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Is Iran on the brink of a new revolution?

Experts believe the situation will be much worse before it gets any better

By Hammad Sarfraz |
Design: Ibrahim Yahya
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PUBLISHED November 13, 2022

From the outside looking in, seismic changes seem afoot in neighbouring Iran. While our own ongoing political turmoil has a stranglehold on headlines and airwaves at home, the Islamic Republic has been rocked by youth-led protests on a scale seemingly unprecedented since the 1979 revolution that brought its ruling order to power.

Triggered by the tragic death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini following arrest and alleged torture at the hands of Iran’s Guidance Patrol, mass demonstrations against Iran’s hyper-conservative government have been taking place and gathering strength since September. Young women, especially from schools and universities, are refusing to wear the hijab in solidarity for Amini and other women who have allegedly suffered at the hands of Iranian authorities, particularity those that enforce a strict code of ‘modesty and morality’. Both young men and women have flaunted restrictions that call for gender segregation while openly calling for the Islamic Republic’s ruling elite to leave power.

The response by the Iranian government has been swift and strict. In addition to counter-rallies upholding ‘traditional values’ and denouncing the youth protestors as ‘traitors’ – rallies authorities maintain they had no role in – purported leaked documents revealed orders to Iranian security forces to quash mass demonstrations using nearly any means necessary.

Clashes between protestors and security forces have resulted in the deaths of more than 300 civilians and at least 33 officials. Many, including the journalists who broke the story of Amini’s alleged torture and subsequent coma and death, have been arrested while around 1,000 have been charged by Iranian courts of "corruption on Earth" and "waging war against God", which carries the death penalty.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi have repeatedly blamed outside forces and foreign powers of stoking unrest while downplaying its scale and labeling youth activists as ‘misguided’. But already, there appear to be some cracks with senior conservative figures like Ali Larijani calling for a re-examination of enforcement of mandatory hijab and retired IRGC general Hossein Alaei suggesting the abolishing of the morality patrol altogether.

Experts on the ground and abroad view the situation as simultaneously unprecedented and a result of missed chances and missteps on the part of Iran’s government. While approaching the developments with cautious optimism for the Islamic Republic’s long-term future, they decry, however, misplaced priorities on the part of other nations when it comes to the goings-on in Iran.

Fear and uncertainty

Speaking to The Express Tribune, seasoned Iranian journalist and scholar Fariba Pajooh said there is massive fear prevalent at the moment among almost everyone from Iran, whether they remained home or abroad. “I don’t feel good about the situation in Iran at the moment. But I’m out and I’m so thankful to be out during this time. Still, it doesn't matter where you are. Wherever you are, you carry your home with you,” she shared. “I too carry the fear with myself and I don't know what will happen next.”

Pajooh stressed that for any civilised government, shooting or attacking women and children should be a red line they never cross. “In Iran, the regime has already violated that line. Everything changed after they killed people, after the government used force against innocent people. Iran is certainly not going back to where it was two months ago,” she said. “But we are not surprised at the reaction from the government in Tehran. It was expected.”

Partly, for Pajooh, whose journalistic experience spans 15 years across the globe and who had been sent to jail by Iranian authorities for a considerable time, the reaction of the Iran government to protests was no different from many other nations. “What we see now is naked violence against people. And it is not just happening in Tehran but in many cities across the country,” she pointed out. “But the regime does not understand that they are wrong.”

The reporter, who is currently a PhD student and graduate teaching assistant at a university in the US, made a reference to the George Floyd case that rocked America in 2020. “Those responsible [for Floyd’s death] were arrested. Apologies were issued and the country moved on,” she said.

According to her, the Iranian regime missed a chance in the case of Mahsa Amini. “The regime and the Supreme Leader could have issued an apology and the country would not have convulsed as it is now,” she noted. “But, of course, it is a dictatorial regime. They have not done anything sensible or right.”

The Iranian government and ruling elite’s reaction to Amini’s death, according to Pajooh, reveals how ‘disconnected and insulated’ they are from the ‘real world’. “They cannot see how the world is changing and how Iran needs to adapt. So, to shut the movement and the anger of the people, they decide to use brute force,” she said. Comparing her own self to the current generation of Iranian youth that is rising up against Iran’s clerical regime, the journalist highlighted that they are more connected, more savvy and more energetic and ‘certainly more committed and brave’.

“They are connected to the most powerful tool that is the social media and it won't be easy for the regime to suppress this movement,” Pajooh said. “The youth of Iran will not back off and accept the primitive way of life that is being offered to them by the regime. They will not go back to the same situation they were in before the protests, and the regime seems to be showing no sign of backing off. Hence, Iran stands at a dead end.”

A sliver of hope?

