How far has the Islamic Republic of Iran advanced along the road from solidity to collapse? Are the protests that were prompted by the death in police custody of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, on September 16 comparable to the strikes and demonstrations that led to the Shah’s downfall in 1979, or has Amini become a figure in the tragic mold of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street-seller whose self-immolation in 2010 touched off the Arab Spring, a region-wide upheaval that, in the end, failed to fulfill its early promise? And what of a third scenario, which is that the protests will turn out to be little more than a ripple on the surface of an autarky that has future-proofed itself by maintaining the doctrinal purity of enough of its citizens, protecting its monopoly on armed force, and building one of the most insulated economies in the world?
The protests that followed Amini’s death after she was arrested in Tehran by the morality police, apparently for an infraction of the Islamic dress code, started in earnest in her home province of Kurdistan, in the far northwest, and spread across the country. All the agencies of the state mobilized to meet the threat and began a nationwide campaign against the protesters, including beatings, arrests, deaths in custody, propaganda, and judicial indictments. After four weeks and an estimated two hundred deaths—casualty figures must be treated with immense caution—the protests don’t appear to be letting up. By some measures, and making allowance for our reliance on reports that protesters have managed to send out of the country despite the government’s efforts to block the Internet, they are growing. On October 26, the fortieth day since Mahsa Amini’s death and the climax of the mourning period according to Shia Islam, significant protests were recorded in at least thirty towns across the nation, along with further deaths.
The official response to the unrest bears the signature of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, who more than anyone will determine how this will end. His approach to the most serious threat to the Islamic Republic since the Iran–Iraq War of the 1980s is heavily informed by what happened the last time an Iranian regime tottered and fell. As a young cleric, Khamenei was a militant opponent of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, spent time in his jails, and was tortured by his police. The hatred he exudes for the Shah is indivisible from his contempt for the tactical errors that the monarchy committed in its final phase and his determination to avoid them.
It took a year for the Islamic Revolution to become unstoppable, and during that time the revolutionaries’ greatest ally was the Shah himself. By heaping odium on Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, one of several prominent opposition figures, the government gave a divided opposition a leader to unite around. And the Shah’s irresolution contributed to his undoing. With each sacked prime minister, each inept crackdown or mea culpa, he fueled the suspicion—not only among the revolutionaries but also his own close allies—that he lacked the ruthlessness necessary to save himself and his regime. That suspicion was borne out on January 16, 1979, when he fled Iran. Two weeks later Khomeini returned from exile and took control of the country.
So when, on October 3, in a speech to graduates of the army college, the supreme leader finally broke his silence over the current protests, it wasn’t to offer a balm to those whose loved ones had been killed by the security forces or abducted by plainclothes agents and not seen since. He offered no apology for the death of Mahsa Amini, no sympathy for the family of Nika Shakarami, a sixteen-year-old girl who was arrested in Tehran and killed with a blow to the head. Instead, in his quiet, grandfatherly way, Khamenei told the new officers that it was the security forces, not the protesters, who had been wronged during the protests, and that the country’s right-thinking, pious majority had been done an injustice by enemies determined to prevent Iran from acquiring “strength in all fields” (which one might interpret to include a nuclear weapon).
If we’ve learned anything about Khamenei since he took over as supreme leader from Khomeini on the latter’s death in 1989, it’s his readiness to use the sternest measures to defend a regime he helped set up. The character of the Islamic Republic has been formed by isolation and sanctions. The state’s institutions are on perpetual high alert and its commanders and scientists are not infrequently assassinated. The supreme leader observes all this from his bunker. And when he speaks, he weighs his words, which a sizable number of Iranians continue to believe are close to the words of God, and gives a sense of what will come.
This was true during an earlier round of unrest in 2009, when, in a Friday prayers sermon I had the dubious privilege of attending, Khamenei warned protesters to get off the streets or face the consequences—an ultimatum that signaled an onslaught of arrests, atrocities, and show trials that stopped the agitation in its tracks. Thirteen years later, having suppressed several more bouts of unrest, big and small, this tough old man, whose lame right arm recalls the assassination attempt he survived in 1981 and whose imminent death from one of a variety of ailments has been proclaimed by opposition groups for the past two decades, divulged the real origin of the protests.
