Iran's protests expose deep cracks in the ruling elite
Protests in Iran erupted in September following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman, who died after being detained by the Islamic Republic's morality police for allegedly wearing the hijab improperly.
Demonstrations, which initially started in front of the hospital where she was declared dead, quickly spread throughout the country to more than 80 cities— including the holy city of Qom as well as Tehran’s neighbourhoods of Naziabad, Fallah, and Valiasar, known as bastions of the regime.
According to the Norway-based Iran Human Rights NGO (IHRNGO), Iranian security forces have killed at least 326 people so far, including 43 children.
The killing of Amini has not just unleashed accumulated anger over the mandatory hijab but also triggered an eruption of rage against a corrupt and incompetent regime and the heavy-handedness of the security state and its officials.
The country was rocked by unrest in 2017, 2018, and 2019, but it is evident that the regime is facing ever-greater challenges to its legitimacy, especially after recent events.
"There is growing evidence of fractures emerging within the ruling elite, although it is still unclear how significant and deep they might be"
Dissonant voices within the ruling elite
The Iranian administration appears divided on how to respond to recent developments. Professor Ismail Sari, a Faculty Member at Ankara’s Hacı Bayram Veli University and Senior Fellow at ORSAM, says that some members of the regime believe that it is necessary to act more brutally from the beginning to prevent protests from gaining momentum. Others, he says, believe that violence against protesters doesn’t work, as demonstrations will only come back stronger.
The response of Iranian authorities has been predictably brutal, and it has initially maintained a firm stance against the protesters. Hardliners in the parliament reportedly adopted a statement that called on state officials to implement capital punishment against protestors, and the judiciary has repeated this sentiment.
But voices of concern and dissent have also emerged within the ruling elite, suggesting that the regime is far from being a monolith. The supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s own envoy to the nation’s university system, the cleric Mostafa Rostami, for example, reportedly admitted in a speech that “we have to acknowledge there are a number of fundamental problems in our society”.
Parliamentary speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, meanwhile, went even further, saying that “legitimate and necessary changes would begin to establish a new kind of governance in economic, social and political areas within the framework of the Islamic Republic”. In a similar vein, influential politician and former parliament speaker Ali Larijani, openly called to rethink the mandatory police-controlled compulsory hijab.
Moreover, the government-controlled Setareh-e Sobh newspaper published a statement by cleric Mohammed Ali Ayazi, where he openly opposed the official elite and supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s narrative, which blamed a ‘foreign enemy’ for organising the protest.
Ayazi instead explicitly said that clerics do not accept the guidance patrols, as “some things that are done in the name of religion are not acceptable from the point of view of some religious thinkers and researchers,” adding that “this (brutality) is not a way to make society religious”.
This is definitely a new moment where some “leading clerics and news outlets under government control oppose Supreme leader Khamenei’s instructions,” Dr Majid Rafizadeh wrote in Arab News.
Empty phrases or real policy shifts?
Although not as massive as the student protests in 1999 and the Green Movement in 2009, the current unrest will undoubtedly be considered by the Iranian administration as a kind of warning.
“It is not possible to ignore the people's demands for freedom, political, and economic reforms. Time will tell if the Iranian administration will take some positive steps, given the references from the past, when Tehran’s administration quickly and violently suppressed the protests,” Professor Sari told The New Arab.
“Therefore, it is highly debatable whether the moderate and reconciliatory tones coming from some officials reflect the shift in policy of the conservative ruling elite or [whether] these are just empty words of an increasingly nervous leadership, aimed at calming the chaotic situation in the country.”
In the view of Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, “some individuals have made very vaguely conciliatory noise, but this is routine, in the sense that there has always been a bit of space for debate around policies, whether on repression or other matters”.
"It is highly debatable whether the moderate and reconciliatory tones coming from some officials reflect the shift in policy of the conservative ruling elite or [whether] these are just empty words"
According to Juneau, while it is safe to assume that the regime must feel nervous with protests failing to slow down after several months, his assumption is that “the regime still intends on quelling them through brute force”.
As for Hakkı Uygur, head of the Center for Iranian Studies (IRAM) in Ankara, every single political player within the country knows that Iran needs serious structural reforms in order to keep the long-term stability of the country. “These words are not just empty phrases, although the real question refers to how they will pursue these reforms and most observers think that they will take some serious steps in this regard, just after Khamenei's period is over,” Uygur told TNA.
As some officials have stated, more than 80% of Iranian society is not comfortable with the current situation in terms of the economic, social, or political picture, and Uygur notes that “political leaders are aware that if they don't take some serious steps, the silent majority will not remain as observers and they may join demonstrations any time soon”.
Therefore, he is convinced that some members of the ruling elite, such as Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a conservative politician, former military officer, and current Speaker of the Parliament, intend to take some steps, but no one knows in detail how or when.
As a result, there is growing evidence of fractures emerging within the ruling elite, although it is still unclear how significant and deep they might be.
Professor Sari observes that after the reformist movement was excluded from the parliament and state cadres in Iran, divisions between conservatives, including moderate conservatives (such as Ghalibaf) and radical conservatives, began to deepen. “Moderate conservatives may be using the protests as an opportunity to attack extremists at their weakest points, blaming them for many of the country's problems,” Sari said.
In Juneau’s view, the regime believes that if it offers small concessions to the protesters it could open the door to escalating demands. “This is a scenario the regime wants to avoid, and it is unlikely that the regime would be willing to compromise. It is too invested in hard-line social policies (as well as in the economic and foreign policy realms),” he noted.
While there could be a possibility of changes to the practice of compulsory hijab, Professor Sari is convinced that small reforms will not satisfy the Iranian people, who are not willing to settle for anything less than regime change.
The ongoing protests are seriously challenging the legitimacy of the regime, and media outlets, think tanks, and observers have speculated on whether the unrest may lead to the collapse of the regime.
Juneau, for instance, does not think that the Islamic Republic is on the verge of collapse, even if it is under serious pressure. The demonstrations, in his view, do not pose an existential threat, at least not yet.
For the regime's survival to become seriously questioned, “we would have to see serious defections from the military, the security services, the clergy, and the regime as a whole; we have not seen that. We would also have to see large-scale general strikes, yet strikes, so far, have been limited, hundreds of thousands or millions in the streets, far more than what we have seen so far”.
For Uygur, the future of the regime will depend on how it acts on reform issues, since the ruling elite “still possess enough power to keep the regime safe at least in the short term, unless they do something stupid such as massive killings or executions, provoking the silent majority in the country”.
"Even if brute force eventually succeeds in quelling the protests, the regime will come out of these protests weakened, and perhaps severely weakened. I would then expect the next round of protests to erupt relatively soon"
Sari believes that unlike the Green Movement, which hoped to reform the system from within, today's wave of opposition deeply rejects Iran's regime, especially intersecting forms of oppression on the basis of gender, religion, and ethnicity.
However, the main obstacle to achieving much-needed change may be the absence of leadership among protesters, which is not surprising given the extent of repression, so it could be difficult for protestors to negotiate and channel their demands. As a result, reforms, although much needed, may come too late for the ruling elite to survive.
Nevertheless, even if the system is not on the verge of collapse, Juneau does not believe that it will be able to return to the status quo. “Even if brute force eventually succeeds in quelling the protests, the regime will come out of these protests weakened, and perhaps severely weakened. I would then expect the next round of protests to erupt relatively soon,” he noted. Get ready for Iranian spring.
Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, and terrorism and defence.