Amid fear of further repression and violence, some Iranian voices expressed cautious hope for Iran’s people and their future due to the scale and grass roots nature of the present protest movement. Among them is Dr Elham Hoominfar, who has extensive teaching experience in the United States and Iran and is currently an assistant professor at Northwestern University.

“I’m really optimistic. ​​It’s a grassroots movement and it’s really progressive,” she said while speaking to The Express Tribune. “Iranian powers have used religion for their gain. After 1979, Sharia law took over women’s bodies and lives. It separated them from individual freedoms and marginalised them. The Iranian people understand that,” Dr Hoominfar explained.

According to her, many Iranians, especially the young protestors currently standing up to the Iranian government, have been undertaking a historical struggle to restore human dignity and personal and social freedoms. “The slogan ‘Women, Life, and Freedom’ means that society cannot be freed till women are freed. They want secularism, and religion should not be in power,” she said.

Agreeing with Dr Hoominfar’s observations, Fariba Pajooh noted that while claiming to be the guardians of Islam in Iran, the present regime had actually forced a generation away from religion by its actions. “The current generation, perhaps due to the restrictions, doesn’t want to follow anything related to religion. I have some beliefs, but less than my parent’s generation. The current generation is running away from religion because it was forced on them by the regime,” she noted.

“So when the government brands the current protests against religion and Islam, it is not true. It is not against Islam. It is clearly against the dictatorship that has oppressed the people of Iran for decades,” Pajooh added. “It is about freedom to dress, freedom to live and freedom in general. That's the slogan, people want a normal life and not a regimented existence.”

Is regime change possible?

While the people of Iran may be ready for secularism, Dr Hoominfar believed the clerics would certainly not give up power without a fight. “They [the clerics] are in power because of religion,” she said. “They have substantial economic, political, and social interests. That is why they are brutally murdering the Iranian protesters.”

She viewed this conflict of social, political, and economic interests between the clerics and the people of Iran, particularly Iranian women, as the central conflict in this period. “That is why you hear the slogan, ‘Akhund (the cleric) should get lost’,” Dr Hoominfar explained. She warned, however, that the clerics were only one part of the problem. “Another goes back to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC),” she said adding that while these two social elite groups have strengthened each other, they can also stand against each other.

To that equation, seasoned Iranian journalist Fariba Pajooh pointed out that the Islamic Republic’s regime has the financial resources to continue. “It continues to receive support from Beijing and Moscow. It continues to sell oil through these channels,” she pointed out. “Under these circumstances, I don't expect a conflict with the US, and Washington will not get into a military conflict or start an invasion.”

Dr Hoominfar voiced two fears: “First, more political suppression and massacre. The ruling power elite has substantial economic interests in Iran and wants to stay in power at any cost,” she said. To stand up to that, the people of Iran need international solidarity, she stressed. “My second fear is the existence of the ‘counter-movements’ that, with the support of foreign powers, can again prevent the victory of a democratic movement in Iran,” the scholar added.

According to Pajooh, what has happened over the past few weeks is a major step forward towards regime change. “However, regime change will not take place at this time,” she believed. “This is the first major step toward change in Iran and it won't be the last one. But the actual regime change is not going to happen this time.”

Global disinterest

Despite the strength and scale of the Mahsa Amini protests, Pajooh did not see the international community coming together and creating policies against Iran at this point. “There has been some movement from Germany, a statement from Biden, but I cannot see what they actually want to do for the people of Iran,” she said.

Uppsala University’s Professor Ashok Swain agreed with that assessment. “The situation is quite serious and there is no doubt about that. The regime in Tehran, with all its power, is trying to maintain its grip on the country and its people who have been protesting for several weeks now. Despite the force being used against the people of Tehran, the protesters are getting stronger,” he noted.

He admitted, however, that the international community hasn't had any logical approach or policy towards Iran. “Since the US withdrew from the nuclear deal signed during the Obama era, the West has not been coherent. Iran has been left in isolation and none of the efforts, so far have resulted in creating any positive progress,” he said. “There is now a clear credibility gap between the people of Iran and the West. Hence, those protesting in the streets of Iran, perhaps have very little hope of support from the West.”

Prof Swain added that on the other hand, the regime is doing everything in its power to present the ongoing protests as a Western-backed plot to unseat the clerics. “They are trying to brand the protests as against the values that represent Islam. For the people of Iran, it is entirely against oppression and primitive ideologies. In short, the regime is legitimising its actions against the citizens by branding the protests as a Western plot.”

Prof Swain also pointed out the fact that the protesters don't have clear leadership. “In order to change things in Iran, a coordinated movement would be needed. Even while this current uprising has gained considerable momentum, it lacks strong leadership that can challenge the regime,” he said. “The protesters, as we know, don't have direct or tangible international support but there is anger and resentment. This makes the situation more volatile than it seems from the outside.”

