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Iran at a crossroads: How the revolt went from one woman’s death to threatening the regime

This Global Grid conversation looks at a moment of high drama — and trauma — inside Iran.

It started with the arrest of one young woman for not wearing the hijab, or headscarf; days later, the woman, Mahsa Amini, 22, was dead. Iranian officials said they regretted her death and blamed a heart problem. Few people believed that — certainly not Amini’s family or the thousands of Iranians who took the streets to protest her death.

Hear more from this conversation between Tom Nagorski and Roxane Farmanfarmaian:

In the month since, the protests have grown in size, spread to several parts of Iran and tapped into anger over issues beyond the rights of women. That said, the protests continue to be led by women — young and old — who in some cases have gone so far as to chant “death to the dictator” — an almost unheard-of public insult directed at Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In some cases — but not all — the protests have been met with brute force. Precise figures are hard to come by, but at least 240 protesters have been killed, and more than 8,000 people are believed to have been arrested since the protests began.

In this week’s Global Grid conversation, Tom Nagorski, global editor at Grid, spoke with Roxane Farmanfarmaian, lecturer and academic director in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, and a former editor of the Cambridge Review of International Affairs. They discussed the protest movement, where it may be headed and whether the unrest might pose real danger to the regime in Tehran, Iran.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: That was a moment for Iranians, women in particular, to feel as though a bridge had been burned. They felt that this arrest and then killing, which was denied by the regime and by the police, indicated that the situation was not improving and that it was really up to them to hit the streets and to protest not only against the wearing of the hijab, but protest against the regime as an Islamic authoritarian force that was constraining them, as well as reducing the rights and opportunities in Iran.

We’re also seeing this very much as a multi-sectoral protest, both in terms of gender, but also across the social stratum. Perhaps equally important is that it follows a year in which there have been demonstrations for many different things throughout the country. There have been demonstrations in the south, in the Balochistan and Sistan regions, against the heavy-handedness of the regime. That is an area much like the Kurdish region, which is where Mahsa Amini was from, that has been the target of regime repression since the revolution was fought 40 years ago.

Likewise, there have been demonstrations by farmers against water shortages and lots of other demonstrations, such as by teachers who feel as though they have not been adequately paid.

So we’re seeing that this has been a year of turmoil, and when Mahsa Amini died it served as a real trigger to bring together many of these disgruntled groups that have broad grievances against the regime. This has contributed to this enormously broad outpouring where the focus has now shifted away from specific subjects and where the call we’re increasingly hearing is simply, “Death to the dictator,” which refers to the supreme leader, and also calls to bring an end to the Islamic Republic.

But the crackdown is not as consistent and as severe as it was, for example, in 2009, during the Green Movement, where many more people were killed all at once. Same thing in 2019, when there were demonstrations for economic reasons. In both those cases, more people were killed in a shorter amount of time. So what we’re seeing is an interesting political choice by the Revolutionary Guard, who run the general repression of the population and are the overarching group that manages the different police forces, including the morality police. And many of us are trying to determine what that actually means. Does that mean that they are hoping that the current demonstrations may prove extremely damaging to the clerical elite that are running the country at the moment on an ideological basis? An elite that is looking at a crucial transition, because the supreme leader who holds ultimate authority is very old and will probably be replaced soon?

So as part of that thinking, perhaps the Revolutionary Guard is holding back with the intention of taking over and ousting the clerical leadership and instead, taking supreme control themselves. It’s not clear. We don’t know all of the pieces on the chessboard, but certainly the crackdown is less severe than it could be, although we are seeing, as the demonstrations move into their fifth week, that it is ratcheting up.

But there may be political maneuvering and some Machiavellian behavior behind the scenes. The Revolutionary Guard themselves have certainly not joined any of the opposition activity. It’s very different than at the time of the revolution, or during the time of the shah, which overthrew the monarchy when the soldiers and the police in the streets did start becoming part of the demonstrations. This is not the case now.

So the Iranian women have actually already been subjected to this symbol being taken on by the government — in the one case, exercising its control by saying they are not to wear it. Then, 50 years later when Khomeini came in with the revolution, he mandated they had to put it back on. And in fact, at that time, the women of Iran had the first major demonstration against the leaders of the revolution, indicating that they did not want to wear the hijab and that they rejected it as something that would be mandated by the government.

So it was very much a trigger for a boiling point that was there anyway.

We’re seeing now how the regime is retaliating against women across the board. For example, over just the last few days, an Iranian rock climber who was competing in an international competition, Elnaz Rekabi, was seen climbing the rock wall without a hijab, her ponytail swinging. She received many, many positive responses and tweets from people within Iran as well as outside. Within 24 hours, she suddenly disappeared. We heard that her passport had been taken and that she was being forced back to Iran.