They had nothing to do, he said, with the hijab or Mahsa Amini; her death was a pretext for riots long planned by America and Israel and abetted by traitors of various hues, including the “accursed dregs” of the Shah’s regime. (He couldn’t resist a dig at the Shah’s “disgraceful” practice of consulting the British and American ambassadors before embarking on any significant course of action.) Then Khamenei explained what would happen next. Those “overexcited” youngsters who had joined the protests from a surfeit of emotion would be “guided” back to the right path by judicial “punishment”; errant “notables,” on the other hand—by which he meant those university teachers and professional associations that have come out in support of the protesters—would have to recant publicly.
Protests in Iran are a media event, and international interest is all the keener for the authorities’ efforts to sever communications both among the demonstrators and between them and the outside world. (One enterprising group hacked the state telecoms company and called people onto the streets by text message.) What everyone has noticed about the current unrest is its feminist character. This isn’t to say that young men haven’t constituted the majority of protesters, casualties, and detainees, but while in 2009 electoral fraud was the cause célèbre, and in November 2019—when a rise in gas prices sparked major riots—it was the cost of living, this time it’s the subjugation of women.
What we’ve been seeing on our social media feeds is revolt at its most emancipatory: young women dancing around bonfires of headscarves or strutting bareheaded through the streets and shouting for the end of the Islamic Republic. Among the most remarkable of these novelties was footage showing a male official from the Ministry of Education being chased out of a girls’ school by pupils who had taken off their maghnaehs—an egregiously bureaucratic version of the Islamic headcover invented by some zealot in the early days of the revolution—and were furiously hurling plastic bottles and items of stationery at him. Other videos showing women who had strayed from the main body of protesters being beaten savagely by policemen—as in the Serengeti, it’s the stragglers who are pulled down—were among the most distressing. And for all the sense one gets of a generational divide, with the young people on the front line while their parents fret at home, a tender solicitude across the ages is also in evidence. “I am removing my headscarf out of respect for you,” a woman in her fifties told two bareheaded teenage girls in the Tehran district of Tajrish, to which they replied, “Thank you, Auntie.”
What also marks this agitation is its longevity. The protests of 2009 suddenly shrank after the supreme leader’s sermon and the subsequent crackdown. A combination of overwhelming force and handouts smothered the 2019 demonstrations in days. By now the state media should be crowing about the ease with which a handful of malcontents were put in their places, while broken young people dribble out of detention centers and seek asylum overseas. But the new protests aren’t following the old pattern. Unaffected by Khamenei and the power he has unleashed, by whatever pleas their parents have made, or by the tranquilizing effect of a slew of public holidays, the young people go on protesting. And many people, at least in parts of Tehran, have gotten so used to living without the hijab that it might never have existed.
Until recently few people dared shout, “Death to Khamenei!” No one thought it was possible to take off your headscarf and walk to the market. Simply passing in front of the state broadcasting corporation—specialist in televised confessions—in its Tehran Lubyanka was enough to make people shudder. Now the walls are breached. No slogan is off limits. Women breakfast bareheaded in cafés. An elderly filmmaker was castigated online for going to see the culture minister while battles raged on the streets. The old deferences—to men, to age—are tumbling. On October 8 insurgents hacked a news bulletin that featured Khamenei, displaying an image of the supreme leader being licked by the flames of hell and the legend “The blood of our young people drips from your claws.”
