There was great resentment across Iranian society preceding the ongoing protests that began after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the regime’s “morality police.” That resentment has revealed itself in the intense antipathy towards Ebrahim Raisi’s government. He became the first of the eight presidents since the revolution to suffer such humiliation—chief among them the slogan “Death to Raisi”—only a year after his election to office.
Other circumstances also led to the unrest, among them hints of promoting the leader’s son—Mujtaba—to the forefront and presenting him to the leadership as his successor; tightening relations with Russia and China without adequate financial compensation; non-progress of the nuclear talks and, as a result, the lack of improvement in the economic situation; corruption scandals; and many cover-ups. All these problems contributed to the increase in public frustration and willingness to protest immediately following the news of Amini’s death.
A national survey by the Iranian National Security College leaked in early September, before the protests began, indicated that “75% of the Iranian public is ready to participate in protests due to the lack of justice and equality as well as the worsening of the economic situation.” As part of this survey, 82% of respondents claimed that the government did not meet their demands, 67% said that they suffered from shortages and 60% replied that Iranian society is unbalanced. Survey editors concluded that the Iran protests developed then without any organized leadership, but rather because of the overwhelming feelings of the majority regarding the many injustices in society. That high spontaneity and self-awareness of hardships will undoubtedly contribute to the outbreak of subsequent protests.
There are some unique features to the demonstrations:
1. This is the protest of the young generation, Generation Z. Most of the participants throughout Iran are under 30. Students, especially female schoolgirls who hate the hijab, have joined the protests. This generation did not experience the 1979 revolution and does not connect to its message. On the other hand, the internet enables access to their peers, and this generation, seeing how comfortable life is in the West, is not ready to accept the dictates of previous generations, especially the generation of the revolution. In recent years, videos mocking the heads of the regime and their messages have proliferated on the internet. Broadcasts by the exile channels opposing the regime also play an essential role in the anti-Islamic and anti-regime indoctrination of the young. These young people know that the generation of the revolution has become corrupt and does not follow the values of the revolution itself. The proof is the heavy criticism levied against the sons of the elite who lead a comfortable life living in the West, even though their fathers in Iran promote an anti-Western line.
2. It is also a protest against the regime’s very existence and its foundations. Yes, there were chants in previous protests against the leader and the regime’s system, but this time they constitute the central thrust of the protest. The slogan “Death to the Dictator” qualified the other slogans, for example those calling for the return of the monarchy. That indicates an attempt by the new generation to overthrow the government, even though there is no clear alternative.
3. There has been a hesitant and inconsistent response by the security forces. That is in contrast to the fuel protests of Oct. 2019 and other demonstrations. The regime forces are in no hurry to use maximum force and eliminate the protests. Every day, a large crowd of hundreds and sometimes thousands gathers at a fixed place known in advance to hold a protest of varying intensity, despite the presence of the security forces, arrests or violence towards the demonstrators. Unlike previous protests, in many cases the demonstrators have attacked the security forces en masse—by Oct. 22, 26 were reported dead and about 900 wounded. This regime does indeed disconnect the internet from time to time. However, social networks continue to transmit information and videos about what is happening in the streets, thus justifying the protest in international public opinion. It has even led to condemnations and sanctions by human rights organizations against the regime.
4. Senior officials have reacted with silence or criticism of the government. In contrast with previous protests, some former or current senior officials in the Iranian regime, including former president Hassan Rouhani, have refrained from standing by the leader and do not express support for the regime. Moreover, several senior officials—such as former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former parliament speaker Ali Larijani—expressed outright criticism of the regime’s conduct, the non-fulfillment of the Raisi government’s promises and “the extremism that led to a severe public reaction.” Websites associated with traditional conservatives also implicitly criticized the regime, which cannot speak the younger generation’s language.
A few thousand protesters are estimated to be demonstrating against the regime. There are too few connections between the protesters and the economic sectors, and only a few strikes have occurred, even in the sensitive industries of oil and petrochemicals. Of course, the regime has vast power to repress the protests, but so far, it has not unleashed it. If Raisi does decide to use it, that may determine the fate of the protests.
Moreover, these protests, which put challenging the government at the top of their goals, weaken to some extent the uncompromising bargaining position of the Iranian regime. The protests require a changed Western attitude and an examination of the continued forgiving attitude toward Iran in the nuclear talks and in general, especially given Iran’s increasing involvement in the war in Ukraine alongside Russia. In order to strengthen the protests, it is necessary to present Iran on international platforms as a “leper with whom no business should be done,” to continue to delay the nuclear agreement and to weaken Tehran’s malign regional activities.
Today, the Iranian regime is struggling over the issue of the hijab, which is a fundamental value of the Islamic government, thus binding it to an insoluble internal challenge. The West must create a united front on the issue of individual freedoms vis-à-vis Iran, particularly if the repression worsens, so that Iran will have to compromise. Despite its formidable appearance, Western unity of opinion and clear statements have led Iran to compromise on rigid positions in the past.
In addition, the West must take advantage of the shortened periods of calm between protests and the difficult economic situation in Iran, and set stricter conditions for continuing trade relations to push the Iranian regime into further compromises.
Beni Sabti is a researcher on social networks in Iran and founder of the IDF Spokesperson’s Office in Persian. He has a master’s degree in political science and public communication from Bar-Ilan University and can be followed on Twitter at @benisabti.
This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.