Iran’s Protests Are Nowhere Near Revolutionary

Sajjad Safaei | 18 January 2023
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Many say the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement will threaten the regime this year. They’re wrong.

Iran’s “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests—both the direct disruptions they have imposed on national life and the tensions they have created among the country’s ruling elites—have prompted many to wonder whether the Islamic Republic may be on the brink this year of a full-scale revolution. But how close are the protesters to really dethroning Iran’s leaders?

A clarifying lens is offered by a 2009 interview with renowned political sociologist Hossein Bashiriyeh. In response to that year’s emergence of Iran’s Green movement protests, Bashiriyeh provided a general model for thinking about the prospects of any “revolutionary situation.” According to Bashiriyeh’s analysis, eight factors determine whether a protest movement becomes revolutionary. Some of these factors speak in favor of the revolutionary potential of today’s protests. Several others—a decisive number, ultimately—do not.

The first factor identified by Bashiriyeh is whether the state is experiencing a crisis of legitimacy. In Iran’s case, that was true long before the current wave of protests began in September 2022, chiefly due to the country’s deteriorating electoral system. The mass protests of 2009 were ignited by widespread claims of electoral fraud, which served to further solidify the belief among many Iranians that their ballots had no bearing on the direction of their country’s future. Over the years, the Guardian Council—an unelected, hard-line 12-member body that vets candidates for public office—has increasingly prevented pro-reform, moderate, and even conservative voices from running in parliamentary and presidential elections, thus narrowing the scope for political representation.

In the 2021 presidential race, the council abandoned any pretense of impartiality by barring any candidate who could even remotely threaten Ebrahim Raisi’s bid for the presidency. The outcome was a predictable Raisi win and the lowest turnout in the history of presidential elections since the 1979 revolution. In a clear testament to widespread dissatisfaction with the electoral process, the final tallies showed there were more invalid or spoiled votes than votes won by the runner-up. The tarnished legitimacy of Raisi’s election was reflected in the fact that his name scarcely figures in the 2022 protests, whereas Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has been the primary focus of the protesters’ wrath because many see him as the ultimate source of their predicament and Raisi as a vacuous vessel through which Khamenei’s will is imposed on them.

The second factor to consider when assessing the stability of the political system is elite cohesion. In 2009, elite unity suffered an unprecedented blow when, over the course of just a few days, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and former Speaker of the Parliament Mehdi Karroubi morphed into opposition leaders. This constituted an unprecedented rift within the governing class. This crisis has persisted and even worsened over time. Despite hopes that the presidency of Hassan Rouhani, a centrist, in 2013 would lead to some form of national reconciliation and the inclusion of a wider range of political views in government, the exact opposite occurred. If the 2009 elections saw the unceremonious exclusion of pro-reform factions from Iran’s power structure, then by 2021 the deep rupture within elite politics had reached the inner sanctums of the country’s ruling elites, with moderate conservatives like former Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani being barred from running in the presidential election. The exclusionary practices of the Guardian Council even prompted Larijani’s brother Sadeq Larijani, the former judiciary chief and a former member of the Guardian Council, to publicly lambast the body’s exclusionary actions.

The next factor is the extensive and chronic crisis of efficient management that plagues the Islamic Republic. This crisis manifests itself most prominently in the mismanagement of the economy and widespread corruption, although U.S. sanctions have played an undeniable role in worsening the economic situation and isolating Iran from the global economy.

The fourth factor to consider is the unity and capacity of Iran’s coercive forces, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Basij, the regular army, the police, the intelligence apparatus, and a politicized judiciary ready and willing to suppress dissent. This is where the argument in favor of revolution begins to come apart. At no point during the 2022 protests was there any indication that the cohesiveness of these forces was at serious risk. Quite the contrary, the protests were contained without summoning the full panoply of Iran’s military and security forces. In fact, during the much larger and more organized Green movement, which drew millions of people to the streets in 2009, only a fraction of these forces was deployed to contain and ultimately quell the lion’s share of the street demonstrations in just a few months. Predictably, the 2022 protests, which have been significantly smaller in comparison, have posed no real challenge to the vast manpower and firepower of Iran’s security apparatus. Furthermore, authorities have shown little hesitation to deploy these forces to subdue protesters.

With the unity and capacity of the Islamic Republic’s cohesive forces fully intact, a key ingredient for a revolutionary situation is already missing. But the missing ingredients pile up when we move away from the country and consider the current state of the opposition movement, which is the focus of the next four of Bashiriyeh’s factors.