She indeed did resurface. She flew back into Iran. And she was met by a huge crowd of people supporting her and surrounding her car. We’ll now have to see what happens to her, but the rapidity with which the government responded, seizing her and snuffing out this show on her part of not wearing the hijab is a clear indication of how seriously they consider such a small and yet such a powerful gesture.

So the sense is they have nothing to lose, that really it is up to them, that it’s not going to happen from the outside. The situation in Iran has translated over these last several years, under this level of sanctions, to an increasing level of poverty. The middle class, which was always more oriented towards the west, and perhaps therefore with greater hope, has shrunk enormously. So we are seeing that the Iranians feel as though it’s very much on their shoulders to bring around change. Now, therefore, I don’t see this actually being snuffed out for good.

What might happen is that as winter approaches and as the weeks move on, we find that a leaderless revolution or uprising such as this seems to be very hard to sustain, particularly as the weather starts becoming inclement in Iran and particularly in Tehran and any of the northern cities. Heavy snow is very difficult to hold demonstrations in. However, I think that it would simply be held in abeyance until it would re-explode again.

The chances of it being completely brought to an end are very low without at least some other kind of change taking place. As I said, maybe one of the changes is that the government becomes dominated primarily by the Revolutionary Guard and that the clerics somehow take a step back or are removed entirely. Perhaps we might see it becoming more secularized, the hijab become something that is no longer a symbol of government control, women having a greater chance of choosing to wear it or not.

It might become, therefore, a regime that still is highly repressive inside, but perhaps is somewhat less of a pariah on the outside. A little bit in the guise of what Egypt is like today. An Iran that perhaps negotiates a nuclear deal and where it becomes somewhat less threatening for its neighbors; where some of its leaders become less intense in terms of the ideology that the regime has felt it needed to promote under its current guise; and where it suddenly becomes more of a technocratic state. But that does not necessarily mean that it becomes much easier to live in.

We would have to see what kind of ideological metamorphosis the Revolutionary Guard may undergo in that scenario. But certainly, it could mean that the country would become a little less of a pariah. I would very much doubt, however, that the country would become more oriented towards the West than it is today. I think the opportunity being anticipated within the country is that the friends it’s been able to count on, the markets that it can look forward to enjoying and trading with, lie to the East as well as in the Gulf, but probably not towards Europe that much. Even though of course, if Iran’s oil sales could get back into being accepted, thereby start hitting the global markets, the likelihood of it selling more oil to Europe would go up. Particularly these days, under the constraints Europe is facing energy-wise with the Ukraine War.

But its greatest markets have really developed through China and the Far East. And these days, they feel those are the states that are more reliable than going back to the West.

RF: Indeed, this will be a huge change. There’s only been two supreme leaders. The first was the founding father of the of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and then he was succeeded by Khamenei, who has been in power for several decades and has really set his stamp on Iran. Many of Iran’s ills evolved and emerged because of the nature of his rule. And it really is a “rule” because he is the center of the greatest amount of power that emanates through the whole society.

He is really quite hardline, so succession is very much something that is on the minds of many Iran watchers. There are not a great number of candidates at this point, although the battle may become heated as his health fails more. At the moment, it’s unclear how ill he really is, how parlous his state of health may be.

But perhaps the most likely successor is one that would certainly not help the leadership of Iran at all, and that is [Khamenei’s] second son, Mojtaba [Hosseini Khamenei], which would in effect turn the succession into a hereditary one. This is against the Shia doctrine and would cause turmoil and chaos, just by virtue of the fact that it would be his son, who in many ways is very unpopular. He does not have a number of the credentials necessary, according to the Constitution, to be named the supreme leader, but he has succeeded in establishing himself deep in the system. He runs the office of the supreme leader, which under his father’s period of authority has expanded enormously and now really is a significant nerve center for the country.

We see that he’s, in some ways, a favorite of the Revolutionary Guard. He might very well be more able to be manipulated by the Guard, so although he would be in the post, he wouldn’t be as independently strong as his father is. We might see a mixture of some ideology and a great deal of military control.

The current president of Iran was partially positioned for the post of supreme leader. One of the credentials is that a candidate has to have served in public office, and the presidency now has enabled him to fulfill that requirement. So he too is a candidate. The fact that he has not been able to handle the uprisings in any way that has been effective or successful by the lights of the regime suggests that his star may be falling, that he is showing weakness, and so it’s very unclear whether he still is in the running for this position.

There are a couple of other possible candidates. Neither of them is very strong, and in fact, none of them actually have the full set of credentials that are required. One of the main credentials is being a leader of the Islamic community, which is very much what the Supreme Leader is. None of them have the level of religious recognition that would go along with that job. So clearly, it’s going to be more of a political appointment than an Islamic one.

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