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The Failed Revolution: Why the Mahsa Amini protests failed to bring change to Iran

Updated: Jan 8

International Affairs Analyst

Mahsa Amini protests in London, 2022 | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A year has passed since the commencement of the largest protests seen in the Islamic Republic of Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The death of Mahsa Amini, a 22 year old Kurdish-Iranian woman, at the hands of the Guidance Patrol- more commonly known as the morality police- after her arrest for ‘improperly’ wearing her Hijab brought an outcry of condemnation both domestically and internationally. 


Unlike other protest movements previously in Iran, the Mahsa Amini protests were unique in their centrality of Women activists and the issue of Women’s rights. Aiming to root out the deep-seeded misogyny present in Iranian politics and wider society, the slogan “Woman, Life, and Freedom” became the central message and the ideological pillar of the protests. Whilst women’s rights served as the core issue, many in Iran saw it as an ample opportunity to admonish the Iranian ruling elite over a litany of other grievances, from a lack of social freedoms and economic troubles to systemic corruption and electoral fraud. At the start, Western commentators anticipated that the outcome of the mass movement would be the end of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini’s rule and the collapse of the Islamic Republic of Iran, starting the process of Iran’s transition towards a secular, liberal democracy. As Masih Alinejad wrote in Foreign Affairs a month after the start of the protests, “the current protests in Iran sound the death knell of the Islamic Republic”. 


However, a year on, the Principalists, the main political faction within Iran who believe in rigidly  following the principles of the 1979 revolution- mainly theocracy, the eradication of foreign interference, self-sufficiency, and conservatism- have tightened their grip on power and have secured the Islamic Republic’s future as a strong and stable theocracy. The victory of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei serves as an all too familiar story of how authoritarian regimes suppress domestic dissent not through reform and concession but rather through bloodshed.


Proclivity towards Violence and Repression 


From the onset of the protests, Ayatollah Khamenei vowed to dismantle the protest movement through any means necessary. Claiming the protests were “orchestrated by America, the Zionist regime and the people on their payroll and Iranians who are traitors abroad”, he immediately invoked one of the core values of the 1979 revolution: the eradication of foreign interference, namely from the “Great Satan” of the United States and the “Little Satan” of Israel. 


The most pivotal roles in quashing the protests came from the IRGC, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, one of the 5 branches of the Iranian army tasked with protecting the integrity and values of the Islamic revolution both domestically and abroad. Since the weakening of the “Maximum Pressure” campaign against Iran under the Biden administration, the increase of oil export revenues for Iran has helped fund the IRGC with the necessary means to fulfil its mandate. According to the think tank United Against Nuclear Iran, the IRGC’s official budget ballooned from $900 million in 2020 to $3.6 billion in 2022 whilst oil export revenues increased by a proportionate amount within the same period. 


With the Basij branch of the IRGC carrying out the defence of the regime during the protests, the security forces adopted brutal tactics, including blinding countless protestors as a result of “targeting protesters’ faces” according to Iran International. It is generally believed that approximately 537 protestors were killed, making this the second deadliest protests since the 1979 revolution, following only the 2019-2020 protests where an estimated 1000-1500 were killed. Whilst the regime may have faced a grave legitimacy crisis, its monopoly on violence and the cohesiveness of its ruling class and security forces had proved vital in maintaining the integrity of the Islamic Republic.


Harsh judicial practices and extrajudicial procedures had further been used en masse to deter and punish protestors. Although the majority of the 22,000 protestors that were arrested during the protests have been released, many were denied access to a lawyer at the time and some were tortured, demonstrating a systemic violation of human rights. Fears of death sentences and executions prevented some from protesting, but many continued at their own peril. According to Amnesty International, Iran carried out “at least 576” executions last year, approximately a 75% increase from the year prior, largely as a result of over 100 protestors being executed for their anti-government actions. 


Other authoritarians have similarly and successfully reverted to using state violence to quell discontent with their regime. The use of violence to end the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests instead of conceding to demands for a democratic transition of the Chinese political system has ensured that authoritarianism continues to be firmly imprinted in China. Whilst the quashing of the protests forced the politburo to accelerate economic reforms beyond Deng Xiaoping’s earlier economic liberalisation efforts, largely as a means to placate further upheaval, the hopes for political liberalisation vanished. 


