Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party
Marg bargh dictator (“death to the dictator”) rings out once again in the squares of Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and Yazd. Regime thugs take aim at the protesters and shoot. Iranians lie in pools of blood or are taken away to police cells to be tortured. This last happened in 2019 – during riots over the price of petrol that threatened to get out of hand, until the pandemic sidelined them.
But listen to the chants a moment longer, and you’ll hear something different: women’s voices are in the lead this time. The latest uprising was sparked by the death in the custody of the “morality police” of Mahsa Amini, a 22 year-old who had been arrested for wearing her headscarf improperly. It’s given birth to a new slogan: “Woman. Life. Freedom.”
Three weeks on, the protests continue. State TV is hacked, interrupting the elderly, bearded clerical leadership with a message support for Amini and other women and girls murdered by the regime. Reports have emerged of riot police taking their helmets off and walking alongside protesters, an important signal of dissent when the ‘standard operating procedure’ is to beat them to a pulp and haul them off for interrogation. Oil workers at Bushehr have gone on strike in solidarity.
Amini’s murder has triggered furious protests, most led by women against the regime’s enforcement of hijabs on them — but also against the ageing regime’s intensifying repression of everyone.
The protests have been violent from the beginning, with people attacking “morality police” – throwing molotov cocktails at vans of riot control troops. The regime has responded with deadly force, shooting young women and men on the street (in one harrowing case, casually throwing a woman so that the hit her head on a concrete block) and attempts to shut down the internet.
Despite three weeks of lethal crackdowns, demonstrators keep taking to the streets in towns and regional cities as well as the capital, and it appears that a full-scale rebellion, requiring military intervention by the regime, has broken out in Iranian Kurdistan, where Amini herself was from.
The question is: what next? The security forces have so far managed to prevent protestors gathering in large enough numbers to hold territory, Tahrir-Square or Maidan-style, confronting them with the choice of allowing the protests to gather steam, or risk provoking even bigger ones as a reaction to police violence; yet, unlike in 2009, they haven’t driven people off the streets and into their balconies. Running around after hundreds of dispersed demonstrations seems more exhausting for them than kettling a single big one.
A deeper difference is political. The Iranian regime used to allow semi-democratic elements, including an elected presidency (albeit limited to men only) and a parliament able to investigate the excesses the theocratic-revolutionary branch of the state (under the ‘reformist’ president, Mohamed Khatami, it even investigated torture by the security forces, for example) – thus responding somewhat to popular demands to lighten the mullahs’ religious authoritarianism.
Unfortunately for the theocrats, Iranian public opinion has proved stubbornly liberal. Though Khatami was replaced by the fiery populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it was the blatant rigging of the election to ensure that he didn’t lose office in 2009 which sparked the huge protests known as the ‘Green Revolution’. In 2013 and 2017, the most reforming candidate allowed to run, Hassan Rouhani ,defeated hardliners.
By 2021, the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei had had enough of the expression of popular will, and sp used an institution known as the Guardian Council disqualify all serious candidates other than the fanatical Ebrahim Raisi.
Raisi made his name by ordering the execution of thousands of political prisoners during the 1980s and once elected, clamped down hard on the relative freedoms Iranians had come to enjoy, including looser restrictions on what women were allowed to wear. His rule has been marked by economic stagnation, further international sanctions, continued diversions of funds to support the regime in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and now drone sales to fellow ex-securocrat Vladimir Putin.
If the system had once been able to accommodate hopes for reform, dividing moderate and radical opponents, now it has dashed them completely. Everyone who’s not with the regime has turned against it.
The Supreme Leader is 83, and sick. He is surrounded by old gray- and white-bearded men. Raisi, who hopes to succeed him, is a merely less old 62. A regime of grandfathers sending their grandsons to shoot their granddaughters for uncovering their hair is not long for this world. “Women. Life. Freedom” may not quite depose the regime this time, but it has surely brought about the autumn of Iran’s patriarchy.