Destabilizing speculation

Is Iran’s resilient protest movement doomed without a leader?

LONDON: Forty days and the protests that have rocked Iran since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the regime’s notorious morality police show no sign of abating, but experts remain divided on whether whether the movement can achieve real change.

Multiple waves of anti-government protests have rocked Iran over the past two decades, from the 1999 Salam newspaper unrest, in which seven students died, to the 2009 Green Movement, which ended after 72 protesters were killed. by the security forces.

Later came the fuel and gas crisis of 2019, which took 200,000 people to the streets and claimed at least 143 lives, according to human rights monitor Amnesty International.

However, the current protests, which followed Amini’s death in police custody for an alleged breach of the country’s strict hijab rules, represent something of a sea change, with the regime’s usual heavy-handed response falling short. to blunt their momentum.

“In 2009, the majority of protesters came from the middle classes. In 2022, protesters come from the working classes and lower middle classes,” Yassamine Mather, editor of the British academic journal Critique and an expert on Iranian politics, told Arab News.

“This means that we are seeing more people involved in the protests overall and that the protesters are younger and more courageous than in 2009. They do not seem deterred by the attacks by the security forces.

“It can only be compared to the protests of 1979. All of this coincides with unprecedented workers’ strikes and general unrest. It seems that the crackdown, internet restriction, arrests and killing of protesters have failed.

Nationwide protests across Iran this year are the largest in decades. (AFP)

Indeed, as of this writing, what anti-government groups call the “Mahsa Amini revolution” has become the largest, deepest and bloodiest movement the regime has faced since seizing power in of the 1979 revolution.

Demonstrations took place in more than 80 cities across the country, involving both men and women, and people of all ages and ethnicities. The unrest left more than 200 people dead, including school children.

The movement initially focused on Iran’s strict dress requirements for women, before expanding to include calls for greater civil liberties, eventually leading to a concerted demand for the regime’s outright removal of mullahs.

Sanam Vakil, deputy director of Chatham House and senior fellow for the institute’s Middle East and North Africa programme, told Arab News that the latest protests are the “biggest” the regime has faced.

“Despite government repression, the persistence of protests and the myriad of groups expressing grievances – women, students, labor organizations, ethnic groups, youth groups – reveals the extent of discontent in Iran,” Vakil said.

“We haven’t seen these groups merge simultaneously yet, so that decentralized approach is also a distinguishing quality.”

Vakil and Mather see the decentralized approach as a “blessing and a curse” and fear that the lack of a central authority figure will prove even more problematic as the unrest continues.


Iranian demonstrators gather around a burning motorbike during a protest against rising gasoline prices in the central city of Isfahan on November 16, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)

“Lack of coordination and organization can become a serious problem as protests escalate and repression increases,” Mather said. “The lack of an alternative (to the government) is a problem (and) I don’t believe in the idea of ​​a progressive leadership emerging spontaneously from the ranks of the protesters. This has not happened so far.

The advantage of having a figurehead at the head of a movement is that they can provide clear articulation of their goals on behalf of the population at large. By contrast, the current protests look less like a revolution than a wave of public anger, which will eventually die down.

Dania Koleilat Khatib, co-founder of the Center for Cooperation and Peacebuilding Research, said figureheads can strengthen social movements in several important ways.

“They can take you beyond anger,” Khatib told Arab News. However, there is a tendency to “forget that these things take time”, adding that successful anti-government moves usually take “at least two years”.

Agreeing that identifying a leader “takes time”, Vakil said the process has been further disrupted by the Iranian regime’s “efficiency” in imprisoning, exiling and silencing any potential figureheads.

In some ways, the absence of a clearly identified leader can be a strength. In Mather’s view, the decentralized approach makes it much more difficult to limit protests by “reformist” leaders from within the system who may simply want to replace serving officials and relax some unpopular social rules, but ultimately have intent to leave most of the regime and its policies intact.

Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow at Chatham House and former head of its Middle East and North Africa program, believes adopting a figurehead would be detrimental to the movement.


Iranian demonstrators shout slogans during an August 2009 demonstration against the swearing in of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran. (AFP/file photo)

“I categorically think a figurehead would be a huge mistake that would strengthen the regime,” Shehadi told Arab News. “It would be very easy to shoot anyone, and that makes the regime stronger.

“I said the same thing in 2011 in several meetings with the international community when they were busy trying to form a credible Syrian opposition. It is up to the opposition to prove its viability, strength, legitimacy and leadership.

“A diffuse and widespread opposition that delegitimizes its power is what will weaken the Iranian regime. It’s about keeping the focus on their inability to govern. Put an individual against them and they lose, and the regime will laugh.

Arash Azizi, a New York University historian and author of “The shadow commander: Soleimani, the US and Iran’s global ambitions,” agrees there is no need for a figurehead, but believes that ” organization and leadership” are needed to deal with the “supercentralized” nature of a regime backed by strong security forces and around 15% of the population.

“The movement needs an organization with connecting points of contact,” Azizi told Arab News. “It can emerge from inside Iran, however difficult that may be, but it can also emerge from outside if Iranian leaders abroad can end their bickering and unite.

“These people have excellent internal access to Iran. A united opposition could be on TV every night, but it has yet to seize the opportunity. Hopefully after six weeks they can see that as the problem.

Chatham House’s Shehadi said the lifespan of the protests was somewhat “intangible”, and as much in the hands of the regime as the protesters, noting that Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak lasted 11 days of protests before stepping down, that Libyan Muammar Gaddafi was killed, and Bashar Assad responded by “burning the country down” and remains in office to this day.


This UGC image posted to Twitter, apparently on October 26, 2022, shows an undisclosed woman standing on top of a vehicle as thousands of people march towards Aichi Cemetery in Saqez, the hometown of Mahsa Amini in the western Iranian province of Kurdistan. (AFP)

Khatib of the Center for Peacebuilding and Cooperation Research is more circumspect about Assad’s approach, arguing that he is “living on borrowed time”, but said the ability of Iranian protesters to tolerate increasing levels of brutality will be significant.

Shehadi agrees, saying protesters will have to be able to “bear very many deaths” and that the regime’s only limit to violence stems from the will of the international community to allow that to happen. “And we have seen with Syria that the international community can be very tolerant,” he said.

“It really all depends on the stamina of the protesters,” Khatib said. “I don’t see them holding out because this regime has shown itself to be very willing to be incredibly brutal and if it can unite its various factions, I think the protests will fold, but then the regime will be living on borrowed time.”

Despite differences over how protesters might achieve change, all analysts Arab News spoke to agreed that there appear to be cracks in the regime, with Khatib pointing to differences between the Security Guard Corps Islamic Revolution and the Supreme National Security Council.

“I think we are likely to see a struggle between these centers of power, especially with the impending succession of (Ayatollah) Khamenei, who pushed his son Mojtaba to replace him, even though he is deeply hated,” Khatib said.

For Azizi, although it is only speculation that Khamenei is behind the push, there are indications that Mojtaba had built up support within the IRGC. “But once Khamenei is gone, maybe the IRGC won’t need his son anymore,” he added.

Azizi, Mather and Vakil also agree there are divisions within the establishment over how to handle the protests, with hardliners viewing compromise as a weakness determined to double down on the heavy-handed approach. , even if it means destroying the country.

“Pragmatic reformists like (Ali) Larijani see compromise on social issues as a way to restore the government’s lost legitimacy,” Vakil added. “But without consensus on how to handle these issues, political stagnation will follow and protests will prevail.”