The protests in Iran continue to capture global attention. Over the past three months, millions of Iranians have marched and demonstrated, first to commemorate and protest against the murder of a young Iranian Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, who was killed by the regime’s so-called morality police and, later, to demonstrate against the entire edifice of Iran’s theocratic dictatorship.
At various times over the past few months, foreign observers have considered the protests to be likely to wind down. First because the Iranian state and its paramilitaries in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basij reacted with extreme violence and, more recently, because it seemed to some — who were mistaken — as though the regime may be making some concessions to the demonstrators.
Neither of those things have happened. Hundreds of demonstrators have been killed and tens of thousands arrested. And now that the regime has executed its first man — Mohsen Shekari, who was specifically arrested and sentenced for participating in the protests — the situation appears to be approaching a climax of violence or political change. Commentators are beginning to talk about this as a new Iranian revolution, sweeping away the results of the revolution of 1979.
A new report by Arab News, “A New Iranian Revolution,” charts the beginning of the protest movement and how its messages spread fast among Iran’s youth and its users of social media. It has gathered popular sentiment around common chants — “Woman, life, freedom” being among them — and popular songs of protest, including “Baraye,” which means “Because of…” and which quickly became one of the fastest-spreading pieces of art in post-1979 Iran.
In the report, I study the political identities of Iranian women — especially the youngest, corresponding to what is called Generation Z in the West — who are decades removed from the revolution of 1979, whose octogenarian leaders still dominate the upper echelons of Iranian politics, religious life and society, and whose values are enforced upon the rest of the country.
The report notes that these women and women older than them are at the forefront of protests, and that two of the most widespread gestures of defiance — the unveiling of a woman’s hair and the ceremonial cutting of the hair — have each focused on the religious laws that impinge women’s rights within Iran.
Many Iranian dissenters and diaspora activists believe that the regime has never been less popular and that this is perhaps the only real chance since its foundation for a new Iranian revolution to overthrow the status quo. It could then remake the state on new lines, introducing more legal equality for women, fewer restrictions on daily life and “morality,” and jettisoning the regional expansionist policies and nuclear program favored by the IRGC and the leadership.
And thus, many Iranians, both abroad and within Iran itself, have called the current demonstrations the largest and most effective in the 41-year history of the regime. They say the protests threaten the survival of the regime.
Even more than the 2009 Green Movement, which emerged after what demonstrators called, with justice, rigged elections, this current wave of demonstrations appears to undermine the regime’s narratives and the foundations of its laws, including its claims of spiritual authority and holy inviolability. Protesters are undermining the sacredness of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the nature of his nominally secular government. They openly chant their desire that the IRGC be abolished rather than be allowed to dominate the state as it does.
Symbols of the regime have been attacked, including shrines to the killed IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani and sites such as the notorious Evin Prison, where dissenters are incarcerated, and regional offices from which the IRGC and the domestic intelligence agencies of the state operate.
This is an existential threat to the regime. It has two choices of how to meet this threat. It can continue to be violent and repressive, with the assumption that eventually the will of the demonstrators will break, or it can compromise and ameliorate.
It seems to have chosen the former path. This will place demonstrators in immense danger. Many of them will be killed and injured. Many more will be imprisoned and some will be executed. Their bravery is immense.
If they can endure these terrible odds and keep their movement going — whole, cohesive and stable — the young of Iran and those who have grown tired of theocracy can begin to shake the long-ossified clerical and Revolutionary Guard foundations of the state.
The research identifies trends in Iranian society that cannot comfort the regime’s leaders. The protests have grown at a rate out of all proportion with their predictions. If they continue, the foundations of the state may be shaken.