The wave of protests that swept across Iran last fall seems to be ebbing. The street demonstrations seem to be over, and even the slogans shouted from windows at night, a gesture of collective dissent that often accompanied moments of political crisis in the country, have been silent for some time. Since January, the news coming from inside Iran reports minimal, albeit flashy gestures: a banner hanging from an overpass, graffiti, or small impromptu demonstrations. Signs that collective anger continues to simmer. However, other news is also emerging: a political document signed by independent unions, women’s organizations and student groups; calls for change; a proposal for a constitutional referendum.
Let’s take stock. Almost six months after Mahsa Amini’s death in the custody of the so-called “moral police” in Tehran, the political legitimacy of the Islamic Republic has never been in such crisis. This is not to say that the regime is collapsing, at least not anytime soon: but the collective distrust in the state and the security apparatus runs deep.
Fueled by outrage over her senseless death, the protests that erupted in September involved the entire country. It mobilized women and men from different walks of life: students and unemployed youth, college campuses and working-class neighborhoods, schoolgirls, teachers, occasional workers. It was a collective outburst of impatience with the rules of behavior dictated by a religious state, symbolized by Islamic dress – particularly the women’s hijab. Soon, however, the movement expanded. It was fed by widespread anger against the arbitrariness of power, corruption, the economic straits in which broader and broader layers of the middle class live, the widening inequalities, and the frustration of those who see a small elite growing rich in the shadow of sanctions. The suffocating sense of young people, especially, who see no prospects and feel deprived of a future.
The protests are “the inevitable outcome of the approaches and policies that turn a blind eye to societal demands” reads a lengthy paper published by the Iranian Sociological Association on its website in early October. The academic association writes of police brutality and a “growing gap between the values and norms of the state and those of the public.” It charged the morality police with employing “humiliating methods that are based on gender stereotypes” and that the government should “be able to give a sign of reconciliation to the society by stopping the operations of the ‘morality police’.” Today indeed the moral police is no longer seen on the streets, although it is unclear whether they have been formally abolished, or reformed according to announcements by the minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance. Too late, however, and too little.
“Today, the level of public dissatisfaction with the way the country is run is higher than in the past”, the Sociological Society document goes on say, “people are unable to make their basic needs met, and their living standards are deteriorating by the day. Our society is suffering from a myriad of problems, such as pervasive and widespread poverty and corruption, unemployment, unstoppably rising prices, government’s ineffectiveness in managing the country’s affairs, environmental crisis, and the like.” The state must listen as “the use of coercive methods will only lead to the escalation of social tensions.”
And that is exactly what happened. The state’s response was violent: more than 500 people were reportedly killed during the demonstrations, including dozens of young boys and children (and numerous law enforcement officers), and nearly 20,000 arrested, according to reports compiled by the European-based Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA). Hundreds of videos showed heavy brutality by the security apparatus. We have had reports of summary trials held on forcibly extracted confessions that ended in draconian sentences. Four death sentences were carried out between December and January, causing consternation both inside and outside the country. Many clerics also dissented: the charge of moharebeh, “war against god,” cannot be used against young people expressing legitimate protests.
The crackdown was particularly harsh in the provinces of Kurdistan in the northwest (where Mahsa Amini was originally from) and Sistan-Baluchistan in the southeast of the country, where the overall reasons for protest are compounded by the central government’s historical distrust of ethnic and religious minorities.
The working class has exponentially borne the brunt of repression. The biographies of those put to death attest to this: in December Mohsen Shekari, 23, a bartender in Tehran, and Majid Reza Raznavard, 23, a part-time salesperson, were hanged. In January they hanged Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini, 39, a laborer, and Mehdi Karami, 22, an unemployed karate champion and son of a street vendor. Other death sentences have been issued, an admittedly unspecified number; hopefully they will be reviewed, but in the meantime the threat lingers. The New York Times collected biographical information on some of the convicted, those whose deaths it could verify: almost all of them come from the lowest socio-economic strata.
The same goes for arrests. The cases of well-known intellectuals or artists who ended up in jail for expressing solidarity with protesters have attracted international attention. Actress Tahrane Alidoosti spent two and a half weeks in Tehran’s Evin prison before being released on bail; filmmaker Jafar Panahi, under arrest since July, was released in early February after a hunger strike. Filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulov was also released in February after seven months of detention. Culture has always been a political battleground in Iran, and for the judiciary, filmmakers are a thorn in its side.
However much less is known about the thousands of people arrested during street protests, mostly young people, almost always daughters and sons of more modest families, workers, the unemployed, the middle class impoverished by years of economic crises and sanctions. For these families, bailing out their children can mean going into debt or mortgaging their homes. Often these young people return with terrible stories of violence; human rights organizations have collected accounts of physical abuse and even rape. Families are often intimidated into not speaking out, but this has not prevented disturbing news and public questions from emerging.
The paradox is that in the official rhetoric the mostazafin, “dispossessed,” are the backbone of the Islamic Revolution. And indeed these have been and for the most part remain the government’s base, thanks in part to a rather paternalistic social system: an Iranian version of the Christian Democrat exchange, a “welfare” made up of pensions and jobs bestowed by the powerful Islamic Foundations on widows and orphans of war martyrs, benefits for civil servants, and access to state-owned stores with controlled prices. Or to the ongoing system of cash subsidies for families, launched by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: even current President Ebrahim Raisi has responded to the social protests of the past year with some payouts to families below the poverty line.
