnaz Afkhami, who spoke of “a spiritual revival” among young Iranians, adding that “there seems to be a need for religion, as if we have moved too fast in a direction that is not native to us.”

Indeed, in the span of less than half a century, many Iranians have undergone a seismic shift in attitudes – moving from a tendency toward Islamism under secular rule to a yearning for secularization under theocracy.

This shift illustrates what the renowned Iranian scholar Homa Katouzian has dubbed Iran’s “short-term society.” Katouzian likens Iranian society to buildings whose owners prefer to demolish and reconstruct them from scratch, rather than renovate and make them more appropriate to the times. His idea is premised on the radical transformations the country has witnessed in its modern history. Since the turn of the 20th century, Iran has seen a succession of revolutionary upheavals: the Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911), which succeeded in establishing a parliament and social rights within the framework of a constitutional monarchy; the rule of Reza Shah (1925-1941), who undertook a vast program of modernization (including secularization) from above; the premiership of the liberal democrat Mohammad Mossadegh, who nationalized Iran’s oil industry in the early 1950s and was thwarted by a foreign-backed coup; and the 1979 revolution, which marked the rise of Islamism and the establishment of an “Islamic Republic,” enjoying popular support in its first decade of rule.

These major changes in the structure of Iranian society have produced a state of insecurity at multiple levels, pushing a volatile population toward rebellion whenever it has felt the ruler’s grip loosening. This is what we are seeing now with the protests triggered in September by the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini – who hailed from Iran’s Kurdish community – after her arrest by the morality police for wearing the hijab “inappropriately.” In response, Iranians took to the streets and social media, proclaiming the Kurdish slogan, “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi,” or “Woman, Life, Freedom.”

So far, this movement has differed markedly from any other since 1979, not least due to the unified slogan it has adopted. That the movement is moreover spearheaded by women, in a country where women are known for their tenacious and audacious character, must surely ring alarm bells for the entrenched regime.

Yet the grievances underlying and leading up to this moment have been building for years — Amini’s death was simply the spark that lit the fire. For the first time since 1979, a momentous social movement has erupted, making plain to all the extent of the rift between the Islamic Republic and significant segments of Iranian society. Some observers might counter that the 2009 protests, ignited by disputed presidential elections, were of a similar nature. This is true to an extent, but the crux of that uprising was a struggle between the two main political currents within the Islamic Republic, known as “principlists” (or hard-liners) and reformists, respectively. If 2009 could be described as a crack in the system, 2022 marks a deeper fissure.

Despite being leaderless thus far, the 2022 protests are the first major confrontation between the political and religious establishment and a generation that feels no affinity for it. The young men and women in the streets today have no ambitions within the existing political system, which they feel does not represent them. For years now, they have steadily invented their own imagined world, one without Iran’s social and religious laws, knowing full well the government could ill afford to get into a confrontation with them. The death of Mahsa Amini was the straw that broke this camel’s back.

Even though today’s discontent has been years in the making, the regime consistently ignored all the signs. One prescient book titled “Sedayi Ke Shenide Nashod,” or “The Voice That Was Not Heard,” by Ali Asadi and Majid Tehranian, warned of its coming, which perhaps might have ironically encouraged the establishment to take pre-emptive steps to contain it.

One way it did this was by enabling the creation of a bubble, both to insulate those opposed to theocracy from the rest of society and to provide them a stake in the status quo. To this end, major commercial complexes and cafes were built, resembling those found in Western cities. A flurry of digital startups were also licensed and encouraged. As long as these supposed gains were confined within this generation’s isolated world, the official thinking went, these youths would try to preserve it as much as possible and avoid clashing with the state.

Instead, these pre-emptive accommodations may have backfired. Rather than lull a new generation into complacency, the scheme gave the youth a taste of what life could really be like. It fed into an imagined alternative state within the Islamic Republic, in which critics push the boundaries, challenge the status quo and even tread over red lines that until recently were sacred. The results included women discarding their veils; youths holding mixed-gender gatherings and even parties; and a de facto relaxing of the ban on social media through the use of virtual private networks (VPNs), some of which became openly available on the street. The authorities also permitted a degree of criticism on social media networks and certain news sites. In cinemas, too, taboo-busting films by the likes of Asghar Farhadi, Saeed Rostay, Kamal Tabrizi and others were made available to the public. I have personally witnessed how ordinary Iranians were visibly shocked that such content was allowed to be shown. The film “Mutreb,” for example, sparked controversy in state-affiliated media for depicting the disillusionment of artists with religious literature.

