The Limits of Cutting Hair: How the West Fails Iranian Protestors

After the death of Mahsa Amini, Iran is witnessing (yet another) massive mobilization of citizens frustrated with their (so-called) Islamic government, reeling due to Western sanctions, and are demanding long-awaited relief instead of a continued chokehold on civil liberties. The mobilization has been echoed around the world with shows of solidarity both in the streets and in parliaments. It would seem the Khamenei regime is under unprecedented pressure and will crack so long as more and more protestors mobilize within and more acts of solidarity manifest without. Unfortunately, this is the prelude to a massive and possibly blood-drenched disappointment. This is due to three factors: A weaker Washington, the asymmetry of violence, and an ever-potent rallying cry. 

Large-scale protests are meant to display popular dissatisfaction with a government’s performance and were witnessed recently in Lebanon, in Belarus, and currently in Russia. However, these protests did not translate into major changes in the chambers of power. This is because, despite these three being democracies (on paper), Washington is unable to enforce nor demand that their elections be free, fair, and transparent—unable to force, in other words, the governance style of these countries to more strongly resemble that of the West. This is arguably part of Washington’s decline, wherein states and stakeholders are feeling less implored to play by Washington’s rules as highlighted by OPEC’s recent cuts. Hegemons, after all, directly and indirectly promote themselves as the standard in all areas: economic, military, and/or socio-cultural, and the hegemon’s governance system is similarly impressed onto the rest of the world as the ideal, leading to worldwide grassroots movements working to thin the layer between public opinion and government policy; to bring their respective states, in other words, closer to democracy. 

One may counterargue that the Iranian regime was also successfully resisting Washington even when the latter was flexing its muscle during the Gulf War, then in the 2000s with the invasion of Iraq. It is indeed from those heights that US hegemony failed to (re-)shape Iran and from those heights that it has fallen, with now weaker Syria able to defy American designs. Further, Moscow is now following in Tehran’s footsteps, finding economic relief in a stronger Beijing and even New Delhi’s emerging de-dollarized patronage of Moscow’s crude is similar to its arrangement with Tehran. Indeed, Washington’s economic clout has grown so (relatively) weak with respect to Beijing that the latter has pulled Islamabad closer to its orbit via stronger imports, military cooperation, and higher investment, leading researchers to claim China’s hegemony there.  

Meanwhile, sanctions meant to cut off countries from global trade only work when the sanctioned are few, but when more and more are isolated, they will coalesce to survive, using their own currencies for trade and mitigating the dollar’s reach. 

Contextually, furthermore, now is a particularly bad time for protestors to seek concessions from the Iranian regime. As Putin’s Russia begins touring Asia seeking to strengthen ties with Beijing and Tehran, this latter would not want to appear as the weakest link in the manifesting anti-Western alliance. Rather, the Iranian regime would seek to display brutality as not only a show of strength to (reassure) its allies but also as an insult and challenge to the West’s standards on human rights, freedom of expression, and democracy. 

Ironically, it was mass protests that brought the regime to power in 1979 but it had kicked down that ladder by requiring that all presidential candidates be vetted by a religious body and have since been notorious for forcefully suppressing dissent, cognizant that the flames of public fury that once propelled them can ultimately consume them. Remember, this is the same regime that sent thousands of schoolchildren to clear mine fields, handing them “keys to heaven”. Like other totalitarian regimes, it is more concerned with keeping robust the channels of control over its population than the population’s actual well-being. 

What power Washington has, furthermore, seems counterproductive. Indeed, despite sanctions sharply curbing Iran’s trade revenue, rendering a deficit in 2019 and 2020 as shown below, they remain ineffective in impacting the Iranian political class. On the contrary: due to corruption, decision-making bodies remain relatively comfortable while it is the common citizen who suffers the most acutely. Consequently, this slump in the average citizen’s economic well-being curbs the durability of the protestors; they cannot remain on strike while their resources are limited. The regime is waiting for them to tire and will be ready to punish as it sees fit.

Iran Balance of Trade 2013 – 2020 (Source: The Observatory for Economic Complexity)

The second reason the protests will most likely fail is the asymmetry in the readiness and capacity to produce violence. Imagine yourself in a room with nine other people. One of them wants you all to live by his rules and is willing to die to impose them. If you resist, you will be killed. What would you do? You try to rally the others into a loud protest, but he attacks and kills one of you. Then, one of the remaining eight decides to join him, while another decides to flee the room to a more democratic one. Suddenly, the numbers shift: now it’s two of them against six of you. You plead with the attacker to be more democratic, to be more lenient, but he refuses and in his fist is a veil for your daughter. Plainly: if someone is willing to die for you to live by his rules and you are not willing to counterattack to live by your own, and if the state is unable to quell his violence, then eventually you will either escape or obey. This is how the Lebanese ruling class clutched onto power despite a catastrophic economic collapse and gross negligence leading to the Beirut port explosion: enraged as they may be, unarmed protestors are ultimately clubbed to submission by internal security and armed militias. This is the dynamic of the IRGC, the dynamic of ISIS. Recall the Taliban, a minority, who overtook an entire country even though they were outnumbered and outgunned compared to the Afghan army, but were willing to die to impose Sharia law on the entire population while Afghan soldiers chose to flee than die to prevent this. 

Besides the willingness to produce violence, the protestors face an asymmetry in its production. Gone are the days when pitchforks and torches brought down forts and royalty, for today the state is much better equipped to produce violence than the average citizen as the Assad regime continues to demonstrate. 

The third reason the protests are likely to fail is the same force behind the emergence of counter-protestors, the emergence of Iran’s proxies as an effective mercenary force while costing far less, and is the rallying cry around which Tehran wields and cultivates legitimacy among its proxies: Western injustice by the U.S. and, more closely, by Israel. It is worth noting that the current Iranian regime rose to power on a wave of discontent towards a Shah instated by the West, its original sin in Tehran’s eyes. Unsurprisingly, Iran’s supreme leader was quick to blame the Zionist duo (Israel and the US) for the protests shortly after their eruption. As quick as Zionists blame antisemitism for any measures to check Israel’s bombardment of Palestinian territory and support of illegal settlement projects. All Arabs know this fact: Israel can get away with murder, while Arabs are sanctioned for it. Consider the Khashoggi controversy: The Saudi regime murdered a green card-holding journalist and international condemnation followed, growing from lip-service to real economic consequences against a key ally, Riyadh. A few months ago, meanwhile, Israeli forces murdered an American journalist and not even a slap on the wrist. Double standards like this fans the flame of anti-Western sentiment and turns pro-democracy protestors into Zionist targets for those eager to maintain what they term “resistance”: nobly standing up to Western “arrogance” and imperialism. This then reinvigorates the ranks of the status quo and slashes the costs of suppression. Indeed, as reported by the United Nations, Israeli settlements and settler violence are the “root cause” of never-ending violence in the Middle East, in which Iran is a major player. As the West hopes for justice for the Iranian people, the Middle East hopes for justice for the Palestinians. The only difference is that our hope is stimulated far more regularly, by a phenomenon we cannot avoid by simply changing the television channel. 

For the IRGC, as with the Kremlin, there is no target weight of cut hair that will make them rescind power, there is no target volume for chants to reach nor an artistic standard for their catchiness that will make them rescind power, and there are no threats of Western sanctions that will make them rescind power. By all means, then, even if every scalp is shaved clean and brimming, so long as settlers can oppress with impunity, the Iranian regime is not going anywhere.  

[Photo by Eric Luth (WMSE), via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and pinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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