Protests in Iran: Where is the Islamic Republic Heading?

Protests in Iran: Where is the Islamic Republic Heading?
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Since September 16, Iranians have taken to the streets once more, chanting anti-theocratic slogans. Among their mantras are "Women, Life, Freedom," "We don't want the Islamic Republic," and "Clergy should get lost." On September 16, a young girl died in the custody of the so-called Morality Police, sparking the current wave of outrage. She had been detained a few days before for "indecent exposure."

Currently, news from Iran is heavily regulated, social media platforms are essentially restricted, and the internet is almost blocked off from the rest of the world. However, given the theocratic republic's track record, the probability of crashing the demonstrators is very high, since the leadership has shown little mercy in the past to similar revolutions. According to Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, scores of protestors have been slain, while hundreds more are imprisoned.

Though the theocratic republic may eventually be able to clear the streets, this does not appear to be the end of the tale. The question is, where is the theocratic republic heading? To answer the question, one must distinguish between the current wave of protests and the earlier ones. Among the several civil unrests that have occurred in the past, two stand out due to their length and strength:

The first one took place in 2009, following a contentious presidential election. It was widespread rioting that began in Tehran and spread to other major cities. Protesters demanded that election results be re-counted because they believed the elections had been rigged in favour of the establishment-backed candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As such, the rebellion had a reformist objective in search of an in-systemic answer. The participants were primarily educated urban middle-class citizens and political activists who believed in gradual socio-political transformations achieved through democratic means. This outbreak had two revolutionary-cum-reformist leaders: Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both of whom were pronounced losers in presidential elections. They are still under home arrest.

The second one happened in November 2019, when Iranians occupied the streets following the overnight petrol price increase. Although they chanted some slogans against the theocratic republic in the later stage, it was mainly and initially an economic-oriented uprising targeting a single economic policy, cutting subside on petrol price. The participants were mainly from poor areas and the lower middle class. The main centers of protest were also small cities and were devoid of a leader figure. 

Compared with the above two, and apart from its immediate cause, the ongoing wave of the uprising, by and large, seems to be ideological. It is targeting the system and threatening its ideological roots. The participants are mainly youth born in the post-1979 revolution era, mostly unhappy with the norms and norms-setting machinery of the establishment. Given the average age of protestors, it is not easy for the establishment to label them as proxies or supporters of the opposition groups based in Europe and North America. They are non-political youngsters whose prime concern is their freedom. The presence of women in large-scale protests is more visible than in the past, and as noted earlier, its immediate cause is also the death of a woman. Burning hijabs in public is a sign of protest on ideological grounds. Being so excited to enjoy their freedom that, amid the crisis, they have already started walking within their respective localities without wearing a hijab, an act no one could imagine a few weeks ago. Though the protesters do not have any designated leader(s), international civil society, international institutions, the liberal world, artists, and celebrities from across the globe for the first time in the history of the theocratic republic, have taken a united and a firm stand with the protesters. As such they are virtually leading the protesters and showing them their final goals and horizon. That said, the current crisis is expected to leave a significant and long-term impact on the future trajectory of the theocratic republic and its underlying ideology. It has placed the theocratic republic on a two-edged sword, damaging both sides.

On one end, the state has to compromise on the norms, implemented ever since the inception of the theocratic state i.e. wearing a hijab. By doing so, the state will encourage the protestors to ask for more in terms of liberal policies. Simultaneously, the acceptance of the demands would put the official doctrine of the establishment under serious question, as it would be interpreted as a surrender, something that the theocratic republic has never practiced in the past. More importantly, it would create a dangerous rift between the establishment and its tiny circle of hardline conservative supporters, especially those old powerful clergy stationed in Qom, the religious powerhouse of Iran. The elite clergy team has been the main obstacle toward any softness, despite a few attempts by different governments to give some social relaxation for the sake of stability and survival of the system.

On the other end of the sword is the fundamentalist state's refusal to admit its flaws. As a result, protestors will undoubtedly be encouraged to demonstrate in huge numbers in the future. The roots of this protest lie in the system's rigidity and inability to deal with moderation through reforms. Protests will explode more violently under these conditions, jolting the state's religious fundamentalism. Crushing the voices of change will plague the regime, which is already facing legitimacy issues. 

The theocratic republic is trapped in a vicious circle, unable to choose a course of action. The Iranian state is faced with a difficult decision that will leave long-lasting scars on the face of the regime.

The views expressed in this article are primarily those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the institutional views of İRAM.