What is especially noteworthy about these developments is that much of this sector of society remained silent in previous years — as the regime had expected — when demonstrations were taking place in cities outside Tehran or on the peripheries. This silence was a kind of reciprocity for the authorities not trespassing on their imagined space.

Even after the demonstrations began in the wake of Amini’s death, the state’s first goal was to contain them. This attempt at containment involved various levels of actors, from the security forces in the streets to the politicians on the podiums, who blamed everything on foreign conspiracies which, they said, aim continually to subjugate and pressure the Islamic Republic due to its self-proclaimed role at the forefront of “resistance to Zionism and Western imperialism.”

Just as there are those who want social freedoms, there is also a religious constituency that sees the regime not just as a governing authority but as an Islamic government with an eschatological dimension. To such Iranians, the existence of the Islamic Republic is conducive to the reappearance of the so-called Mahdi, a messianic figure whom many devout Shiite Muslims believe went into occultation in the 10th century CE but will return one day to right the world’s wrongs and rid it of the wicked. Since it views the regime as facilitating and hastening the advent of that day, this constituency cannot tolerate the thought of its downfall and will fight tooth and nail to preserve it. Conveniently, the state has sought to portray the recent protests as part of an international conspiracy designed to thwart this utopian dream, citing the verbal support offered by foreign countries traditionally at odds with Tehran.

Despite these complexities, various Iranian academics and intellectuals, including former officials, have been sounding the alarm over the past month or so that the state’s oppression is unsustainable; that something needs to give.

At a meeting at Tehran University, for example, former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the state would be mistaken if it thought it could ignore or oppress the people. Similarly, the former Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Ali Motahari, urged the regime to open the door to dialogue, especially with women who have taken off their headscarves. On another occasion, former Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani stated that more than 50% of Iranian women did not wear the veil. Larijani advocated dealing with the issue in a more pragmatic way, akin to the law banning satellite dishes, which, he said, was not implemented in practice. In Larijani’s view, the wearing of headscarves ought not to be a police concern. These views reflect a real debate that has been brewing in earnest within the country, even if it is not always well-publicized.

Remarks of this kind are not limited to politicians and academics in the capital. Even in such traditional bastions of conservatism as the religious seminaries in the city of Qom, senior clerical authorities such as the Grand Ayatollahs Hossein Noori Hamedani and Makarem Shirazi have demanded the government listen to the voice of the people, especially the youth. Another Grand Ayatollah, Asadollah Bayat-Zanjani, described the government’s response as “neither legitimate nor legal,” prompting a number of media outlets and figures close to the establishment to criticize him. Yet another ayatollah, Alavi Boroujerdi, called on officials to deal realistically with society and condemned what he described as ill-considered actions undertaken in the name of religion.

That the debate has reached the Qom seminaries, even if only to a limited extent, further indicates that what is happening in Iran goes well beyond the hijab. Increasingly, the authorities are alienating not just the more secular elements of society but also some among the religious elite.

A stalemate has seen Iran fragment into multiple worlds, united geographically but divided along lines of intellectual and religious identity. A cultural identity crisis has deepened to the point that the Islamization of society today is questioned no less than the secularization of society was under the Shah. The authorities’ denial of this — to say nothing of the lack of essential social reforms — only exacerbates the crisis, even as the people perceive the regime to have grown weaker over time, owing to a series of pivotal events.

The downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shortly after it took off from Tehran airport on Jan. 8, 2020, was arguably one such moment. The missile that killed all 176 passengers on board — most of them Iranians or Iranian-origin — ignited all the embers buried under the ashes. The anger that spilled out into the streets was rooted in the mismanagement of the crisis and the general disregard shown by the authorities, who tried variously to hide the truth, stall for time or brush the whole thing off as an innocent “mistake,” rather than a structural failure. The public, they seemed to imply, would soon get over it.

