Protest in Iran: Historical and International Contexts

Photograph Source: Darafsh – CC BY-SA 4.0

Mahsa Amini’s tragic experience produced a spontaneous reaction concentrated among women, youth, and the urban poor who had been suffering for decades from the lethal mixture of abuses of state power and external pressures undermining their security and wellbeing.

In this interview international relations scholar Richard Falk addresses the events surrounding Mahsa Amini’s September 13th detention and reported death three days later as well as the meaning of her Kurdish identity. Falk reminds the reader of the 2010 arrest of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia to highlight how the actions of the “morality police” can create massive reactions after they target largely unknown individuals.

Falk remarks that “the political significance and staying power of the protests in Iran are essentially impossible to assess at this stage, but based on historical analysis, some patterns and historical parallels have emerged thus far. Context is often decisive in such interactions between an enraged opposition and the political leadership and orientation that finds itself under fire from its own public,” Falk argues.

He maintains that “there are also many other contextual factors that may prove relevant in Iran, including the organizational skill of the protesters, their access to funds and even weapons, and the firefighting skill and ingenuity of the government.” 

Daniel Falcone: Could you briefly contextualize the protests in Iran that have been taking place since September 16, 2022, as well as the Iranian response?

Richard Falk: I am immediately reminded by these protests in Iran following Mahsa Amini’s arrest, detention, and death by the Iranian ‘morality police’ of the uprisings in Tunisia back in late 2010 that started after police abuses leading to the suicide of a vegetable street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, in a remote Tunisian city. The circumstances in these two instances, and nature of the abuse and the character of the regime were vastly different, but what unites these two events distant from one another in time and place is that single incidents involving a previously obscure individual sparked a massive reaction in the streets of the two countries.

This suggests to me that both incidents exploded politically because a preexisting revolutionary mood existed in the country that was receptive to being activated. In the Tunisian case the anti-government momentum proved strong enough to topple an authoritarian and corrupt regime led by the dictatorial Zine  Ben Ali, long in control of the country, and what is more stimulated parallel anti-government events throughout the Arab world. Yet as these seemingly transformative events unfolded, they gave rise to a counter-revolutionary backlash that proved strong enough to restore either repressive governance to these Arab countries or to induce prolonged strife and chaos.

This countercurrent has taken longer to unfold in Tunisia, than in, say, Egypt, but occurred throughout the region. Making the Arab Spring celebrations of a decade ago now seem occasions of disappointment that led to even more pronounced disempowerment of the citizenry.

The political weight and durability of these protests in Iran is impossible to assess at this stage. They could be nothing more than an interlude in the long experience of repression or represent an historic turning point toward more liberal theocratic rule or, on the contrary, result in a more draconian version of the violent repression unleashed by the government response to the protests that followed Amini’s tragic death. Iran has experienced periodic protests in the last decade, and earlier, suggesting both a restive public and an inflexible governing process unwilling to make compromises or reforms yet resilient enough to weather such political storms.

The Arab Spring initially targeted governments friendly to the West, content with the Israeli status quo, and accepting of the economic hardships imposed on their impoverished masses in exchange for making national elites wealthy by facilitating the predatory tendencies of neoliberal globalization.

In contrast, the Iranian protests are directed at a government long and deeply at odds with the United States and Israel since overthrowing the Shah’s dynastic rule in 1979 after mobilizing a nonviolent mass movement that overcame violent oppressive tactics of the regime, tactics publicly endorsed at the time by the presidency of Jimmy Carter to the lasting embitterment of anti-Shah Iranians.

Also, highly relevant for the new leadership in Iran were memories of 1953 when a CIA-backed coup drove the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh into exile, restoring the autocracy of the Pahlavi Dynasty to power.  It was clear that these earlier pivotal events were primarily motivated by Mossadegh’s provocative form of economic nationalism during the Cold War, especially his bold decision to nationalize the Iranian oil industry that at the time was largely dominated by British companies.