All in all, Prof Swain saw the present situation as very difficult for the people of Iran. “The government in Tehran is waging a war against its own people. With little hope for international mediation, the regime, without a doubt, will exercise maximum power and force against the protestors. And if it manages to crush the uprising, it will become even more ideologically rigid than it is at this point,” he said.

According to Prof Swain, the West has different parameters to deal with such situations. “If this was an uprising in a former Soviet State or Eastern Europe, you would have seen a more engaged media and the international community. It is hypocrisy on display. We live in a world that has different standards for different situations,” he said. “There is very little equality of respect or equality of concern for the people of Iran. At the international level, I think the global community is very divided. The world lacks unanimity on the level of support it needs to offer to those who stand up for democracy, stand up for human rights and stand up for the rights of minorities.”

He also pointed out that Western priorities vis-à-vis Iran are presently misplaced. “Iran's supply of drones to Russia has become a bigger issue than what is happening inside Iran.” But that's not new or unexpected, he added. “Examine the global reaction to deaths and violations taking place in Burma. A huge humanitarian disaster is taking place for more than two years in the Tigray War. More than 600,000 people have been killed. Millions have been kept under some kind of sanctions regime and they are not able to access food and medicines but the international community is totally silent on this.”

View from abroad

Despite the apparent global disinterest in Iran and the attempts by its government to downplay the unrest, foreign experts saw the current movement as very different from other recent protests in the country.

Speaking to The Express Tribune, former adviser to an Australian government minister and a shadow minister, Dr Claude Rakisits, agreed that this is a very different sort of protest from the previous one. “This one probably presents the most serious challenge to the Islamic Republic since its foundation in 1979. But more importantly, this one is led by women and girls, who have been joined by men and people from all walks of life and all parts of Iran,” he said.

“Whether it will succeed is difficult to tell at this point. The last massive protest in 2009 against the rigged presidential elections did after all go on for four months before collapsing,” noted Dr Rakisits, who is an honorary associate professor at the Australian National University and Deakin University. “[But] while it was sparked off by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, it has since ballooned from anti-hijab protest to a counter-revolution demanding the end of the Islamic Republic.”

That said, Dr Rakisits voiced alarm that after weeks of protests more than 326 people, with quite a number of them children, were killed by the security and police forces using live ammunition. “This is before the regime has deployed in full force the ruthless IRGC. So I expect things to get much worse before they settle down.” He explained that the IRGC's raison d'être is the protection of the Islamic Revolution. “Put differently, if there is no longer an Islamic regime there is no longer any need for the IRGC. So, for the IRGC, the protests must not become an existential threat to their corporate interests.”

When asked, Dr Rakisits disagreed that the global community, the West in particular, is unconcerned with developments in Iran. “Ukraine and all developments associated with it do take a lot of the western media attention. However, this doesn't mean that the global community doesn't care about the protests. It's not mutually exclusive,” he stressed. According to him, a big problem is that it is virtually impossible for the international media to go into Iran to report on what is happening. “Most of the world's information comes from social media platforms, and these are restricted in any case.”

That said, he admitted that there is little the global community can do to prevent repression by Iran’s government. “With Iran, for all intents and purposes, a part of the Russia-China axis, we could expect support from China and other Islamic countries in the Human Rights Council if the situation came up for discussion. Any discussion on this issue in the UN Security Council would be guillotined by China and/or Russia, and possibly others as well,” Dr Rakisits said.

The sanctions question

On the topic of global assistance and punitive measures, Dr Elham Hoominfar stressed that indiscriminate maximum sanctions or any attempts that hurt the Iranian people are not right. “Targeted sanctions on the revolutionary guards and the regime’s top figures would be more effective,” she said, while urging the global community to ‘let people in Iran decide the future of Iran’. “We need international support and solidarity, particularly from grassroots movements. But it is the Iranian people who should decide about their future, not foreign governments,” she said.

Australia’s Dr Claude Rakisits, when asked the same, admitted that there has indeed been a certain degree of isolation of the people of Iran. “However, even with the Iranian clerical regime trying to further cut the Iranian people off from the rest of the world by limiting access to the internet and various social media platforms, it has not been able to stop the outside world from finding out what is really happening inside Iran,” he said.

While voices from Iran have been critical of sanctions and their effects, other international groups and activists see targeted sanctions as a useful tool to punish the regime. As opposed to blanket sanctions, the Human Rights Foundation has welcomed the increase in the use of targeted sanctions toward Iran’s regime, especially in response to grave human rights violations, HRF Chief Advocacy Officer Roberto González told The Express Tribune.