Until that incident, many Iranians occasionally took to the streets but still believed the establishment, or “nizam,” maintained a powerful grip over the country. Many also viewed the late IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani as a pillar of the Islamic Republic, expecting that his assassination by a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad on Jan. 3, 2020, would be avenged by the state. The drums of war that preceded the Iranian retaliation raised expectations dramatically and Iranians braced for a nightmare scenario expected to cost the whole world dearly. Instead, the response fell well short of the hype.

The episode established in the minds of many Iranians that Iran had no deterrence in such situations. The blood of the man whose funeral attracted millions resulted in not a single dead American soldier. As with the Ukrainian plane incident, the political establishment failed to speak candidly to the people, persisting instead in vainglorious exaggerations about hypothetical numbers of dead Americans, detached from all reality. In the age of social media and open-source intelligence, traditional propaganda no longer works as it once did, and the Iranian populace could search for the facts on their own. Mistrust of the authorities has since grown into a collective state of mind, even among regime supporters.

The aftermath of Soleimani’s killing was thus a watershed moment for the country. The regime’s weak response exposed its vulnerabilities and created an environment in which people felt empowered to challenge it. Soleimani’s funeral might have suggested that many Iranians supported a response to what they perceived as an act of aggression against their country. For true-believing regime supporters, the old spirit of the 1979 revolution as a rejection of foreign hegemony was reignited — yet the actual results on the ground were a disappointment. For opponents, by contrast, this reinforced an impression that the regime was not as strong as it was often portrayed, or at least that it was overburdened with problems to the point of being unable to confront its foes. Increasingly, Iranians felt the regime was weaker than it claimed, that taboos could be broken and that the people — even pre-pubescent girls — could challenge the establishment.

Prior to that, Israel’s theft of Iranian nuclear secrets in 2018, the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in broad daylight in 2020 and other major security breaches further reshaped ordinary Iranians’ perceptions of their rulers. Combined with widespread grievances and the lack of democratic representation, this created a state of rebellion against an authority that, in the eyes of many citizens, no longer wielded the prestige it once had.

In tandem with this, economic factors have also taken a heavy toll on Iranians. Not the least of these has been the collapse of Iran’s currency against the U.S. dollar, depriving the middle class of its savings. Neither the government of former President Hassan Rouhani nor that of his successor, Ebrahim Raisi, succeeded in finding a solution to compensate Iranians for these losses. Confidence in the leadership eroded further, especially after foreign media such as Iran International and BBC Persian traced corruption to the state and linked internal economic crises to Iran’s external political ambitions.

The state had no convincing strategic narrative with which to respond to these blows. Even if it had such a narrative, it lacked any effective means to communicate it. This was exacerbated by the lack of a community of intellectuals and elites — thanks to the regime’s deliberate and systematic oppression of the intelligentsia, whose members languish in prison or in exile — such as those who helped create the revolution at the end of the Shah’s era and consolidated the new regime in its early years when it was racked by crises.

It is true that the political establishment has a dependable audience of its own: loyalists who remain convinced of its rhetoric or, more likely, are too invested economically in the status quo to support change. Yet the fact is the country is more polarized than ever before, both between hard-liners and reformists and between the regime’s supporters and opponents. Any time the political establishment attempts to contain problems, it ends up clamping down on critics and moderates while siding with the hard-liners, further aggravating the country’s polarization. This schism between the state and the people has widened over time and hollowed out civil society, which was once the mainstay of the Islamic Republic.

For some, these changing power dynamics have deepened their belief that political engagement is futile. The younger generation in particular has been alienated and has started imagining — and pursuing — an alternative to the Islamic Republic.

The ongoing protest movement, for all its undeniable impact and depth within society, may lack the power on its own to force real change from outside the powerful and well-entrenched establishment, at least in the short term. What is clear is that it has helped unite the Iranian opposition who are placed outside the country. Whether and how this translates into actual change inside the country — change that goes beyond the quiet power struggles unfolding within the establishment — remains unclear. The upcoming parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections, both scheduled for 2023, may illuminate some possibilities.

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