Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Iran Protests Reveal Rift between the Regime and the People

An overwhelming majority of Iranians no longer view themselves as being represented by the current leadership.

Iran Protests
A woman looks at the profile picture of Iranian teenager, Nika Shakrami, who was reportedly killed recently during protests in Iran over the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic.

The violent protests that broke out in Iran in September 2022 are still going strong in a number of the country’s cities. Triggered by Mahsa Amini’s suspicious death, which transpired after the young woman was detained by police for improperly donning a headscarf, the rapid expansion of the demonstrations and the biting slogans against the regime indicate the presence of a widening rift between the Iranian regime and large segments of the population.

According to analysts, an overwhelming majority of Iranians no longer view themselves as being represented by the current leadership, including urban youth, women who are impacted by the patriarchal structure, the underprivileged working class, and historically marginalized Arab and Kurdish minorities.

The protests have provided an opportunity for all of these groups to unite around headlines calling for reform, even if each of these groups has its own grievances and demands. Despite historical influences on the scene since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has undergone significant cultural, economic, and social changes over the previous decade, leading to mounting anger that resulted in the furious protests that are currently raging throughout the country.

However, although the scope of the recent protests is far broader than that of its predecessors, and despite the popular pressures, the Iranian regime undoubtedly still possesses sufficient clout to stand firm. At the forefront of its dominance are some military institutions that are independent of the executive authority’s control, including the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basij paramilitary forces, which are focused on upholding the regime’s Islamic identity, are at the vanguard of its supremacy.

Political and cultural shifts among Iranian youth

Iran has a sizable expatriate base that is free from the regime’s influence and control of its media. Iranian cities and universities have also historically possessed great political and cultural diversity, especially among the youth, despite of the regime’s dominance over political life.

Even after the Islamic Revolution and the dissolution of secular political forces, Iranian universities maintained a balanced presence of liberal, leftist and progressive intellectual currents, albeit these never translated into organized political action or an explicit attempt at regime change.

However, over the past ten years, the expanding impact of the internet and social media has exposed Iran’s youth to a wider range of liberal and diverse political ideologies, which are primarily prevalent at Iranian universities and student communities. A permanent supply of news on political, social, and economic issues has also emerged online, bypassing the mainstream media. The Iranian expatriate community, recognized for its political resistance to the regime, has improved access to internal Iranian politics and political conversation.

Thus, by dispensing with traditional media and its official restrictions the new generation of Iranian youth are forming their own views of the system, politics, and public affairs. More importantly, with the use of social media they were able to translate these views into organizing and calling for protests, bypassing regime restrictions to prevent such political action.

This particular generation has never known a government other than the Islamic Republic’s, nor Ali Khamenei as its supreme leader. The elderly who founded the dictatorship after the Islamic Revolution make up the majority of the ruling class. The lack of organized political parties and organizations has left the youth with sentiments of marginalization and exclusion as well as a sense of injustice in light of the dismal economic circumstances and high rates of youth unemployment.

This led to a widening of the generational gap, as seen by the youth’s rejection of the regime’s values and the ideals upon which the republic was established following the Islamic Revolution. Furthermore, despite the fact that this generation, which makes up 80% of internet users, may not necessarily totally adopt Western culture, it has come to believe that the Islamic Republic no longer reflects the freedom and social justice values that it upholds. These developments now represent profound social and cultural changes.

The Iranian regime and women’s rights

The plight of women living under the Iranian dictatorship extends far beyond being forced to wear the hijab in public; it also has an impact on their standard of living, well-being, and civic rights. Although the number of women enrolled in colleges has increased to 63%, demonstrating their desire to participate actively in society and the economy on an equal basis with men, the rules and practices of the regime neither support these ambitions nor do they provide their most fundamental requirements.

Since the Islamic Revolution, several of the legislation passed have been found to be detrimental to women’s rights, including the decision to lower the age of marriage for girls from 18 to 13. Additionally, women lost their right to engage in the legal system, ask for divorce or child custody, or set a restriction on how many wives their husbands may have.

A number of new regulations established by the Iranian Parliament, such as the “Rejuvenation of the Population and Family Support” bill, which prohibits all methods of contraception, have made the situation worse. Additionally, the free public health care system has restricted access to fundamental information about reproductive and sexual health, allowing intelligence services broad authority to supervise the dispensing of medical advice to women on all issues pertaining to reproduction and sex.

