It’s been almost a month since a new wave of demonstrations broke out across Iran, and so far, the regime hasn’t been able to stop them. The unrest began after the country’s morality police arrested Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman—because her hijab didn’t fully cover her hair, as mandated by Iranian law—and ended up killing her in custody. Support for the demonstrations is now widespread in Iranian society: Workers in the oil sector briefly went on strike, with groups of lawyers and doctors reportedly joining the protests as well. As demonstrators mobilize around the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom,” some are going so far as to call for the end of the Islamic Republic altogether.
Globally, Iran’s theocratic system has been an archrival to the United States, in the Middle East and beyond, since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In the region, Israel has seen Tehran’s nuclear program as an existential threat, and the international deal to freeze the program remains highly contentious across the U.S., Israel, and Arab countries. Many of the seemingly intractable political problems in the Middle East, meanwhile, trace back to the hostility between the Islamic Republic and its Arab neighbors, led by Saudi Arabia. In this fraught context, how threatening are these protests to the regime in Tehran?
Vali Nasr is a professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, and the author of seven books on the Middle East and Islam. As Nasr sees it, the turmoil in Iran presents a major threat to the Iranian regime. The broad sympathy among the Iranian people for the demonstrators’ demands extends even among those who support the system. Though security forces have brutally repressed and killed some of the protesters, many of those in the street are teenagers, and the regime is reluctant to use overwhelming violence against them. And this uprising is different from previous unrest, Nasr says, because—by rejecting the hijab and the law requiring it—the protesters are challenging the cultural foundations of the Islamic Revolution itself. At the same time, the regime faces a new and daunting problem of trying to restore domestic stability while dealing with a perpetually sluggish economy and the ongoing regional and international instability that usually demands most of its attention. And abroad, the demonstrations are changing perceptions of Iran in the region—and so, changing the political dynamics of the Middle East. Still, Nasr says, it’s an open question whether the regime will respond to the protests with dialogue and reforms, or whether it will move to extinguish the dissent with a massive crackdown.
Michael Bluhm: Who’s involved in these protests?
Vali Nasr: There are people protesting in the street and not in the street; they’re protesting on Instagram, Twitter, and private chat groups, as well as through artists’ platforms and journalism. We see the most visible form of these demonstrations on the street—which is the form most challenging to the ruling order—but the tail of the protest is much, much bigger. That’s what makes it so challenging to the Iranian establishment: It extends farther and wider than the streets.
The street protests are mostly carried out by young people. One member of the security forces said that the average age of people they’d arrested was 15 or 16. It’s spread to university campuses. There’ve also been worker protests and strikes.
But by and large, this was at first set of demonstrations led by young people, protesting not only police brutality—that is, the fact that Mahsa Amini died in police custody in violent and mysterious circumstances—but also the idea that the government can decide what you can and cannot wear: the idea of the autonomy of the body. As some graffiti on a wall in Tehran said, Keep your laws away from my body.
Now it’s become something bigger, based on grievance and unhappiness with the Islamic Republic itself. Chants are directed at the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calling him a dictator.
Bluhm: Iran also experienced nationwide protests in 2009—the Green Revolution—after a disputed presidential election. Those demonstrations wound up brutally quashed by the regime. How likely is a complete crackdown now?
Nasr: Beyond suppressing protests in 2009, the Islamic Republic has fought tooth and nail since then to protect the regime of President Bashar Assad in Syria. Iran’s leaders also witnessed the wave of revolutions in Arab countries in 2010 and 2011, when the rebellion against the Assad regime began. Their reaction to the protests today is informed by 2009—and by what they saw happen in Egypt, Libya, and other Arab states during those revolutions. The regime isn’t going to just stand down and leave.
The regime is a broad system. It’s not based on a single ruler. It involves many power centers and social groups. It’s a bigger entity than one-man rule, and it’s likely to defend itself. If the regime is in danger, then the regime will crack down, and it will crack down heavily.
This hasn’t happened yet—partly because they seem to have been caught completely off-guard, and partly because they were involved in nuclear-treaty negotiation with the U.S., who may have encouraged them to hold back. But it’s also partly because this protest is more broad-based than, and otherwise different from, the ones that they’ve confronted before.
