The Iran protests could spell the beginning of the end for the Islamic Republic

The fragility of the Islamic Republic of Iran is increasingly clear for all to see. But, despite recent protests, we ought to remain cautious about the prospects for immediate change.

An exhibition displaying portraits of victims of Iranian regime.
An exhibition displaying portraits of victims of Iranian regime. Roman Tiraspolsky / Alamy Stock Photo.

The widespread protests which have shaken Iran following the death in custody of Mahsa Amini have taken a number of people, not least the authorities in Iran, by surprise. They shouldn’t have. Protests, in one form or another, have been a regular feature of the Iranian political landscape for much of the existence of the Islamic republic. For the West they serve as a salutary reminder that we cannot view Iran simply through the prism of the nuclear agreement (JCPOA).

The genealogy of the current protests can be traced to the ‘Green Movement’ that shook the foundations of the Islamic Republic in 2009. The mass protests of 2009, in response to the contentious Presidential elections of that year, were a watershed moment in the history of the Islamic Republic. They took six months to suppress, and while the government congratulated themselves on the comparatively light casualties (around 70), the actual number was undoubtedly much higher. Then as now, the iconic figure of the revolt was a woman, Neda Agha Soltan, who was ‘mysteriously’ shot while attending a demonstration.

People have been challenging the authority of the Islamic Republic since its inception in a Revolution that prided itself on the power of popular protest. Among the first significant protests were in fact those organised against the mandatory imposition of the veil. With the onset of the war, protests unsurprisingly waned only to return with some energy in the 1990s largely driven by economic demands and a population which after eight years of war was less deferential to authority than the authorities would have liked. Throughout this period, women continued to push the boundaries of what was acceptable in terms of the veil.

For all the rhetoric of revolution, the Islamic Republic was naturally not keen on a repeat performance, and their own assessment of the Shah’s ‘weakness’ in 1978 was to haunt their own response to any potential popular uprising. Not only must the state not compromise, it had to root out leaders and prevent localised protests escalating across the country. The key always was to show strength, often expressed in brute force and judicial excess. Show trials soon became a feature of the Islamic Republic.

Prior to 2009, most protests, as serious as many were, focused on reforming the system and fulfilling as people saw it the real promise of the revolution. Despite the breaking of a number of political taboos at this time (notably chants of ‘death to Khamenei’), this was also the frame of reference for the mass protests that broke out after the contested Presidential election of 2009. These protests were among the largest to challenge the Islamic Republic. The authorities characteristically moved quickly — even peremptorily — to arrest leaders.

But this was fundamentally a social movement in which the leadership, insofar as it existed, followed rather than led, and their removal did little to quell the protests. What caught the authorities off-guard was how the grassroots campaign organisation swiftly translated into a protest movement with street organisers and individual cells. By the end of the summer senior clerics, including the dissident Ayatollah Montazeri, were voicing support. It was only his unexpected demise in December of that year that took the wind out of the sails of the protests.

By February 2010 the tide of protest had subsided under the weight of violent repression. But the political landscape had changed. It was increasingly clear to people that the republic was dying on the altar of Islamic authoritarianism around the reinforced cult of the Supreme Leader, now lauded in ever more eulogistic terms. The authorities, meanwhile, who had accused their opponents of ‘heresy’ in 2009, sought to double down on their political agenda and saw little need to rebuild bridges.

The state became increasingly securitised, and the hidden hand of foreign adversaries was alleged to be in operation everywhere. Conspiracy theories served to consolidate their base and Iran settled into a vicious circle of paranoia, repression and protest. There was no attempt at consensus. For the ‘elect’ in this new puritan state, most Iranians were beyond the pale, foreigners in their own country. It was no coincidence that the harassment of dual nationals increased in this period. It should have come as no surprise that for many Iranians, evolution was gradually giving way to revolution.

It says a great deal that despite all this protests continued, occasionally in subtle resistance, more often against economic mismanagement. Some respite was gained by the onset of the nuclear negotiations and the prospect of some sanctions relief, but despite the rhetoric of expectation, sanctions relief would not have altered the fundamentals of the Iranian political economy, which remained corrupt and repressive. If anything the negotiations masked the real problems facing Iran with its resolution presented as a panacea to Iran’s problems.

Ordinary Iranians were less convinced and were swiftly disappointed when President Rouhani’s promise of political reform failed to materialise. In 2017, a regular cycle of strikes erupted into serious protests, while 2019 witnessed the most violent confrontation to occur in a decade with at least 300 protestors shot by the security forces. The anger of the protestors was palpable and while economic in gestation the protests soon took on a political hue with chants reminiscent of 2009.

What is perhaps extraordinary about the current protests is not so much the scale but the spread — major cities are now being affected including Tehran — and the immediate cause is cultural and political rather than economic. This is a protest against the way in which women — long treated as second class citizens in Iran — are treated. But it has swiftly transformed into something much larger, about the right of all Iranians to live their lives in safety and security in their own country.

With the advent of the Raisi presidency in 2021, all the centres of power reside with hard-line conservatives, accentuating all the trends that had made themselves felt after 2009. Islamic law was to be strictly applied, and the lax application of the veil, conceived as the frontline in the war against Western cultural corruption, was to be among the first and most visible targets of the retrenchment. Given the brutality being used against women over the past nine months it was only a matter of time before the first fatality.

People reacted with characteristic anger. The regime meanwhile has responded with the tried and tested methods of arbitrary violence that have so far sustained it in power. But the fear that permeated much of society over the last decade is fading. The energy and cohesion of 2009 has returned, grass roots organisation is returning, and the regime’s worst fear, that of turning a series of bush fires into a general wildfire appears to be coming to pass. Moreover, there are clear signs of discontent among members of the senior clergy and for the first time, Iranian celebrities are voicing support, leading to some of the more ridiculous reactions of government supporters – literally chanting, ‘death to celebrities’. Among the many and varied acts of sublime protest, women are ritually discarding their headscarves.

But above all this is a violent protest expressing a social anger long in gestation. Security forces find themselves ambushed and beaten in ways that were rare in 2009. Fatalities among protestors have (at the time of writing) reached 41, although the total is undoubtedly much higher. The authorities have restricted the internet and shut down the Universities and while there are talks of strikes, there is little indication yet of the security forces fraying.

Iranians are once again thinking the unthinkable and there can be little doubt that we have turned a corner in the relatively brief history of the Islamic Republic. The fragility of its power rooted in a vanishing authority is increasingly clear for all to see. But we ought to remain cautious about the prospects for immediate change. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but we ought to be prepared for the fact that the tunnel may be long.


Ali Ansari