Iran regime’s concessions meaningless unless they are applied
The ongoing protests in many Iranian cities indicate a structural imbalance in the relationship between the ruling regime and a broad segment of the people. This includes some supporters of the revolution, who believe that the method of managing the crisis and interfering in people’s personal lives will lead to further social unrest, especially with the high rates of inflation and unemployment and the spiraling cost of living.
The killing of the young woman, Mahsa Amini, on Sept. 16 was not the beginning of the protest movement. Rather, it was preceded by labor movements of a purely economic nature. Now we see the wide sociocultural protests, which the ruling regime seeks to portray as a tool in the hands of the “enemies of the regime,” accusing external parties of working to direct and support them.
The Iranian political opposition, including Mojahedin-e-Khalq and radical separatist organizations that seek autonomy of an ethnic nature — as is the case with some Arab, Kurdish and Balochi factions — may have the desire to benefit from the broad popular movements, but it cannot lead or direct them. The most it can do is benefit from them in the media or involve some armed elements in order to stir up riots in certain areas, which are practices rejected by the overwhelming majority of Iranians, who object to the behavior of the ruling regime and the armed opposition at the same time.
So, the sociocultural movement, which is based on the belief in the individual’s right to free choice, has transcended the classical narrative of power and opposition and now has its own logic and slogans, which include the desire to be free from the authority of the clergy and for Iranians to lead a modern, civil lifestyle without any commandments.
When the Iranians rebelled in 1979 and before, and the widespread demonstrations denouncing the regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi took place, the goals that moved them were not religious and did not stem from a desire to establish a jurisprudential rule that would seize power and replace the civil ruler. Rather, people were protesting against political and economic practices, which they believed the shah was unfair about. Therefore, people took to the streets to demand reform, freedom and the consolidation of the rule of the people.
Leftists, communists and liberal personalities participated in the revolution. Unveiled women marched side by side with veiled women, chanting against the shah’s regime and welcoming Ayatollah Khomeini’s return from France when he arrived in Tehran in 1979.
This mixture, which made the revolution, began to shrink after the clergy took control of the scene. Gradually, the revolutionary religious youth began working to impose their strict vision. Although they were not the majority, they were the loudest and most powerful.
At the beginning of the revolution, the radicals sought to isolate girls from boys in universities and to impose the veil, despite Khomeini’s apparent opposition to that. Then, there were bad events in which incendiary materials were thrown at unveiled women. Slowly, with the start of the Iran-Iraq war and the rise of revolutionary and religious fervor, the extremists tightened their grip and the veil was imposed on women.
The war, and the dead and wounded returning from the battlefields, made sadness and a black color hang over Iran’s homes. This led to an increase in the religious legitimacy of imposing the veil, amid a general weakness of the patriotic and leftist figures, many of whom fled abroad, while those who stayed were either imprisoned or stripped of any real power.
The people have their methods of circumventing the regime and obtaining greater freedoms.
Hassan Fahs, a researcher specializing in Iranian affairs, indicated in an article titled “Iran: Religion in the Service of Politics” that “the regime moved to implement compulsory hijab in mid-1982, about two and a half years after leaving matters without interference or making hijab mandatory. Whoever visited Tehran in the early summer of that year, it was not difficult to notice the presence of some unveiled women in the streets of the capital, which soon disappeared with the increase of religious police patrols. These patrols consisted of two cars, one of which included four young men, and the other included four girls belonging to the revolutionary committees, or the ‘Guards.’ They would pursue any couple whose legitimate relationship was in doubt, arrest those caught being involved in a forbidden relationship or companionship and even reprimand women wearing headscarves but revealing some of their hair.”
These patrols tried to make the veil part of the regime’s identity, claiming that, without it, the regime would lose its prestige and ability to regulate society. Therefore, the regime sought to cling to it, especially in religious cities such as Mashhad and Qom and in conservative circles, in which clerics have greater influence.
During the rule of former President Mohammed Khatami, and despite his coming to power with an open reform program, “a plan entitled ‘The Comprehensive Chastity Plan’ was approved, after Khatami issued a decision to prepare 16 strategies for veiling and chastity. These strategies were approved by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, which is chaired according to the law by the president of the republic,” according to a report published by the Jadeh Iran website.
However, the government of Khatami, on whom the conservatives exerted extensive pressure, did not want “to bear the burden of implementation and, for this reason, he left its implementation to the next government, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was affiliated with the fundamentalists at the time.” Therefore, with the formation of “the ninth government headed by Ahmadinejad, the police implemented this program under the title ‘Plan to Strengthen Social Security’ in full cooperation with the judiciary, the Revolutionary Guards, the Ministry of Intelligence, and later the Basij Mobilization Force.”
So, there is a historical biography to the events that the world is witnessing today in Iran, up to the era of the current president, Ebrahim Raisi, during which “many religious authorities’ offices in different provinces announced the establishment of a disguised morality police, in addition to the forces present in the streets that supervise how the veil is worn through the use of advanced tools, including surveillance cameras, which record violations and punish them with financial penalties or summons and the opening of a judicial file.”
So, there is a socioreligious control that has increased day after day. At a time when Iran’s neighboring countries are heading toward more openness, development and social freedoms, Iranians find themselves under tighter government control and some social networking applications are banned as if the ruling regime is unaware of the rapid changes.
The apparent move to freeze the so-called morality police, announced this week by the Iranian Public Prosecutor Mohammed Jafar Montazeri, is an attempt to absorb popular tension. However, despite its great symbolism and the Iranian Guardian Council’s declaration of its intention to discuss the issue of compulsory hijab, all these steps will not be meaningful unless they are applied on the ground and people are allowed to live their lives the way they want.
The Iranian regime will seek to alleviate popular anger and present ideas that try to solve the crisis through violence, imprisonment and repression at times, and dialogue and leniency at others. However, the people also have their methods of circumventing the regime and obtaining greater freedoms. This process will continue between the regime and its critics. It may lead, after a while, to real gains for the Iranian people, but the opposite is also possible, with the level of repression increasing, especially with the growth of the “conspiracy theory” among the regime’s extremist leaders.
• Hassan Al-Mustafa is a Saudi writer and researcher interested in Islamic movements, the development of religious discourse and the relationship between the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Iran. Twitter: @halmustafa