On the current Protests in Iran
In September 2022, Mahsa Amini died in the context of an arrest by the Iranian gasht-e ershad, commonly translated as the moral police. Around one week later, protests started to gain momentum in the major cities of the country. What is it these people are really protesting for? When will they stop going onto the streets?
© Lea Donner
Initially, the protestors demanded to clarify the case of Amini and prosecute those responsible. The information spread in this context both by Iranian people and media houses located abroad depicted the moral police as responsible, while the governmental domestic media houses Aminis poor health (which predates the conflict with the moral police) for her death. Interestingly, both did not wait for the result of an examination by an independent forensic pathologist, which can be interpreted as an early hint on how her case was later instrumentalised politically. Three weeks later, a forensic pathologists approved the version of the domestic Iranian media, but since the doctor belongs to an official Iranian institution, the approval justifiably is questionable. However, it can be assumed that the actual circumstances of her death play a minor role, since the case is utilised for political reasons. It is unlikely that whatever proof or disproof either side could possibly present would have a calming effect on the current protests.
For two major reasons: Firstly, large parts of the Iranian people have lost trust in their government. They instinctively attribute negative events happening in the country to their government and thus assign responsibility to the administration - even for phenomena of higher forces, such as natural disasters like floods. This dualist belief in many cases employs conspiracy-theory and assigns all bad to the government. It assumes that whatever policy is issued by the administration will necessarily and intentionally turn out negative for the country.
Secondly, there is reason to believe that the death of Mahsa Amini is not the deeper root of the current protests, but a welcome occasion to ignite them. The protests started with demands for clarification of the circumstances of the death of Amini, but very soon the demands were extended to the removal of the obligatory scarf for women and a general improvement of women’s rights in Iran. But even this more general topic is not enough to turn into large-scale protests throughout the whole country. Women’s rights is a topic mostly relevant in the middle and upper class of the large urban cities of Iran. One might argue that since social media extended its reach, feminist thoughts are more frequently carried to rural areas of Iran, but there is serious doubt as to whether they are urgent and important enough to ignite serious protests of the present extent.
In order to understand why the current protests reached such an extent, we cannot neglect the general dissatisfaction of the Iranian population. This dissatisfaction is not only based on the legal situation of women in the country, but on the great economic grievances which accelerated during the past years. In the aftermath of the U.S. sanction policy which plunged
the Iranian economy into depression and misery, inflation rose and thus exerted immense economic pressure on the majority of the Iranian population. Inflation and remarkable increase of life-expenses have now been weighing heavy on the Iranian population for several years. This explains why many different societal groups joined the protest: even people from traditionally conservative and religious parts of society, from both rural areas and the cities, independent of their level of education.
Though the demonstrations were initiated by a feminist topic (women’s rights) and are carrying a feminist slogan: woman, life, freedom (zan zendegi azadi), the feminist slogans were accompanied by calls for the death of the leader Khamenei and a revolution to end the Islamic Republic as a system from the very beginning. Thus, the assumption that the case of Amini might not have been the deeper cause and actual root of the protest, but instead only an occasion to go out on the streets and demand what was part of the public opinion long before, does not seem all too farfetched. The protests very soon included violence, both by the Iranian security forces and the protesters. Social media platforms were flooded with videos of security forces beating civilians with billy clubs and shooting rubber projectiles, protesters beating up policemen and clerics in the streets as well as instruction videos on how to use physical fighting techniques against policemen.
In this context - and to understand the aggression and violence exerted by protesters - it is necessary to take several factors into consideration. To start off, previous protests such as in Aban 1398 (November 2019) have been cracked down violently and demanded many casualties on the side of the protesters and did not have any direct and graspable effect on governmental behaviour. Though the protest of ‘98 was directed against the increase of the gasoline prices due to economic pressure on the government, the crackdown is collectively remembered as an infamous act of unjustified violence exerted by the administration. This is only one example of violent crackdowns of protests that are carried in the collective memory of Iranians. To prevent the repetition of such a meaningless sacrifice, the protesters in the current demonstrations started to implement violence themselves. Demands for and the announcement of revenge for the victims of previous protests, for violent resistance and even for the murder of policemen and other security forces were shared thousands of times on social media platforms. Since previous protests did not bring about major reforms in the system, many protesters lost hope in reforms and now aim for regime-change and revenge against the heads of the current administration.
