Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party
On 15 September 2022, a year ago tomorrow Iranian police murdered Mahsa Amini after arresting her for failing to compy with the regime’s dress code for women.
Her death sparked the most serious uprising against the regime at least since 2009. Months of demonstrations and savage repression followed, leading for the first time since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 to a partial retreat by the regime.
Though it makes attempts to reestabish the old social control (a new law this summer promised stiffer sentences for dress code violations) the orders of the “morality police” are routinely flouted. Women go with their heads uncovered in many areas of Iranian cities. Film circulated from shopping malls and metro trains in Iran give all the appearance of a mediterranean European country. They might as well show Greece or Armenia.
Faced with this defiance, the regime has retreated in enforcement, but not repression. As the anniversary approaches, it has begun rounding up family members of people it killed for protesting last year, including Mahsa Amini’s uncle, and even her father. The morality police patrols have returned to the streets, and prosecutors continue to harass writers, cultural figures and private companies that object to the compulsory hijab.
Yetm something has changed. The regime faced down the Green Movement (which arose to protest at fraudulent elections in 2009) by arresting the leadership and allowing people to retreat to the private sphere where they could be free. In private homes behind closed doors, women’s uncovered heads were as common as bootleg alcohol. It gave up its war against satellite dishes. VPNs did the rest.
Its difficulty now is that the Women Life Freedom revolution is about women’s right to be free in public. They demand their liberty be acknowledged and accepted by the government. Quiet toleration is no longer enough, public emancipation is required.
This is not something that the regime can easily grant. After women are allowed to dress freely, other personal freedoms will be demanded, including legalising alcohol consumption and more personal liberty for men (who aren’t allowed to wear shorts, for example), plus gay rights and an end to cultural censorship. All would carry huge benefits for Iran’s tourism industry, which stands to gain hugely from liberalisation.
It is a potential that will feed into the calculations of the elite as it heads into the most dangerous phase for any dictatorship: succession. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, is 87. The president, Ebrahim Raisi, is a relative youngster at only 62 (in a country where half the population are less than half as old).
Though predicting the exact date of the regime’s collapse is a fool’s errand, it has become clear that, having closed itself into a small hardline circle, it has lost the ability to renew itself. We are getting close to a moment where a transition to a less oppressive, and even, if all goes well, a more democratic system is possible.
This should cause us to reassess Iran policy. Revolutionary Iran has been a constant thorn in the side of the West: supporting terrorism across the Middle East, fomenting Islamist radicalism, building its nuclear programme, kidnapping our citizens, and now arming Russia. The next few years could change that completely.
The task in these transitions away from dictatorship is always unpalatable: it is to find figures inside the elite who realise that aligning themselves with change gives them a better chance of preserving the wealth and influence they’ve accumulated (i.e. stolen) than holding fast and risk being swept away in a revolution.
Yet right now it appears the Biden Administration is pursuing the opposite policy: to bribe the regime to slow down its nuclear programme, possibly through a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia (which is likely to be providing funds in exchange for normalisation). This would have the perverse effect of strengthening the regime just when it is under most pressure, leaving it free to fund Hezbollah, supply drones to Russia and otherwise destabilise the region.
The West needs instead to play a slightly longer game: a more democratic Iran focused on reviving its economy (including tourism and foreign investment) would provide us with more levers to control its instincts for regional meddling, and have more incentives to take part in the global economy instead of being cut off from it. Nuclear détente, and end to support for terrorism, and distancing from Russia are more likely emerge as the fruits of the process of democratic transition, rather than concessions a dying regime makes in exchange for its survival.
Iranians want democracy. We should help them prepare for it instead of trading concessions with a system on its last legs.