Iran’s protest movement: an intensifying potential for change

29 September 2022

Iran is currently experiencing its biggest ever movement for basic human and women's rights. The only solution is to listen to society's demands and change the failing political system.

By Mahdi Ghodsi

image credit: istock/Andrii Koval

  • Iran is currently experiencing its biggest ever movement in favour of basic human and women's rights and social freedoms, coinciding with other important national and international events.
  • Iranian society has been striving for democracy and freedoms for more than a century, but the Islamic political system prevents any adaptation and reforms.
  • The frequency, intensity and thematic diversity of nationwide protests in Iran have increased over the years.
  • The current nationwide uprising differs from previous protests in several ways. It has a much broader base than previous protests, which were related to political, economic or regional challenges.
  • The only solution is to listen to the demands of society and change the failing political system.

Iran is currently experiencing its greatest ever movement in favour of basic human and women’s rights and social liberties. This movement clashes with the course of other protests in recent decades, all of which have been met by the government with violent repression rather than meeting their demands. This also coincides with reports of the poor health of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Iranian President Raisi's trip to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Iran is also stalling indirect negotiations with the US on full compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on issues beyond its nuclear programme, while its economy is in a dire condition. The Islamic Republic has demanded removal of the Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the US list of terrorist organisations, US assurances that the next US administration will not withdraw from the agreement, and a halt to years of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigations into unexplained traces of uranium found at three undeclared sites in Iran.

Hard as steel: an Islamic regime that does not reform itself

Iranian society has been striving for democracy and freedom for more than a century. The Persian constitutional revolution in 1905-1911 led to the establishment of the first parliament and a constitutional monarchy in 1906. As monarchs challenged the power of parliament, the struggle for democracy continued and a greater potential for liberal democracy developed in society.

This was also in line with internal migration from the countryside to the cities. Although Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last king of Iran, pursued progressive policies that promoted the country's economy, infrastructure and social freedoms, he cracked down on political opponents and established a one-party state.

However, this great potential for liberal democracy transformed into the revolution of 1979, as a result of which the Islamic leadership under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini abolished basic rights and freedoms. A few days after the revolution, hundreds of thousands of women demonstrated on the streets of Iran against the compulsory hijab imposed by the Grand Ayatollah. However, the Islamic takeover [by the Islamic revolutionaries] suppressed the desire of the masses under the protection of the Islamic constitution, which gave sole rights to an Islamic Supreme Leader who had the final say in determining the law and the constitution.

Therefore, Islam was entrenched everywhere in society to secure theocratic rule. Its pillars included education, the media and security. Islamic rule was ensured by a new education system regulated by a state media monopoly that controlled the culture and desires of society. Any deviation from Islamic laws and rules was suppressed by the growing security apparatus of the clergy. And all this was justified by religion. At the same time, the constitution is structured in such a way that any democratic attempt to change it can be blocked by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who appoints the Guardian Council, which vets all parliamentary laws and election candidates. In this way, it has succeeded in Islamising all areas of life for future generations.

More frequent and widespread protests are signs of failure and lack of legitimacy

The frequency, intensity and thematic diversity of nationwide protests in Iran have increased over the years. Due to the strong control by the various pillars of the theocracy, the enormous pressure on modern society’s aspirations for freedom, in parallel with other open societies across the world, has gradually increased the potential for change to liberal democracy.

In the summer of 1988, Iranian judges (including the current president, Ebrahim Raisi) executed thousands of political prisoners to suppress the uprising of a left-wing Islamist political grouping called the People's Mojahedin, which had lost out to Khomeini's Islamic grouping in the struggle for power after the revolution.

Then, in June 1999, the security forces, with the direct support of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, violently cracked down on students at Tehran University who were protesting against the banning of reformist newspapers and the press.

In 2009, Iran saw the largest nationwide unrest to date, known as the Green Movement, protesting against the presidential election fraud that led to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's second term, and the subsequent violent repression, imprisonment and torture of thousands of people, including the house arrest of the two pro-reform presidential candidates, which continues to this day.

As a result, the international community imposed numerous sanctions on those who violated human rights in Iran and on those involved in Iran's nuclear programme. These sanctions negatively affected the Iranian economy in many ways. Poor economic conditions affected the daily lives of ordinary people, who became poorer and poorer. Iranians could only blame their rulers. So in December 2017, they took to the streets to protest poor economic conditions, high inflation and unemployment. The protests were again ruthlessly put down by the security forces.