When arguing in legal terms, one must not forget that even if the protests demand for basic
human rights, the Iranian security forces have the monopoly on the use of force. Thus, the
prevalent argument that if the security forces use violence, so can the protesters, cannot be approved without reservations. Nevertheless, since the legitimacy of the current administration is denied by many protesters, the previous argument is only valid and applicable limitedly. In addition, there is no independent institution to evaluate the appropriateness of the force applied by the security forces. On the other hand the Islamic Republic, which possesses the monopoly on the use of force, is fighting for its survival and therefore its violence might indeed be appropriate to avert a system change. Thus, there are arguments for and against the use of violence as a means of protest in the present case.
The first casualty of war is truth: Another factor which plays a major role in the acceleration
of the current protests are media houses based abroad. It is legitimate to argue that there is
actual economic mismanagement, oppressive politics and corruption by the administration of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). On the other hand, the protest are also highly enhanced and spurred on by media houses that are based and financed abroad - such as Iran International, Man-o-to and VoA, to only mention a few that have been working as catalysators for populist, polemic propaganda against the Iranian administration for decades. During the current protests those media houses flood social media with ‘news’ and thus, create or at least enhance an atmosphere of enmity between the Iranian people and its government. Discussing this type of „journalism“ and its use for political goals would, however, exceed the frame of this essay.
Up until this point we argued that the current protests in Iran are ignited by a women’s rights
topic - but its extent is in fact based on economic grievances as the main and uniting accelerant. Furthermore many protesters have justifiably lost hope for major reforms by legal means and trust in the administration. They have lost trust in the IRI as a system, that, threatened in its bare existence is using its monopoly on the use of force in its fight for survival. After describing and interpreting the current protest, there is one central question: How can this conflict possibly be resolved?
In order to stop the protest, there are presumably basically three possible scenarios: A violent crackdown by the state, a peaceful settlement of the conflict by negotiations, and a revolution and removal of the system by the protesters. In the first and second case the governmental behaviour after the protests would be crucial and could either include major reforms, no reforms or slow and small reforms.
A violent crackdown would cause a high number of casualties and thus, might deter further
protests for a while. In order to be deterring enough it would have to be fast and violent - otherwise it could immediately evoke further protests. Up until this point this strategy has not been employed by the government. Even anti-government sources report a relatively low numbers of casualties. Compared to a harsh crackdown as it was conducted to end the
previously mentioned protests in Aban 1398 - back then 3000 protesters were killed in less than two weeks - the number of casualties, estimating less than 200, now seems comparably low. This is especially surprising since the violence against security forces by protesters has increased in comparison to previous protests. The current protesters are opposing violence exerted by the security forces - however mostly by means such as teargas, rubber projectiles, and detentions. It might be argued that this relatively mild behaviour on the security forces’ side keeps the protest alive - but it might also be aimed at preventing further escalation.
A peaceful settlement of the conflict through negotiation would not only require a group
representing the protesters, but would also need precise and common demands and positions. However, so far, the demands range from the complete clarification of the death of Amini over removing the obligatory scarf to the removal of whole the system, including the execution of the heads of the system and the establishment of a monarchy.
Furthermore, large parts of the protesters aim for revenge and would not want to negotiate with the people they assume to be murders - trust in the administration, as mentioned, is rare to find among the protesters. Thus, a peaceful settlement of the conflict through negotiation appears to be the least probable option. In parts, the protesters call for a revolution, a removal of the system and the execution of the main figures of the by now ancient regime. But one must not think naively and romantically of a revolution. It is rather unlikely that the protesters will kick out the evil mullahs and then prince Reza Pahlavi II will come riding in on a white horse, only to establish a system built on human rights, prosperity and eternal peace.
First and foremost, a revolution requires the forces to conduct such a venture. The past has
shown that the Iranian administration is well prepared and has the military capabilities to crack down even large protests very fast and efficiently. The system of ideologically loyal protectors of the system, namely the domestic IRGC (sepah) and basij as well as the ideological brother, the Lebanese Hizbollah, would represent a strong counterpart for the mainly unarmed protestors. It would probably need foreign support, but a foreign intervention in the current international setting has to be evaluated as rather unlikely, since the U.S. requires its full military capacities in its competition with China and Europe is engaged in the Ukraine conflict and the outgoing threat from Russia.
