It’s been almost a month since nationwide demonstrations broke out across Iran, and the protests continue to spread. The unrest began when Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, was killed by the country’s morality police after being arrested because her hijab did not fully cover her hair, as mandated by law. Workers in the oil sector have gone on strike, and groups of lawyers and doctors have reportedly joined the protesters as well. Some demonstrators are now chanting that they don’t want an Islamic Republic at all. That challenge to the theocratic system has earned intensive global media coverage—particularly with Iran having been an archrival of the United States in the Middle East and beyond since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In the region, Israel has seen Tehran’s nuclear program as an existential threat, and the international deal to freeze the program remains highly contentious in the U.S., Israel, and Arab countries. And many of the seemingly intractable political problems in the Middle East trace back to the hostility between the Islamic Republic and its Arab neighbors, led by Saudi Arabia. How much are these protests threatening the regime in Tehran?
Vali Nasr is a professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, and the author of seven books on the Middle East and Islam. As Nasr sees it, the turmoil in Iran presents a substantial threat to the regime. There’s broad sympathy among the Iranian people for the demonstrators’ demands—even among those who support the system. Though security forces have brutally repressed and killed some of the protesters, many of those in the street are teenagers, and the regime is reluctant to use overwhelming violence against them. To Nasr, this uprising is different from previous unrest because the protesters, by rejecting the hijab and the law requiring it, are challenging the cultural foundations of the Islamic Revolution itself. Meanwhile, the regime faces a new and daunting problem of trying to restore domestic stability while dealing with a perpetually sluggish economy and the ongoing regional and international instability that usually demands most of its attention. Abroad, the demonstrations are changing perceptions of Iran in the region—and so, changing political dynamics in the Middle East. Still, Nasr says, it’s an open question whether the regime will respond to the protests with dialogue and reforms, or whether it will move to extinguish the dissent with a massive crackdown.
Michael Bluhm: Who’s involved in these protests?
Vali Nasr: There are people protesting in the street and not in the street; they’re protesting on Instagram, Twitter, private chat groups, as well as through artists’ platforms and journalism. We see the most visible form of protests on the street —which is the form most challenging to the ruling order—but the tail of this protest is much, much bigger. That’s what makes these protests so challenging to the established order; they extend farther and wider than the streets.
The street protests are mostly carried out by young people. One member of the security forces said that the average age of people they’d arrested was 15 or 16. It’s now spread to university campuses. There’ve also been worker protests and strikes.
But by and large, this was at first set of demonstrations led by young people, protesting not only police brutality—that is, the fact that Mahsa Amini died in police custody in violent and mysterious circumstances—but also the idea that the government can decide what you can and cannot wear: the idea of the autonomy of the body. As some graffiti on a wall in Tehran said, Keep your laws away from my body.
Now it’s become something bigger, based on grievance and unhappiness with the Islamic Republic itself. Chants are directed at the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calling him a dictator.
Bluhm: Iran also experienced nationwide protests in 2009—the Green Revolution—after a disputed presidential election. Those demonstrations wound up brutally quashed by the regime. How likely is a complete crackdown now?