In 2018 US President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the JCPOA, which lifted international sanctions in exchange for Iran curbing its nuclear activities. Trump imposed new unilateral secondary sanctions on Iran, which gave the country's economy no chance to breathe. Economic conditions tightened and the government converted fuel subsidies into taxes to ease pressure on the budget. This sparked renewed nationwide unrest in November 2019, which was brutally suppressed while Iran's internet remained shut down by the government.

The shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane by the Revolutionary Guards triggered a new round of unrest in January 2020. Since then, Iran has seen numerous protests and strikes of varying magnitude and mostly economic in nature, in different cities across the country. Global warming and catastrophic mismanagement of water resources and supply over the past four decades have also led to severe drought in key regions and cities, triggering further regional unrest and violent clashes with security forces in November 2021.

A movement that is unique in its purpose

However, the current nationwide uprising differs from previous protests in several ways. It has a much broader base than previous protests, which were related to political, economic or regional challenges. It is not just about a particular group in society, and many families feel connected to it. It is about basic human rights and the freedom to dress as one pleases. Above all, the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police, which triggered the protests, has unleashed an outpouring of rage in society comparable to that which triggered the Arab Spring after the self-immolation of a vegetable vendor in Tunisia in 2011.

Mahsa Amini travelled to Tehran for a family visit. However, she was arrested for not wearing the hijab properly. In police custody, she fell into a coma and died after a few days in hospital. The morality police have monitored the dress code of women in public since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. During the reigns of hardline presidents Ahmadinejad and Raisi, the police have been much stricter than during other presidencies. Despite public displeasure, this repressive approach is intertwined with the Islamic Republic's foundations, which cannot be easily removed without damaging its core. The authorities have yet to provide a credible justification for Mahsa Amini's death, angering a society that has long sought its fundamental rights.

This is the first major movement after decades of Islamic rule to oppose the foundations of theocracy and demand basic liberal rights that are freely available in many other countries of the modern world. Support for this movement is not limited to the streets of Iranian cities. National and international figures, politicians, celebrities, governments, NGOs, academics, journalists, activists and many more have expressed their solidarity with this movement, which is also the first of its kind in the region.

No failure is greater than failing the people

According to the Iranian Statistical Centre, average annual inflation rose to 54% in July 2022, while food and beverage inflation was over 82%, bread 96% and dairy 112% (the highest in Iran's history), affecting low-income households more than others. The unemployment rate rose to 9.2% in spring 2022, 0.4 percentage points higher than the previous year, while labour force participation fell by 0.5 percentage points due to discouraged workers. World Bank data reveal that only 27.5 % of the population was in the labour force in 2021, significantly lower than other comparable countries such as Turkey, where 36% of the population is in the labour force. According to official statistics, about 35% of Iranians live in absolute poverty, while the majority is affected by general poverty.

These are the results of unwise domestic and foreign policies conducted out of enmity with the West and the US. The Islamic Republic is generally immune to expert advice and has limited expertise, leading to gigantic challenges.

The Islamic Republic has never shown flexibility for reforms responding to the demands of an evolving society. The list of those executed by the clerical system is long and indicates a decaying system of rule that is out of sync with the aspirations of society. History is replete with examples of how a political system that fails to adapt to an evolving society in a dynamic environment is doomed to fail - as the numerous protests in Iran show - and eventually collapse. It is the people who legitimise a government and it is a government that provides the needed services to its citizens.

But the hardline government is now showing its "iron fist" by mobilising its security forces to respond to the protests with bullets. This is unacceptable by all international norms and standards. The government's overall budget has shrunk in real terms in the current year. But a huge redeployment of resources has been earmarked for the Islamic Republic's "trinity" of security – the military, propaganda and the commercial-clerical apparatus – thus strengthening this "iron fist".

With the economic situation deteriorating and food prices likely to rise, it will be even more difficult for the government to keep the situation under control. If the current protests are suppressed, further unrest can be expected in the near future, as failures in many respects persist. So the only solution is to listen to the demands of society. Otherwise, as many examples in history have shown, Iran's political system will also be changed by the will of the people.