Politics of protests in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Dr Pooja Kotwal
The protests in Iran following the death of a twenty-two year old woman Mahsa Amini after her arrest by the morality police (Gasht -e- Ershad) has been in the public spotlight from September 2022. In the past as well, the country has witnessed the public protests against the state. The Green Movement Protests of 2009 engulfed the country for months. Regardless of the results, the civil society in Iran has been extremely active while enduring heavy handedness from the state. The Iranian government have resorted to force while dealing with the current ongoing protests as well. What distinguishes the current demonstrations in Iran from those that have occurred in the past?
Domestic Political Scenario
Iran is a very unique state in terms of its formation, constitution (a blend of French as well as Shari’a principles) and its ideological basis (velayat-e-faqih). After the Islamic Republic of Iran was formed in 1979, the doctrine of the velayat-e-faqih (Guardianship of the Jurisprudent) was introduced by the former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. The velayat-e-faqih philosophy helds that the faqih (the Absolute Leader) would have supreme power over elected councils and will be responsible for ensuring the compliance of legislation with Islamic law (Shari’a). The three pillars of government (legislature, executive, and judiciary) were adjusted in order to institutionalise the philosophy and ensure its conformity with Islamic law. The constitution was drafted in a way that gave the faqih total power. In mid-November 1979, the velayat-e-faqih philosophy was institutionalised in the constitution despite some section’s opposition. This disagreement among the sections stems from clashes over the ideological basis of the state, the absolute authority of the faqih that rejected the Shi’i tradition that there would be no hierarchy among the fuqaha, the role of the faqih in political affairs, so on. Therefore, it becomes crucial to comprehend the several sections or fractions in Iran.
The political front of the Islamic Republic of Iran is determined by the two main factions- the conservatives and the reformists. The conservative bloc is represented by the Traditional Right (Rast-e Sunnati) and the Radical Right (Rast-e Efrati) and the reformist bloc is represented by the Modern Right (Rast-e Modern) and Left (Chap). The traditional right supports free market, cultural conservatism and social traditionalism whereas the radical right advocates for the restoration of the revolutionary ideals. The Modern Right favours an open approach to pragmatic issues, social modernity and governance and the Left emphasises political and cultural plurality and a more open political and cultural environment. It has been witnessed that the reformists have been in a vulnerable position regardless of the government in power. Even the civil society has bore the brunt of the conservatives’ attitude to resist any change. Therefore, the constant tussle between the conservatives and the reformists shapes the domestic as well as foreign policy of Iran.
The History of Clashes between the Civil Society and the State in the Islamic Republic of Iran
With the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, the civil society took the form of secular institutions rather than traditional social formations. After Ayatollah Khomeini (the former Supreme Leader) returned to Iran in February 1979, he gave the idea of Islamic government (hokumat-e- Eslami) and the theory of velayat-e-faqih for governing the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is important to point out that the Iranian constitution proclaimed itself a unique blend of the French ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity as well as the Shari’a. However, the constitution also signifies the supremacy of the unelected office of the Supreme Leader over the constitution and the elected offices.
The first major protest started after the former Supreme Leader Khomeini gave the directives that women have to wear the veil mandatorily in all the public places in March 1979. Despite the crucial role of women in the Revolution of 1979 (leading to the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran), women were made to reflect the state’s identity (i.e. women belongs to the domestic domain), forcefully. However, women’s servitude did not end with their confinement to the household. Other proposals including the reduction of retirement age for women, banning of co-education, prohibiting women from participating in sports, and so on. It was only after few years of the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) which brought a sigh of relief for women. The scarcity of males in the labour force and the economic crisis prompted the government to alter its previous directives.
Under the new Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the elected President Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997), the civil society became active again. The outcome of the Iran-Iraq war gave rise to the critical public intellectuals. These intellectuals started questioning the supremacy of the Supreme Leader over the elected offices and discussed the compatibility of Islam with democratic principles by interpreting Q’uran. Many journals and magazines also started shedding light on the several issues which were not highlighted previously.
With the election of the reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) as the President, the activism of civil society reached its zenith. Under Khatami massive crackdowns on the civil society by the conservatives lead to several arrests, incarceration, torture, forced confessions, etc. Due to this, his popularity dipped subsequently, giving way to the conservative candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Presidency.
During Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tenure (2005-2013), the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and basijs (paramilitariy) ruthlessly suppressed the protests and arrested many civil society activists. During this period, the activism of civil society shrinked subsequently. The 2009 Presidential elections ushered new wave of popular protests in Iran when the results declared Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the President. Dubbing the elections as rigged, there was large scale mobilization of people between June 2009 and early 2010. The protests did not culminate into desirable outcome for the discontented civil society members, many of which were forced to flee Iran for their lives.
The next moderate Presidential candidate Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021) campaigned for women’s rights, easing of internet restrictions and boosting the economy. On the contrary, there were no important reforms made during his tenure with the exception of signing of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in July 2015 which lifted several Western economic sanctions. However, JCPOA collapsed with the unilateral exit of the US, increasing the contentions between the conservatives and the reformists in the Iranian domestic politics.
After Hassan Rouhani, the conservative candidate Ebrahim Raisi was elected as the President in August 2021. His ongoing Presidency has been challenged by the massive protests after the death of Mahsa Amini.
Zan. Zendegi. Azadi (Women. Life. Freedom)
The current protests questioned the authority of the Morality Police (Gasht- e- Ershad) which has been primarily tasked with monitoring women’s modesty. The Morality Police has been given the authority of arresting women on finding them wearing makeup, not wearing hejab properly or engaging in male-female fraternisation. It is estimated that the morality police charges over 16,000 women annually for violations from wearing an improper hejab to walking with a male friend.
Despite facing buck from the reformists and the common masses, the morality police has always been at the beck and call of the conservatives. With the furore caused over the death of Mahsa Amini since September 2022, it is yet to be seen whether these protests will lead to any significant change. But the protestors’ unyielding demeanour reveals a lack of fear towards the dictatorship, despite the regime’s implementation of four executions, eighteen death sentences, countless arrests, deceptive calls for disbanding the morality police etc. The marches that first sought women’s rights are now calling for a transition away from the Islamic Republic. These demonstrations have significantly altered the conversation between the Iranian leadership and the Iranian massses, separating them from previous protests. The involvement of all stratas in addition to civil society activists demonstrates the long-held dissatisfaction with the regime throughout the years that forced the populace to shun their fears. And it is well known fact that ‘the authoritarianism thrives on fear’.
(The author is a Ph.D Scholar from JNU)