Have Iran’s Protesters Won Against the Regime?
The “Mahsa moment” has left an indelible mark on Iran’s political landscape, delegitimizing the regime and the core pillars it claims to stand upon.
As the women-led protests sparked by the killing of Mahsa Amini by Iran's infamous morality police begin to quiet down, it is not clear what the protests can actually achieve from here on out. What is clear is that the protests have worked in significant ways, even if they did not trigger the collapse of the Islamic Republic, which some protesters desired. Past lessons on successful revolutions offer valuable insights into both the protests’ partial success and the regime’s response to its most serious crisis of legitimacy since 1979.
Undoubtedly, political developments in real-time diverge from political theory. But two ideas have garnered a hard-won consensus. First, social movements require buy-in from the security apparatus of the state to be successful. However, the Iranian protests were too small to truly threaten the regime’s survival. Protests numbered in the tens of thousands in a country of 80 million. Military forces were, therefore, unlikely to defect and support the protesters.
Second, successful social movements require support from a vast range of the population, ideally from both sides of the aisle, through sustained waves of protests. According to Mehdi Noorbaksh, a professor of International Affairs at Harrisburg University, one of the problems with the protests was the failure to translate them into a broad social movement that included all segments of the population.
In response to the uprising, the Islamic Republic has utilized a calibrated set of tools and tactics to diminish the potency of the protests and re-establish control over the streets and squares of the country. Social media’s ability to influence the massive protests that rocked Tehran in 2009 led some pundits to extol the moment as the “Twitter revolution.” However, as it turned out, these claims were exaggerated. Now, as then, the primary drivers of social change are those who put their lives at risk. Arash Azizi, a researcher at NYU, argues that authoritarian regimes have leveraged social media and the internet to monitor protesters with surveillance technology acquired directly or copied from China and, to a lesser degree, Russia and North Korea. Tehran has also expressed interest in facial recognition technology that can register Hijab-related violations, akin to how plate-reading cameras capture driving violations.
According to an Iranian scholar based in Europe, the regime deliberately abstained from using harsher forms of repression early on, instead allowing the protests to take place under its watch. All along, the regime believed it had the power to control, contain, and eventually disperse the crowds. A seemingly counterintuitive claim, the idea is that the authoritarian impulse to use deadly violence against the protesters was balanced by a more strategic and sinister objective. Recently, Iran has developed a sophisticated surveillance system using CCTV cameras and drones. According to the expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, protesters are not immediately arrested and may instead face prosecution later based on police analysis of visual recordings. According to this view, the protests were permitted to continue because the regime wanted to collect and store incriminating data about disgruntled Iranian citizens. This means that in the coming years, dissenters will be trapped in a state of protracted uncertainty about their safety and will remain vulnerable to surprise detention.
However, there are signs that the government may shift to a de facto softening in the implementation of certain laws, mainly concerning the religious dress code, without officially announcing any de jure changes. In practice, many in Iran are reporting that the policing of the mandatory hijab has effectively stopped. In this way, the protests have worked in so far as the regime is changing its behavior in an area that matters to its core identity—the policing of female bodies. This is consistent with the regime’s historical approach of making no public concessions but managing dissent with a mix of pragmatism and lethal force.
In December 2022 and January 2023, Iran executed four people linked to the protests, and up to 100 more currently face charges for capital crimes. The visual power of a lifeless body hanging motionless from the top of a crane seems to have worked, at least for now, as the executions have coincided with a slowing down of public protests. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Turk, has stated that the executions amount to “state-sanctioned killing.”
The West must send a strong message to Iranian authorities that the executions violate international human rights law and will come with consequences. In 2019, Washington designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. It is time that other Western countries follow suit. On January 14, the Islamic Republic executed Alireza Akbari, a British-Iranian dual national, on trumped-up charges of being a spy for British intelligence. The United Kingdom may be edging closer to designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization, even as critics of such a move warn that it could shut the door to future negotiations with Iran, risk nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, and push the regime even closer to China and Russia. But continuing with the status quo, which constitutes appeasement of a deadly regime, is neither sufficient nor effective.
A few months ago, there was a real possibility that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) would be revived in some form. This is no longer the case. The Iranian regime must make some concessions to revive it. Iranian oil exports have rallied—possibly to their highest since 2019—despite U.S. sanctions, thanks to shipments to China and Venezuela. However, the economic forecast remains bleak. The United States is clearly not eager to return to negotiations and cannot amid the current political and social turmoil in Iran. The Iranian diaspora has united and created a powerful lobbying force across capitals in the West. External pressure on Iran, especially as the regime continues to support the Russian war in Ukraine, is mounting and will impact Iran.
The regime’s brutal repression delivered a highly effective deterrent to protesters. However, the protests have worked in the sense that Iran’s internal politics will remain unstable for the foreseeable future, with the regime’s legitimacy in decline. The “Mahsa moment” has left an indelible mark on the country’s political landscape, delegitimizing the regime and the core pillars it claims to stand upon, even if it will take more time to fully grasp the long-term ripple effects of the protests.
Dr. Burcu Ozcelik is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and holds a Ph.D. in Politics from the University of Cambridge.
Image: Shutterstock/Mircea Moira