There is no organized “opposition.” There is no manifesto. There is no leader. The demands that are heard on the streets and in the universities range from freedom for jailed students to an end to the obligatory hijab and for the mullahs to go to hell. But this agitation, like all Iranian agitations, is a valve for a more general anomie—one that combines global ills like social inequality and a sick planet with Kafkaesqueries of a more local character. A honey-voiced northern boy called Shervin Hajipour composed a song about the things that give life in the Islamic Republic its plangent sourness, which immediately became the anthem of the protests. The title of the song is “For…” and it lists the things for (or against) which one might take to the streets: for being scared while kissing someone, for shame at having no money, for the child trash-picker and his dreams, for the polluted air, for the Persian cheetah and its probable extinction, for the dogs that have been outlawed (dogs are considered unclean but everyone seems to have one), for the vapid slogans, for the buildings that have collapsed (a reference to repeated disasters caused by corrupt building practices). And so on, sad and caustic, until the final refrain, “For freedom, for freedom…” Hajipour was arrested on September 29 and later released on bail.
Khamenei referred in his speech to protesters ripping head coverings off the heads of pious women and burning Qurans. This is a propaganda line we will keep hearing, as the authorities try to depict them not as principled freedom-seekers but as nihilistic freedom-curtailers, throwbacks to the days of the Shah’s father, who banned the hijab and forced his ministers to appear at drinks parties with their uncovered spouses. (Some had prostitutes accompany them instead.) It’s often said that the obligatory hijab is a pillar of the Islamic Republic, but it’s not a pillar of the load-bearing sort. The state can live with bareheaded women walking about. The morality police can—as they are now reported to have done—withdraw from the streets. But the state cannot live with silent universities, striking workers, and shuttered shops; it cannot live with mutiny in the ranks. On October 10 workers at a petrochemical factory went on strike. The Tehran bazaar stayed shut, or some of it did. Since then teaching staff have struck in schools and universities. But these signs of revolution, for the moment, aren’t discernible on a significant scale.
What’s particularly hard to ascertain is the porosity of the line that divides the loyalist diehards—the men who have been taught that the protesters are evildoers on a commission from Satan—and their adversaries. What would it take for the ideologue to give back his privileges and concessions, his monthly dole and fabricated university degree, his license to beat and rape and revile? In the late 1990s and early 2000s the country had a reformist government that offered to be a bridge between the loyalists and their adversaries. With the suppression of the reformists that bridge was burned.
These men who go out each evening to crack heads get exhausted. They have nowhere even to piss. The young protesters they chase into alleys disappear into friendly houses that open their doors to them. And the unrest is throwing up challenges no one has any experience of. What is a girl of thirteen who rips down regime posters and screams “Death to the Dictator!”—a child or a threat to national security? Brutality depreciates the more it is used.
Not that brutality is something the regime wants to be associated with. Over the past few weeks the authorities have constructed elaborate alibis, through coroners, prosecutors, and the official media, to shield themselves from charges of thuggery. In this parallel world Mahsa Amini died from a heart attack, Nika Shakarami fell to her death, and Sarina Esmailzadeh—another sixteen-year-old who didn’t come back from a protest—committed suicide. Where possible, the families are dragged before the cameras to corroborate the state’s version, and if no one’s taken in, that’s not the point: the waters are muddied, seeds of doubt sown. That Shakarami’s body was buried in secret and without her family’s knowledge is a lesson from 1978. Much of the revolution’s momentum came from the funerals of people who had been killed in demonstrations, each funeral an excuse for another demonstration, leading to more deaths and more funerals and on and on. This is what made the protests of October 26 potentially significant. If each symbolically important death at the hands of the security forces gives the regime’s opponents an opportunity for further agitation, the consequence could be a highly destabilizing cycle of state violence and opposition anger.
In his October 3 speech Khamenei dismissed the dozens of athletes and cultural figures who have come out in support of the protesters as “without importance.” In a country where most political and religious leaders are tainted by their association with the state, soccer players, actors, and musicians enjoy totemic status. That Ali Karimi, a retired soccer star, has 13.5 million Instagram followers and has posted repeatedly in support of the protesters, is by no means “without importance.” Nor does the judiciary seem to think it is: in early October he was charged in absentia—he lives at least part of the time in Dubai—with “incitement to riot.”
