Can women-led protests sway Iran’s theocratic regime’s foundation?
    Hijab unrests turn into anti-regime outburst

    ANALYTICS  27 September 2022 - 11:20

    Orkhan Jalilov

    The Islamic Republic is going through a rough time, as a massive popular uprising against the current government has begun, following the death of Mahsa Amini reportedly in police custody for violating hijab rules on September 16.

    In the early days of demonstrations, protesters expressed frustration at the mandatory rules for the Islamic dress code and wearing hijab (women's headscarf) and moral police, but now they are chanting slogans against the theocratic regime and ideology in the country.

    Over 40 people have been killed in the protests, including security forces suppressing the protests, according to the state media. More than 1,200 protesters who participated in "attacking" military centres, "damaging" public property and "inciting" unrest have been identified and hundreds of them have been arrested so far. Eleven journalists have also been detained in Iran in the past week, according to US-based media watchdog the Committee to Protect Journalists.

    The unrest erupted at a time when the Iranian people were suffering from Western-imposed sanctions and economic mismanagement by the government has left the economy in tatters.

    With the practical devaluation of the national currency rial, annual inflation has soared close to 50 per cent, and tens of millions of working Iranians have sunk into relative poverty, at a time when food prices have risen by at least 100 per cent in the past year.

    The Iranian currency has lost value more than ninefold since early 2018 when former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), mainly known as the 2015 nuclear agreement, and imposed crippling oil export and banking sanctions on Tehran. The currency has been extremely sensitive to developments surrounding the nuclear dispute, leading the country to economic uncertainty.

    Regime’s preventive measures

    In a response to the anti-government protest, the ruling regime blocked internet access and organized a series of rallies throughout the country, condemning the mass riots and the alleged "desecration" of the Quran and other Islamic sanctities amid ongoing protests, which coincided with the anniversary of the death of the Prophet Muhammad and the second Shiite Imam, Hassan.

    The Iranian authorities and state-run media put the US on a hot seat for supporting "rioters", as well as accused the Kurdish groups, "anti-revolutionary elements", including the exiled Mojahedin-e Khalq Organisation and "monarchists" of instigating protests and sending armed groups.

    In a phone conversation with a family of a Basij member who was killed in protests, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi stressed the need to "take decisive action" against opponents of the security of the country.

    Addressing a gathering in the capital on September 25, a senior cleric in Tehran accused US and Israel of masterminding the "sedition", pledging that the Islamic Republic would take revenge "at the right time" for all the damage it suffered as a result of the unrest.

    A challenge to the Islamic system

    The protests, while certainly not the first in Iran in recent years, speak volumes about the younger generation’s attitude toward the Islamic Republic and their current desperation, says Roham Alvandi, an Iran historian and professor at the London School of Economics.

    “What we need is a new non-partisan consensus that finally acknowledges the reality that the opportunity for reform in Iran is dead, and the people of Iran are demanding an end to the Islamic Republic and the establishment of a secular democratic state,” the expert said.

    However, some analysts don’t see a possibility of the regime being toppled, because of the sheer strength and size of its security apparatus. There are about 250,000 staff members of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) and its paramilitary force, Basij, and the country’s law enforcement personnel constitute an additional half million, reinforcing coercive power.

    Observers have started referring to the demonstrations as the biggest challenge to the regime since the anti-government protest in 2009, known as the "green revolution". In the summer of 2009, hundreds of thousands of Iranians protested the election results of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who wanted to be elected for the second time from the conservative camp.

    Iran’s major opposition alliance, the reformist “Green Movement” and people widely believed that the election results were rigged. About 70 demonstrators were killed and hundreds of protesters were arrested, some of them mysteriously died in custody. Since then, popular social media networks such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have been banned in Iran. In addition, access to Instagram, which has over 40 million users in the country, has also been restricted in the country after the recent events.

    “The main difference between the current protest compared to the green movement in 2009 is that now people are fighting back; they are not afraid of the brutal regime,” Sima Sabet, a journalist and presenter on the Iran International TV station, told The Guardian.

    Hundreds of expatriate Iranians rallied in Paris and other European cities on September 24, to denounce Iran’s crackdown on protests. “Khamenei get out of Iran!” and “Death to the Islamic republic” were among the slogans shouted by the demonstrators.

    Opposition against hardliners

    The major part of Iranian society has long been opposed to clerical rule and the behaviour of the state’s security forces, which have enforced one of the region’s most formidable theocratic states over more than four decades. The lack of reforms and swelling economic and political pressure often triggered large-scale protests and violent repression in 2009 and 2019. 

    The founder of the Islamic Revolution, former Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini developed its doctrine, known as guardianship of the jurist, where he posited that a government was possible if religious scholars sat atop it to ensure consistency with Islamic law. Despite incumbent leader Khamenei’s pretensions as a religious leader, today his future rests largely in the hands of the IRGC. Many Western analysts argue that IRGC's political power has surpassed even that of the country's Shia clerical system. Meanwhile, according to Iran’s constitution, the supreme leader’s major authorities include setting national policies and supervising their implementation, as well as commanding the armed forces and appointing military chiefs and the heads of the IRGC and police.

    The Iranian political organizations include shifting alliances between political groups and prominent individuals, key socio-economic constituencies, and centres of power. In its 43 years of existence, the theocratic regime has tried to balance between moderate and hardline (or principlist) camps, as the hybrid political system combines elements from both democratic and authoritarian systems. A coalition of reformists, centrists or pragmatic conservatives together forms the moderate camp, which is more ready to confront the policy of hardliners. Meanwhile, the hardliner camp includes loyalists to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, emphasizing Islamic social values and supporting a free market economy, influential clerics and the elite Revolutionary Guards.

    No one should expect that reformists and moderates, who widely support ideas of deepening the dialogue with the West and implementing the policy of openness, will provide fundamental changes in Iranian society. In the last 25 years, two reformist presidents were elected for two terms, Mohammad Khatami in 1997 and Hassan Rouhani in 2013, but they failed to make any substantial reforms in the political system, which is tightly controlled by the clerical establishment.

    Actually, all pro-reformist candidates approved by the Guardian Council, a 12-member body of clerics and lawyers, which must ensure all laws passed by the Iranian parliament conform with Islamic law and the constitution, have been proving their loyalty to the ideals of the Islamic Revolution. It should be noted that the supreme leader personally appoints six of the Guardian Council’s members, and the remaining six are selected by the head of the judiciary, who is appointed by the supreme leader as well.


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