Bluhm: How is it different?
Nasr: The 2009 protests were specifically against a rigged presidential election, because the apparent winner was not allowed to take office. They were a demand for democracy. These protests today aren’t about a specific political demand; they started as being about individual freedom—the right not to wear the hijab, the right to choose what you want to wear—and it was led by much younger people. It’s more difficult to brutally suppress 15- and 16-year-olds.
It comes down to the decision-making at the top. Given how rapidly these protests happened, I don’t think they’ve decided yet which way to go.
Ironically, the current protests have much more support even among people who are pro-regime. That’s why I say. These protests are much more broad-based. People who wear the hijab or who consider themselves loyal to the Islamic Republic have a great deal of sympathy and support for the protesters and their demands. These people feel that the government is in the wrong both for enforcing the hijab law and for killing somebody in police custody.
That’s why it’s much more difficult for the regime to react coherently and unanimously. Also, there are divisions within the regime over how to react. Many leaders are hearing an earful from their wives and daughters. As a result, we’re not seeing quite the same level of government violence as in 2009. Many people in Iran have been killed now, but in 2009 they cracked down much more quickly and much more violently.
Bluhm: How likely is the regime to make any reforms? And what kind of reforms would be most likely?
Nasr: It’s difficult to tell. Regime survival is a give-and-take process. It depends on the quality and determination of the opposition. It also depends on the determination and decision-making of the groups in the government. Regardless of whether someone supports the regime now, the public mood is bad and turning increasingly against the state.
In social media and print media, a faction in the opposition is arguing for concessions from the state, such as abolishing the morality police or not enforcing the law requiring the hijab. But this would not assuage all the protesters—some are demanding much more.
It comes down to the decision-making at the top. Given how rapidly these protests happened, I don’t think they’ve decided yet which way to go.
Bluhm: You mention that there’re divisions within the regime. What do we know about how different groups are reacting to the demonstrations?
Nasr: The regime is much broader than the government. Different factions, for instance, were in power three years ago, and they’re still quite influential.
The regime has a parliament, a judiciary, a cabinet, and a president. Then there are the security forces, the Revolutionary Guards, and the Iranian military; they’re not formally part of the government, because they report to the Supreme Leader.
There’re all kinds of foundations, and big financial and social institutions, with enormous political heft that are part of the state but outside its control. There’s a vast network of clerics across the country who are also part of the state. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has a vast bureaucracy, and he sits above all these institutions.
These different entities have different interests, have listened to different constituencies, and their views are different. Many people who’re part of the system are criticizing the crackdown or the morality police, and they’re arguing that there has to be a dialogue with the protesters about grievances. Some elements of the Revolutionary Guards have no appetite for being deployed domestically, because they would have to wind down their presence in other places such as Syria.
Many people who’re part of the system are criticizing the crackdown or the morality police, and they’re arguing that there has to be a dialogue with the protesters about grievances.
It isn’t a system in which one person makes decisions without listening to anybody else. There’s a lot more fluidity. And now they’ve been besieged by a crisis they didn’t see coming. So far, they’ve mishandled it. There’re many power centers, and they’re not necessarily pulling in the same direction as to what comes next.
Bluhm: How much of a threat to the regime do these protests represent?
Nasr: They represent a significant threat. The protesters are younger, and they have sympathy across the divide between pro-regime and anti-regime Iranians. In 2009, pro-regime people didn’t sympathize with the protesters.
The regime is encountering young people who aren’t afraid and who reject the cultural hegemony of the Islamic Republic. It’s a new kind of protest, which has arisen not out of demands for political rights but as a cultural protest, demanding cultural and personal freedoms—which is something the regime isn’t really equipped to deal with.
If these protests can’t be quelled—and even if they go quiet for a while and keep coming back—they’ll begin to erode the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. And if the Islamic Republic is going to crack down on the protests now and maintain control of a country continuously in protest over the long term, that would demand a very different kind of state setup and regional policy.
One thing is very clear: The assumption no longer holds that Iran’s leaders can manage domestically while facing international isolation and economic pressure—and also maintain a great deal of regional reach—without feeling threatened by things imploding from below.