But discontent now runs rampant even throughout the regime’s base because inflation is thwarting subsidies, unemployment is growing and incomes are falling while everyone sees the speculative fortunes amassed by those with good connections growing. But when the working classes show signs of revolt, the state perceives the “pillar of the Revolution” as a threat and a violent mass and doubles down on its repression against it.
These classes have been the center of protests in recent years, now triggered by rising gas or food prices now involving teachers or civil servants, pensioners, or precarious workers in the oil industry. All these protests have been crushed with unprecedented force. None has previously posed an existential threat to the system of the Islamic Republic because they were mostly spontaneous, unorganized movements. At least for now, no political alternative has emerged, no leadership capable of coagulating the discontent that also continues to grow.
Yet Iranian civil society is not a desert and in recent months there has been heated public debate representing many different voices (although the international media has rarely reported on it).
The latest example of this was posted online on February 13th; a document signed by some 20 independent unions, feminist, or student groups. It states that 44 years after the 1979 revolution “an economic, political and social crisis has engulfed the country, but it is clear that a solution will not be possible within the existing political system.” It states that the protest of “women, students, teachers, workers, activists, artists, writers (…) is a protest against misogyny, gender discrimination, economic insecurity, exploitative labor, ethnic and religious oppression; against every form of religious and non-religious tyranny that has been imposed on us in the last century.” It continues with a series of “minimum demands” from the release of political prisoners, to freedom of expression and thought, union and political organization, freedom of assembly and demonstration and access to social media. Calls for the abolition of the death penalty and the elimination of issued sentences. Enshrine equal rights for women and men in all spheres, political, economic, social. Ensure job security and salary increases for teachers and civil servants, active or retired. That religion be “a private matter.” To end environmental devastation. Finally, to “normalize foreign relations at the highest level with all countries in the world, based on mutual respect, a ban on nuclear weapons in pursuit of world peace.”
The signatories to this document are entirely independent groups that have sprung up within Iran in the last decade (some even earlier) often in the wake of strikes and agitations by workers – such as those at the Haft Tappeh sugar mill, the protagonists of a long strike a few years ago (many of their leaders were arrested) – or women’s activist groups, or students. A grass-roots civil society organized that for now remains fragmented.
The diverse reformist current has also multiplied its condemnations of repression and calls to listen to the demands of citizens. In the past two years, however, the reformists have been completely marginalized from political life. Under the administration of President Ebrahim Raisi, an ultraconservative elected in June 2021 with the lowest voter turnout in Iran’s history and with no opponents, because every voting contender with any clout had been excluded, the power of the Islamic Republic’s most extremist factions has become total: they are in the majority in parliament, control the judiciary, the government, and the various separate powers of the state. (Insipience of power: last summer the Raisi government issued regulations to tighten controls on dress and public behavior, instituted a “chastity day,” strengthened the moral police. A sign of that “growing disconnect” reported by sociologists, under the eyes of all but a blind regime).
In the third month of protests, the government invited some well-known reformist figures to participate in a “national dialogue” in December in an attempt to calm tempers. A self-serving, belated, non-credible gesture. At the same time, the first death sentences were being carried out: so much for dialogue.
Instead, several voices began to talk about reforms in the political system. One is former President Mohammad Khatami, the one who initiated the first democratic initiatives in Iran in the late 1990s.
The most radical proposal, however, comes from Mir-Hossein Mousavi, former prime minister during the 1980s and former presidential candidate in the hotly contested 2009 elections that triggered the protest movement known as the “green wave.” Mousavi, who has been under house arrest since 2011, called for a constitutional referendum. “The obstinacy of power, which responds with repression instead of listening to the legitimate demands of citizens, is growing the distance between the rulers and the people,” he said in an online statement. He spoke of economic crisis, social crisis, political crisis, environmental crisis, and a crisis of legitimacy. “But the crisis of crises lies in the contradictory structure of the constitutional system”, Mousavi said. He then proposed a referendum on the need to write a new constitution and to elect a constituent assembly by universal suffrage to write “a new fundamental charter, based on the rule of law,” which would be submitted to a popular vote.
The idea of a referendum on the constitution has been circulating in the Islamic Republic’s most critical currents for some time, although this is the first time that someone like Mousavi, still a member of the revolutionary nomenklatura, has brought it up. But it will not be easy to reform the peculiar constitutional system that is the Islamic Republic of Iran: where elective institutions belonging to a parliamentary democracy, coexisting with organs of power that claim to represent “God’s law,” are co-opted by a Supreme Leader, and answerable only to him.
A new constituent assembly does not seem to be on Iran’s agenda today: the current system of power is still too powerful, in all its expressions – from the office of the Supreme Leader to the economic power centralized in a small oligarchy centered around the Revolutionary Guards.
But Mousavi’s proposal, or even the more limited reform proposals circulating in recent weeks even among “moderate” power figures, have one point in common: the realization that the crisis of legitimacy achieved by the Islamic Republic is unsustainable. The power structure is now showing “conciliatory” signals, the latest being the (limited) amnesty for those arrested in the street protests. But all the crises enumerated by Mousavi, or by independent trade unions, or by sociologists remain; the disconnect between power and citizens remains deep and continues to growing. Without real change, the implosion is only postponed.
Cover Photo: A veiled Iranian woman walks past an Iran flag in downtown Tehran, March 7, 2023 (credits: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via AFP.)
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