After three months of popular demonstrations that have spread among all classes and ethnic and sectarian groups in Iran since September 2022, the regime has to choose between two options in 2023.
The first is to make concessions by accepting some of the protesters’ demands, foremost among which is the abolition of the compulsory hijab or Muslim headscarf by women in the wake of the death of a young Iranian-Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, after she was detained in a police station in Tehran on charges of wearing it inappropriately.
The second is to continue to use tactics of intimidation, to tighten the security grip, and to use excessive violence to silence opponents.
For a while, it seemed that the regime might lean towards the first option, after Iran’s attorney general, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, spoke about the possibility of abolishing the country’s morality police and the compulsory wearing of the hijab.
However, optimism that these things might come about disappeared in a matter of days after it became clear that the regime would double down on its efforts to quell the demonstrations by using public executions, rare in Iran, against protesters involved in killing members of the security forces during the popular protests.
Public executions, the targeting by gunfire of sensitive parts of the bodies of protesters, including the chest and eyes, and the deployment of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in major cities and Arab and Kurdish areas of the country have led to a diminution of the protests. However, they have not died out.
The Iranian regime tends to use excessive violence whenever it feels besieged or weak internally and externally, making 2023 a challenging year in Iran.
The demonstrations that began in early September have opened a Pandora’s box in Iran and more so than any others over the past few years. Within days, tens of thousands of demonstrators were turning out in the Arab regions of Iran in the southwest and the Kurdish regions in the northwest, demanding regime change, the overthrow of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and answers to the economic and cultural grievances of the residents of these forgotten and marginalised regions that suffer from high rates of unemployment and poverty.
The size of the demonstrations, the massive participation of Iranian Arabs and Kurds, and the demand for regime change have all made them very different from the earlier 2009 demonstrations.
These were largely political and were led by the urban middle classes in large cities such as Tehran, Shiraz, Mashhad, and Isfahan. The slogan was “where is my vote?” amid accusations that the regime had rigged the results of that year’s presidential elections to prevent the victory of reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi and ensure the victory of the conservative candidate backed by Khamenei, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The regime shut down the Internet, social media, and mobile phone networks in response to the demonstrations. But it did not only resort to violence, as it also used some reformist voices to calm the demonstrators, including that of former President Mohammad Khatami.
In contrast, the current protests are about much more than election results and there are no reformist voices ready to defend the regime. Furthermore, while the economic conditions in Iran were difficult in 2009, they were not as dire as they are today. All this means that the regime has few good options to calm public anger.
“This is certainly the most serious challenge in terms of the length and size of the protests that are taking place in Iran, but so far the regime’s security forces are not defecting or splitting. If that begins to happen, and there are prolonged strikes in key economic sectors such as the oil sector, then I would say the challenge is existential,” Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative and a non-resident fellow at the US Atlantic Council, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
When Iran’s attorney general said a few weeks ago that the country could disband the morality police and end the compulsory hijab, officials denied this hours later. Nonetheless, even putting forward such suggestions could mean that segments of the regime are open to examining some fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic for the first time since 1979.
Thus far, Iranians are waiting to see any evidence that the regime is willing or able to undertake internal reforms to respond to the demands of the demonstrators.
Regime change: The challenge for the Iranian regime is that the younger generations in the country have misgivings about its ability to reform itself.
After the excessive use of violence and the reluctance to address any of the protesters’ demands, the relationship between the regime and the younger generations of Iranians is at a crossroads.
“The morality police are no longer on the streets. But can this be considered a victory for the demonstrators? I don’t think so. Those responsible for Amini’s death, or the deaths of hundreds of protesters in recent weeks, have not been punished. The morality police have not been abolished. No steps have been taken to review the compulsory wearing of the veil,” Mehraveh, an Iranian woman who lives in northern Tehran, told the Weekly.
She believes that the regime will eventually regain control because there is a wide gap between it and the demands of the demonstrators and because the call for the overthrow of the regime frightens broad segments of society.
“What does it mean to overthrow the regime? Does it mean overthrowing Khamenei and getting rid of the velayat-e faqih [clerical government] system? Does it mean getting rid of the parliament and the current presidential system? Does it mean dissolving the army, the Basij [regime militias], and the Revolutionary Guards,” Mehraveh asked.
“Some people want to abolish the velayat-e faqih, but preserve the elections, the parliament, and the presidential system. Some want to dissolve the security apparatus, while others refuse to dissolve the army, the police, and the Revolutionary Guards because these institutions are important to protect Iran from external threats and because their dissolution would lead to chaos similar to what happened in Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003 when the Iraqi army and security institutions were dissolved.”
“When people call for the overthrow of the regime, the calls have different meanings for different people.”
Such discrepancies in the protesters’ demands are good news for the regime, which hopes that the demonstrations will disappear due to people’s preoccupation with other issues, including the economic crisis in the country.