A similar case has been seen in Syria where, unlike Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, President Bashar al-Assad refused to concede to the will of the people and instead resorted to extreme violence to secure his own position, indiscriminately using state violence to combat a revolutionary populace during the Arab Spring in 2011. Whilst causing one of the deadliest conflicts of the 21st century in the subsequent Syrian civil war, Assad still maintains his grip on power. Khamenei’s suppression of protests is merely one of a myriad of cases of how authoritarians resort to state violence as a means to quell opposition, and this continues to serve as a handbook for authoritarians across the world.


Viewing Concession as Defeat


The dichotomy between brutality and concession has proved troubling for leaders to balance. In one branch of the “Dictator’s Dilemma”, authoritarians face the impossible decision between reform- and in times of upheaval, concession- and repression. Failure to reform can lead to devastating long-term consequences, namely a greater antagonistic relationship between a state and its people, planting the seeds of revolution. Reform and concession, however, start to erode the ideological pillars of a state- something especially troubling for a state as deeply intransigent on their Islamic revolutionary principles as the Iranian regime is. This erosion itself can inadvertently lead to the state's own demise in the long run.


Khamenei and the rest of his fellow revolutionaries clearly remember the mistakes of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi during the protests in 1978 and 1979 that helped them topple his regime. In what is now one of his most infamous speeches, the Shah declared in November 1978, after months of protests against his regime, that “I have heard the voice of your revolution… As Shah of Iran as well as an Iranian citizen, I cannot but approve your revolution”. At an extremely vulnerable position, the concessionary words of the Shah sounded his own death knell. From this point forward, the revolutionaries, led by Ruhollah Khomeini, gained momentum which culminated in the collapse of the Shah’s regime just over two months later. 


Furthermore, Khamenei has pointed to many historical cases of how concessions start the peripeteia of a regime's collapse. The most notable case of this is the failure of Gorbachev to use state violence in the Warsaw Pact countries during the Revolutions of 1989, an almost unprecedented case in Soviet history where upheaval within the Soviet bloc was previously remedied through suppression, such as the East German Uprising of 1953, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968. Moreover, unlike the Chinese model, which relied solely on economic liberalisation, Gorbachev’s aberration from Communist values by adopting both Perestroika and Glasnost- ‘restructuring’ and ‘openness’ in the economic and political sphere respectively- served as his fatal mistake in the eyes of Khamenei. By betraying the values of the October 1917 revolution by conceding to the “Great Satan” and catering to the Western system by adopting greater political liberalisation and preliminary market-based reforms, Gorbachev had eroded the ideological pillars of the Soviet Union and the whole Eastern Bloc, leading to its eventual demise.


During the rule of President Khatami, the Supreme Leader Khamenei and the Guardian Council- the 12-man council whose powers include the ability to veto any legislation- repeatedly rebuffed proposals by Khatami for his Gorbachev-esque reforms, fearing a similar outcome as the Soviet Union. Whilst Khamenei and the Iranian revolutionaries were vehement opponents to the Communist principles of the Soviet Union, the failure of Gorbachev to follow in the footsteps of Khrushchev and Brezhnev’s eponymous doctrine, as well as abandoning the principles of the October 1917 revolution, has served as a critical historical lesson to Khamenei. To him, abandoning his own revolutionary Islamic principles by undertaking revolutionary reform- and conceding to his adversaries- can only lead to the collapse of his own regime. 


During the protests, the only sign of concession came from a widely-circulated rumour that the morality police had been disbanded, a story which has since been disproved. In the months following the news, the morality police conducted clandestine operations to remove outspoken activists and those who continued to violate the Hijab laws, and today they continue to explicitly enforce the stringent hijab-wearing measures. Most recently, a new draft bill has been introduced which seeks to further strengthen Hijab-wearing laws, including harsher prison sentences for those who refuse to comply and aims to use further surveillance techniques to detect those who do not comply. 


A Diminished Protest Movement and the International Reaction


The Mahsa Amini protests proved in many ways to be a stark contrast to previous protest movements in Iran. In 2009, the Iranian Political Sociologist Hossein Bashiriyeh laid out 8 critical factors of what makes a protest movement turn revolutionary: whether the state is experiencing a crisis of legitimacy; the cohesiveness of the state apparatus; the cohesiveness and loyalty of the security forces; the levels of corruption within the state; mass discontent; organisation of the movement; leadership of the movement; and the ideological foundation of the movement. 