Iranian women view these approaches as a direct threat to their health and their access to sufficient reproductive health care, even if the dictatorship seeks to utilize such laws to forcibly boost birth rates.

Their exclusion from the centers of political decision-making, the job market, and economic activity makes matters worse for Iranian women. For instance, even though women now make up more than 50% of university graduates, their labor market share is only 17%. Furthermore, for the past 30 years, Iranian authorities have persecuted women human rights advocates who have worked to advance gender equality in policies and practices.

Other marginalized groups

The working class and low-income strata of the Iranian population have also lost faith in the current administration. They have been particularly impacted by the breakdown of social security networks that the government is required to provide as well as the low worth of their income as a result of the recent high inflation rates Iran has experienced. It therefore came as no surprise that workers in oil refineries, the automobile industry, construction materials, and household appliances joined the protests, bearing scathing political slogans against the regime.

The Iranian workers’ conviction that their suffering goes beyond economic difficulties to the very character of the political model governing Tehran is reflected in the development of the discourse in the protests to touch on political issues, and even the position of the regime. Workers’ living conditions have deteriorated as a result of the regime’s emphasis on military spending and funding the Revolutionary Guard and its institutions at the expense of economic and social considerations.

In addition, Iran is home to between 8 and 11 million Kurds, 3 to 5 million Arabs, and roughly 3 million Baluchis, all of whom have been historically marginalized. This is particularly true when it comes to public services and the worsening economic circumstances in their regions in comparison to those in the country’s center. Additionally, these groups have had their cultural privileges taken away, which has made them feel even more excluded.

It was therefore appropriate for ethnic minorities to join recent demonstrations against the regime with fierce political chants that even included calls for the removal of the supreme leader. Being a member of that ethnic minority, Amini especially incensed the Kurdish response.

The regime’s remaining cards

The security and military establishments of the regime, particularly those ruled by the Revolutionary Guard, whose forces are estimated to number around 125,000, are still its most powerful centers of authority. These forces receive their commands directly from the supreme leader rather than being subject to any of the executive authority’s institutions.

Since it owns businesses and organizations in the oil, gas, contracts, and other industries, the Revolutionary Guard holds a unique role inside the Iranian government. Using these capacities to defend the dictatorship and its Islamic character, it also manages lucrative business enterprises. Historically, the Guard has blocked a number of attempts to liberalize the Iranian economy in the past due to its influence in key economic sectors.

The Basij organizations, which have 50,000 bases and offices spread across Iranian cities and villages, are also associated with the Revolutionary Guard. These groups aim to organize Iranians who want to serve as volunteers in a paramilitary setting in exchange for financial benefits, incentives, and power. The Basij enjoy similar advantages to the Revolutionary Guard due to their control over numerous economic sectors, an abundance of public resources, and some regulations that grant them particular privileges like ensuring a set percentage of seats in Iranian universities or industrial positions.

Attempts at accommodation

With the regime under intense pressure by the escalating protests, which were threatening its control over society, some regime officials, such as Attorney General Mohammad Jaafar Montazeri, sought to accommodate the protest movement.

Montazeri on December 5, 2022 stated that the Iranian Parliament and judiciary were reviewing the mandatory hijab law in the country. He also indicated that the morality police had in principle been disbanded by the relevant authorities, namely the Ministry of Interior, which oversees the work of these forces. Montazeri’s remarks were interpreted in the street as an attempt to reach a compromise, given the turmoil fomented by the protests that led to dissent against the mandatory hijab law.

However, the attorney general’s words offered no guarantees that the law would be abolished completely, especially since Montazeri indicated in the same statement that failing to uphold the hijab law “irritated everyone.”

Consequently, fears remain that in the short term the judiciary and Parliament could show flexibility in imposing the mandatory hijab law, but re-institute the current form of the mandate once the protests die down.

The protesters’ demands evidently extend far beyond the issue of the mandatory hijab. Abolishing this law, though it represents an important gain for the demonstrators, will not address the wide range of issues that concern various segments of society. And with regard to women’s rights, it certainly will not bring an end to the various Iranian laws that discriminate against women.

Whatever the situation, it is impossible to ignore the growing chasm between the Iranian people and the regime, the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij. After years of profound discontent, demonstrations by labor unions, academic institutions, women, and members of racial and ethnic minorities have reached a critical mass that has raised the bar for political debate and called for fundamental reforms to the very structure of the system. The extensive networks of interests within the government, including the Basij and the Revolutionary Guard, will, however, undoubtedly preclude any significant political change.

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