Do the current protests against the hijab in Iran threaten the stability of the Islamic Republic?

Protests in Iran continue but, despite the brutal repression by the state, the determination of young people in the streets could mark a definitive break between the population and the ruling class which, after having arrested and imprisoned activists who have been demanding gradual reforms for years appears to be paying the price of its recalcitrance.

On September 20, the 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini died in Tehran after three days in a coma in hospital. She was tortured and beaten by the ‘moral police’ (gasht-e ershad).
Recent video evidence shows that Ms. Amini suffered from an illness during custody, suggesting that the Iranian authorities’ claim that she had not been beaten is not without merit. Nevertheless, Gasht-e ershad patrols public spaces, searching for people, women in particular, who violate the norms of public ‘decency’ with their clothing and overall appearance (or behavior). Ça va sans dire that the mandatory headscarf is the most common reason for patrols to take action.

Jina Mahsa Amini died in Tehran after three days in a coma in hospital. She was tortured and beaten by the ‘moral police’. (Twitter)

After taking Mahsa back because according to them she was not properly veiled, they forcefully loaded her into a van and took her to the barracks. This summer, Gasht-e ershad has already been the subject of violence that have caused public outrage. And not just against women. They have targeted fed up men such as professional boxer Reza Moradkhani who has been partially paralyzed after being shot by the morality police in the course of defending his wife from their attentions.
There were other episodes as well, marking a decided increase in state violence against the population. The Raisi (known for his loyalty to the Islamic Republic and strict application of its morality laws) government came to power and thanks to the tense international and regional situation – wars, assassinations of scientists and generals, conflicts and diplomatic tensions, it has tightened security, showing ever less tolerance for dissent and ‘resistance’ no matter how minor, or random and intentionally politicized. An example are the dozens, if not hundreds, of young women who are seen around Tehran, and beyond, without a veil. This is a new and disruptive phenomenon for the regime, and in some way, it suggests that the US policy of sanctions – aided and abetted by disruptive actions from Washington’s regional allies – may finally be producing its fruits. What kind of fruits is yet to be determined. One wonders, then, whether a policy of diplomacy might have favored the reformist political camp – starting with that of President Khatami (1997-2002, 2002-2005) – leading to a natural and more democratic evolution of the Islamic Republic.

The present protests
There is are elements of novelty in the present protests. While women have always been at the heart of organized demonstrations against the violence of the Iranian state and with the aim of claiming more rights, there had been a tacit willingness to collaborate with the institutions and accept compromise; especially, when the government had shown a willingness of its own to accept change, as happened under Khatami’s first term (1997-2002). What has changed now – since the 2019 protests in particular – is a realization that the other side, the government, has no predisposition to listen. Therefore, the present protests are more radical and harder to quell. Indeed, both young men and women – part of a generation that has known no political reality other than the Islamic Republic (unlike the previous generation, which could also remember the violence of the Shah’s regime).

Uprising in Tehran. CC BY-SA 4.0/ Darafsh

Over the past weeks, protesters have administered violence of their own. They have chased and beaten Gasht-e ershad officers, attacking police vehicles and there have been reports of some police officers having been killed. It’s a bit like Syria in 2011. But unlike Syria, there’s far more ethnic and especially religious unity in Iran. The protests have also persisted despite heavy government crackdowns. Moreover, while slogans such as ‘death to the dictator’ were seldom heard in previous protests, even in 2009 during the Green Movement period, in 2022 it has been present since the beginning: Marg- ba-diktator. This carried great symbolic significance, given that the main slogans of the 1979 Revolution were marg ba Shah and marg ba Amrika: respectively, death to the Shah and death to America. The protesters also cut across class boundaries. Once they were led mainly by poor workers and proletariat. Today’s protestors have also attracted the well –to-do from the elegant neighborhoods of the educated middle classes, suggesting a more transversal consensus.

Students of Amir Kabir university protests. CC BY-SA 4.0/ Darafsh

Today, the protests are celebrated and encouraged by all even if they fail to express precise leadership. Unlike, some protest movements led and inspired by university students or bazaar shopkeepers (as also happened in 1978-79), the current protest lacks any coordination. This is where the regime can find some respite if Lenin’s revolutionary theories are correct.  The protests remain the first act of individuals who have taken to the streets to express their anger and dissent but they still struggle to establish themselves as a collective entity that thinks and acts politically and in accordance with a strategy. That is not to say that if the Iranian leadership fails to adopt a strategy of its own, and one that goes far beyond the blunt instrument of violence, the movement can’t become more politically relevant – and therefore threatening.

