Dr. Tahseen Mahmood Aslam describes the consistent
protests in Iran
The ongoing protests in Iran appear to be apparently interminable though the clerical regime is very difficult to dislodge as historically it has proved that it can sustain agitation for longer duration. The tactics of the regime could be surmised from the fact that after 40 days of the current protests Iran’s Army Ground Forces Commander has warned the rioters would have no place in the Islamic Republic if the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered a tougher crackdown on nationwide protests. This speaks volumes about the deployment of the layers of defence mechanism that the clerical regime undertakes and never displays panic at any stage as compared to similar dictatorial dispensations that have quite peripheral control on societal forces. It must be kept in mind that anti-government demonstrations erupted in September and they quickly turned into a popular revolt with people ranging from students to doctors to lawyers to workers to athletes taking part but the regime did not show signs of buckling under pressure at any juncture.
The clerical regime is even resisting growing demands from clerics and some reformist politicians to stage a new referendum on Iran’s constitution as hardline parliamentarians meanwhile insist the only response to the recent unrest sweeping the country is for violent protesters to be executed. The power struggle among the country’s rulers appears to leave the government sending out mixed messages on how to respond to the protests but in practice the security forces have gone ahead with a severe crackdown and arrested nearly 10,000 people including many journalists. This implies that the regime is single-minded in holding on to power very conscious that this is its only chance to remain in power otherwise it will be relegated to political wilderness never to come out of it. This is the fear that drives the leading clerics and their hardline followers to crush the opposition through any means available and they appear determined to do so.
On the face of it the regime maintains a hardline stance yet some senior members of Iran’s multi-faceted administration have gone on to university campuses in a bid to open a dialogue with the protesting students along with trying hard to shift the blame of the current difficulties on the previous administration led by President Hassan Rouhani. Quite obviously such efforts are not proving successful as government ministers are facing demands to release the hundreds of students and teachers still detained. In the meanwhile students were outraged when 220 hardline Iranian lawmakers urged the judiciary to deal decisively with perpetrators of unrest, a wording that was taken to mean executions. Faced by a backlash the spokesperson for the parliament said that the call had been misinterpreted by western media and a distinction had been drawn between protests and riots adding that no appeasement was possible for those that had killed others.
There is deep-seated anger in Iran over the government’s Islamic policies, especially those around dress codes. Even when the hijab was made compulsory in 1983 there were protests, which have continued ever since. Frustrations have worsened since hardliner Ebrahim Raisi became president in 2021 and began ramping up policing of women’s dress code, says Roulla, an Iranian political activist and researcher, who wanted to protect his identity for security reasons. Yet protests are also about the failure of reform. For decades, Iranians invested heavily in the idea promised by reformist leaders that things would change but nothing happened and the message now is loud and clear that the Islamic Republic itself must go. Former presidents Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Khatami tried in the past to bring Iran closer to the West, lessen social restrictions and bring more democratic freedoms though these efforts largely failed.
Adding insult to injury Iran’s economy has collapsed in recent years, while inequality has spiked. Young people on the streets see the sons and daughters of those in power having a luxurious life as their parents loot the people’s wealth, while normal Iranians see no future. After then US President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal aimed at stopping Tehran develop a nuclear weapon in 2018, international sanctions were slapped on Iran and its currency went into freefall, with ordinary Iranians bearing the brunt of these economic blows. Iran felt completely isolated in the region and internationally with the Gulf monarchies anarchies aligning themselves with Israel to encircle it as Iran is known to be Israel’s mortal enemy.
In a largely leaderless revolution, clerics and some students are making demands that the regime try to resolve the crisis by holding an immediate referendum with the presence of international observers. Many protestors are young women and men who are dubbed as Generation Z. Globalisation and the internet have led this group to protest by destroying cultural differences between young people in the Middle East and Europe. When a young girl in Iran sees on social media that at the same time she has to go to a mandatory religious class, while people elsewhere are having a pool party it is a comparison that cannot be unseen. In Iran, students must attend compulsory classes on Islam, with strict Islamic dress codes and gender segregation applied in schools and universities.
What is unique about today’s protests, rated much larger than those in 2019, is that they have united nearly every section of society. In 2019 poorer sections of society protested fuel price rises, while unrest in 2009 centered on more middle-class issues of vote rigging. Something else that sets these protests apart from those in the past is that they show the Islamic Republic has lost legitimacy among its core supporters believing this is due to the horrific violence inflicted upon past protestors. It is like internal bleeding inside the regime that is getting worse and worse. For the first time in recent years, anti-government demonstrations have taken place in more traditional and conservative cities, such as Qom and Mashhad.
Observers are divided on whether the unrest could topple the regime. Despite the violent crackdown, protests are continuing in what is now one of the biggest challenges it has faced since the 1979 revolution. One important factor will be if the regime stays united and parts of security forces do not defect. Iran’s last monarch fell in 1979 after mass defections from the army. In the meanwhile videos have surfaced on social media of riot police joining protests, though this appears to be an isolated event, though claims have emerged that the regime is more divided than it seems with reports of tensions over how to deal with protestors.
On the other hand Saudi Arabia has shared intelligence with the U.S. warning of an imminent attack from Iran on targets in the kingdom, putting American military and others in the Middle East on an elevated alert level. Saudi officials said Iran is poised to carry out attacks on both the kingdom and Erbil, Iraq, in an effort to distract attention from domestic protests that have roiled the country since September. Iran has already attacked northern Iraq with dozens of ballistic missiles and armed drones since late September, one of which was shot down by a U.S. warplane as it headed toward the city of Erbil, where American troops are based. Tehran has publicly blamed what it calls Iranian Kurdish separatist groups based there for fomenting the unrest at home. Iranian authorities have also publicly accused Saudi Arabia, along with the U.S. and Israel, of instigating the demonstrations. TW