Iran’s current protest movement – What will it bring for the regime?
Iran has a long history of social and political protests, many of which have been sparked by economic grievances, such as high unemployment, inflation, and political repression. Protests have also been fueled by a desire for greater political freedom and an end to corruption. The most recent major wave of protests in Iran took place in 2022, which signifies the beginning of the “Jin, Jîyan, Azadî,” (“Woman, Life, Freedom”) movement in Iran.
On September 2022, Jîna Mahsa Amini, an Iranian Kurdish woman, was arrested by Iran’s morality police for not complying with Iran’s strict dress code. Three days after her arrest, she died in police custody. This has sparked a chain of protests that have lasted for over 100 days, in which thousands of people have shown support not only to Mahsa Amini but to all Iranian women subjected to senseless violence. According to her relatives, Amini was abused in police custody and had her skull pounded multiple times. The administration and police have denied the charges, stating her death was due to an "underlying disease".
Demonstrators did not believe the words of the authorities and the protests have not ceased since then. Iranians of all ages, genders, and ethnicities have joined in the demonstrations but the younger generations are the ones that inspired the movement. Women have burned their hijabs while dancing in large street rallies in Iran's main cities and many small villages, while others have cut off their hair. Strikes have been reported at schools, colleges, and within the country's vital oil sector, while businesses have closed their doors frequently. Iran's football team declined to perform the national anthem at the World Cup in Qatar on November 21, while spectators yelled anti-regime chants outside stadiums. Violent conflicts have occasionally erupted within Iran, with demonstrators torching law enforcement buildings. Protests have also extended to Europe, as women from Stockholm to Athens have shaved their heads in solidarity.
The Regime’s response to the protests
It's worth noting that the situation in Iran is complex and the reasons for protests are often multifaceted. It's hard to predict with certainty what the future holds, in terms of social or political movements, but it is important to note that the government of Iran has long been criticized for its human rights record. The critique that the Iranian government is receiving has to do with its treatment of political dissidents and minorities, and for limiting freedom of the press and free speech.
From the beginning of the protests, Iranian forces have cracked down on protestors very violently, especially in places such as Kurdistan and Baluchistan. Many people have been shot for as little as showing support for the protests, and journalists, celebrities, lawyers, and other famous figures have been arrested. In Kurdistan, Iranian security forces have used excessive lethal force against protesters, which reflects the government’s long-time repression of the Kurdish people’s cultural and political freedom. Mahsa Amini was Kurdish, which is a fact that is often overlooked but is essential to acknowledge the long history of Kurdish persecution at the hands of the Iranian government and how her death was influenced by the state’s hatred of her ethnicity.
UN authorities, the United Kingdom, and other G7 governments have criticized the Iranian regime's response, especially its use of force against protestors and internet censorship. Activists estimate that at least 19,200 people have been jailed and 516 protestors have been murdered (as of 3 January 2023, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency).
Iran killed four protesters between December 2022 and January 2023. UN experts have urged Iran to abolish the death sentence, citing its continued usage in 2019 and 2020. According to human rights groups, between 26 and 100 demonstrators face the death sentence. One Iranian official stated that the average age of those arrested is 15. UN experts are worried that children have been abused and that minority groups, especially the Sunni Baloch community, have been persecuted by authorities.
Iran claims that international censure is hypocritical and that foreign governments, especially Israel and the US, have propagated misinformation and are supporting protesters. Several foreign nationals have also been detained for suspected involvement, notably seven UK-linked people in December 2022, and Iran has carried out drone and missile attacks against Kurdish organizations in Iraq's Kurdistan region, whom it claims of aiding the demonstrations.
Analysts are divided on how much the protests endanger the Islamic Republic's existence. This is due to the fact that the opposition is divided, and security forces have stayed loyal to the administration. However, when paired with the lowest turnouts for presidential and legislative elections since 1979 (approximately 40-50% of the people voted), the demonstrations imply that the state is battling for legitimacy. The regime's reaction reflects the Kurdish minority's worries about a separatist movement. The most likely short-term change is that the clothing code will be enforced, with President Raisi hinting at a shift.
It is true that protesting is a means for people to voice their unhappiness, but the outcome of a protest, including the government's and the international community's response, may have a substantial impact on a country's politics and society. The demonstrations are significant for their persistence, national scope, and leadership, as well as the participation of both women and young people. On the other hand, analysts remain skeptical of their relevance and the damage they pose to the Islamic Republic of Iran. The lack of an organized opposition limits the protest’s threat to the regime and security forces continue to back the state. Unfortunately, Iran is not on the verge of regime change, but the protests have fundamentally changed the relationship between the state and the population.