The death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a young Iranian woman detained by the morality police for not wearing her veil properly, has sparked a wave of mass protests in Iran. Even though resistance to the imposition of the veil is an important element of the demonstrations, their magnitude is an indication of deep social discontent with the country’s economic, political and social situation. Both the conservative government of Ibrahim Raisi and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, claim foreign agents and enemies of the country have instigated the revolt. The government’s response has been brutally repressive, and the number of protesters killed across the country now exceeds three hundred.
Iranian-American sociologist Asef Bayat points out that one of the key reasons behind the discontent in Iranian society today is the accumulation of various unattended political, social, economic and cultural demands, which, at times like this, go hand in hand. Even though Iran has already experienced similar protests in the past – in 2009, 2017 and 2019 – analysts and experts consider this social outburst a turning point that will have significant consequences for the country’s future. The crippling effects of decades of economic sanctions, and a generational shift that distances the country’s youth from the values of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, seem to have jeopardized the continuity of Iran’s political system.
But this uprising has gone even further. Significantly, it is an uprising in which women and youth play a key role. Demands include not only an improvement in the civil and political rights of Iranian women, but also a broader demand for human dignity: the right to a dignified existence without the precariousness and hopelessness that exists today. Despite their massive scale, it is difficult to anticipate what will be the social and political impact of the demonstrations. As yet, the protests have not been organized into a political movement or a defined campaign (as happened for example in 2009, with the Green Movement and the “Where is my vote?” campaign, stemming from suspicions of fraud in the elections). In other words, there is no clear leadership of the protests. Youth, and women in particular, are the main participants – especially university students – but one cannot yet speak of a defined political movement.
Several analysts, in a prospective exercise, fear a possible scenario of violent rupture of the status quo, where hard-line factions, especially those linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), could stage a coup d’état. This would result in the elimination of the country’s few democratic structures and, in the process, entirely wipe out the reformist political sector. They point out that this scenario would be possible in two cases: first, if the protests give rise to a period of social reform that is rejected by the hardline sectors, more faithful to the principles of the revolution; and, secondly, if the government and the security forces fail to contain the protests in the medium to long term.
The international dimension of the protests
Mass demonstrations all over the world in support of the protesters in Iran – as illustrated by the case of Berlin – denote, first of all, a great deal of international attention to what is happening in the Islamic Republic; and, secondly, a plethora of political sensitivities and attitudes towards Iran among the diaspora. We have seen imperial flags calling for the return of the Pahlavi dynasty, proclamations calling for regime change, the overthrow of the clerical system of power, the closure of Iranian embassies in Europe, and the condemnation of Iran to international ostracism. In the face of this polarized and active diaspora, European countries are responding cautiously, so as not to derail and completely undermine the nuclear deal talks.
Before the outbreak of the protests, it seemed that an agreement on the resumption of the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was about to be reached. The JCPOA plays a crucial role in US-Iran relations, Europe-Iran relations, and in the sphere of regional and international security. With this in mind, the evolution of the situation in Iran must also be understood as a process connected to the negotiations for the resumption of the nuclear deal: Iran’s economy experienced a standstill and brief recovery during the three years it was in force, before Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018. Since then, the Iranian economic, political and social situation has been in a downward spiral: as the economy worsens, social unrest grows, Iran moves ahead in developing its nuclear capabilities, and the regional security situation becomes more fragile.
At this point, it is difficult to predict what the long-term impact of the protests will be. There are those who claim that a new Iran has been born; there are those who call for a return to the old Iran. What is clear is that Iran is experiencing a historic moment and that the coming months will be crucial for the country’s future.
Elisenda Comadran Casas, area “Alternatives of security“, ICIP