The first such condition—mass discontent—is readily fulfilled in Iran. Even before the 2022 protests, the Iranian leadership was sitting on a powder keg of social unrest waiting to be ignited. But the mere fact of mass discontent alone does not produce a revolutionary moment. “Socio-economic and cultural discontent,” Bashiriyeh notes, “becomes effective when made actual through a specific catalyst” and “must become politicized to have political effects.” The tragic death of Mahsa Amini in police custody, and the subsequent national rage and frustration it triggered, politicized other preexisting sources of discontent, such as the narrowing space for political representation, widespread corruption, mismanagement of natural resources, the pauperization of the masses as a result of misguided state policies, and the growing stifling of civil liberties. It was in the issue of the mandatory hijab law that these other issues found “a political focus or epicenter,” in Bashiriyeh’s formulation.

But although the 2022 protest movement could bank on a wellspring of mass discontent toward the Islamic Republic, its shortcomings in terms of organizational capacity and leadership—the next two factors—have thus far proved to be critical.

The 2009 Green movement could rely on vast organizational networks developed during the months of intensive election campaigning preceding the protests. These well-established networks included election headquarters, political parties, student organizations, and labor groups, among others. Despite being dubbed a “Twitter revolution” by some Western media, the 2009 protests did not rely as heavily on social media platforms as was often assumed. As journalist Reese Erlich reported from the ground, “most demonstrations were organized through word of mouth, mobile phone calls and text messaging” rather than solely through social media. In contrast, the protests that erupted in 2022 lacked the established networks that the Green movement could rely on in 2009. Most of the organizing in 2022 took place spontaneously through platforms like Instagram and TikTok. This is reflected in the demographics of the protesters: More than 41 percent of those arrested have been under the age of 20. The limited organizational capacity of the 2022 protests made them easier for authorities to contain—in contrast to the more diverse and broad-based participation in 2009.

This limited organizational capacity is due, in part, to a lack of strong, recognizable leaders in the 2022 protests. Whereas the 2009 Green movement was spearheaded by figures like Mousavi and Karroubi, the 2022 protests had no clear leaders. The lack of a figurehead can be advantageous. For instance, it can make it more difficult for authorities to decapitate the protests by simply arresting key leaders. But overall, the lack of strong leadership has thus far proved to be far more detrimental than beneficial to the current movement’s organizational capacity, which in turn has made it much easier for state coercion to subdue the protesters.

The last factor to consider when assessing the revolutionary potential of the 2022 protest movement is its ideology. As Bashiriyeh reminds us, oppositional ideologies can take on either an offensive or defensive posture. Offensive ideologies advocate for a radical overhaul of the existing sociopolitical order and structure, whereas defensive ideologies focus on expressing public grievances and pushing back against perceived encroachments on rights and freedoms by ruling elites.

In contrast to the largely defensive ideology of the 2009 Green movement, whose central rallying cry was “Where Is My Vote?” and which sought to overturn the results of a widely disputed election, the 2022 movement appeared to have taken on a more offensive stance. In November 2022, for example, protesters set fire to the ancestral home of former Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. Additionally, the 2022 protests featured more aggressive slogans directly targeting Iran’s supreme leader and calling for an overthrow of Iran’s rulers. Such slogans were largely absent in the 2009 Green movement. Even the main slogan of the 2022 movement—“Woman, Life, Freedom”—may be interpreted as potentially revolutionary in the context of contemporary Iranian politics. Nonetheless, one struggles to discern a dominant and coherent offensive ideology that explicitly calls for the overthrow of the existing system. It is important to note, however, that this ideology—though not yet explicitly offensive—can evolve into an uncompromisingly offensive one over time.

Although key ingredients for a successful transition into a revolutionary movement are still missing, this does not automatically preclude the possibility of a revolution. The legitimate aspirations and demands of the Iranian people are not going to disappear if they are not addressed. Unless authorities take heed of the people’s legitimate demands and aspirations, it is only a matter of time before the next round of protests erupts. However, there has yet to be any serious indication that authorities are willing to take any meaningful steps toward lasting change.

But if key ingredients for a revolution appear to be missing and authorities are showing little to no sign of yielding to the people’s will, where is Iran headed? Bashiriyeh notes that authoritarian governments compensate for a crisis of legitimacy “either by resorting to more coercive and repressive measures or by turning to more public welfare services.” In the wake of the 2009 crackdown on protesters, the state opted for the former, expanding its military and coercive capabilities. This scenario seems likely today too—partly because sanctions have further drained the state’s resources, making it even more difficult to expand public services.

Finally, at a moment when the Islamic Republic is facing an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy and effective management, it should not come as a surprise that there are growing indications that military leaders are assuming influence over foreign-policy decision-making. If anything, Iranians and those around the world following their plight would do well to prepare themselves not for a revolution but for the country’s further militarization.

Sajjad Safaei, a postdoc fellow at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. 

This article was originally published on Foreign Policy.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.