“Both the US and the UK have sanctioned the morality police in Iran for its abuse and violence against Iranian women and the violation of the rights of peaceful protestors,” González said. Asked what the global community can do, he suggested: “Democratic governments can impose sanctions, make statements against the Iranian regime’s oppression, and engage in a diplomatic boycott of Iran’s regime. And the wider public can take action and advocate for women in Iran, by sharing stories, amplifying voices from those on the ground, and supporting NGOs and civil society actors working on these issues.”

On a question about the isolation of the Iranian people, Human Rights Foundation Chief Advocacy Officer Roberto González said we must continue to stay informed, amplify Iranian women’s voices, and report on the deaths, internet censorship, and other human rights abuses committed by Iran’s regime. “As long as the global community continues to share the stories of the women on the frontlines of this revolution, they are not isolating the Iranian people. We need to show support and solidarity with them, and ensure that we continue to expose the regime’s oppressive treatment of women,” he added.

Speaking on the issue of sanctions, a senior European diplomat with considerable insights on Tehran said the increase of the international sanctions in the last years up to now are mostly due to the nuclear file, which is, at this stage, the most pressing issue for the international community.

“Unfortunately, after Trump's decision to leave JCPOA in 2018, despite many attempts to restore it, talks have failed for many reasons. As of today, the geopolitical scenario has changed considerably. The war in Ukraine has de facto strengthened the relationships between Moscow and Tehran. The Iranian circle of power around Khamenai is more determined to pursue the “looking to the east” policy, by strengthening relationships with China and the countries of the region,” shared the diplomat, who wished to remain anonymous due to established protocols.

The diplomat said Iran’s signing of the memorandum to join as a permanent member the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation was highly significant. “In this situation it is difficult today to talk again about nuclear negotiations with Tehran when the echo of the wave of protests is still present in the international media.”

The diplomat also said it is worth noting that opponents of nuclear negotiations, through their organisations and their influence in the media, have taken the opportunity and are exploiting the situation to try to block any possible return to such negotiations. “In any case, balancing necessary contacts with Tehran to restart negotiations while maintaining a condemnation of the Iranian Government for the repression against protesters is going to be a difficult task, at least in the short term. Only at a later stage it will be possible to assess the possibility of the return to the nuclear talks.”

Khamenai’s successor

As protests wage on, reports have suggested Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenai’s son Mojtaba will most likely succeed him on account of his ailing health. Against the backdrop of unrest, The Express Tribune asked foreign observers their views on the possible transition.

According to HRF’s Roberto González, it is almost certain that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, will continue the tyrannical regime in Iran.  The oppression of women, violation of basic human rights and brutal suppression of peaceful protesters, González cautioned, will continue under Khamenei’s successor. “Given the current situation, we at the HRF are concerned about and condemn the continuation of the crackdown on demonstrators and the merciless killing of civilians. However, we also believe that Iran is at a turning point — one which we hope will pave the way for a transition to democracy in the country,” he added.

Australia’s Dr Claude Rakisits, however, did not think it is a given that Khamenei's son is going to succeed as the supreme leader of the Islamic Revolution. “On the contrary, the massive uprising has diminished his chances because his selection would further enrage the protesters. Moreover, it would seem that the IRGC would prefer to have President Ebrahim Raisi as the successor, someone whom they feel they could more easily control.”

According to him, the only good news for Iranian people is that the "morality police" has lost its fear clout and it will never be able to regain it. “Of course, the regime also knows that if it loosens the rules on the wearing of the hijab the protesters will demand even more. And the protesters know that the regime is fully aware of this. All in all, the Ayatollahs can't win this one in the long run. And they would know this privately.”

According to the senior European diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity, the question of the succession of Khamenei is a very complex issue. “There are many speculations in this regard. The possibility that Mojtaba would replace him in due time is one of them. However, the history of the Islamic Republic would advise caution in making predictions,” he said. “There is no doubt that the entire process will be managed in accordance with all centers of power, especially IRGC and the security apparatus. Whatever the outcome of the process, undoubtedly it will affect the future of the country and the region as well.”

A clerical view

Speaking to The Express Tribune on condition of anonymity, a senior Iranian cleric reiterated the stance of the nation’s supreme leader and president on the ongoing protests. “The Islamic Republic of Iran is facing another attempt by the West and those who are part of the disintegrating Western world order to destabilise the Islamic state by sponsoring and triggering protests,” he maintained. The protestors, the cleric alleged, are ‘backed by Western machinery’ and so, he insisted, the Iranian government had “no reason to legitimise the sponsored conspiracy against the Islamic Republic and what it stands for – the faith.”

“There is no space for such antics inside Iran,” the cleric stressed, adding that the Iranian government and lawmakers have expressed their support for strong action against the protesters. “They [the protestors] will be taught an exemplary lesson if they don’t comply,” he warned.