The protests are of great importance to the future, and the Supreme Leadership.
The scale of the protests is enormous because it could indicate a definitive breaking point between the political class and the population. The Iranian government has become ever more authoritarian in the context of economic turmoil and few if any prospect of recovery. The uncertainty over the succession to Khamenei and what that means for the future of the Islamic Republic itself. The negotiations for a new nuclear deal are all but dead, and therefore there’s no sanctions respite in sight. This means that Iran’s goal of establishing itself as an alternative source of gas (as sanctions and damage to both Nord Stream 1 and 2 keep the prospect of Russian gas exports to Europe ever more distant) same time is quickly fading.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. CC BY 4.0/

In the Islamic Republic the president is in office but not in power, because the general orientation – and above all important issues such as foreign policy and nuclear power – is decided by the Rahbar, that is the Commander-in-chief of the regular armed forces, of the Pasdaran and of the Basij paramilitary militias, he is the supreme leader to exercise power on earth on behalf of the Mahdi, the messiah expected by the Shiites.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has held this role since he replaced Imam Khomeini in 1989. He was elected by the Assembly of Experts composed of 88 ayatollahs, who will also be in charge of his succession.
From the institutional point of view, Ayatollah Khamenei represents the head of state of the Islamic Republic, sitting atop of a complex institutional system that intertwines popular legitimacy with religious legitimacy. The dual nature of the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic is today summarized in the figure of Khamenei, who, has played an even more influential role than (post-revolution) Ayatollah Khomeini.
He represents the highest political and religious authority
of the Islamic Republic.
Khamenei’s first government post was as Deputy Defense Minister in Mehdi Bazargan’s interim revolutionary government in spring 1979. This position allowed Khamenei to gain familiarity and experience with the Armed Forces. Khamenei then exercised the role of commander in chief of the armed forces himself once he ascended to the role of Supreme Leader, unlike his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who, while technically holding this power, preferred to delegate it to others. In 1981, Khamenei to the role of President of the Republic, becoming the first Shiite clergyman to occupy a position in the executive branch. In 1989, upon Khomeini’s death, he was elevated to the rank of Supreme Leader. This move was technically made possible through a constitutional change, favored by President Hashemi Rafsanjani. He was betting on Khamenei’s relative political weakness and lack of charisma in order to weaken the role of the Supreme Leader with the aim of carving out a more powerful role for himself.

In a secondary school in Teheran. “Woman, life, freedom”; One of the main slogans of the protesters. CC BY-SA 4.0/ Farzan44

Rafsanjani wanted to embark on a kind of Perestrojka to maneuver Iran into a new phase, characterized by a relaxation of revolutionary rhetoric and a gradual reintegration into the international system.
From the moment of his inauguration, however, Khamenei has dedicated himself to the construction of a personal network that allowed him to increase his political weight exponentially. This strategy was mainly implemented through two instruments: an extremely loyal political elite, and a flexible policy, facilitating the juggling of different political factions; most importantly, preventing any of these from acquiring excessive power – or sufficient power to threaten his role. According to media hostile to Iran, he suffers from all manner of illnesses – though prostate cancer is the most frequent ‘prognosis,’ even as heart and respiratory problems are also mentioned often. His death was announced several times by the enemies of the Islamic Republic, only to be denied. Still, Khamenei is 83 years old, and sooner or later the problems of his succession and what direction Iran will take will
need to be confronted.

Women in Melbourne, Australia, cutting off their hair in solidarity with Iranian Protests. CC BY 2.0/ Matt Hrkac

And this is where the real struggle for power is taking place: with double-digit inflation and skyrocketing prices, the moderate President Rohani had no chance; the grandson of Imam Khomeini has pedigree but does not have a large following and, above all, seems faithful to the indications of his grandfather who did not want his involvement in politics; the Larijani brothers have held various positions, but over the years they have lost their luster also because many of their collaborators are involved in corruption scandals; linked to the pasdaran, the ultraconservative Ebrahimi Raisi could have some chance.
Indeed, Khamenei was the President when Khomeini died, and acceded to the latter’s role. There are also well-informed observers (in interventionist Washington think-tanks it should be stressed) like Ali Alfoneh, of the Arab Gulf States Institute, who believes that the Revolutionary Guards (IGRC) will lead a military coup removing the very role of Rahbar. In other words, Iran would shift from theocracy to military dictatorship. (Open Photo: Iranian women on the frontlines of protest. via Social Media)

Alessandro Bruno


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