The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody has triggered the biggest threat to Iran’s regime. But Tehran’s leaders show no signs of backing down at home or abroad.
In a nutshell
- The protesters are seeking regime change, not just women’s rights
- The police have killed hundreds but avoid Assad-style mass murder
- Iran’s theocratic leaders are hoping the demonstrations will fade
Even as widespread protests at home threaten their rule, Iran’s theocratic leaders have increased their aggressive policies abroad. In the rest of the Middle East, they have exerted political influence and wielded military power either directly or through the sponsorship of allied militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Recently, the regime has become even more adventurous. Iran bombed Iraqi Kurdistan and an oil tanker in the Gulf. Iraqi pro-Iranian militias are also attacking American bases in Syria. Further abroad, it is supplying armed drones to help Russia in its war against Ukraine.
The top aims of Tehran’s regional foreign policy are securing control over its Arab vassal states as well as cowing Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states, while the broader foreign policy is focused on opposition to the United States and Israel. Russia and China, meanwhile, have helped ease the isolation and economic sanctions imposed by the West over the regime’s ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons.
But the rulers of 85 million people are facing one of their greatest tests for survival in the demonstrations triggered by the September 16 death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini. She was arrested by the morality police for violating strict dress code laws by not wearing the hijab properly. Eyewitnesses said officers beat her severely in custody. Ms. Amini died in a hospital three days later.
While the anti-regime sentiment of Iranians is spreading, the government may survive the current unrest – as it has previous protests in 2009, 2017 and 2019 – through ruthlessness. Already, more than 400 people have been killed, thousands arrested and death sentences issued for at least five jailed demonstrators. While the situation is volatile, the uprising seems so far to lack crucial elements of a mass revolution usually needed for success in toppling a regime.
Regional foreign policy
The Iranian government’s top regional priority is controlling Iraq, whose leadership is now squarely back in Iran’s fold after Tehran outmaneuvered its opponents. Iran’s supporters lost the October 2021 parliamentary elections in Iraq, giving the party of Tehran’s nemesis, Muqtada al-Sadr, the largest share of votes. Mr. Sadr created a multiethnic, multi-sect coalition with a narrow majority, but he failed to secure a two-thirds quorum required to elect a new president. Because only a new president can appoint a new prime minister, Iran’s supporters successfully paralyzed parliament by staying home.
Instead of using his slight majority to dissolve parliament and call new elections, Mr. Sadr ordered his 73 parliamentarians to resign. It was a disastrous move for the anti-Iranian forces because it left pro-Iranian parties with a parliamentary majority. Iran then bombed Kurdish targets, inducing Masoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) to agree to a new president that is affiliated with the rival Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
The new president, in turn, appointed a pro-Iranian prime minister, who established a pro-Iranian government. The Iraqi government is now so deep in the pocket of the Iranians that its education ministers even declared in November that girls from primary school to university will be forced to wear the hijab, a show of solidarity with Tehran’s mullahs amid the anti-hijab demonstrations in Iran. If the new government will keep Iran’s exploitation of the Iraqi energy industry, this will deeply alienate the public. Energy cooperation with the neighboring Arabs, though, will rile Tehran. Iran’s control over Iraq’s internal security through the pro-Iranian militias will most likely continue. The new government will likely approve Iran’s most important strategic project, a railway from Iran through Iraq to Syria.
Syria, Lebanon and Yemen
The partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria has given Israel more freedom to carry out anti-Iranian operations. Yet the pullback also means that Iran’s political weight in Damascus is on the rise. In Lebanon, the May 2022 elections represented a blow to Iran, because Hezbollah and its allies lost their majority in parliament. However, Iran is bent on coercing and buying parliamentarians to achieve a majority. Hezbollah has succeeded already in securing Druze support for Nabih Berri, Hezbollah’s ally, as the new speaker. The next target is a compliant president, after Michel Aoun’s term ended in October. Hezbollah improved its public image by presenting itself as the power behind the recent Israeli-Lebanese maritime border agreement.
In Yemen, there is no political change. Still, militarily speaking, the Shia Houthi rebels backed by Tehran demonstrated their growing ability to hit sensitive Saudi targets, while Iran remains immune to reprisals.