Although the U.S. denied culpability for these events, the allegations were widely believed to be accurate by Iranians and later confirmed conclusively by Western investigative journalists. This background remained very much in the minds of those who led the Iranian popular movement in 1978-79. It is notable that the earlier Western intervention was directed at a radical nationalist government in Iran while the post-1979 encounters are partly in reaction to the Islamic character of the regime, but better understood as reflecting antagonistic regional geopolitics involving Israel and Saudi Arabia.

It is too early to evaluate with any precision how this historically relevant international context conditions both protest activity and government reactions in Iran. Even at this stage we observe that the Iranian protests are uniformly treated favorably in the West, reported as outbursts led by women against the harshness of Islamic theocratic rule, whose policies clash directly with central ideas of secularism and gender equality in the West.

In this setting, the uprisings are fully compatible with preexisting regional and global geopolitics, which has long imposed sanctions on Iran, as well as rather openly sponsored destabilizing acts of sabotage and assassinations within Iran. Also relevant was the fact that Iran and Israel/U.S. were aligned on opposite sides in such notable regional conflict situations as ongoing in Occupied Palestine (especially Gaza), Yemen, Syria, and Libya.

Beyond this, many educated Iranians with middle class roots chose exile decades ago rather than living in a theocratically governed Iran, which has meant the presence of an anti-regime middle- and upper-class diaspora that exerts considerable influence in the capitals of the West. Not surprisingly, Iranian expatriates have been cheerleading the protests following Amini’s seeming murder while under official detention and hoping to encourage these episodic protests to be an anti-regime movement with a secularizing agenda. The extreme gender bias of the Iranian theocracy provides international opponents with ‘a wedge issue’ but their real agenda is not reformist, but a return to secular governance.

This means monarchy for Iranian conservatives, and social democracy for progressives among Iranian exiles. This does not mean that diaspora Iranians favored coercive intervention in Iran, which was generally opposed except by pro-Shah forces dedicated to a second restoration of Pahlavi rule.

At the same time the Islamic Republic of Iran has demonstrated its durability as compared to popular movements in the Arab World, which posed democratizing threats to the powerful Gulf monarchies and Israel from their outset. With memories of 1953 still fresh in the mind of Ayatollah Khomeini and other leaders of the revolution, the need to safeguard the political gains against internal and external enemies led both to understandable vigilance and regrettable, perhaps paranoid and vindictive repression of dissent and diversity by the new rulers.

A final contextual observation. Enthusiasts for political change often exaggerate the strength and durability of protests and count on the provocative reliance by the established order on excessive force and a generally unimaginative pattern of governmental response. I was in Turkey during the 2013 Gezi Park protests that seemed for a brief time to be sweeping the country and exhibiting the worst tendencies toward violence of an autocratic state, leading to police killing of unarmed demonstrators.

Secular Turks believed, and fervently hoped, this was the beginning of the end of Erdogan era of governance. Perhaps, learning from the experience in the Arab world, Erdogan essentially gave into the basic demands of the protests to leave Gezi Park free from ‘urban renewal’ plans, met with protest leaders and listened to their grievances. These government moves went virtually unreported in Europe and North America.

They had the effect of quietly ending the anti-government protests. Naturally, this disappointed the secular opposition long sidelined in Turkish politics, but rather than learn from the experience, the opposition resumed its identity as the legitimate guardian of secularism and modernity, that is, upholding the near sacred legacy of Kemal Ataturk, offering the Turkish people a strong dose of nostalgia rather than an alternative democratizing vision of Turkey’s future.

Daniel Falcone: What is the social and political significance of Amini’s identity (Kurdish) in the region? 

Richard Falk: The fact that Mahsa Amini was Kurdish has been stressed in some Western media accounts of the protests from the beginning. Her Kurdish identity may help explain why unlike previous protests this one spread so quickly from its Tehran origins, and relevantly, particularly in regions where the Kurdish minority was strong. It probably also explains why the repressive response of the government was so intense and violent in cities and towns with majority Turkish populations.