Karimi’s position is now analogous to that of Gholamreza Takhti, Iran’s champion wrestler of the 1950s and 1960s, whose opposition to the Shah curtailed his career but earned him the love and respect of many Iranians. In 1968 Takhti’s body was discovered in a Tehran hotel room; the official verdict of suicide was widely disbelieved. Today the authorities are aware of the dangers of turning a hero into a martyr and of the excessive use of force, but what if the protests escalate further? We know the Shah’s way of dealing with that dilemma. It is now becoming Khamenei’s.
The worst thing for the regime would be for the supreme leader to become incapacitated or die. One day the rumors will be true and whoever takes over—his son? The current president? Someone we’ve barely heard of?—won’t have his authority. The next supreme leader won’t be able to say a few words at a parade and watch them trickle through the workings of government like motor oil. Rumors that the clerical establishment and the Revolutionary Guard are at daggers drawn over tactics, over revenue, over ideology, will be put to the test. For years I’ve heard many people who have no fondness for Khamenei say something to the effect of, “Well, at least he keeps the lid on chaos. We don’t want to become another Syria, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, do we?”
On October 26, when much of the country was marking the fortieth day since Amini’s death, gunmen shot dead some fifteen worshipers in a shrine in Shiraz, an atrocity for which the Islamic State, whose fanatical Sunni ideology places it at odds with Iran’s Shia theocracy, claimed responsibility. Shiraz is a major urban center in the heart of Iran. It is not considered vulnerable to terrorism. It is suspicious that Iran’s generally effective intelligence services did not prevent such an outrage, an omission that carries an unmistakable message for those Iranians who might be considering throwing in their lot with the protesters.
Iran is a big country with a core and a periphery. It’s the core—those cities dotted around the Persian plateau where people speak Persian or Azeri Turkish and look to Tehran for money, patronage, and direction, and the smaller satellites around these cities—that decides its fate. Those on the periphery—the Kurds in the northwest, the Baluchis in the southeast, and the Arabs in the southwest—have families and interests beyond Iran’s borders. And many of them are Sunni Muslims, which puts them athwart the Shia ideology of the Islamic Republic.
The Shah’s flight in 1979 was quickly followed by nationalist agitation, as Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs explored what concessions could be extracted from the new state. The answer took the form of martial law and, in the case of the Arabs, the cataclysm of the Iran–Iraq War, which was fought mostly on their territory. When I arrived in Iran, in 1999—the high noon of reformism—official suspicion of these minorities had lessened somewhat. The governor of Kurdistan was a Kurd and proud of it. With the suppression of the reform movement and the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the authorities became sensitive to borders again. The province of Sistan and Baluchestan has been in the throes of a nationalist insurgency for years now, and Iranian Kurdish groups launch attacks on Iran from bases in Iraq.
On October 3 Khamenei praised the Baluchis and the Kurds for their supposed attachment to the revolution and the Islamic Republic. He also included “separatists” in his list of rogues who have allied with the country’s foreign enemies. Four days earlier, crowds in Zahedan, the main city in Sistan and Baluchestan, had demonstrated outside a police station in response to allegations that a local commander had raped a fifteen-year-old Baluchi girl. The police killed at least eighty-two people in the ensuing mayhem, according to Amnesty International. That this atrocity, by far the biggest of the protests so far, was given less attention by the international media than images of Tehran girls dancing around their headscarves was received with weary recognition by Baluchi activists; one told BBC Persian that “while Tehranis get shot with rubber bullets, we get live rounds.” On September 28 Iran launched missiles and armed drones against Kurdish opposition groups that it accused of infiltrating Kurdish areas of Iran to “sow insecurity.”
Officials are warning of separatism and referring to the country’s indivisible unity with growing frequency. Insecurity will be the bugbear and separatism the specter in the months to come. The state’s media propagandists are also denigrating Iranian expatriates who have been taking part in big rallies abroad calling for the end of the Islamic Republic—the largest of these, which took place in Berlin on October 22, attracted 80,000 people—as traitors in league with a sinister cabal of foreign enemies. Scores are being settled; ethnic and religious differences are being stoked; Iranian girls threaten a revolution inside and outside the home. “Après moi, le déluge,” or its Persian equivalent, is something we may hear more of.
—October 27, 2022