The torture and subsequent killing of Mahsa Amini by Gasht-e-Ershad (moral police) in September 2022 has brought the concern of civil liberties in Iran at the forefront. The incident occurred at a time when Iran celebrated the 43rd year of its Islamic Revolution amidst the all-encompassing protests by different sections of the civil society. Soon after the death of Amini, demonstrations were reported from Saqqez in western Iran on Sept. 17 with the protestors chanting “Murder because of the scarf? Until when we tolerate this? and Death to Khamenei”.
Whereas Amini’s death was the primary impetus behind such developments, many other protests in Iran in 2022 largely questions the transaction between “liberty of being” and “collective security” on which the revolution was based. The Islamic Revolution was centred around the collective security of Shi’ite Messianism, Territory and Economic Proclivity. In exchange, the revolution demanded for certain liberties arising from the citizens’ being that were prominent during the decades of the Iranian Monarchy.
However, 43 years since its revolution in 1979, Iran has been unable to keep up with its assurances and hence the transaction is now collapsing. The collapse of the transaction highlights majorly a political risk prevalent in the region as a whole, but moreover a risk for the foundations on which the revolution stood. Going ahead, while the regime may withstand the enduring pressure from the civil society, the grievances may channelize into questioning of the authority- something which the revolution tried to weaken through the transaction.
Iran is both Islamic and a Republic. While the elected government is headed by a President, the Supreme Leader is considered as the ultimate authority is nominated by an assembly of experts. One is a constitutional authority, the other illustrates not only religious symbolism but also the spiritual identity embedded in the identity of Iran. But these fissures wide open as regime infighting when both the President and the Supreme Leader are at loggerheads.
The election of President Raisi in July 2021 once again underlined the feasibility of cooperation between the two such authorities unlike the contentious ties between former President Rouhani and Khamenei. Typically, the contentions are juxtaposed with the ideals with Shi’ite Messianism like anti-US stance, eradication of Israel, and a commitment to export the Islamic Revolution. Together, as Aaraabi suggests, these ideals have overlaps with Sunni Islamism followed by terror groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS.
However, other than the eradication of Israel, there is a willingness within the regime to let go of the other two ideals if not completely. Despite the clamour over the removal of sanctions to proceed forward with JCPOA, Raisi in his statements has shown a readiness to acquiescence. On the other hand, Iran’s export of Islamic Revolution has largely collapsed with the limited influence in the Levant also declining. Unlike the Arab Spring in 2011, that Iran surreptitiously dreaded but in public called as ‘Islamic Awakening’, the situation in 2022 is averse to Iranian interests.
Ever since the Arab Spring, the policy of pragmatism has reigned higher than ideological considerations for Iran. Yet Hezbollah’s electoral setback in Lebanese General Elections of May 2022, Muqtada al-Sadr’s anti-Iran stance in Iraq, and Assad’s outreach to the Gulf have become prominent instances of when pragmatism fails. Similarly, Iran’s attempt to develop relations with al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban were futile. When both pragmatism and ideology does not succeed, leaders try to shift the focus of the population towards either economic growth or territorial sovereignty but what if there is no such alternative?
Territory and Economic Growth
The assassination of IRGC General Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 3, 2020 by US drone strike took place near the Baghdad International Airport. Multiple other assassinations since then have taken place killing many individuals at prominent positions in Iran. Whereas the death of Soleimani brought Iranian citizens together and raised the anti-US sentiments in support of the regime, the lack of concrete response from the leadership tacitly underlined its vulnerability. Thereafter, the consequences of Covid-19 from March 2020 onwards and the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 took charge on the Iranian economy.
Since then, there has been a rise of 300% inflation rate in food products including flour selling for 160,000 Rials per kg, $4.65 billion trade deficit, 60% rise in tax revenues and the plunging of growth rate to 27% projected in 2022 from 43% in 2021. Previously, in June 2021, Iranian oil workers for a week went on a strike at 60 oil and petrochemical installations to demand better working conditions and wages. Likewise Iran’s oil production has dropped to 2.558 million barrels per day in 2022 which is way below than the projected production of 4.038 million bpd for 2023. If this continues, Tehran will find it difficult to curb the 40% rise in inflation. This has led to a fresh wave of protests from all sections of the civil society ever since the beginning of 2022.
Liberty of Being
Dismayed by the centralized and strong state with fabricated liberties alongside the modernization measures embarked on by former King Reza Shah Pahlavi, large number of people came out on the streets in their support towards the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The pro-West and pro-American Shah was replaced with a regime willing to assert Iran’s religious authority not only within the borders but also beyond. Behind the fall of the Shah, as Sempa notes, was the failure of modernization to ‘create loyalty to his regime’.
Being a country with the largest Shi’ite population and a dense civilizational history, the former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei brought back the principles of nostalgia. In a nationwide referendum, Iran became an Islamic Republic on 1st April 1979. However, the new regime became more fearful of dissent as years passed by.
However, after 43 years of the revolution, based on a survey conducted by GMAAN, the Iranians stance towards the regime has significantly changed. The Shah which the regime removed, his son Reza Pehlavi commands the most admiration at 39% followed by President Raisi at 17%. More and more people have opted for a secular democratic republic with some even demanding a constitutional monarchy.
Nonetheless, the Iranians continue to look up to a strong unitary state, however, without a religious authority. Whereas, the sample size could be questioned, but considering the anger on social media by unverified and verified twitter accounts alongside the videos of protestors clashing with the IRGC personnels and the police in some manner authenticate the results of the survey.
Liberty of Being over Collective Security?
The protests in the aftermath of Mahsa Amini’s death have now reached into its 3rd week. On the other hand, media reports indicate that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is under medical observation. Other reports have suggested that political infighting has erupted between President Raisi and Khamenei’s son Mojtaba to succeed as the new Supreme Leader in upcoming future. More unverified reports suggest that the IRGC may also attempt a coup in the post-Khamenei period though the possibility of it remains trivial.
Amid the political infighting kept under the implicit shadows of power, protestors have mobilized in more than 75 cities in less than 15 days. Anti-regime protests by the Iranian diaspora were also reported from London in the UK, Baghdad in Iraq and a scheduled protest in Paris, France called for 2nd October. Till now, more than 80 people have been killed with hundreds of them injured and imprisoned. Uncorroborated sources from Iran itself establish the casualty count to be more than 200 people. Social media and the Internet also remain affected.
While the regime may survive, the ongoing protests have underlined that dissent is there to stay in Iran. Not that it was not there before but currently disillusionment with the regime has become public. Therefore, struggle between collective security and liberty of being may continue across Iran with a high possibility of the regime making small compromises to sustain their influence and more importantly to maintain the legitimacy of the Supreme Leader.
[Photo by Matt Hrkac from Geelong / Melbourne, Australia, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Prashant Rastogi is a PhD Candidate at the Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA), O.P. Jindal Global University and a Senior Risk Analyst with WoRisGo. His research areas focus on digital communication and diplomacy by armed non-state actors, foreign policy of fragile states and populism.