This week marks a year since the eruption of major protests in Iran in response to the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody. Farhang Morady explains the historical background to the protests and assesses the prospect of radical change.
In 2022, Iran witnessed a major political upheaval as street protests erupted, spearheaded mainly by young working-class people – a group the Islamic Republic had pledged to protect during the Revolution.
Protesters labelled their leaders as “dictators” and called for “freedom,” “better economic conditions,” and “equal rights for women.” These demands reflected the people’s ongoing struggle against a government that employs violence against the working class, women, and those who dissent. Shockingly, between September 16th and November 11th, there were 1,265 protests resulting in 470 deaths and approximately 18,000 arrests. Notably, women lead at least 1158 of these demonstrations.
The protests were sparked by the tragic death of a young woman who was in the custody of the “Guidance Patrol,” also known as the morality police (Gasht-e Ershad), purportedly due to her non-compliance with the hijab dress code. The news of her death was swiftly disseminated on social media. Vivid pictures and slogans showed the intensity and fervour of the demonstrations.
Iran has seen a number of inspiring demonstrations since the 1979 Revolution, all driven by concerns around economics, politics, and society. To fully grasp the recent protests that occurred in Iran in September 2022, it is essential to explore the history of the Islamic Republic, tracing back to its inception in 1979. Iran’s culture of mass mobilisation distinguishes it from other nations and serves as the fundamental driving force behind the present surge of dissatisfaction.
The Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 has become a legendary event that greatly affects our understanding of current political situations. In this article, I will examine the causes behind different political movements, particularly in 2022, in order to clarify the relationship between the Islamic Republic and society.
Revolution and the Rise of the Islamic Republic
Throughout the twentieth century, Iran has witnessed numerous revolutions and political movements that have left an indelible mark on its history. These include the uprisings of 1906-1910 and 1978-1979 and numerous political movements such as in the 1950s, with the nationalisation of oil.
Iran’s strategic location and vast energy reserves have made it a target of interest and interference from powerful nations such as the US, Britain, Russia. As a result, past revolutions and political protest movements have been affected by external forces, both directly and indirectly.
The 1979 Revolution stands as a pivotal moment in 20th-century history, marked by widespread efforts to dislodge the Western-backed monarchy of the Shah. The Shah originally came to power via a military coup orchestrated by the US and Britain in 1953.
The involvement of Western nations, particularly the US, in supporting the Shah during the 1950s and after had a significant political impact on the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
The establishment of the Islamic Republic was a surprising turn of events in a country that was viewed as modern and capitalist. The economy had experienced rapid growth since the 1960s, which led to the emergence of a significant working and middle class. Despite this modernisation, traditional institutions such as the religious establishment and bazaar continued to wield considerable influence and played crucial societal roles. Most secular organisations were banned from political activities, but the mosque had some protection due to the threat from Communist Soviet Union neighbours.
Islamist figures, including Ali Shariati and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, played a major political role leading up to the Revolution. In anticipation of the transition, they created an alternative interpretation of the Islamic framework for politics, economy, and society. Their main objective was to address the needs of the younger generation, particularly those from traditional middle-class backgrounds. Their Revolutionary brand of Islam fused “Third Worldism” and Marxism, setting them apart from certain orthodox religious leaders who supported the Shah’s regime.
In the midst of the Revolution, it was the students and poets who first sparked the protests. However, the working class ultimately played a pivotal role, notably through the formation of the factory council, Shora. The political vacuum created by Shora’s inability to establish a strong support network for the wider community led to the mosque and clergy eventually seizing power.
Consolidation of Power
Khomeini skilfully used religion to further his political goals, surpassing the secular organisation and gathering supporters with around his compelling talk of the Mostazafin (‘the oppressed’), and Mostakbirin, (‘the oppressors’). He pledged that the Islamic Republic would “construct homes for labourers [and] offer free water and electricity to those in need”.
Some of his adherents transformed the hijab into a symbol of rebellion against the Shah.
