Doshman and the Massive Protests in Iran

Photograph Source: Darafsh – CC BY-SA 4.0

After a stunning silence through two weeks of public protest and state violence, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khamenei delivered a spiteful attack on those who have been protesting on the streets of Tehran and many other major cities in the country. He called the protests, which began after the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody and soon became widespread, the result of a conspiracy by Western powers to overthrow the Islamic Republic. “Doshman (the enemy),” he repeated his tired rhetoric, “had plans to destabilize the country and used the unfortunate death of this young woman as a pretext to instigate conflict and sedition.” Laying the blame exclusively at the feet of the Doshman (the United States, its regional allies, and their domestic agents) has been the Supreme Leader’s go-to move in addressing social unrest in Iran since he took office after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. That he chose to break his public silence in a speech to an audience at an Armed Forces graduation ceremony was telling. So was his nationalist rhetoric, side-stepping the deep causes of internal dissent. The“Doshman” he told his audience, “is not only against the Islamic Republic, they are against a strong and independent Iran. Doshman wants to install a client state in our country that acts on behalf of their regional interests, not the interests of Iranian peoples.” Commenting on why these protests transpired at this particular moment, he contended that “the unrest was designed to coincide with Iran’s great leap forward toward economic progress despite the hardships that the Western powers impose upon us.”

These are strong words, yet without much traction in the Iranian scene. The presence of Doshman is real, but he offers wrong reasons for the expansion of its influence inside the country. There are four major issues that the Supreme Leader conveniently erases from his narrative of Doshman’s conspiracy. One, if he is correct that the protests are a Doshman conspiracy, why is it so easy for them to foment unrest inside the country? Why is it that Iranian society, with women and youth at the lead, has been a tinderbox for the past two decades? Second, he does not address the question of how these protests so easily move, according to him, toward fulfilling the interests of the Doshman? Why is it that there are no parties, no organizations, no leadership in these rallies, a vacant space that allows the Doshman to influence the direction and demands of the protesters? Third, the deepening gap between the rich and poor and the skyrocketing rate of inflation, particularly during the past few months, cannot be erased simply by a sermon touting a “great leap forward” of all things. The pain of economic hardship is real and needs real solutions rather than wishful slogans. Lastly, the Supreme Leader dismissed the public solidarity of athletes and artists with the protesters as “worthless and irrelevant.” He fails utterly to recognize why after more than four decades of Islamic rule, the influence of the captain of the Iranian national soccer team or an Oscar winning film director are significantly greater than the imams of Friday prayers.

The Iranian society continues to witness a deep rift between the state and its citizens. The median age of the population is 32, close to 80% of Iranians were born after the revolution and have no recollection of life before the revolution of 1979. The Supreme Leader’s rhetoric that the protesters were “families of SAVAK agents” (the Shah’s secret police) falls flat on this generation’s face. It is instead an implicit admission that the Islamic Republic has failed to grow and accommodate the needs and demands of its population. The laws and restrictions that were instituted more than forty years ago failed to shape the worldview and desires of a generation that grew up under this system as intended. The Supreme Leader needs to acknowledge the Islamic Republic’s failure to invent a narrowly conceived homo islamicus, receptive and accommodating to the ethos and values propagated by a clerical establishment.

The misogynist core of that project, expressed in a restrictive reading of Islamic juridical tradition in inheritance, marriage and children’s custody, and hijab, continues to alienate and impede millions of Iranian women from political processes in the country. Billions of dollars have been spent in education, cultural production, and social tutelage to realize the ambitious Islamization projects that has only produced the opposite of their intended objectives. There is something painfully wrong if the religious mandate of al-amr bi-l-maʿrūf wa-n-nahy ʿani-l-munkar (Enjoin the good and forbid the wrong) must be enforced by the patrolling police officers after decades of mandating teachers, state-owned media, radio-television, and preachers with billions of dollars budget failed to advance this project. This is a familiar story, a regime fails to become hegemonic, and resorts to naked coercion. Coercion breathes discontent and violence, a tinderbox.

Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, voices of dissent, inside and outside the polity, have been suppressed systematically and punitively. A certain space for conversation remains open in the independent media, publishing world, and in intellectual circles. But the state has seldom shown patience for the institutionalization of those voices in political parties and civil society organizations. The absence of such institutional means of dissent inevitably forces the populace to express any form of grievances through street politics. The lack of institutional representation further diminishes the state’s ability to mitigate the spread of violence. Once a state murders, exiles, jails, and puts under house arrest oppositional voices, it rubs itself from the possibility of a meaningful engagement with the demands of its citizens. A state that eliminates dissidents and oppositional parties is solely responsible if the Doshman exploits and instrumentalizes a leaderless protest.

The Supreme Leader speaks of the success of the administration of President Raisi in containing the economic crisis that has led to an unprecedented inflation and deepening the gap between the haves and have nots in Iran. All the official numbers contradict the Supreme Leader’s claim. The idea that the Doshman conspired to foment unrest in order to through Iran off track from its economic successes and from overcoming the devastating effects of American sanctions will not stand even a cursory scrutiny. President Raisi was elected, after all his major opponents were disqualified from running by the Guardian Council, with the promise of curbing the inflation and bringing it down to single digits. Since his inauguration in August 2021, the inflation rate has doubled to 54% with the prices of basic goods increasing even on a faster pace.

The increase in prices of basic goods at the first anniversary of Mr. Raisi’s election was reported in Etemad newspaper in Tehran: Chicken: 101%; Lamb: 41%; Rice (domestic): 200%; Vegetable oil: 367%; Eggs: 114%; Pasta: 168%; Butter: 120%; Yoghurt: 185%; Cheese: 133%; Sugar: 102%; Milk: 99%; Internet services: 101%.

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These are numbers that are published by Iran’s own Central Bank and the Statistical Center of Iran. They are available to the Supreme Leader who unfortunately does not go shopping, hence removed from the real pain of this economic hardship. His comments on upward trajectory of living conditions in Iran deepen peoples’ mistrust of the government and further encourages them to voice their grievances directly on the streets rather than seeking bureaucratic and administrative solutions.

Here the Supreme Leader had the opportunity to highlight how the unjust sanctions imposed by the Doshman had devastating effects and how it has harmed the ordinary people in the country. But to do so, he needed to acknowledge that the sanctions had made the concentration of wealth on the top Iranian 1% greater than ever. Iranians have shown that they are willing to brave the difficulties of all kinds of foreign pressures, but they cannot bear to witness the suffering of a great majority while a small minority profits from circumventing the sanctions. Sanction profiteers inside the country are allies of those who impose those draconian, debilitating sanctions on Iran.

The Supreme Leader’s derogatory comments on celebrities, actors, athletes are a slap in the face to the brave public and will further antagonize crowds on the streets. This is another indicator of how alienated the regime has become from the realities of Iranian society. The celebrities did not author the chant Women, Life, Freedom, they only echo it, like the rest of the world. The chant comes from the depth of a multifaceted form of resistance that is tired of old plans and worn-out visions of the future. It is a potentiality put forward by those who stand at the threshold of a novelty, like those who stood at the same point during the revolution of 1979.

The revolutionary spirit that lingers in Iran remains bewildering. The courage, the fearlessness with which young women claim the streets, and the hope that is espoused in the piercing chants of Women, Life, Freedom, need to be embraced and encouraged, without reservation. The brutality of the police and the carceral state must be exposed and condemned without hesitation. At the same time, I believe, it must be recognized that no gesture of solidarity or condemnation happens in a political vacuum. In this trajectory, the geo-politics of Iran, remapping the Middle East and extending the American and its regional allies influence, and the effects of the violent crippling sanctions against imposed on Iran cannot be ignored. Doshman is real.

The Supreme Leader is right to emphasize that a central problem of the Doshman is Iran’s sovereignty, a treasure that was earned through the pains of revolution. He fails, however, to accept the idea that not only do we have the right of self-determination as a nation, but also as individuals we have the ability and the authority to exercise our will over our circumstances. A sovereign nation will not last without sovereign subjects.

Let us hope that supporting the protests in Iran and the condemnation of the state’s brutality will generate a new political space in which the chant of women, life, freedom is heard without being appropriated by those who would instrumentalize it for their own gains. This movement has already realized significant achievements. It has shaken the dominant discourses of ruling classes on women’s rights and civil liberties. For the first time since the revolution, open discussions are happening on primetime state television, among the parliamentarians, at the university administrative offices, etc. on the wisdom of compulsory hijab and on the failure of the project of enjoin the good and forbid the wrong in the hands of the so-called morality police.

The success or failure of these protests must not be tied to regime change. The exercise of sovereignty on the streets in a success, pushing the boundaries of permissible and forbidden is a success, the display of courage and global solidarity is a success, not seeing all these achievements is a failure. More than a decade ago, the late Haleh Lajevardi, compared the experience of individual sovereignty as “a walk on the razor’s edge.” I do not know whether she chose “the razor’s edge” in that passage in her book as a reference to Somerset Maugham’s novel. But her anxieties about the tension between self-consciousness and one’s real possibilities in life, between hope and despair recall the epigraph in Maugham’s book “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.” “The path to Salvation” in Iran will not be paved by the American government, Israeli agents, and the Saudi interests. Iranian women, all Iranians, do not need to be “saved” by foreign intervention, by sanctions or any other means. They have shown their sovereign power again and again for more than a century, they are the teachers. We all need to take a page from these courageous women’s book and resist the temptations to shake the hands of those whose objective is to instrumentalize these protests to advance their geo-political ambitions.

These protests are walks on the edge of a razor, a bloody venture into a world that promises hope and faces despair. Strapping these protests to regime change ties the rebellious subject to an all or nothing trajectory that promises despair rather than cultivating hope.

Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi is an Iranian-born American historian, sociologist, and professor.