Apart from the low probability of a revolution, the scenario after a ‘successful’ full-scale
revolution is uncertain. If the central authority is removed, a lot of questions would arise that are yet to be answered. The current protests have one main uniting and common element: They are directed against the current administration. This empty signifier will be obsolete as soon as the government is actually removed. Then people have to decide and agree on what
they are in support of, and the uniting factor of commonly opposing the current administration will no longer have its uniting impact. Can all the protesters unite behind women’s rights or even parliamentary democracy? For the aforementioned reasons, this is above all: doubtable.
Do we even find a national identity strong enough to keep the country from falling into pieces? Iran as a multi-ethnic state is inhabited by Kurds, Baluchis, Arabs, Turks and other minorities that not only have their own culture but also their own language and even religion. The Azeri-Turks in the north, the national granary who ensure the food supply of Iran are culturally closer to Azerbaijan; Kurds might very well join the successful Iraqi Kurdistan or aim for independence; the Arabs in Khuzestan who were kept in poverty while living in the oil-richest area of the country might well want to become independent and follow the example of small and rich Gulf-states such as the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait; the Baluch population is closer to the neighbouring Pakistan than to Iran judging by its culture and language. If the central authority is removed and the protesters cannot manage to replace it very soon, there is a probability that the country in its current shape will fall apart.
Thus, a revolution must not be thought of naively since the removal of the central authority creates a state of anarchy if there is no replacement organised beforehand. To organise such a replacement the protesters must be able to unite behind general positions. There might be certain values shared by Iranians but those are mainly very abstract - maybe justice, maybe freedom. When it comes to specific subjects such as gender equality or a democratic political system it is believed that there are still major parts of the society - especially in rural areas - objecting them. Therefore, a revolution contains uncalculatable risks and the political opposition in Iran is not organised well enough to avert them. It is more likely that a revolution would bring other well-organised forces in the country to power than the groups in favour of the protesters.
This makes a settlement by agreement the most desirable solution, seeing as it would prevent a large number of casualties. But since both the people and the government do not seem to assume the respective position of the other as legitimate, this scenario is assumed unlikely. This leaves the option of a harsh and violent crackdown.
After the protests are stopped by a crackdown or agreement, there are three strategies the
government could apply: No reforms, major reforms and slow and small reforms. No reforms would mean that the dissatisfaction of people would not be decreased. The violence of the crackdown would deter people from protesting for a limited time. Instead it would cause them to look for ways to escape the country, accelerating the brain-drain. A harsh crackdown would also evoke further sanctions against Iran which would intensify the economic grievances and increase the pressure on the Iranian middle and lower class. This pressure will eventually erupt in new protest waves which in turn will lead to more violence and casualties. This vicious circle would continue and accelerate.
Major reforms would pose the current administration at risk: The French political scientist
Tocqueville assumes in his theory of revolution that when the situation of people is starting to improve through reforms, revolutions are ignited. Large reforms such as the removal of the obligatory scarf would be a signal to the protesters that they can achieve what they want if they only put enough pressure on the government. Since large groups of the current protesters reject the current administration, the risk of an actual full-scale revolution with the previously mentioned risks and consequences would be high. Therefore, though reforms are in need, immediate major reforms do not appear the most favourable solution, though we assume that without the promise of major reforms a peaceful settlement by negotiation is basically impossible. In addition, since the main concerns the protesters have in common are of economic nature and since the economic misery is in large parts due to the U.S. sanction policy, reforms in this area are not in the hands of the Iranian administration.
This leaves the option of small and slow reforms. This will not settle the conflict with the
U.S. and bring about the needed economic relief, but it can decrease the risk Tocqueville
described and still implement some change. As an example: A removal of the law for the
obligatory scarf would probably be a strong signal to the protesters and would significantly
increase the risk of a revolution. If the implementation of the law would be decreased by
decreasing the activity of the moral police, the pressure on women would be decreased, since in practice they would be able to dress more freely. The scarf would legally be obligatory but not wearing it would not be prosecuted. In this manner reforms could be conducted without risking the ignition of a full-scale revolution. Nevertheless, it is questionable if this strategy would be sufficient to appease the Iranian population and avert further protest since it would not look like a clear victory of the protesters nor would it solve the economic grievances which we assume as the main root of the protest.
Concluding, we assume a harsh and violent crackdown as the most likely scenario. Afterwards, reforms - if implemented carefully but effectively - can relieve pressure from women and improve their situation in practice. Nevertheless, we assume that an understanding and rapprochement of the people and their administration, though difficult to imagine, is crucial and inevitable. This needs efforts on both sides and both sides need to admit the legitimate concern of the other. In addition to this, the economic pressure by the U.S. must be relieved in order to defuse the