Iranians are protesting their regime. Why it will only get worse for the mullahs.
n September 13, Iran’s Guidance Patrol (morality police) arrested 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for “improper attire”—failing to wear a hijab. Amini was transferred to a hospital two hours after her arrest and died there three days later. There are reports that she had been badly beaten by the police, although they claim she died of a heart attack. Amini’s death has sparked massive public outrage, setting off a wave of antigovernment protests across the country. Demonstrators have flooded the streets of cities large and small for more than a week, with young people and women on the frontlines and people of all religious, linguistic, and political stripes joining in. Women have been burning their headscarves and cutting off their hair in public to express their anger. The protest slogans have been radical, targeting Iran’s political system as a whole—for example, “Death to dictator!,” “Clerics should get lost!,” and “We will fight, we will die, we will take back Iran!”
Mass protests have been a defining feature of Iranian politics since the 1979 revolution that gave birth to the Islamic Republic. From the 1990s to 2019, there were five major waves of antigovernment protests. In the first half of the 1990s, protests broke out in the outskirts of big cities, largely over economic and administrative issues. Most of these protesters lived in poor neighborhoods and were demanding public services for their communities. The next two waves—the student protests of 1999 and the Green Wave of 2009—by contrast, were dominated by the educated middle class: The former were confined to university students, especially in Tehran, and the latter to the urban middle class in just a few major cities. The fourth and fifth protest waves erupted in 2017–18 and in 2019 over economic issues. These protests were concentrated in small cities and the peripheries of major urban areas, and their participants were mainly low-income young men between the ages of 19 and 26. Middle-class urbanites in large cities did not join in the 2019 protests, which turned deadly. The middle class, after all, had benefited from the domestic and foreign policies of moderate president Hassan Rouhani (2013–2021), which emphasized constructive engagement with the international community.
One of the important differences between the protests happening now and those of 2019 is the greater participation of the middle class. Students, university professors, professionals, actors, and numerous public figures have joined in and supported the protests. This is significant because the middle class has historically been the main engine of political change in modern Iranian history. It played a central role in the 1906 Constitutional Revolution, the 1951 Oil Nationalization Movement, the 1979 Revolution, the 2009 Green Uprising, and the 2013 election of Rouhani.
Not surprisingly, the government has resorted to force to quell the ongoing protests, although security forces have shown more restraint than they did in 2019, when they killed at least 321 citizens in five days. Besides repression, government officials and progovernment media have resorted to all kinds of tactics from an old playbook to discredit the protesters—notably, associating them with foreign countries and opposition figures in the diaspora. But the morality police’s outrageous behavior and the spontaneous nature of the protests have rendered those old-fashioned tactics more ineffective than ever.
Mahsa Amini’s death while in police custody set off this latest wave of protests, but the underlying conditions were years in the making and stem in large part from profound social changes that have taken place over the last four decades. A quick look at sociodemographic indicators such as education and urbanization shows how deep these changes have been. For example, the female literacy rate in Iran rose from 24 percent in 1976 to 81 percent in 2016, outperforming the rest of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Higher education has also rapidly expanded throughout the country since the early 1990s. According to an official report, by 2017 Iran was home to 2,468 institutions of higher learning. Many of these are in small, conservative towns and cities, giving women from conservative families a newfound opportunity to attend college. According to the Deputy Minister of Science, Research, and Technology, women comprise 60 percent of all university students in Iran today. While the quality of higher education in Iran has been subject to criticism, it has certainly contributed to young Iranians’ rising expectations and has empowered women especially. Iran’s urban population has been growing over the last few decades as well, from 49 percent of all Iranians in 1979 to 76 percent in 2021. The rate of urbanization in Iran has outpaced that of the MENA region, which rose from 49 percent in 1979 to 66 percent in 2021. Iranians’ access to the internet has been increasing at a remarkable rate in the last decade as well. The percentage of internet users rose from 16 percent in 2010 to 84 percent in 2021, one of the fastest in the world during this period.