But the fading away of the protests, if it happens, will undoubtedly open a debate within the Iranian ruling elite, which has remained united in the face of them up to now.
“There has been a debate within the system and criticism from more pragmatic voices in the conservative camp as well as from the reformists. It appears that the enforcement of the hijab has eased for now. The question is whether there will be real and lasting change, and I still have my doubts about that,” Slavin said.
“The regime lost the immediate post-revolution generation in 2009 when it rigged Ahmadinejad’s ‘re-election.’ With the 2021 ‘selection’ farce and the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of the misnamed ‘morality’ police, the regime has lost that generation’s children and younger siblings.”
Many observers inside Iran believe that the country is in a phase of change and that ultimately the regime will have to rethink some of its fundamentals if it is to survive.
Under pragmatic politicians such as former Presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, and Hassan Rouhani, the regime tended to adopt a “change or die” approach. Rafsanjani opened a new page in Iranian-Gulf relations after the Iran-Iraq War. Khatami opened channels of communication with the administration of then US President Bill Clinton and began to improve Iran’s regional and international relations. Rouhani reached a nuclear agreement with the western powers. Today, it does not seem that the Iranian institutions are headed by a figure with the same political flexibility.
From the handling by Khamenei and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi of the nuclear talks, the practices of the morality police, the exclusion of the reformists’ voices, and the suppression of any form of dissent, it seems that they are sticking to the “change and die” mantra.
This inflexibility has become more noticeable in recent years, and it could be costly for Iran’s ruling elite as Tehran’s regional rivals in the Gulf pursue massive societal changes.
“The regime has to change in order to survive in the longer term. Unfortunately, the most thoughtful members of the system have left the country or been marginalised or jailed, leaving the most rigid, brutal, and incompetent people in charge. It may take Khamenei’s death to open the space for a real re-examination,” Slavin said.
“There is also a need for unity among the opposition and the emergence of potential leaders and a political platform for change. Unfortunately, as we saw with the old Soviet Union, stagnant and repressive states can linger for a very long time. In Iran, we are still waiting for ‘Ayatollah Gorbachev’ or a new secular figure to change the very counterproductive trajectory of the country. It has always had so much potential to be a contributor to progress in the Middle East instead of a source of instability and repression.”
One problem is that Khamenei does not trust the reformists and their ideas and considers them to be a “Trojan Horse” that could threaten the Islamic Republic. Even the removal of the mandatory veil would be a step too far for the regime, as it sees the veil as the dividing line between the before and after of the Islamic Revolution.
The leader of the Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, said in response to women’s demands not to impose the veil that it was the “flag of the Revolution.” The removal of the compulsory hijab for women would therefore not merely mean a change in the law, but also the removal of one of the pillars of the Islamic Revolution.
The regime cannot take that step, just as it cannot undertake real political reform, confront the deteriorating economic situation, or fight corruption.
RISK FACTORS: In 2022, Khamenei was forced to withdraw from state events due to health issues and was admitted to hospital. His health is a confidential matter in Iran, and only a limited number of officials know the details.
But Khamenei is suffering from cancer and is in his eighties, meaning that his health will be monitored closely because any decline or his absence from the scene will have significant consequences not only for Iran’s domestic situation, but also for the Middle East and the rest of the world.
Should he disappear, the disagreements and conflicts that are bubbling under the surface will become public, and the struggle of factions within the regime may also escalate as reformist voices call for the abolition of the velayat-e faqih system after Khamenei.
Another risk next year will be the future of the nuclear talks with the West, stalled in 2022 owing to many internal, regional, and international factors. The world powers are still stating that they are keen to reach a deal to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, especially with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warning that since the US unilaterally left the agreement in 2018, Iran has increased the pace of its uranium enrichment to alarming levels.
“2023 will be the last chance to reach a deal. We do not have much time, I think that during the first months of 2023 if a nuclear deal is not reached, the opportunity will be lost as the Biden administration will focus on US domestic politics before the 2024 presidential elections,” one European diplomat told the Weekly.
If a deal is reached, it would be a triumph for Raisi, because it would mean lifting the western sanctions in Iran, improving economic conditions, and advancing Iran’s international relations.
But if Raisi fails, he will go into the 2024 presidential elections in Iran with no achievements worth talking about, making his re-election near impossible as more pragmatic and moderate figures from the conservative wing of the country’s politics, such as former Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani, want to challenge Raisi and run for the presidency in 2024.
Finally, no one knows if and when more mass massive demonstrations could erupt in Iran. The factors that could lead to them are numerous, and they could break out in the blink of an eye.
The Iranian authorities have not made concessions to the demonstrators so far, and therefore all the reasons for the protests are still present, including the grievances of the ethnic and sectarian minorities, the brutality of the morality police, the economic hardships, and the high inflation, prices, and unemployment.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly