By Prof Shahram Akbarzadeh, Convenor of Middle East Studies Forum, Deakin University. He is the author of Middle East Politics and International Relations: Crisis Zone. You can follow him on Twitter at @S_Akbarzadeh
Widespread protests against the ruling regime in Iran have raised serious questions about the future. Will the regime survive this popular expression of dissent? What will come next? Is this the beginning the end for the Islamic Republic of Iran? While predicting the future is an exercise in futility, some key indicators need attention.
We are Witnessing a Popular Revolution
There are no two ways about it. Years of public anger at the arbitrary and brutal rule of the regime, economic mismanagement and corruption, a warped foreign policy that has made Iran a pariah state in the international arena have boiled over. The killing of Mahsa (Zhina) Amini in the hands of the morality police for the alleged offence of not wearing her hijab appropriately has sparked a national outpouring of emotions. The cry of Women, Life, Freedom (Zan, Zendegi, Azadi) has captured the national imagination. The killing Mahsa, known by her Kurdish name as Zhina, put the spotlight on two aspects of regime suppression: the misogynist nature of state policies that treat women as second-class citizens, with compulsory hijab the symbol of total subjugation; and the marginalisation of ethnic minorities, the perpetuation of poverty and under-development in provinces inhabited by Kurds, Baluch and Arabs. Iran was a tinderbox. The brutal killing of Mahsa Amini was the spark that ignited the revolution.
This Revolt is Spontaneous and Leaderless
Much like the Arab revolution, there is no identifiable political leader or organisation to strategize and set the agenda. This is a women and youth-led uprising coordinated via social networks (on-line and off-line). The regime has tried to limit information sharing and coordination by blocking social media apps and access to the internet – but revolutions can still happen without the internet. Look at the 1979 revolution in Iran.
The reason there is no leadership for the revolution in Iran is obvious. The regime has systematically eliminated its opponents. Since the early days of the Islamic republic of Iran, the ruling clergy have consolidated power through the physical elimination of their opponents. Even rising voices of dissent from within the ruling regime, such as former president Khatami and presidential candidate Mir-Hussein Mousavi, have been silenced through intimidation and isolation.
In the absence of leadership within Iran, a number of opposition groups in diaspora have tried to claim the helm. The son of the deposed Shah of Iran and the leader of the Mujahideen organisation have tried to fill that void. But the reality is that the protestors in Iran have no fidelity to these actors. Women and youth are calling for an ‘end to dictatorship’. But there is no clear roadmap to achieve that.
Cracks in the Institutions of Power
The public outpouring of grief and protests has created cracks in the institutions of power. While the security forces shown no mercy on protesting youth, a number of Islamic seminary students have issued a statement that challenges the foundations of the existing system. They challenge compulsory hijab as a departure from Islamic teaching. they claim the practice is a political ploy to control society which has undermined popular belief in Islam. They also challenge the religious credentials of the Supreme Leader Khamenei and reject his authority to lead in the name of Islam, concluding that the ‘Islamic Republic’ is a misnomer. They do not consider the Iranian system of government to be Islamic. One might add that it is also not a republic.
This public challenge to the religious authority of the Supreme Leader is unprecedented. Coupled with public protests that call for freedom, they combine into a formidable force for change.
Democracy Paradox Podcast
Make a one-time Donation to Democracy Paradox.
Mark Beissinger on Urban Civic Revolutions
Erica Chenoweth on Civil Resistance
More Episodes from the Podcast
Democracy Paradox is part of the Amazon Affiliates Program and earns commissions on items purchased from links to the Amazon website. All links are to recommended books discussed in the podcast or referenced in the blog.