Russia and nuclear weapons
Finally, a new strategic axis with Russia is providing Iran with the kind of superpower support that it has not had since the ousting of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Even before cementing ties with Moscow, Iran felt safe enough to attack ships in the Gulf and the Saudi oil industry. And now, Major General Hossein Salami, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has warned Saudi Arabia to stop its support for the anti-regime demonstrations in Iran.
Tehran, meanwhile, pretends to be untroubled by the suspension of the agreement to halt Iran’s development of nuclear weapons in exchange for sanctions relief. In any case, Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could not accept the conditions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action set by the P5+1 countries – the U.S., China, the United Kingdom, Russia, France and Germany. It is clear why. With Russian and Chinese support, Mr. Khamenei hopes for a better deal. Alternatively, Iran’s leader is counting on Moscow and Beijing to fully normalize their economic relations and turn a blind eye to his nuclear project. Moreover, Tehran can expect Russian support for its ground-to-air defenses. This will present a formidable challenge to anyone who will try to bomb Iranian military nuclear targets.
An unprecedented uprising
On the surface, the mass demonstrations are in opposition to the laws requiring women to wear hijab or chador coverings in public. But more deeply, the uprising is a protest of the regime’s misogyny. The slogan chanted in support of women’s equality all over Iran today is “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” (Woman, Life, Freedom). In Iran, this secular-sounding slogan also has religious appeal.
Two female saints are revered in Shia Muslim tradition. One is Fatima, “the Shining One” (al-Zahra), the daughter of the prophet Muhammad (who died in 632 CE) and the wife of Ali, the first Shiite imam. The other is Zaynab, Fatima’s heroic daughter. Both women are believed to have been gravely wronged by powerful Sunni rulers, and they represent resistance to tyranny. Popular Shia amulets carry six names: Allah, Muhammad, Ali, Fatima, Hassan and Hussein.
Due to this tradition, in certain areas women have more legal rights in Shia jurisprudence than in Sunni law. This does not prevent Iran’s security forces from raping and murdering women, with many cases getting little or no public attention. But the arrest and torture on September 13 of Ms. Amini by the morality police triggered a different response. These acts of violence, as well as the brutal repression against demonstrators, were fully reported in the media.
On November 6, 227 parliament members signed a statement asking Iran’s judiciary to take decisive action against protesters.
The demonstrations are already unprecedented and have lasted more than two months. Most protesters are young, including many university students, and are often led by women. Rallies have erupted in more than 100 cities and 120 universities, even in the most prestigious ones in Tehran.
On the 40th day after the murder of any protester, young people commemorate the death at the cemetery, giving birth to yet another demonstration. The protesters insult the supreme leader, chanting “death to the dictator” and “death to the regime.’’ Artists, journalists, professors and some prominent Iranian athletes, such as the nation’s World Cup team members, support the demonstrators. Clerics are heckled and turbans are knocked off their heads. Clergy effigies hanging from pedestrian bridges are commonplace and coverage is leaking publicly. On November 4, for example, in the city of Fuladshahr, the footage shows a female protester shot by security forces and the crowds chanting: “We will fight on until we have taken back Iran.”
On November 18 at least 23 cities saw demonstrations including Khomein, Ayatollah Khomeini’s hometown, where demonstrators torched his hallowed childhood home. There is no regime symbol higher than this one. The regime, for its part, is portraying the demonstrators as misguided youth, inadvertently serving the West, and as Kurdish, Arab and Baluch secessionists. This way they hope to mobilize all Persian speakers to help the regime.
The aim now is to get rid of the leadership. Iran’s mullahs are widely viewed as corrupt, inflexible and incompetent. Not only do they steal and oppress shamelessly, they govern poorly and are intolerant of criticism. Besides the more than 400 people killed, another 17,000 have been arrested, including at least 50 journalists and bloggers. Violence is met with violence: some 50 members of the police and security organs have been killed.
The regime has not yet resorted to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad-style mass murder, fearing that such a step would provoke an unbridgeable chasm. Instead, Iran’s leaders are biding their time, hoping that the leaderless demonstrators will tire and lose interest.