At the same time, it is my impression that the protesters themselves emphasize gender and political freedom issues, making scant reference to questions of ethnic identity. Unlike other countries in the region, such as Turkey and Iraq, there have not been comparable strife between the majority Iranian ethnic identity and Kurdish discontent, although allegations of anti-Kurdish discrimination are certainly present in Iran and have a long lineage that stretches back before the present system of government took over control of the country almost 45 years ago.

Daniel Falcone: Recently, Anthropologist Janet Amighi and Historian Lawrence Davidson commented on the increasingly isolated Iranian protestors and the difficulty to follow the story after Amini’s arrest by Morality Police for dress code violations (hair). Amighi argues that the Asia Times includes some of the better coverage overall on the matter, as the western press continues to reduce itself to a series of competing propaganda outlets.

Some western outlets are indicating that more than half of Iran’s 31 provinces have erupted in mass protest. Can you give insight on what is happening on the ground in Iran in terms of resistance?

Richard Falk: I think this is an exaggeration, or if you prefer, an outburst of ‘wishful thinking’ on the part of ‘secular commentators.’ The more careful accounts of the protests suggest relatively small numbers, and a prevalence of women and young people. Of course, this could prefigure a more robust political phenomenon in the weeks ahead.

Some commentators in Iran and elsewhere believe that the protests are at least the beginning of a durable ‘women’s movement’ in Iran that is guided by its inspirational slogan: “women, life, freedom.” The emphasis of the most militant activists has so far been on women and human rights, and not on a political agenda demanding systemic change as much as many on the outside and an incalculable number on the inside may be hoping for, supposing that they are witnessing the dawn of a new revolutionary movement in Iran.

The most obvious question of the moment is whether the Iranian regime is flexible enough to give ground on the narrow agenda of gender equality and freedom, and whether that will bring to a temporary end the current phase of protest activism. Or more depressingly, the hardline Raisi government will succeed in the reimposition of theocratic discipline that is harsh and effective enough to quell the unrest.

Daniel Falcone: As usual, the US media treatment of the uprisings deserves scrutiny. Are there any salient features to focus on within agenda setting coverage?

Richard Falk: What I find most disturbing about the main media approach in the West is its total failure to discuss the protests within their historical and international context. It is to be expected that a government that has been denied normalcy from day one of its existence would view protest activity as glorified by Western media and possibly funded or at least given encouragement by Iran’s external adversaries as threatening its internal security.

Already the protests have had the effect of delaying, and quite possibly ending, prospects for the renewal of the 2015 Agreement on Iran’s Nuclear Program (JCPOA). After Trump’s 2018 withdrawal in the face of Iran’s compliance shattered what little trust underpinned Iran’s relations with the West strengthening the hard-line factions in Tehran. In this sense, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, which vigorously opposed renewing JCPOA have their own reasons to feel grateful for the protests, while once again the U.S. is lured deeper into the darkest of caves, that of nuclear danger.

Daniel Falcone: What do Americans need to know about the protests? How does social class and economic precariousness factor as root causes to the demonstrations? 

Richard Falk: These are difficult issues to interpret under any circumstances. Sustained hardship and a tightening of theocratic discipline in Iran likely hit the urban middle classes most directly.

There is every reason to think that the reaction to Mahsa Amini’s tragic experience produced a spontaneous reaction concentrated among women, youth, and the urban poor who had been suffering for decades from the lethal mixture of encroachments on personal freedom of state power and external pressures undermining their security and wellbeing.

We do not know on balance whether the successful defense of national security in the face of constant external destabilizing challenges earned the government a measure of loyalty from more established sectors of Iranian society. There are so far no visible signs that this latest wave of protests is a ‘front’ for a return of the Pahlavi dynasty, and yet there seems present a more generalized democratizing set of goals at play than the narrow agenda of gender freedom suggests.

It may be possible that a secularizing movement with a liberal/progressive social agenda will spiral out of this protest activity with its seemingly narrow focus on women, the hijab, and theocratic harshness.