Iran - A tipping point

Manal Lotfy in London , Monday 31 Jul 2023

With Mahsa Amini’s death anniversary and the upcoming elections, Iranian nationalism is taking centre stage.

A tipping point
Iranian authorities have banned a film festival that issued a publicity poster featuring an actor who was not wearing hijab


In recent years, Iranians have repeatedly shown they are never very far from another mass demonstration.

The political, ideological, and cultural polarisation is so severe that any incident could suddenly lead to the outbreak of mass popular demonstrations. This is exactly what happened after the death of Mahsa Amini, who died while being held on charges of not wearing the veil appropriately in September last year.

Amini’s death, the mass demonstrations that followed, and the authorities’ response deepened the political, ideological and cultural polarisation to unprecedented levels, presenting the greatest challenge to the Iranian regime in years.

Protests against compulsory hijab and excessive use of violence against demonstrators did not stop but rather changed their form from demonstrations in the streets in large numbers to other methods that are very effective in showing public anger but at the same time less dangerous and less draining.

The unconventional tools to show public dissatisfaction include flash mobs where Iranians organise flash crowds in public spaces to express their discontent with the authorities.

These spontaneous gatherings involve people suddenly assembling, performing a brief action, and dispersing quickly. Flash mobs can include singing, dancing in the streets, or even staging short plays to attract attention and create a sense of camaraderie among participants.

Art has always been used as a form of protest in Iran. In recent years, especially since the Green Movement in 2009, underground cultural activities that include exhibitions, music, and performances have been used to criticise authority.

No wonder, underground cultural activism is very popular with young Iranians who do not feel represented on the official art and cultural scene. Fashion is also another powerful tool of protest. Some Iranian women have removed their hijab in public places or burned them as an act of defiance, while others have worn brightly coloured hijab or hijab with political messages. This is a bold gesture as compulsory hijab is part of the main pillars of the Iranian regime after the 1979 Revolution.

Using symbolism and coded language also played an important role in protests in recent years. For example, Iranians dressed in white and wore white roses, a symbol of peace and freedom, at many protests.

To avoid censorship, many used coded symbols and language in their communications such as using green wristbands, banners, and clothing as an identification method and to show solidarity during the 2009 “Green Movement” protests, while many used the word “melon” to refer to the former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Using social media has also become a powerful tool for Iranians to express their dissent. In recent years, there have been several popular social media campaigns that have been used to protest against the government, such as the #WhereIsMyVote, #WhereIsMyStealth, and #WhiteWednesday.

All these are part of a growing catalogue of efforts to maintain pressure on authority, make protesters’ voices heard and, most importantly, to make the option of resorting to violence more difficult for the authorities.

Facing a popular movement that increasingly uses art, music, dance, and other forms of non-mass protest resistance, Iran’s most powerful institution decided to fight back in an equally unconventional way when the Revolutionary Guards made their theatrical debut this month producing, through its cultural arm Owj Arts and Media Organisation, a play entitled The Seven Quests of Esfandiyar.

The play is an adaptation of a tale in Shahnameh, or Epic of Kings, a timeless Persian classic by the 10th-century Persian poet Ferdowsi. It tells the story of a legendary Iranian hero who defeats a formidable foe.

The cultural arm of the Revolutionary Guards has previously produced documentaries and TV series, but this is the first time it has entered the field of theatrical production, but many do not believe that it will be the last. The play, steeped in Iranian nationalism, gives the Revolutionary Guards, a military and intelligence organisation consisting of about 120,000 employees, an opportunity to use art as a form of soft power.

Promoting Iranian nationalism and patriotism, as the Revolutionary Guards leaders see it, could play an important role in suppressing future protests. In recent years, demonstrations in Iran have become more diverse in terms of race, religious sect, and social class which made them more difficult to control.

Recently, mass demonstrations took place in the Kurdish and Arab regions of Iran to protest against economic conditions and inflation, the rise in petrol and food prices especially.

Amini was a Kurdish Iranian and in the demonstrations against her death, the authorities played, with relative success, on historical tensions between the Persian majority and the Kurdish minority to fragment the demonstrations and end them in Tehran and other major cities, which are predominantly Persian.

As the first anniversary of Amini’s death approaches, it seems that the use of Iranian nationalism will be one of the tools in the hands of the authorities to prevent large-scale demonstrations like what happened after her death last year.

The authorities are not only anticipating the anniversary of Amini’s death, but Iran is also on the verge of parliamentary elections early next year. The conservatives hope to resume their control over the legislative institution in addition to the presidency and other institutions such as the Expediency Council and the Guardian Council. But the pragmatic moderate movement in Iran has other ideas.

Many of them believe that Iran, under the control of conservatives, is moving backwards, not forwards, and they hope they will achieve good results in the parliamentary elections to pave the way to the return of some moderate figures whose influence has declined in recent years, such as Ali Larijani and Mohamed Javad Zarif.

To break the dominance of the conservatives in parliament, the reformists are thinking of several ideas outside the box, including running on joint lists with some pragmatic conservative faces to ensure that the Guardian Council does not reject the names and lists of reformist candidates in the upcoming elections.

Nevertheless, conservatives in Iran do not have much to brag about. The economic situation is still deteriorating, inflation is still high, relations with the West are still tense, internal polarisation is severe, and popular support for the government of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi does not exceed 30 per cent.

All this means that the Iranian government will increasingly rely on nationalist rhetoric to shore up support even if its domestic track record is not convincing.

Iranian nationalism taking centre stage is less a sign of strength than of weakness for the ruling elites in Iran.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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