The Future of Protests in Iran

Mehmet Koç Senior Expert

The establishment seems determined not to compromise its current policies while underlining that it will maintain this determination since the experience of the Shah regime's weakness cost the overthrow of the system.

The protests that started following Mahsa Amini's death on September 16 after she was arrested by the Gasht-e Ershad (Morality Police) in Tehran for dressing against the Hijab rules have spread to almost all cities and have entered the fourth week. According to the allegations, she was hospitalized due to ill-treatment in custody. Although the state has tried many methods so far, it has not been able to control the protests. Until now, more than 185 people have lost their lives in 17 provinces, mainly in Tehran, West Azerbaijan, East Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Kermanshah, Isfahan, Alborz, Razavi Khorasan, and Sistan and Baluchestan.

Since there are no mechanisms to channel social problems, needs, and demands to political power in healthy and legitimate ways and methods in Iran, in such cases, the masses tend to seek their rights on the streets. Even though the Islamic Republic tried different political organizations to shape socio-political dynamics in several periods after the Revolution in this regard, it has not been able to find an ultimate method. For instance, immediately after the Revolution, all secular dynamics (1979-1983) were purged from the political scene in accordance with the new dominant ideology and the state model based on Velayat-e Faqih. Efforts to create a homogeneous political structure (1979-1987) within the Islamic Republican Party failed while the sociopolitical dynamics had been splitting into right Islamists and left Islamists. This classification has been re-structured as reformers and conservatives since the mid-1990s, and once again categorized as reformers, conservatives, and moderates when Hassan Rouhani came to the power in 2013. 

As it can be understood from the attitude of the establishment, the policy of the country is no longer being designed over the polarizations of Islamist-secular, left-right, reformist-conservative, and moderate-conservative that have been the case since the Revolution. In the new era, the establishment has adopted a polarization approach based on the supporters of the system and opponents of the system. In this regard, the process is moving towards a sharp polarization between the establishment and other sociopolitical dynamics. It is possible to observe this process more clearly through the reactions shown in the last incident.

Society tried to make its voice heard by the state through these dynamics but failed every time, and the establishment has always used these dynamics to postpone social problems, needs, and demands. Society has begun to lose faith and trust in socio-political dynamics, especially in this regard, since the second term of Rouhani. Thus, when Ahmad Alamolhoda, the representative of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and a Friday Imam, organized protests in Mashhad on January 2018 to put pressure on the Rouhani government, it quickly got out of control and turned into anti-system demonstrations. Another similar protest happened in response to the petrol price increase on November 2019. The state showed its harsh side in both incidents and was able to suppress the protests a week later as hundreds of people lost their lives and thousands of people were arrested. Nevertheless, the protests, which started as a reaction to Amini's death, are not still under control though it has been four weeks. 

The Reactions of the Internal Dynamics to Amini’s Death and the Protests

Immediately after Amini's death, many clerics, politicians, and people from the arts and sports community shared their reactions with the public. Mohammad Khatami, Ayatollah Mahmoud Amjad, Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, daughter of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (arrested due to her harsh reaction and transferred to Evin Prison), former national team captain Ali Karimi, screenwriter, director, and actor Mehran Modiri, and many other well-known figures openly supported the protests. As a result of these reactions, a lot of people from the arts and sports community have been arrested. Moreover, several professors announced a boycott by not attending classes until the students, who have been detained during demonstrations, are released. One of the most interesting things in the process is that Rouhani has remained silent until now. Shortly after the start of the protests, Khamenei appointed the new members of the Expediency Discernment Council of the System, which acts as an advisor to the Supreme Leader in determining state policies. He re-appointed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had publicly criticized and even accused him many times while not appointing Rouhani. By doing so, Khamenei showed how they eliminate every actor in the system that could compete with them or pose a risk to them. 

In a television program that he attended, a moderate politician Gholamhossein Karbaschi, Secretary General of the Executives of Construction of Iran Party, underlined that 70-80% of the women do not dress in accordance with the hijab law. He argued that the state's responsibility is to make the necessary changes in the relevant law. While Karbaschi stated that he was against the compulsory hijab law, conservative journalist Abdullah Ganji, who attended the same program, indicated that according to their field study, 20 million women are against this law. Reformist and moderate dynamics, who have been made almost politically passive, have not yet made a statement to show their concrete support for the protests. As stated above, since the establishment is determined to categorize the socio-political dynamics in the new era as pro-system and anti-system, people from the reformist or moderate segments who encourage participation in the protests will be labeled as the opponents of the system, and thus, they can be easily eliminated. That is why these segments still keep their silence in terms of concrete support for the protests. 

The Reaction of the Foreign Opposition

Due to Amini's Kurdish origin, anti-system Kurdish organizations and groups have actively tried to direct the protests since the first day of the incident. The “Women, Life, and Freedom” slogan that marked the protests was put forward by these groups and became widespread on short notice. Through his messages, Prince Reza Pahlavi invited the Iranian people to support the protestors while calling on the army to stand with the people. In addition to calling the people to the streets, Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the People's Mujahideen Organization, claimed in her latest statement that this is no longer an ordinary protest, but a revolution process. The Secretary General of the Iran Transitional Council, Hassan Shariatmadari, called for a boycott across the country while inviting the public to protest. The Southern Azerbaijan National Awakening Movement, which started to support the protests a few days later, took the stage with an alternative slogan: "Freedom, Justice and National State”. In this context, one of the significant features, which distinguish these protests from the previous ones, is the participation of all anti-system actors from different national and ethnic/regional backgrounds in the protests together for the first time.

Although the opponents of the system have not yet reached a consensus among themselves on the leadership, they managed to organize demonstrations in approximately 150 cities of the world simultaneously in order to support the protests in the country and to gain the support of the world public for Iran. On the other hand, these segments aim to overthrow the system by keeping the people on the streets in the country. In line with this purpose, while they call the security forces to join the public in the protests, they also share the information of some security and intelligence officials, who stand uncompromisingly against the public, on social media, making these officials an open target. 

Reactions of System Leaders

Supreme Leader Khamenei's first reaction to the demonstrations came 17 days after the beginning of the events. On October 3, he made statements concerning the protests during the graduation ceremony of Imam Ali Officers' Academy, which trains officers for the Iranian Army. Using the rhetoric of foreign actors again, Khamenei accused the USA and Israel and underlined that the separatist organizations could not achieve their goals of dividing the country. Although he stood up for the security forces and made public appearances twice in 17 days, he did not mention the events. It gave the message to middle and lower-level officials that “I do not have to have your back by putting my reputation on the table every single time.” After blaming foreign powers and supporting the security forces, Khamenei gave a more moderate message than the expected harsh warning to the demonstrators. What this message meant for the security forces is that they need to take the protests under control with a method that spread over a longer period and uses less violence instead of suppressing the demonstrators in a short time with harsh methods, as in the past. After Khamenei's moderate messages, hundreds of young people, who had been arrested, were released. However, according to the statement made by the Ministry of Interior on October 9, those who will be detained from now on will not be released without a trial, and the trials will be carried out with fast and harsh punishments. After this statement of the Ministry, it is possible to say that the way of intervention in events will become tougher. In his statement, the Commander in Chief of the Army, Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi, underlined their support for the police service. Thus, the calls of the opponents of the system, especially the former national team captain Ali Karimi, for the army to defend the people, remained unheeded. 

In conclusion, while the opponents of the system have shown their determination to overthrow Khamenei and the Islamic Republic, they have not yet been able to deal an effective blow to the system. Also, efforts to cause conflicts between the security forces have been inconclusive. The establishment, on the other hand, seems determined not to compromise its current policies while underlining that it will maintain this determination since the experience of the Shah regime's weakness cost the overthrow of the system. The Iranian people are cautious about supporting the protests in order to prevent the chaos and turmoil in the east (Afghanistan) and west (Iraq and Syria) of the country from spreading into Iran. Considering all these parameters together, it should be noted that the assessments that Iran will be dragged into a civil war or chaos are not realistic assumptions.

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