Analysis | The chance for change in Iran: Part 1

Katherine Wells

This article is part one of a two-part series exploring the current protests against Iran’s regime. Part one explores the anger and determination of the Iranian people. The second part will focus on the weakness of the current regime in Iran. It is the overlap of both components that explains why Iran is at a critical juncture.

“The hopeless do not revolt, as revolution is an act of hope” — Though coined by Russian revolutionaire Peter Kropotkin, the phrase is indeed applicable in the Iranian people’s response to the murder of the Iranian-Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini. Amini was killed by Iran’s “morality police’s” actions of brutality for not meeting the strict veil requirements. Her death lit a match on a society already soaked in gasoline. Iranians are frustrated by poor economic conditions, oppressive conservatism, and the harshness of their governance. Their anger is at boiling point, and the willingness of the people, particularly the youth, gives these protests “new energy” and hope. It is a unique combination of the vexation and ardor of the Iranian people and the current weakness of the regime that has sparked the potential to ignite effective change.

Despite the brutality of the Iranian regime’s response, students and young people have maintained pressure on the regime. According to Amnesty International, the crackdown on the anti-government protests in Iran has resulted in at least 52 deaths and many more injured at the hands of security forces. Human Rights Iran, has raised this to at least 92 fatalities, three weeks since Mahsa Amini’s death was announced, with the majority of the protesters being students. Riots have taken place on the Tehran University campus as well as on campuses in other major cities, such as Mashhad in the north-east, Tabriz in the north-west, Kerman in the south and Yazd, and Ishfahan in central Iran.

Protests are not untoward in Iran; mass protests have erupted in Iran every 10 years since the start of the democratic rights movement in 1905. Many of these protests in the twenty-first century have been economically motivated. Nevertheless, the symbol of the veil has remained a weight on the scale of conservatism. Beyond the desire for a conservative Islamic state, the mandatory veiling after the Islamic revolution was almost a direct challenge to the mandatory unveiling, which had been imposed by Reza Shah Pahlavi in the 1930s. Both sides of the coin are what the Iranian-American scholar Hamid Dabshi construed as the exploitation of women’s bodies as “the site of their respective ideologies of power and domination.” The first protest against the mandatory veil was on March 8, 1979, on International Women’s Day — 40 years later not much has changed. This type of confrontation is not a new development in Iranian politics, yet these demonstrations are portrayed as more aggressive and upheaving due to Iran’s parlous economic and socio-political climate. The question is whether these conditions turn this into a watershed moment for Iran.

The centralization of government in Tehran has led to the build up of resentment and distrust of the regime, which has regularly imploded. Iran rules over a variety of ethnic groups across its 31 provinces. The IRGC regularly clashes with Balochi separatists in the southeast province of Balochistan and with the Kurds in the northwest Kurdistan region. On Friday, September 30, violence erupted in Sistan Balochistan after a senior police officer allegedly raped a 15 year old ethnic Baluchi girl, which resulted in the death of 19 people. The province authority blamed the violence on “separatist terrorists.”

Much of this frustration stems from poor economic decisions by the government. The lack of transparency from the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and mishandling of the economy during COVID-19 has led to inflation rates as high as 60%. The Iranian rial has also remained the weakest currency on the market due to economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. in 1979. Although some may argue that the Iranian economy has survived despite the sanctions through the diversification of their economy from just energy to manufacturing goods, the effects of this mismanagement are still very much felt by the middle and working classes today. Many Iranians are forced to rely heavily on the black market for basic goods. Furthermore, as of Thursday, October 6, the European Parliament has passed a resolution proposing further sanctions on Iran as a result of the government’s violent response to these protests. As The Atlantic stated: “Iran is in a constant state of ebullition.”

The dire economic situation in Iran has exacerbated class tensions between the poorer rural areas and Tehran. Mahsa Amini, herself, was from the northwestern and Kurdish city of Saqez. As highlighted above, this region is subject to increased discrimination. The unequal distribution of resources is another example of inequities purposefully ingrained into the Iranian approach to state responsibility. There is clear evidence in how Tehran administers the rules and regulations of conservatism — so rules apply to the powerless and not the powerful. The “morality police” are rigorous in how they enforce the rules of modesty on women in the middle and working classes, whereas those associated with the elite are rarely confronted.

The economic conditions are noteworthy when understanding the frustrations towards the regime, but the gender disparities in economic outcomes is crucial to understanding the rage of Iran’s women. In 2019, up to 60 percent of university graduates in Iran were women. However, unemployment rates for Iranian women in 2021 remained at 18.96 percent, approximately double that of 9.98 percent for men. Therefore, there are a large number of highly educated women standing up for women in Iran and vocalizing the Iranian female experience on the streets. This movement is canvassing for the political freedom to choose and to be respected.

Many Iranians may also be experiencing what the academics would characterize as inherited nostalgia from their mothers and grandmothers of the Iranian female experience pre-revolution. This ignites the desire to overturn the current regime’s dictations upon the female body and political freedoms as a whole. Revisiting this inherited nostalgia has also inspired a willing diaspora in the international community to comment and support, leading to increased media exposure in the topics. What differentiates these sets of protests are their attention in the international media. This has been propelled by global access to information and events through social media, intertwined with the rise of gender activism against conservative oppression.

Revolutionary moments are dependent on the time, the place, and the people. In previous protests people were frustrated with the regime’s repressive governance. However, Iran is now at the breaking point, where multiple groups of society are angry. There are the ethnic groups aggravated by decades of oppression, working and middle classes worn out by poor economic management, and highly educated youth willing to stand up for womens’ rights. On top of this you have a motivated diaspora and an open-eared international audience. Now, Iran has the people, it has reached the right time, and thus has become the right place for change.

Katherine Wells is a research assistant at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a graduate student in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. She is a former Middle East and North Africa security analyst at CitiGroup London, UK, and holds an Integrated MA in Arabic and Islamic Studies from the University of Exeter.

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