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The internal debate in the Iranian elite over the hijab protests

Ultimate power still lies with the Supreme Leader.

Mass popular protests taking place across Iran in the summer of 2021. Source: Twitter.
Mass popular protests taking place across Iran in the summer of 2021. Source: Twitter.
Yoni Ben Menachem
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

Iran recently announced that on Jan. 14, 2023, it had executed by hanging Ali Reza Akbari, a former deputy defense minister with British and Iranian citizenship, after he was convicted of spying for Britain. He was convicted of harming Iran’s security and providing intelligence information.

Akbari was detained for more than three years, and his execution is a message to Western countries and Israel not to interfere in the internal situation in Iran. It was also a warning to deter the demonstrators who continue the widespread “hijab protests” against the regime.

The four-month-long protests deeply worry the Iranian leadership. The hijab is a basic tenet of the Iranian ayatollahs’ theology. The wave of protest is now a force that threatens the stability of the regime. So far, between 400 and 500 people have been killed in the protests, among them members of the Iranian security forces, and about 18,000 people have been arrested.

The execution of Ali Reza Akbari symbolizes the victory of the extremist faction of the Iranian elite.

According to top Iranian officials, a debate broke out on how to stop the forces of protest.

The regime does not have a clear strategy for dealing with the intermittently renewed demonstrations in different parts of Iran. However, one thing is clear: The protests continue and show no signs of ending.

A Sign of Flexibility?

Some senior officials at the top of the Iranian regime believe that flexibility should be shown in handling the protests to calm the atmosphere. On the other hand, some senior officials advocate the continuation of the iron fist policy and brutal suppression of the demonstrators, including executions.

So far, four protesters have been executed, and another 14 are awaiting execution.

According to Iranian sources, the country’s elite includes figures who support the hijab protests, such as former presidents Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Khatami, opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, cultural and media figures, athletes and former politicians.

As a precaution, the Iranian regime forbids former politicians from traveling abroad. The administration threatens to erase the political future of any senior member of the administration who opposes the suppression of the protesters and the executions.

Khamenei Is the Supreme Authority

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is playing a double game regarding the treatment of the hijab protests. First, the regime spread fake news in early Dec. 2022 that the “morality police,” who enforce the wearing of the hijab, had been abolished. Second, Khamenei called the protesting women “our daughters” and met with a delegation of women to hear their claims. Finally, the Supreme Leader ordered the release of two well-known opposition activists (Majid Tokali and Hossein Ronki) and retrials for several protesters who were sentenced to death.

On the other hand, Khamenei appointed a new police commander, General Ahmad Reza Radan, a member of the paramilitary Basij force and the Revolutionary Guards, and a commander of the Tehran police. Radan’s forces were infamous for their brutality in putting down the Green Movement demonstrations in 2009 and 2020. His human rights violations resulted in his listing on the U.S. Treasury Department’s terror list.

The debate in the Iranian regime leadership also stems from a fear of increased sanctions from Western countries due to the continuation of the brutal repression. But on the other hand, extremist elements at the top believe repression is the only way to discourage the protesters and that the cancellation of the executions is a surrender to international pressure that will only encourage the continuation of the demonstrations. In an official order on Jan. 10, 2023, Abdol Samad Khorram Abadia, a deputy prosecutor general, urged the police and judiciary officials to “severely fight against those removing their Hijab.”

In the end, the one who determines the way to deal with the protest wave is Supreme Leader Khamenei. He has a lot of survival experience, with over 30 years in his chair. He maneuvers and zigzags and looks for new and creative ways to stop the protests, but he does not hesitate to apply brutal repression against the protesters.

Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israeli radio and television, is a senior Middle East analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as Director General and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

Originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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