From afar, renewed unrest in Iran is raising new hopes that a stale regime is about to collapse any day now.
But locally, 43 years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, that day is still a long way off.
Externally, the trigger for mass protests in Iran’s major cities this month was the re-enforcement of the hijab rule, which forces women to wear the Islamic head covering. The senseless arrest and fatal beating of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini by government morality guards for showing too much hair has shaken the country.
In Iran there is more than mere theocracy, autocracy. As I have learned from previous trips to the country, the clerical rule of one ayatollah after another is only the outer layer, but the security regime permeates all levels.
It’s unlikely to loosen its grip any time soon. Instead, the supposedly godly Iranian regime is lending a helping hand to an irreligious Russian leadership, sending planeloads of their fearsome drones to further the imperial conquest of Ukraine.
The West focuses on the hijab as the ultimate symbol of the regime’s religious zeal. And she sees Iran’s nuclear ambitions as its biggest focus, alongside exports of terrorism and weapons.
But in Iran, it’s not so much the hijab’s religious undertones that are reviled as oppression — and a throwback to another era. The vast majority of Iranians were not even born in 1979, when the ayatollahs hijacked a popular pro-democracy movement and imposed a religious veil on one of the Middle East’s most dynamic countries.
The world has not stood still in the past four decades, but Iran stands still in time. In the internet age, in an era of TikTok and Telegram apps connecting Iranians across the country and around the world, young people feel encouraged to confront the security forces.
When I visited the religious sites of Qom and Mashhad, they were calm and obedient. Today these religious bastions are teeming with women – many of whom wear the hijab – demanding free choice.
But generations of democracy and anti-corruption activists have stood up to the regime only to be repressed. Today’s protests follow the gas price riots of 2019, the economic rebellion of 2017 and the revolt against voter fraud in 2009.
Each of those moments had momentum, fueled by online communications, but each eventually faded as the government severed their connectivity. While Iran’s ayatollahs willingly shut down social platforms, their pulpits in mosques are always available – an uninterrupted channel of communication and indoctrination, today as in the pre-internet era.
More than mullahs, the Islamic Republic of Iran is ruled by rival centers of power that denigrate one another but quickly regroup and reunite when threatened. This means that those seeking external coexistence or internal reforms never quite know who they are dealing with.
It is difficult to strive for change in a country that is so amorphous and changeable.
A constellation of forces, opaque and Orwellian, reinforces the regime’s rigidity by keeping everyone in check: under the Supreme Leader sits the Guardian Council (which reviews presidential candidates and vetoes laws), the Assembly of Experts (which elects the Supreme Leader) , the Expediency Council (which oversees everything), plus a majlis (legislature) dominated by hardliners.
The entire structure is funded and greased by multi-billion dollar religious foundations that own large sectors of the economy whose cash flows are controlled by the Supreme Leader. He also reports to the security services, led by the Revolutionary Guards, which trump the regular armed forces while exporting terror abroad.
Paramilitary forces terrorize inside Iran’s borders, notably the Basij resistance force, notorious for beating students on university campuses, while armed security forces speed through the streets on motorcycles. Day and night, it’s the thugs of the Gasht-e Ershad, which translates to Islamic “lead patrols,” who enforce morale through mandatory dress codes.
Iran’s rulers have signaled they will not back down now, as they are overinvested in both the economic machine and the security superstructure that underpins the Islamic Republic. The current hard-line president, Ebrahim Raisi, came to power when his main rivals were barred from a sham election by the compliant Council of Guardians.
Raisi, newly empowered, proclaimed this summer that the dress code should be enforced “fully” to protect Iran’s “religious foundations and values”. Now, after repression and rebellion, he has threatened a “decisive strike against those who disturb security and peace in the country”.
On my first trips to Iran two decades ago, a reformist cleric, Mohammad Khatami, was unexpectedly elected president – surprising vets and wardens. He sought to rebuild the system from within, much like the late Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to restructure the old Soviet Union.
Then as now, Iran was controlled by a constellation of entrenched interests that report only to the Supreme Leader. All these years later, at the age of 83, Khamenei is ailing, his lifelong mandate slowly ebbing.
The resulting power struggle could eventually unleash uncontrolled tensions that destabilize the security fabric. Until then, a ruthless Islamic revolution will resist reform, whatever the aspirations of the Iranians.
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