Iranians want change but authorities play on chaos fears
The death of 16-year-old Armita Geravand last month after collapsing on a Tehran metro train weeks earlier did not provoke massive protests inside Iran like the death of Mahsa Amini did in September 2022. According to Iranian state media, Armita died after “suffering from brain damage.” Iranian opponents consider her death to be the consequence of a violent assault by a “hijab watcher,” as she was not wearing a headscarf at the time, which is against the rules of the Iranian political system.
Her death happened in a paradoxical context: the theocratic state is pushing for the implementation of the hijab and chastity law, whereas nearly 20 percent of Iranian women residing in big cities are going out without the hijab, even if this exposes them to the risk of repression, which continuously takes new forms. These include video surveillance rather than harassment by the morality police and the closure of businesses and coffee shops rather than systematic arrests, fines, confiscation of cars or the deprivation of SIM cards for women not respecting the official dress code.
These new forms of repression cannot, however, result in a return to the situation that prevailed before September 2022 and social change seems so inexorable that even the Friday prayer imams believe that the new legislation against unveiling will not provide a “solution” to what the Iranian authorities consider to be a “social anomaly.”
Beyond this Iranian social paradox, on the economic front, the internal situation also remains difficult amid rising inflation and an increased poverty rate. Iran is in need of significant political reforms to overcome the multiple crises it faces: economic, environmental, social and political. For instance, poor Iranians made up 20 percent of the population in the 2010s and 30 percent in the 2020s. Moreover, the 20 percent rise in civil servant salaries scheduled for the next Iranian year (starting in March 2024) will not be sufficient to compensate for the rampant inflation, which surpassed 46 percent during the last month.
In 2023, Iran ranked 147th out of 180 countries in a global corruption perception index. The situation in terms of corruption has remained the same for three years despite the official campaigns launched by the judiciary and the top priority given to eradicating this problem by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The internal economic crisis is aggravated by the high level of corruption in the country.
This poor performance is also increasing the sense of social injustice among the majority of the Iranian population, who do not see the benefits of the increased oil production, which has reached 3.4 million barrels per day, about 1.2 million bpd more than in mid-2021, according to the minister of oil. Mismanagement and the impact of international sanctions are the main drivers of the inability of the Iranian political system to become more efficient. This is also increasing social discontent and internal grievances.
The dire economic conditions associated with the need to purify the Iranian political establishment are difficult hurdles to overcome in the period before the next parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for March 2024.
The internal political debate is now limited to the hard-liner political current, with the probable disqualification of reformist candidates by the Guardian Council. This filtering of candidates prevents the emergence of a real political debate on the need for reform to address the country’s domestic problems. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is allegedly not able to publicly address Iranian internal political issues while under pressure to take a public stance on the Gaza war. He will probably nevertheless push for his supporters to participate in the next parliamentary elections, which will be dominated by a debate between Parliament Speaker Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf and current President Ebrahim Raisi.
This Raisi-Ghalibaf debate could define the probability of Raisi running for a second term, with the next presidential election scheduled for 2025. The limited internal political debate among insiders of the Iranian political system will be met by rising disaffection among Iranian citizens and low turnouts in the election cycle of 2024 and 2025.
Today’s apparent internal political stability in Iran was only achieved through increased repression and the implementation of the mandatory veiling of Iranian women. Western analysts envisage a Pakistani-style evolution of the Iranian political system post-Khamenei. Indeed, the supreme leader, who is 84 years old, represents the point of equilibrium of the Iranian political system. After his disappearance, the accelerated militarization of state institutions could occur.
However, such a development would not solve the question of the crisis of legitimacy of the political system as a whole, particularly for Generation Z, which was at the heart of the national uprising in September 2022. The Iranian system’s strategy of ethnicization of the social movement started during the fall of 2022 and it is doomed to failure, even if the state’s security response pays particular attention to peripheral provinces (such as the overrepresentation of Kurdish political prisoners or the high percentage of executed Balochis in 2023). The strength of Iranian nationalism is a more decisive factor than the ethnic diversity of the country, both among the political elite and the protest movement.
Today’s apparent internal political stability in Iran was only achieved through increased repression.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
It ultimately appears that the Islamic Republic seeks to ensure its survival in the short term. Among the youngest, support for the current political system is very low. According to a 2022 Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran survey, nearly 80 percent of Iranians are in search of a fundamental political change.
Today, the debate within the Iranian population, both inside the country and among the diaspora, is more about the price to pay to reach a new political horizon, rather than about a 1990s-style debate between the reformist and conservative currents of the existing political system. Despite the unpopularity of the political elite and the difficult economic conditions inside Iran, the main strength of the current political system is the fear of a Balkanization of Iran and the involvement of foreign powers in provoking change from abroad.
Support for peaceful change is massive, but the risk of violence and chaos remains an asset for the communication strategy of the Iranian authorities, which play on the fear of what a post-Islamic Republic Iran could look like.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is the founder and president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). X: @mohalsulami