The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Iranian police custody last month sparked the country’s biggest protests in years. Under the rallying cry, “Woman, Life, Freedom,” protesters have ground dozens of cities to a halt. The response from Iran’s authoritarian regime has been swift and harsh, with security forces opening fire on crowds and killing dozens.
Though the protesters remain undeterred, it’s hard to imagine how they prevail. When the regime in power has a monopoly on force and weapons and no qualms about civilian suffering, time is on its side.
This depressing reality only makes the bravery of the Iranian people that much more remarkable.
Mahsa Amini was arrested by the “morality” police for the “crime” of not wearing her headscarf appropriately. Removing and burning headscarves has become the calling card for these protests, and many women are also cutting their hair in a sign of defiance.
Though the regime continues its efforts to block internet access, images are still making it out to the world. They make clear that, despite the crackdowns and deep personal risk, people are still in the streets.
The protests today seem qualitatively different than other demonstrations in recent years. A variety of grievances were building — Iran’s strangled economy, its terrible COVID-19 track record, unfettered corruption and repression — but the proximate cause of this outcry was its treatment of women. This fact means today’s dissent transcends socio-economic divisions and finds common cause across Iranian society.
The Iranian people were also primed for a backlash. Ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi, a close ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rose to power last year and quickly cracked down on what had been a gradual shift towards moderation.
Iran’s prior president, Hassan Rouhani, was a relative reformist. He discouraged the morality police from enforcing harsh religious laws and sought to improve relations with the West. The Ayatollahs, Iran’s ruling religious leaders, did not look kindly on Rouhani’s direction. When Rouhani could not run for a third term, religious leadership ensured no moderate could win again by not allowing any to run through a candidate “vetting” process. Turnout was historically low, and Raisi’s win predictable.
His rule has been unapologetically extreme, with the morality police emboldened to address any violations of religious dictate by women. Even before Mahsa Amini’s death, public calls for change were growing.
The regime is in a vulnerable position. Supreme Leader Khamenei is 83 and in poor health. After more than three decades in power, his death could bring a succession crisis. The public faces high prices, inflation, and few economic opportunities. Efforts to return to the nuclear deal that could ease many of the sanctions hampering Iran’s economy face headwinds.
But none of this means the end of the Islamic Republic is imminent.
Even when “people power” succeeds in ousting oppressive leaders, there is no guarantee that what comes next is peace or democracy. It’s not even certain to be an improvement.
Consider Sudan, where three years ago, in the face of similarly ruthless suppression by security forces, protests successfully drove out dictator Omar al-Bashir after nearly a 30-year reign. In truth, a military coup overthrew Bashir, with the blessing and cover of the masses, who then found their lot little improved when the sham transitional government was ousted for a full military takeover last year. The military’s claims that it will eventually transition to civilian rule are hardly credible, but there is no one else to negotiate with but those who hold the power.
Sri Lanka offers a similar cautionary tale. Widespread protests began in March after the country’s economic collapse. By July, protesters occupied President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s house. Rajapaksa fled and resigned in what was widely hailed as a victory for the people. But instead of people’s rule, the former president’s allies quickly retook the helm and began harsh crackdowns, targeting those who led the protest movement with arrests and travel bans.
Rather than seek to better serve the people, those who took over in Sudan and Sri Lanka have instead sought to crush dissent. If the goal is to maintain power, that probably makes sense.
Iran’s regime faces a similar choice. If they give in to protester demands and end the mandatory hijab requirement, will that appease the public or empower them to demand more?
Iran’s extremist government is likely to fear the latter. Therefore, a continued crackdown is the most likely response. This doesn’t mean the protests will end soon, but it does mean they will likely end tragically for many protesters.
The United States should continue to speak up for these protesters and all people oppressed by authoritarian regimes. But an important lesson for all of us is that, once planted, authoritarian regimes are exceedingly hard to uproot. For this reason, those of us who still have democracy must carefully guard what we have, and the United States and our allies must avoid reinforcing the power of dictators wherever possible.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She was previously a U.S. diplomat and is the author of “The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age.”