Academic Papers

Protest, Morality Decay, Crisis of Legitimacy in the Islamic Republic of Iran

The anti-government mass protest sparked by Mahsa Amini, a young woman’s death in police custody in Iran, started on the 17th of September. It spread to different cities and towns, including religious ones such as Qum and Mashhad, the power centres of Shiite Islam and the Islamic Republic’s power base. Images and slogans posted via social media demonstrate the bravery of ordinary Iranian, calling for “Women! Life! Freedom!” and “Emancipation is our right!”

Islamic Republic responded by mobilising the police, the paramilitary Basiji (state volunteer force) units, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, the secret police and the army. The crackdown by the government has already killed at least 50 people with thousands of arrests, including prominent civil society activists, journalists, academics and reporters. 

It began after the death of a young woman in the police detention centre for not having an appropriate Islamic dress code. Whilst visiting Tehran, Mahsa Amini, 22 years old from, Saghez, a Kurdish majority city in the west, was arrested by Islamic morality police monitoring women’s hijab and dress code in the streets. Not long after, she suffered a concussion in the detention centre and was transferred to the hospital, where she died after being in a coma for two days. 

Her death led to mass street protests, especially among youth, expressing their anger against the police’s brutality all over Iran, especially in working and middle-class districts. 

Since the Revolution in 1979, Iranian women have struggled to get the mandatory hijab repealed through political and civil protests. They resent the state’s interference in choosing what they should wear, including the hijab. Iranian youth dislike the threatening presence and behaviour of the Basiji forces on every corner of the streets of cities and towns: intimidating men and women to have an appropriate dress code or hairstyle. However, it is clear that most Iranian want to have the freedom to decide whether to wear or not to wear a hijab. This has become the fundamental issue in the current protest movement in the country. 

The spark was on the back of ongoing severe economic difficulties, corruption, mismanagement of the economy, inept handling of Covid and widespread political repression that many Iranians have to deal with. According to official figures, the inflation rate is 31 per cent and as many as 60 million people, or over 75 per cent of Iran’s 86 million, live in poverty. International Labour Organisation estimates that unemployment in Iran is 12 per cent and among the youth is nearly 30 per cent – of whom 70 per cent are below 35 years old. Many graduates are frustrated with the lack of opportunity to have a decent life. It is this magnitude of social change that the Islamic Republic has been unable to understand or deal with their need.

Hardliner Ebrahim Raisi became president in 2021 through an election where all the potential contenders, including Islamist reformists, were eliminated before the vote. He was backed up by the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Raisi and his supporters’ lack of understanding of the social transformation, especially among young middle and working-class Iranians, was evident as soon as he got elected. He encouraged the morality police to consider robust religious laws by physically harassing and arresting anyone who refused to toe the line. As a result, the rift between the establishment and the youth, unemployed and workers who have suffered through economic hardship widened. Ironically, it has brought unity for the time being amongst various social groups struggling against the establishment. 

Protests and strikes have been ongoing every so often in Iran. In 2019 after the government cut subsidies for basic food, the Iranians went to the street to express their anger. The state’s response was brutal, arresting thousands and killing over 1500 people. Islamic Republic’s leaders buried their heads in the sand, violently crushed the protest movements in 2019 and refused to deal with the reality of what the vast majority of Iranian people were going through. 

The current growing resentment, like previous ones, reflects the class division between those who own and control the economic wealth and political power. According to official figures, the top 20 per cent of the population own 47 per cent of wealth, and 0.3 million are super-rich, whilst the bottom 20 per cent only have 0.5 per cent of the share of income. Having experienced a range of reformist, radical and conservative styles of Islamism in government since the Revolution, Iranian protesters want a fundamental change, replacing the entire system of the Islamic Republic.

The Islamic Republic has looked to the ideological appeal of Islam to maintain its relative domestic legitimacy. On the national stage, the fundamental pillar of the Revolution was anti-imperialism, fuelled by the memory of the Pahlavi regime being a close ally of the US. Iranian leaders have continually claimed that the US is engaged in a criminal act trying to force Iran to conform to the US will or face harsh sanctions. The Islamic Republic has used this to legitimise its shortcomings economically, politically and socially, blaming external forces for its incompetence. Those who protest in the street against their rule are often called “the enemies” of Islam and Iran. However, this appears to have little legitimacy amongst most Iranians in recent times, as it has become clear to many that the Islamic Republic is there to take care of the regime’s own economic interest. For example, the supreme leader has control over the bonyads – large, state-religious foundations and the Revolutionary Guard Corps; these account for 50 per cent of the Iranian economy, and they are both exempt from taxes. Since the Revolution, the regime power holders have become a new wealthy class with different aspirations and interests from most ordinary Iranians. 

The Islamic Republic is facing enormous challenges at home, with its legitimacy at its lowest since the Revolution. The radicalisation and anger of slogans of the protesters in the street demonstrate this clearly, “I will kill those who killed my sister!” “Death to the Dictator!” “Emancipation is our right!” “Our power is our collectively!” “Bread! Work! Freedom!” These remind one of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. 

The Islamic Republic’s use of force and repression to bring down the protesters is not an answer that may work forever, as the fall of the Shah’s regimes demonstrated this in 1979. The political tests for the Iranian rulers will continue because any contingent factor, such as the brutality of moral police, lack of social and political freedom, and the price increase for basic food, could yet trigger a new wave of mass protest in the country. This protest movement in Iran has demonstrated its collective power, that they are a potent force when they are united. If this continues, it could be a real challenge to the Islamic Republic.

Farhang Morady is Principal Lecturer in International Development in the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster in London. His recent publication, Contemporary Iran: Politics, Economy, Religion, Bristol, Bristol University Press. 

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