Geopolitics

What do mass street protests mean for the regime in Iran?

The Signal

What do mass street protests mean for the regime in Iran? Vali Nasr on how the demonstrations represent a new kind of danger to the Islamic Republic.
Artin Bakhan
Artin Bakhan
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.
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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?
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Nasr: Beyond suppressing protests in 2009, the Islamic Republic has fought tooth and nail since then to protect the regime of President Bashar Assad in Syria. Iran’s leaders also witnessed the wave of revolutions in Arab countries in 2010 and 2011, when the rebellion against the Assad regime began. Their reaction to the protests today is informed by 2009—and by what they saw happen in Egypt, Libya, and other Arab states during those revolutions. The regime isn’t going to just stand down and leave.
The regime is a broad system. It’s not based on a single ruler. It involves many power centers and social groups. It’s a bigger entity than one-man rule, and it’s likely to defend itself. If the regime is in danger, then the regime will crack down, and it will crack down heavily.
This hasn’t happened yet—partly because they seem to have been caught completely off-guard, and partly because they were involved in nuclear-treaty negotiation with the U.S., who may have encouraged them to hold back. But it’s also partly because this protest is more broad-based than, and otherwise different from, the ones that they’ve confronted before.
Bluhm: How is it different?
Nasr: The 2009 protests were specifically against a rigged presidential election, because the apparent winner was not allowed to take office. They were a demand for democracy. These protests today aren’t about a specific political demand; they started as being about individual freedom—the right not to wear the hijab, the right to choose what you want to wear—and it was led by much younger people. It’s more difficult to brutally suppress 15- and 16-year-olds.
Mostafa Meraji
Mostafa Meraji
More from Vali Nasr at The Signal:
It’s a new kind of protest, which has arisen not out of demands for political rights but as a cultural protest, demanding cultural and personal freedoms—which is something the regime isn’t really equipped to deal with. If these protests can’t be quelled—and even if they go quiet for a while and keep coming back—they’ll begin to erode the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. And if the Islamic Republic is going to crack down on the protests now and maintain control of a country continuously in protest over the long term, that would demand a very different kind of state setup and regional policy. One thing is very clear: The assumption no longer holds that Iran’s leaders can manage domestically while facing international isolation and economic pressure—and also maintain a great deal of regional reach—without feeling threatened by things imploding from below.”
The protests are important here because they change perceptions of Iran’s strength. That might affect the way that Iran—and Saudi Arabia—come to the table. Saudi Arabia or any Arab country would always welcome protesters weakening the Islamic Republic. But I don’t think Arab governments are welcoming what they see as a people’s revolution. That’s dangerous to them. The equivalent of these young Iranian girls who’re burning their hijab have been put in prison for decades in Saudi Arabia. So the idea that the people of Iran could rise up and overthrow the regime is threatening to the whole region—just like the religious revolution in Iran in 1979 was threatening. No leaders in the Middle East are looking forward to their population seeing the pictures in Iran and deciding that they should do the same thing in Egypt, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia.”
It’s a significant political challenge to the Islamic Republic. It’s also a significant cultural and social challenge. A new generation isn’t picking a fight with the regime over a political dispute like a rigged election in 2009, economic issues like the rising price of gasoline in 2019, or an issue like the closure of a newspaper in 1999. It’s over a fundamental idea of Islamic ideology that brought this regime to power: the necessity for the state to enforce religiosity on the population. They’re revolting over the right of the state to decide what people wear and do. That’s a very new and very powerful form of revolt. It’s also led to an awakening in the Iranian population, much more broadly than just among secular youth, about the issue of fundamental human rights—not political rights as such but human rights, rights of individual freedom. And it’s very difficult for a state to suppress or not address this awakening. It’s a very big challenge.”

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