Applying the eight factors, the Mahsa Amini protests succeeded in some areas but fell short in the most critical factors. As well as issues previously discussed over the unity of the state and the security forces, one of the other main barriers proved to be a lack of central organisation and leadership, failing to achieve a unified list of demands, with some demanding regime change whilst others argued for more gradual reform. This was in significant contrast to the Green movement, where influential Reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi was the leader that helped unite and galvanise Iranians against Khamenei and the then- President  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by demanding an end to electoral fraud that had besmirched the 2009 Presidential election. Moreover, whilst protests were more geographically widespread than previous movements, the lack of leadership and organisation confined much of the protests in the latter stages to be sporadic, failing to pose a serious challenge. 


Moreover, the usage of internet blackouts and censorship reduced the ability of Iranians to coordinate protests via social media or online forums. According to NetBlocks, internet traffic during the protests fell to a low of 25% traffic during the blackouts relative to regular usage. Whilst these figures aren’t as high as the 2019-2020 protests, where Al Arabiya reported back in 2019 that traffic had fallen “to just 7% of ordinary levels” at the peak of the blackouts, the internet restrictions nonetheless played a crucial role in reducing information spread. Spurred on by the banning of Instagram at the start of the protests and the continued ban on other social media platforms such as Whatsapp and Facebook, the monopolisation of the digital sphere gave the Iranian regime a substantial advantage.


The eagerness for protest was also greatly diminished as a consequence of the failures of the Green Movement and the subsequent protests in 2019 and 2020. As seen following the failures of President Khatami’s reform initiatives during his presidency between 1997 and 2005, reform through political structures was unattainable. The Green Movement, the first major movement in the post-Khatami era, served as a way to combat the challenges of reforming a conservative establishment from within. Now that it has been seen that the current regime maintains an intransigent position towards crushing all anti-government protest movements, many in Iran see no benefit in maintaining such a revolutionary position, a position aided by the mounting economic struggles many Iranians are facing which prohibit them from striking or leaving work to protest for extended periods.


Additionally, the international support for the protests was immense but futile. The solidarity shown by the Iranian diaspora and the entire Western world was certainly monumental. Governments profusely condemned the actions of the Iranian regime, introducing a new round of sanctions against individuals and organisations linked with the ongoing suppression of protests, and leaders called for a halt to the violence, with Joe Biden going as far as vowing to “free Iran” from Khameni and the Principalists. Women across the world burned their hijabs and cut their hair, a political symbol for condemning oppression and for mourning dating back to around the 10-11th century. Even in the field of sports, the Iranian archer Parmida Ghasemi removed her Hijab during an awards ceremony as condemnation to the repressive Hijab laws, and the Iranian football team, during the World Cup, refused to sing the national anthem and covered up their team’s emblem as an expression of solidarity with the protest movement. A similar expression of solidarity was shown back in 2009 when the football team wore green wristbands during their World Cup qualifier game against South Korea, a symbol of support for the Green movement at the time. 


Nonetheless, whilst stirring up anti-Khamenei sentiment across much of the West, much of the symbolism  did little to shift the position of Mr. Khamenei and his supporters. If anything, this fixated his position even more. The deep-rooted ideological fixation of ridding Iran from American imperialism has been the main consistent policy since the inception of the Islamic Republic, and for Khamenei the international solidarity was nothing more than an attempt by the United States to undermine and destroy his regime. 


Conclusion


With further protests over the past weeks to commemorate the anniversary of Mahsa Amini, and the IRGC being put on high alert by the Supreme Leader, the past year has demonstrated the lengths to which Khamenei and the Principalists will go to to secure their position. However, as Karim Sadjadpour wrote in the midst of the 2011 Arab Spring, “while [authoritarian regimes] rule their collapse appears inconceivable, but after they’ve fallen their demise appears to have been inevitable”. 


For now, it is clear that the Principalists in Iran have won, and the collapse of the Islamic Republic seems inconceivable. However, with an ageing Khamenei and questions over who his successor will be, growing antagonisms between Iran and its foreign enemies over the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the troublesome role of the IRGC in the Middle East, and an agitated populace as economic concerns over fuel subsidies and inflationary concerns mount, questions certainly remain over what the future holds for the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

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