Anti-Imperialism/Foreign Policy

What’s happening in Iran—and what are the implications across the Middle East?

What’s happening in Iran—and what are the implications across the Middle East? Kim Ghattas on the long-term prospects for autocratic rule and democratic resistance.
Sean Nangle
After the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in custody, following her arrest by Iran’s Guidance Patrol—the morality police—for “improperly” wearing her hijab head covering, fierce protests spread across the country. They amounted to one of the biggest challenges to the Iranian regime since the Islamic Revolution brought it to power in 1979. In response, Iran’s authorities have cracked down with detentions and executions, including public hangings.

While organized demonstrations have since faded, there are signs of anti-regime sentiment everywhere. And while Iran has been pursuing new diplomacy to ease its ongoing clashes with Saudi Arabia and other Arab neighbors, these countries too struggle with similar problems—from a growing distaste for social control and political repression to a withering tolerance for high youth unemployment, bad governance, and corruption. What’s going on in Iran’s streets—and what does it potentially mean across the region?

Kim Ghattas is a journalist based in Beirut, covering the Middle East, international affairs, and U.S. foreign policy. She’s the host of the podcast People Like Us and the author of Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East. To Ghattas, Iran’s demonstrations represent a growing rejection of the Islamic Republic’s moral foundations. The regime may have won the battle for the moment, but it’s in deep trouble in its ongoing war with a society that’s increasingly alienated from it.

It’s a conflict, Ghattas says, in which autocracy has every near-term advantage but no long-term sustainability. And for everything that distinguishes Iran from the broader Middle East, this fundamental reality is ultimately the region’s.

This article is part of a series in partnership with the Human Rights Foundation. Ghattas will be a speaker at the Oslo Freedom Forum this month.

J.J. Gould: What’s happening with Iran’s protesters?

Kim Ghattas: The big anti-government demonstrations have died out, but there are still regular daily acts of civil disobedience. There are young people playing music and dancing in the streets, in mixed crowds—men and women, women without their veils. There are students provoking clerics. There are women walking around publicly without the hijab. It’s all a continuous expression of opposition to the regime.

And the regime clearly feels vulnerable, because it’s been on an execution binge. Last year, it killed 580 people—a 75 percent increase from the year before. Half of those executions were late in the year, after the protests had broken out. And it’s continuing this year—with sentences against social-media activists, athletes, journalists, and others.

Niloufar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi, women who reported on Mahsa Amini’s death, have been imprisoned for more than eight months on charges of “conspiracy and rebellion against national security” and “anti-state propaganda.” They now face the death penalty. Others are being charged with blasphemy, of all things.

In this environment, I expect to see the recent wave of protest in Iran rising again. If you look back, you can see it building for years. Since 2017, there’ve been regular outbreaks of unrest. They die down, of course, but then they pick up. Sometimes the wave is smaller, sometimes it’s bigger. And what we saw late last year, after the murder of Mahsa Amini, was the biggest since 2009.

Meanwhile, the economy is under stress. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—the longest-ruling dictator in the world—is 84 and thinking about his succession. So the regime is very sensitive about how people react to what’s going on in their lives, as well as to what’s going on at the top of the power structure that governs their lives.

The regime may have won the battle in recent months, but it hasn’t won the war against a society that feels more and more divorced from it.

I recently saw a quote from an Iranian artist: “The regime is dead. It just doesn’t know it yet.”

Gould: Meaning, the regime can’t now stop the protests from rising again and again, because the social reality that’s driving them is too persistent and powerful?

Ghattas: Nothing has fundamentally changed. The reasons for the protests last year—which were the reasons for the protests the year before, which were the reasons for the protests the year before that—haven’t changed. Nothing’s been addressed. Nothing’s improved.

The economy is still broken. Unemployment is still high. Inflation is persistent. And for most young people—who want to live as they see and imagine other young people living around the world—there’s an intensifying sense of suffocation.

These people aren’t just protesting against their living conditions anymore; they’re protesting against the very foundations of the Islamic Republic—and the retrograde life and worldview they see it representing. Iranian women aren’t just protesting against a piece of cloth on their heads; they’re protesting against a pillar of the Islamic Republic, on account of which women are subjugated en masse to, frankly, a retrograde gerontocracy.

Sean Nangle
More from Kim Ghattas at The Signal:

The regime is very good at sounding like it’s making concessions—but then not actually making any. The conceit that the morality police have been removed from public spaces is more or less irrelevant, because they haven’t really stopped policing morality or enforcing the hijab at all. In fact, they’re doing it in new ways—such as installing high-tech cameras to identify unveiled women and sending them warnings via text message. It’s quite incredible.”

For everything we don’t know, what we do know, I think, is that the threat is continuous and ultimately relentless. From the perspective of the people protesting, it’s a war of attrition: They’re just going to keep going at it. Women are going to keep removing their veils and walking in public. Men and women are going to gather on the street. There’s going to be music. There’s going to be dancing. And protests are going to flare up again. We know this, and the regime knows this, and it only makes them more determined to clamp down—and to clamp down harder. I think it’s going to be a tough couple of years.”

The question is a long-term one. It’s about a generational transformation in the region and in the West’s relationship with it. And when we look at what’s happening, I think it’s important to see it in this context: The Arab Spring failed for reasons that vary somewhat from, day, Tunisia to Sudan to Syria. But the resurgence of autocracy that’s come out of that failure isn’t just a regional story; it’s part of a global story of the resurgence of authoritarianism. With the Arab Spring in tatters, and with its aspirations suppressed, this is how I would hope to see the U.S. and the West to look at the region—as part of that global story, not as just that region over there that’s always trouble.

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