Iranian society has also been secularizing. My comparative overview of recent survey data in the MENA region shows that despite (or perhaps because of) being ruled by Islamists for more than four decades, the Iranian public is one of the most secular and liberal populations in the region. For example, 41 percent of citizens in Iran believe that women having the same rights as men is an essential characteristic of democracy versus just 23 percent of citizens in Egypt, 27 percent in Tunisia, 28 percent in Iraq, 34 percent in Jordan, and 37 percent in Turkey. When asked about the importance of religion, 70 percent of Iranians surveyed considered religion to be “very important” in their life versus 97 percent of Egyptians, 95 percent of Jordanians, 90 percent of Tunisians, 88 percent of Iraqis, and 60 percent in Turks. When asked “how often” they “attend religious services,” 10 percent of respondents in Iran said “more than once a week” compared with 8 percent in Turkey, 19 percent in Iraq, 29 percent in Tunisia, 35 percent in Egypt, and 39 percent in Jordan. The numbers are even more striking among the youth: 40 percent of Iranians between 16 and 24 years old say that religion is not very important in their life, and only 7 percent claim to attend religious services more than once a week.
The Middle Class Under Pressure
Despite Iran’s expanding educated and secular urban population, the Islamic Republic’s conservative establishment has shown little flexibility in its restrictive cultural policies. The government has consistently tried to regulate cultural issues such as women’s clothing, book publication, and the film industry in order to protect “Islamic values” from what it calls the “Western cultural assault.” Women have been the main target of the strict cultural policies—such as the dress code monitored by the Guidance Patrol. Yet women’s issues go beyond that. Despite the remarkable increase in educated Iranian women, female participation in the labor force remains extremely low overall (just 14 percent of women), and below the average for the region.
Iranian politics has recently become less participatory as well. In the 2021 presidential election, the government abandoned its long-term policy of accommodating middle-class demands for political participation with competitive elections between reformists and conservatives. Instead, the conservative-dominated Guardian Council disqualified serious reformist and moderate candidates, which resulted in widespread calls for a boycott of the election. Ebrahim Raisi, the conservatives’ main candidate, won the election with the lowest turnout (48 percent) since the Islamic Republic’s founding. The turnout rate was even lower in major cities: In Tehran, only 26 percent of voters went to the polls. The unfair, uncompetitive presidential election exacerbated the growing sense of alienation among middle-class Iranians.
The U.S. withdrawal in 2018 from the Iran nuclear deal has added to the despair of Iran’s middle class. The reimposition of international sanctions on the country seriously damaged Rouhani’s foreign-policy agenda, on which middle-class aspirations for a better relationship with the West had relied. Even worse, economic sanctions have impoverished the middle class and limited economic opportunities for educated Iranians. Thus many in the middle class have been slipping out of it.
Prospects for Change
The current wave of protests is unlikely to pose a significant threat to the survival of the Islamic Republic for two reasons. First, the current uprising is leaderless and disorganized. The absence of leadership makes the protest campaign vulnerable to extreme elements that use violent methods. Published videos of mosques and the national flag set aflame by protesters could dampen public support for the movement and unite the government’s conservative base. Progovernment social-media accounts have shared these videos far and wide. Some activists claim that it might in fact be government infiltrators who are burning the religious and national symbols. But this in itself highlights a vulnerability of leaderless protests: Infiltrators and extremists will have an easier time tarnishing protesters’ public image in the absence of leadership with an effective nonviolent strategy.
Second, security forces have shown no sign of defecting. The Revolutionary Guard and the army both issued announcements expressing strong support for the police officers. It is difficult to imagine the protests succeeding if the security apparatus remains cohesive.
Still, even if the government manages to subdue the protests, it is probably only a matter of time before a new wave erupts. The chasm between a liberal, educated middle class thirsty for civil liberties and economic opportunities and a politically dogmatic, socially conservative establishment will only continue to grow.
Peyman Asadzade is a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative and was previously a USIP Peace and Security Scholar in 2021–22.
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