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  • Writer's pictureAhmad Al Ahmad

From Kings to Clerics: Can the current Iranian uprising succeed?

Iran's recent history is one of revolution, protests, and brutal repression. The Red Line's Ahmad Al Ahmad examines the prospects of the current Iranian protests succeeding where recent protests movements have failed and the lessons to be learned from those previous attempts.

The Iranian revolution of 1979 brought to an end the rule of the Shah, the Iranian monarchy, and the Pahlavi Dynasty, which had ruled Iran since 1925. From the ashes of this struggle, the Islamic Republic of Iran was born, seeking to build an ideal Islamic state representing its people and espousing equality.

Protesters clash with police in Tehran in September 2022.
Protesters clash with police in Tehran in September 2022. Credit: Darafsh Kaviyani / Wikimedia Commons

More than 40 years following the Islamic revolution, not much has changed; contrary to the revolution's goals, widespread repression and inequality are present in modern Iran, resulting in a tumultuous political situation and an increase in widespread protests. The current protests highlight a major challenge for the regime, posing the question, could the current protests snowball into a revolutionary change akin to 1979?

The Shah Years

The last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, ruled his subjects for 38 years, utilising various forms of repression, such as arrests and violent crackdowns against protests and opposition movements. The structure of the regime was organised to ensure complete and total control. The Shah influenced the military and intelligence organisations, creating a ruling class under his command tasked with keeping the status quo and crushing any potential uprising. Groups across the political spectrum were targeted, from the revolutionary leftists inspired by the Soviets to moderate oppositionists and extreme Islamists guided by Ayatollah Khomeini. The Shah handled dissent with an iron fist, and his domestic security and intelligence arm, SAVAK, ensured that dissidents and revolutionaries were closely monitored.

Under these conditions, the regime struggled to maintain popular support; the only way to maintain the status quo was to increase the level of repression. In response to this repressive approach, the leaders of the 1979 Islamic revolution promised to remove the yoke of dictatorship and monarchical rule, seeking to replace it with a state that could deliver social reform and political representation to millions, ridding society of class divisions and embracing equality and dignity for all.

"Under these conditions, the regime struggled to maintain popular support; the only way to maintain the status quo was to increase the level of repression."

The unity of the protestors and their demands led to a strong opposition that represented various groups within Iranian society. The sentiment against the Shah ran deep within Iran; it affected all segments of society, including the armed forces, which were primarily composed of members of the working class, who had become regarded by the Shah as his personal enforcers. The armed forces directly opposed being involved in suppressing the protestors as they sympathized with them sharing their grievances and experiences. By creating a wedge between the regime and the armed forces, the protestors would achieve near-complete victory as the regime lost its ability to enforce its repressive laws.

The return of Khomeini in Tehran, Iran in February 01, 1979
The return of Khomeini in Tehran, Iran in February 1, 1979. Credit: Michel Setboun

In addition, the Islamic revolution was also guided by a single leader, creating a rallying point for millions of Iranians. Ruhollah Khomeini acted as the messenger of the movement against the Shah; his speeches and tape recordings at the time played a crucial role in spreading the message of the opposition across Iranian cities, universities, and military barracks. Inspiring the youth to challenge the Shah and his regime at every possible opportunity. Khomeini's embrace of the armed forces was a stroke of genius; he could generate and maintain public support and gain support from within the Shah’s security apparatus and army. The organization and inclusive nature of the protest movement, coupled with the strong leadership of Khomeini, formed a formidable force against the Shah and his supporters. Khomeini took advantage of the public sentiment and failures of the Shah and his regime to achieve a revolution that would shape Iran for the next 40 years.

The Green Movement

In the decades following the Islamic revolution and under the leadership of both Khomeini and his successor Khamenei, political unrest and economic instability grew within Iran as the regime failed to constructively address these challenges. Rather, the response was to employ various methods of repression to quell any opposition or grievances towards the regime.

The Green Movement of 2009 represented a significant challenge to the regime in Tehran, as millions began to protest and march in direct opposition to the regime and the recent election results. The movement highlighted the struggle for power and influence between the reformists and the hardliners in Iran; the reformists represented by Mehdi Karrubi and Hosein Mousavi while the hardliners represented by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It has been broadly accepted that the election of 2009 was marred by fraud, ranging from ballot stuffing to various voter suppression tactics. As expected, the hardliner Ahmadinejad was declared the winner of the election.

The election results sparked a wave of protests unprecedented in Iran since the Islamic revolution. The reformists mobilised their supporters, taking to the streets to challenge the election results directly. Khamenei responded by deploying the Basij paramilitary forces to quell the protests under the direct command of his son Mojtaba. The Basij inflicted heavy casualties amongst the protestors killing over 100 people and arresting thousands across university campuses and on the streets.

