Turmoil and transition
A recent Democracy Forum seminar assembled a panel of experts to discuss the continuing civil unrest in Iran, what has caused it and where it may lead
Following the death in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, after she was detained by Iran’s notorious morality police, mass protests erupted across the country. With poverty rife and confidence in the political system at an all-time low, the Iranian regime is today facing an uncertain future. How will the Islamic Republic handle this crisis of legitimacy?What might the ongoing protests mean for women’s rights and other freedoms in Iran, and are foreign governments’ sanctions against Iran a help or a hindrance?
These were some of the questions debated by panellists at a recent Democracy Forum webinar, titled ‘Will civil unrest change the face of Iran?’
Opening the event, TDF President Lord Bruce said that, while the region is less explored by the Democracy Forum’s regular debates, the rapidly changing situation is being closely monitored by the Forum, as the issues are strikingly familiar, just as the authorities’ response is tragically predictable.Iran appears to be facing its very own Arab Spring moment, he said, with Amini’s arrest and death at the hands of the morality police for the ‘crime’ of not wearing her hijab properly both underlining the remoteness of the current regime, and the strength of fury that is gathering pace in Iran’s younger generations.The response thus poses one of the most significant threats to the Islamic Republic’s 43-year dominance. Lord Bruce spoke of how the current movement differs markedly from previous protests, bringing together a much broader strata of Iranian society and emboldening separatist movements, a situation exacerbated by the ethnic diversity of Arab, Kurds, Baluchis, Turks and Sunni Muslims. Yet some commentators believe the protest movement suffers from the same shortcomings as previous demonstrations – primarily a lack of leadership. While it will ultimately become impossible for the regime to control these movements, the system will continue, for now, with its draconian response.
Author Fatemeh Aman, a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute, considered how Iran’s current uprising differs from those of the past, and where the situation might be heading.The face of Iran has already been changed, she argued, as the current trajectory is irreversible. On the issue of why Mahsa Amini had been detained, many believeit was her ethnicity and religious background – Kurdish Sunni – that prompted her detention and mistreatment by police. Unlike earlier protest movements, such as the Green Movement of 2009, and those of 2018 and 2019, sparked by rises in poultry and gas prices, the current protests have not been triggered by economics, or by factional politics, but by a wider spread rejection of the entire system which crosses ethnic, geographic and class lines. So, while in the past, protests have subsided in part due to fear that Iran could turn into another Syria or Libya, or worse, that has not happened this time. Many people feel there is no hope under the current system, and that nothing could be worse than this regime.The harshness of the authorities’ response, and of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini in blaming foreigners, most notably the West, for the uprising has lessened the chance of an end to the protests. A military crackdown on border regions such as Baluchistan, or efforts by the regime to cut people’s connectivity, could also radicalise the movement so it spirals out of control, leading to other conflicts and possible civil war. But, concluded Aman, for the movement to succeed, it is important that core supporters of the regime split, and that there is inclusiveness within the opposition.
Iran’s crisis of legitimacy was the focal point for Anoush Ehteshami, Professor of International Relations and Nasser al-Sabah Chair & Director, HH Sheikh Nasser al-Sabah Research Programme at Durham University’s School of Government and International Affairs.For revolutionary regimes such as the Soviet Union, Cuba and Nicaragua,legitimacyis a hard currency that they think they can trade with indefinitely. Iran is no exception, said Ehteshami, and its hard currency of legitimacy has begun to turn to dust, which happened from the late 1990s, when the IRGC issued an ultimatum to Iran’s most popular president, Khatami, to change his course or face consequences.That was a shock to Iranians, who had assumed the system was pliable, flexible and reformable. This devaluation of legitimacy currency accelerated in 2009, with a challenge by Iranian voters to Ahmadinejad’s re-election as president. So the erosion of the Islamic Republic’s narrative of dominanceand legitimacy has been in the making for some time. However, Ehteshami placed the current situation in a broader context, alongthree axes: thesocio-economic crisis the country is facing – eg massive inflation, a dramatic contrast between the haves and have-nots, crony capitalism;the political crisis of a non-representative, unaccountable regimeandthe flame gong out of the JCPOA; and the international dimension, such as the eroding impact of sanctions. All three, he argued, are converging to create a major crisis for Iran today. Regarding its status as a once powerful regional actorin Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, Ehteshami argued that Iran, is now vulnerable in every one of these areas. Ultimately, he did not see a rapid end to the protests, which will smoulder and take only another spark to reignite.