They claimed that not wearing a headscarf exhibited loyalty to the Shah and opposed the Revolution. These women belonged to secular organisations, including leftists, progressives, and feminists, and they strategically decided to wear the hijab.
In situations where the wearing of hijab is met with resistance, Islamists postponed its enforcement. In 1979, during International Women’s Day, thousands of women protested but received minimal backing from secular groups and organisations. Nonetheless, most women persisted, and their unwavering stance pressured the Islamists considerably. Some Islamists suggested providing guidance instead of coercion to encourage wearing the hijab, while others prioritised legislation regarding minimum marriage age, divorce, abortion rights, and restrictions on certain professions.
On November 4, 1979, Khomeini supported the Islamist students’ occupation of the US Embassy, which helped his reputation of being an anti-imperialist leader and overshadowed the secular organisations. Following the occupation of the US Embassy, Khomeini and his followers used severe oppression of all opposing forces, tightening their grip on power and the eventual removal of ‘shora‘, limitations on personal freedoms, and women’s rights, ultimately undoing many of the Revolution’s achievements. In September 1980, with assistance from the US, Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded Iran to overthrow the Revolutionary government and curb the spread of the Iranian Revolution among Iraq’s considerable Shia population.
The eight-year war that ensued from the invasion was catastrophic, taking the lives of over a million people. Khomeini, however, saw it as a blessing that further cemented his grip on power. The surge in patriotism and the solidarity of the nation against a common enemy left little room for dissenting voices, as any criticism was met with accusations of being a “foreign agent.” In 1985, Rafsanjani summarised the regime’s strategy by stating, “we have been able to use the war to awaken the people and to fight the problems that threaten the Revolution”.
As external pressure mounted, Iran found itself contemplating the prospect of putting an end to the war. The USS Vincennes’ downing of an Iranian Airbus in July 1988, which tragically resulted in the loss of 290 civilian lives, placed further strain on the United States’ support for Iraq. Iran was likewise struggling with economic challenges and encountering difficulties in rallying support for the war. In the end, the regime opted to embrace United Nations Resolution No. 598, which called for an immediate and comprehensive cessation of hostilities.
Reformism and its Consequences
Following the war, the state utilised oil revenue to improve infrastructure, public health, and education. While some cultural and political restrictions were lifted, gender inequality persisted as a major issue.
A notable strategy that emerged was the adoption of a capitalist model that prioritised a neoliberal free market and collaboration with Western nations. Hashemi Rafsanjani, who held the presidency from 1989 to 1997, actively promoted the establishment of conditions that would facilitate privatisation and encourage foreign investment from the West. Following in his footsteps, Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) also embraced this approach and advocated for a peaceful “Dialogue of Civilisations” as a more constructive alternative to the confrontational stance toward the West espoused by Khomeini.
Iran underwent a significant economic shift from a self-reliant approach to implementing the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP), which led to currency devaluation, industry privatisation, and price liberalisation. While the World Bank provided loans to Iran in 1991 and 1994, by 1993, inequality had grown significantly, with the top 10% receiving 34% of the national income and the bottom 10% receiving only 2%.
Iran continued to face economic sanctions, with influential Israeli lobby groups in Washington playing a crucial role, perceiving Iran’s support of resistance against Israeli military actions in Palestine as a threat.
Following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush deemed Iran part of the “Axis of Evil” in the global fight against terrorism alongside Iraq. Although Iran collaborated with the US in the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, the endeavour did not yield the desired results.
Amidst the July 2005 election, many Iranians felt let down by Rafsanjani and Khatami’s failure to implement the economic and political reforms they pledged. Iran was contending with a multitude of challenges, including unemployment, inflation, limited political liberties, the closure of newspapers, and the detainment of journalists and student leaders. Conservative religious leaders also feared liberalisation would threaten their social status. Hence, the Islamist Conservatives supported President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-14) in the elections. Ahmadinejad criticised the reformist clergy, especially Rafsanjani, and promised to distribute Iran’s oil revenues to low-income individuals.
Although Ahmadinejad made some economic changes, including building social housing for the poor and improving infrastructure in rural areas, he failed to bring about necessary political and social reforms, particularly for the younger generation.
During Ahmadinejad’s bid for re-election in 2009, millions of Iranians took to the streets in protest, feeling that their voices were being disregarded. They alleged that the election results were fraudulent and rallied under the “Green Movement,” which was spearheaded by reformist religious figures. This historic movement represented the largest public demonstration in three decades. The rallying cry of “Where is My Vote?” conveyed a spirit of resistance but stopped short of calling for the dismantling of the Islamic Republic.
The Green Movement failed to expand its outreach to the working class and the poor, limiting its focus to the middle class. Despite this, the 2009 protests were crushed by the government’s militia and security forces, resulting in deaths and arrests.
In an effort to broaden his support among those experiencing financial hardship, Ahmadinejad implemented measures to decrease subsidies and allocate cash payments to all families, irrespective of their income level. Nevertheless, his economic policies were based on capitalist principles infused with a distinctive Islamic Republic ideology. As a result of his limited political influence, the conservative faction perceived him as a threat to their power. Furthermore, the impact of corruption and economic sanctions imposed by Western nations resulted in a decline in living standards, disproportionately affecting vulnerable individuals in society.
A New Twist on an Old Problem
In 2013, Hassan Rouhani was elected as president and returned to Rafsanjani and Khatami’s neoliberal market model. Rouhani’s strategy hinged on two pivotal elements: Iran’s relations with the US, which has imposed substantial constraints on the nation’s advancement, and his administration’s push to expedite neoliberal reforms by closely linking Iran’s economy with the global market. Consequently, internal discord has emerged, especially from Conservative clergy, particularly regarding the need for relations with the US and enhanced openness in political and economic affairs.
Rouhani’s early hopes and solutions for Iran’s ailing economy were contingent on forming closer relations with the global community. During Obama’s second term, the 2015 nuclear agreement was a glimmer of hope for Iran’s economy. However, despite the efforts of the US and its allies, restrictions on financial transactions and frozen assets proved to be a challenge. In 2018, President Trump withdrew from the agreement and reinstated sanctions to maintain US influence in the Middle East, backed by the support of Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The impact was readily apparent; Iran’s per capita GDP plummeted from $7,800 in 2011 to $2,300 in 2020. Shockingly, the wealthiest 20% of the populace possessed nearly half (47%) of the nation’s wealth, while the poorest 20% had a meagre 0.5%.
In 2020 Widespread unrest erupted across the country due to the government’s decision to reduce subsidies and increase energy costs. The protests were participated by workers and the poor, leading the state to respond with force to maintain control. Although the protest did not last long, it became evident that the Islamic Republic was rapidly losing legitimacy. There was a growing lack of trust among people regarding the government’s support for the working class and the poor, which marks a significant departure from the early days of the Revolution.
Amidst the worldwide economic struggles due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government of Rouhani sought assistance from the international community and requested a $50 billion loan from the IMF. However, the Trump administration opposed this move. As Rouhani’s term came to a close, his government’s optimistic vision of “hope” turned into despair. In 2021, when Raisi became President, Iran faced significant economic challenges, such as high inflation, currency depreciation, and a declining GDP. Additionally, the pandemic caused almost 7 million injuries and fatalities, with approximately 146,000 confirmed cases.
The 2022 Protest Movement
Before the 2022 protests began, many Iranians were struggling with various economic, political, and social challenges. Workers, students, teachers, and retired government employees were becoming increasingly dissatisfied, while national minorities, particularly those in Kurdish, Baloch, and Arab regions, felt neglected. Environmental issues, such as drought, water and electricity shortages, and harmful pollution, also significantly impacted and contributed to the desire for another wave of protests.
Following the death of Mahsa Amini, protests erupted throughout Iran. As a form of political defiance, more and more women across the country began removing their headscarves, with some even burning them in public. The government responded with violence, using anti-riot police and undercover agents to suppress the demonstrations.
This exposed the actions of the morality and security police, who have fuelled an unprecedented level of anger and posed a significant challenge for the Islamic Republic. Faced with limited options, Iranians resorted to public protests to voice their dissatisfaction with oppressive social and political structures, the mandatory hijab, and systemic corruption.
While acknowledging the economic challenges, Khamenei refrained from taking responsibility and instead blamed the protests on foreign conspiracies contributing to the situation:
“The enemy tries to make Iranian youth feel hopeless by highlighting the country’s problems, including high living costs, inflation, and livelihood issues. However, these problems can be tackled with the help of divine intervention and strength.”
One key difference from previous protests, such as in 2009, was the lack of involvement from the clergy. This shift could significantly affect Iranian politics and society.
The 2022 protest movement divided the ruling establishment on the use of the morality police to enforce headscarf-wearing for women in public. The regime has grappled with addressing this crucial issue amidst an already challenging economic environment.
Some officials in the Islamic Republic have acknowledged the importance of addressing the growing dissatisfaction among the younger generation of Iran. Although the state has resorted to violence, some police officers have refrained from confronting the protesters.
Although the protest involved diverse participants, including workers, it did not escalate into a significant strike and remained limited to the street. Despite this, it still impacted the regime, one of the strongest since 1979.
Prospects for Change
The global impact of the Iranian Revolution, which ousted a Western-supported dictator, cannot be overstated. While it initially brought hope to Iranians, the leaders of the Islamic Republic skillfully seized control and backed the traditional and emerging capitalist class. Despite their early promises to protect the poor, the Islamists have implemented policies that favoured capitalist ownership. As a result, multiple political movements have emerged to resist austerity and fight for political freedom.
Since the 1979 Revolution, the struggle for change has placed significant pressure on Islamists to reconsider their stance on labour relations, education, and women’s rights. Initially, they believed that women’s roles were limited to being mothers and wives, but as time passed and pressure mounted, their perspective shifted. As a result, more Iranian women are now pursuing educational and career opportunities.
The Islamists acknowledged the value of having educated and professional women who could fulfil roles beyond motherhood. Iranian women serve as doctors, nurses, and combatants during the Iran-Iraq War. They also managed food supplies, transported war materials, and provided intelligence support.
Undoubtedly, there exists a notable discrepancy between the educational and professional opportunities available to women of different socioeconomic statuses. This financial divide has contributed to a host of economic and societal obstacles. The stark juxtaposition between the opulent lifestyles of the affluent and the struggles endured by the majority has only served to heighten inequality and poverty.
It is a well-known fact that foreign countries, including the US, have taken advantage of Iran’s political movements. Reports have surfaced that suggest the US was considering supporting Reza Pahlavi, the son of the Shah, in 2022 in a bid to sway the protest movement. However, history has taught us that this approach may only sometimes yield the desired results, as evidenced by the 1979 Revolution. Similarly, neighbouring countries and rivals seek to exploit any opportunity to undermine the Islamic Republic. For example, Saudi Arabia, alongside BBC and VOA, has generously funded News International, a TV program broadcasting a Farsi show.
Despite facing challenges, the Islamic Republic has managed to maintain its regional influence and establish itself as a significant player in the Muslim world. Ongoing proxy conflicts between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Syria and Yemen have resulted in significant consequences. In response, Israel strengthened its ties with Gulf nations, with support from Donald Trump. This led to the Abraham Accords, signed in September 2020, which saw Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates officially recognize Israel. China’s recent efforts to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia have also played a crucial role in resolving their regional conflicts. As a result, their respective embassies in Tehran and Riyadh reopened. Furthermore, both nations refrained from backing attempts to isolate Russia in the ongoing Ukraine dispute, signalling a significant geopolitical shift in the region.
All indicators point to a potential ‘war of attrition’ where opposing groups gradually gain or lose political power over time, with far-reaching consequences for the entire area. Sometimes, certain events may be the final straw that leads to many significant protests. It is uncertain how much the rift will escalate before significant political consequences occur and bring radical changes in Iran.
Farhang Morady teaches International Development at the University of Westminster in London.