The aim of the protests was to challenge the authoritarian leadership and herald a new era of change and representative democracy in Iran. The opposition movement comprised various political groups; some sought reform within the state, while a minority wanted to rid the state of the entire regime. Unlike in 1979, the divergent demands of the various protesting groups led to a lack of coordination among the opposition; this divergence in messaging and disunity played a crucial role in the failure to gain popular support across various segments of society. Simply put, the opposition did not have a single message to inspire the people, the goals of the protests were unclear, and without an agenda, popular support was destined to fade and falter.

In addition, the various groups within the movement did not have unified leadership; the reformists who represented the majority of the protestors were led by Karrubi and Mousavi, both of which sought to challenge the regime differently, creating further confusion. The two ultimately sought to reform the system rather than change it. According to Jacob Rigi, the prominent reformists Karrubi and Mousavi, who represented the largest group within the opposition movement, believed that the Iranian constitution was fair in that it provided democracy to the people as envisioned under the leadership of Khomeini. Claiming that Khamenei had hijacked the constitution and had essentially failed the Islamic revolution in achieving its goals, this view did little to satisfy the demands of the more liberal and revolutionary group within the opposition movements. When compared to the Islamic revolution of 1979, Khomeini was able to bridge the difference between the various groups. in order to unify them into a single entity of opposition. The Green Movement leadership failed to achieve any form of unity; the regime exploited this weakness by pitting one political group against the other, widening the ideological gap and encouraging infighting.

2022 and Mahsa Amini

In the years after 2009, the regime in Iran managed to suppress most forms of opposition, utilising methods such as limiting access to social media and, at times, complete and total shutdown of internet access. Ironically, the increased repression led to a substantial increase in protests and mass uprisings against the government, especially amongst the youth. The 2017 Economic Protests, the 2019 Price Hike Protests, and the January 2020 Protests all highlight the growing discontent with the leadership. The recent 2022 protests have also been fanned by the country's economic conditions, due to ongoing sanctions stemming from the regime's nuclear ambitions, and the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to the political and economic difficulties experienced by the Iranian people, Iranian youths have become a focal point for the protests as they reject the strict social policies imposed by the regime. Slogans such as “death to the dictator”, “death to the liars'' and “Khamenei, shame on you, leave the country alone!" demonstrate a level of animosity and rage felt towards the regime never seen in public before. This highlight a shift in the people's overall collective attitudes, particularly among the younger demographic; protestors are not looking for reform as their predecessors did in 2009, instead, they’re seeking the complete overthrow of the regime.

"In addition to the political and economic difficulties experienced by the Iranian people, Iranian youths have become a focal point for the protests as they reject the strict social policies imposed by the regime."

The death of 21-year-old Mahsa Amini, accused of violating the country’s strict Islamic dress code, brought to light the plight of women in Iran and brought the subject of gender inequality front and centre in the protests. A topic often disregarded by the hardliners and the regime, who hold sway over social, political, and economic decisions, Amini's death brought the youth and the regime into direct confrontation.

Unlike 2009, the ongoing 2022 protests have a wider reach and more extensive social engagement, spreading to other regions of the country. The protestors and their message resonated with various ethnicities and religious minorities across Iran, from the Kurds in the west to the Baloch in the east. The current unified message has strengthened the protests and has created a real challenge to the status quo, limiting the regime's previous ability to exploit and drive a wedge between the protests and their various demands. There seems to be no divergence in the messaging and no calls for reforms. Instead, the protestors are looking to remove the established regime and the laws it enforces in one fell swoop. So far, the demands of the protests have been met with direct violence. More repression will only lead to more protests, further delegitimising the regime in the eyes of the citizens and the international community.

World Bank senior mission chief Peter Breuer, right, speaks with Masahiro Nozaki, mission chief for Sri Lanka, by his side during a media conference in Colombo.
Students at Amir Kabir University protest against compulsory hijab and Islamist Republic. Credit: Darafsh / Wikimedia Commons

The 2022 protests have a long way to go to achieve their desired goal. The ongoing protests are different from their predecessors; reform is no longer a goal, but rather the protestors seek complete regime change. Historically the regimes of Iran have proven that they can only be challenged by an organized movement with a coherent set of demands, a strong and inspirational leader, and popular mobilisation of all segments of society, ranging from the youth to the Bazaari’s and the Armed forces. For the current protests to succeed, they must remain steadfast in their demands.

In addition, the international community's role is not to be underestimated. Thus far, the international community has largely condemned the regime's heavy-handed approach, imposing strict sanctions against regime members while voicing their support for the protestors and their demands. The continued pressure imposed on the regime in Tehran may cause the regime to face further political isolation. Meanwhile, the continued economic sanctions will undoubtedly cause more economic uncertainties within Iran, further fueling protests and public resentment of the regime. Whatever the future holds for the protesters, the eyes of the international community will be watching.


Written by Ahmad Al Ahmad.

Edited by Wade McCagh.


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