Exploring the concept of ‘Woman Life Freedom’, Roya Kashefi, Head of the Human Rights Committee of Association des Chercheurs Iraniens, placed the demands of today’s women’s movement in the context of what is happening in Iran, arguing that it is a fight for so much more than just wearing or not wearing a piece of cloth. She spoke of the intertwining of Islamic and civil law and how, as a result of certain laws, women and religious minorities are controlled.Segregation of the sexes in Iran is physical as well as symbolic, argued Kashefi, as she noted how sexuality and sexual desire play a major role in drafting legislation.Because the Islamic hijab is not just a dress code but a whole culture, the rulingclergy has established a system to enforce it and ensure its observance, and laws sanction the traditional patriarchal culture.As a result of such laws, thousands of women have been detained in Iran and now have criminal files. But while the regime has been busy trying to control the presence of women within society, women have not stayed silent as they continue fighting for equality for all women, and all people, in Iran.
Dr Roxane Farmanfarmaian, Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East & North Africa at the University of Cambridge, addressed Iran’s foreign relations vis-à-vis its Gulf neighbours and with the wider world, Europe, the US, Russia and China, and how the current civil unrest is impacting those relationships. We all know Iran has been under sanctions for decades, she said, and that it has been a rogue state. But its isolation and insulation from the outside world has now come into sharp focus, and is playing a part in what is happening now.That said, is there a role for external powers in the turmoil taking place in Iran, do the Iranian people want it, and is it even possible? With the Supreme Leader elderly and unwell, who, asked Farmanfarmaian, will be next leader, and what kind of groups will be the source of his power? Protests, she anticipated, could help to trigger a change at the top more quickly than anticipated. Farmanfarmaian also looked at three key areas of Iran’s foreign relations: the country’s immediate neighbours, the Gulf and Middle East states, for whom the upheaval in Iran generally bodes ill; the West, including Europe, with its focus on human rights; and Tehran’s relations with rising powers Russia and China, with the latter having a key role to play in how the protests turn out, given that Beijing provides surveillance materials such as facial recognition and AI.
Focusing his comments around the answer to the webinar’s central question, historian Dr Marouf Cabi, a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics’ Middle East Centre, said today’s unrest has changed the face of Iran domestically and internationally. These protests can’t be seen as simply a continuation of previous protests, he argued, but as a gradual revolution that started several years ago. People in Iran now know more about each other – for example,they have a greater awareness of theKurdish people and movement. Cabi also saw the need to ask another question: what kind of change will guarantee a new kind of direction for Iran, and make way for a democratic alternative?New structures that guarantee freedoms for all groups and a more equal gender order are required, and more cultures and languages need to be elevated to the same position as the Persian language and literature. So, concluded Cabi, to have a democratic direction, a complete change of structure must happen in Iran. This will require time and patience, though he was optimisticit will happen.
In his closing address, Barry Gardiner MP, Chair of The Democracy Forum, praised the panellists’ incisive presentations, and highlighted their unanimity in the belief that Iran has to develop its own way forward, and that blanket sanctions areimpeding them finding that way, as they are entrenching the power of the regime. Gardiner asked whether the West should be progressing with the JCPOA, as it would give greater scope to the regime, allowing it to develop nuclear weapons.The panellists’‘hands off’ messagewas difficult for politicians in the West to accept, added Gardiner,as theydid not like to be seen as powerless in the face of repressive regimes.
Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for the foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner in London