We’re in a whole new era. The leadership of the Islamic Republic understands that its assumptions—that it can sustain stability with no negotiations on a nuclear deal, an aggressive regional presence, cultural hegemony at home, a closed society, and a bad economy—no longer hold. Which reveals a huge threat, because it suggests that they need completely to reinvent the wheel—and that’s not easy for them to do.
Bluhm: Iran is a major power in the Middle East. The country’s leaders often brag about their influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon—and Iran also supports armed groups in Palestine and Yemen. The main tension in the region has long been Iran’s theocratic, revolutionary, anti-Western model against the pro-Western monarchies of the Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia. How could this unrest in Iran affect regional dynamics?
Nasr: The Islamic Republic has defined Iran’s national security in a manner that requires Iran to be present in and control political dynamics in Arab countries. Since Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, the regime in Tehran has had the idea that it must have a position in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, if Iran is to be protected from Arab invasion—and to hold its own against all these rich, pro-American, Arab regimes.
But the Iranian public is increasingly unwilling to support this policy. During protests in Iran in 2019, protesters specifically said, Stop sending money to Syria and Lebanon; you need to take care of things at home first.
The protests today challenge how the regime can maintain stability at home and yet have such an expansive regional policy at the same time. These protests challenge the fundamentals of Iran’s regional policy.
These protests challenge the fundamentals of Iran’s regional policy.
On the other hand, a dominant perception in the Middle East is that the United States is withdrawing from the region. Biden is the third U.S. president in a row who’s made this an element of American foreign policy. Even if they say they’re still going to stay in the region, it’s very clear to everyone there that—with what’s happening in Russia, Ukraine, and China—the Middle East has fallen from the number-one geostrategic priority of the United States to much farther down the list.
That’s led to many Arab governments and Iran trying to find a way to coexist. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been talking. Iran and the United Arab Emirates have exchanged ambassadors. Across the Persian Gulf, they’re making baby steps toward de-escalation.
Bluhm: How might the protests alter that dynamic?
Nasr: The protests are important here because they change perceptions of Iran’s strength. That might affect the way that Iran—and Saudi Arabia—come to the table. Saudi Arabia or any Arab country would always welcome protesters weakening the Islamic Republic. But I don’t think Arab governments are welcoming what they see as a people’s revolution. That’s dangerous to them.
The equivalent of these young Iranian girls who’re burning their hijab have been put in prison for decades in Saudi Arabia. So the idea that the people of Iran could rise up and overthrow the regime is threatening to the whole region—just like the religious revolution in Iran in 1979 was threatening. No leaders in the Middle East are looking forward to their population seeing the pictures in Iran and deciding that they should do the same thing in Egypt, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia.
Their expectation is that the Islamic Republic will survive and will clamp down, because that’s what they would do. But they’re expecting that this turbulence will have a material impact on how Iran will engage in the region, because Tehran will have to turn inward to manage these protests.
Bluhm: What do these protests mean for the regime?
Nasr: It’s a significant political challenge to the Islamic Republic. It’s also a significant cultural and social challenge. A new generation isn’t picking a fight with the regime over a political dispute like a rigged election in 2009, economic issues like the rising price of gasoline in 2019, or an issue like the closure of a newspaper in 1999. It’s over a fundamental idea of Islamic ideology that brought this regime to power: the necessity for the state to enforce religiosity on the population. They’re revolting over the right of the state to decide what people wear and do. That’s a very new and very powerful form of revolt.
It’s also led to an awakening in the Iranian population, much more broadly than just among secular youth, about the issue of fundamental human rights—not political rights as such but human rights, rights of individual freedom. And it’s very difficult for a state to suppress or not address this awakening. It’s a very big challenge.
What’s happened in Iran is also a challenge to Islamist politics beyond Iran. The rest of the Muslim world is watching. They see a revolt of a generation of younger citizens of the Islamic Republic against the hijab and against the compulsory practice of religion. This is a very powerful rebuttal against Islamism at a popular level.
This isn’t about secular Arab dictators rejecting Islamism; it’s a grassroots movement rejecting Islamism. These protesters aren’t protesting a specific political or economic act but Islamism itself. They’re protesting the fundamental idea that there has to be an Islamic state to forcibly make a society Islamic and to ensure the religiosity of the individual. That will have tremendous reverberations.