Mixed state of the economy
Mr. Khamenei is 83 and ailing. His likely successor, President Ebrahim Raisi, is inept. The crisis has weakened Iran’s currency, pushed inflation close to 60 percent and contributed to youth unemployment nearing 30 percent. At the same time, with Iran’s closer relations with China, oil exports and revenues have increased substantially. In the April-July 2022 period, the government earned between $8.6 billion and $13.5 billion from crude and condensate sales. Most of those exports went to Chinese companies.
The Pasdaran (IRGC) at a low point
On October 29, General Salami, commander of the Pasdaran, or IRGC, warned the demonstrators to stop. “Today,” he roared, “is the last day of the riots.” Yet, as of late November, except for Iranian Kurdistan, where they have been shooting demonstrators, the Pasdaran had not yet intervened. Only their intelligence-gathering system has been fully deployed everywhere. There is a reason. The Pasdaran, the leading guardians of the regime, need to be seen as religious and moral. Shooting women in the streets will be embarrassing to them. Many religious Iranians who are not part of the regime would see too much similarity between them and Fatima under ancient caliph tyranny.
Another reason for their restraint is that brutally suppressing university students, many of whom come from elite, even IRGC families, will risk a split at the top. Yet, if the demonstrations persist and become bigger, they will be ordered to intervene. If they refuse, this will be the first meaningful sign of a split at the top.
Four components cannot yet be seen for a classical successful revolution.
Since January 2020, the Pasdaran has suffered. General Qasem Suleimani was assassinated by the U.S. and there was no meaningful response. The Pasdaran downed a Ukrainian jetliner, the tragic flight 752, and tried unsuccessfully to wriggle out of responsibility for the 176 lives lost. When they failed in Iraq, the foreign ministry stepped in and succeeded in outmaneuvering Muqtada al-Sadr. In Turkey, their anti-Israeli plans failed and in Syria, they lost men and hardware. They failed even in internal security. Since 2020, explosions at sensitive sites and assassinations of nuclear scientists and IRGC senior officers have exposed their incompetence.
Official line hardens
Opposition to the Islamic hijab law is widespread among Iranians. The regime is of two minds in how to respond. While the supreme leader pledges a crackdown on dissenters, the president, parliament speaker and even the Pasdaran have suggested dialogue. But in November, the official line hardened. During an open session of parliament on November 6, 227 parliament members signed a statement asking Iran’s judiciary to take decisive action against protesters. Two days later more than 1,000 detainees were indicted, and the judiciary promised that it would respond firmly. Chief Justice Gholam-Hossein Ejei supported the death penalty.
Four components cannot yet be seen for a successful revolution. First, the demonstrations are limited mostly to the young and educated class. Their numbers are in the hundreds or the thousands. But the Shah was toppled only after hundreds of thousands of people of all social strata flooded the streets.
Secondly, a split at the top of the regime or among security organs is not yet evident. Such splits often signal that the regime is doomed. One rare dissenting voice among leaders is Iran’s top Sunni cleric. In his November 4 prayer sermon in Zahedan, Abdolhamid Esmailzehi, popularly known as Molavi Abdolhamid, criticized state policies. The southeastern region is mostly home to Iran’s Baluch ethnic minority. Mr. Abdolhamid said the authorities “cannot silence the people via beatings and jailing,” emphasizing: “People have bled and suffered deaths; you cannot push them out.” Also, former Tehran University professor Zahra Rahnavard, wife of reformist leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, called for an end to the crackdown. The cleric and the professor are, however, isolated voices.
If the regime compromises, it has two options. One is to find an ayatollah ready to follow in the footsteps of Grand Mufti of Egypt Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), who ruled that the hijab is not part of Islamic law. Supreme Leader Khamenei can also follow in the footsteps of Ayatollah Khomeini who, in January 1988, ruled that raison d’état has preference over Islamic ordinances. By the end of November, though, there was no sign of readiness for a compromise on either side.
A third indication of a coming avalanche would be massive labor strikes in critical industries. These walk-offs have happened, but they have been few and far between.
Fourth and finally, the demonstrators do not have central leadership or a single leader. Even though Ayatollah Khomeini was a political refugee in France, his personality galvanized the opposition.
These four factors have yet to materialize. The demonstrations are the first sign that, without massive reforms, the regime is hurling toward its eventual end. Yet, this day is not yet near. The West can help the demonstrators with communication and organizational advice, but they will have to do the rest. They are mostly on their own.