At a rally supporting Iranian protesters in London, January 2023 Dylan Martinez / Reuters

Iran’s Transformational Season of Protest

By Ali Vaez

Foreign Affairs

For most Iranian Americans, the past four months have been unspeakably harrowing.  Since the tragic death of Mahsa Amini at the brutal hands of Tehran’s “morality police” in September, we have watched thousands of videos of young protesters, armed with nothing but their bravery, standing up to a regime bereft of mercy. We have shuddered in horror at the killing of nearly 500 people—including more than 60 children—with live ammunition, the blinding of hundreds of protesters with rubber bullets and metal pellets, and the execution of four protesters after tortured confessions and sham trials. We have cried as so many loving young men and women have had their lives cut short to prolong an oppressive gerontocracy. We have been awed by the grit of schoolgirls who are burning their mandatory headscarves, and we have had our hearts broken as we watched these girls sob on their loved ones’ graves. We fear the worst for the thousands who have been arrested, and we have been relieved about the ones who have been freed. And, given that all of the past protest movements against the so-called Islamic Republic have ended in grief, we dread that this could become another turning point in Iranian history where history fails to turn.

The uprising has lost some momentum in the past few weeks. The protests have been scattered and relatively shallow. But the regime remains too resolved to cling to power, too fearsome, and too totalizing in its control over the airwaves and cyberspace. The protests fell short, for now, of a revolution in the streets.

But they nonetheless constitute the most widespread and sustained challenge to the Islamic Republic in decades. More than 160 cities were rocked by demonstrations that transcended social, ethnic, and sectarian fault lines, all in pursuit of a single objective: toppling the existing political order. And a revolution has already happened in the minds of the Iranian people. Iranians now share a broad-based consensus that something in the regime is broken and cannot be mended. Gone are any illusions of reforms, fantasies of redeemers, hopes for economic miracles, and patience for better days. What was once an anguished whim or a distant wish, which had turned into ravaging despair, has now turned into an irrevocable demand for fundamental political change and freedom.

The Islamic Republic is now where the Soviet Union was in the early 1980s. The system is ideologically bankrupt, at a political dead end, and incapable of addressing its structural economic and societal troubles. It still has the will to fight, as evidenced by its brutal response to the uprisings. But no amount of force will end the standoff with its people, which is primarily the result of the regime’s failures across the board. There is little left of the promises made during the 1979 revolution to build a shining, pious city on a hill. In practice, the regime has created a militarized republic of fear in which mediocrity is glorified and mendacity institutionalized. The Islamic Republic’s architects vowed there would be egalitarian prosperity for all, but instead, they delivered affluence for a few and ruined what was once a booming economy. They promised paradise on earth and then dried out the land and polluted the air, imperiling a civilization that has survived for 7,000 years.

The Islamic Republic is now a hollow misnomer. It is a theocracy that has inadvertently secularized the population. It is a republic that has demolished the participatory base it once used to legitimize its rule. By gradually tightening his circle of insiders, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has sidelined an increasing number of the original revolutionaries and other politicians who sought to put the system on a better path. Khamenei elevated sycophants over skilled experts and loyalists over loyal critics, prompting a crisis of competence that has brought the country to the brink of socioeconomic and environmental disaster. There is no one left with political heft, acumen, or gravitas to deliver hard truths to Khamenei, who will soon turn 84.

The regime’s primary failure is to understand and evolve with its own society, which has grown in size and sophistication. In 1976, Iran was home to 34 million people, more than half of whom lived in rural areas. In 2016, the country had a population of 80 million, with 75 percent living in cities. In 1976, one in every 230,000 Iranians were university students; in 2016, that ratio was one in 20. Today, more than half of university graduates are women, but their unemployment rate is twice that of men. This more urbanized and educated population is facing dire living conditions as a result of calamitous mismanagement, rampant corruption, and stifling sanctions. One in every five Iranians now lives under the poverty line. Economic growth in the past decade has been the worst the country has experienced since the 1950s. The Iranian Parliament’s research center has projected that even if Iran’s economy were to grow at a rate of eight percent—which is nearly impossible to fathom—it would take until 2026 for it t0 return to where it was in 2011. Not surprisingly, hopelessness has become endemic.

Government surveys show that 83 percent of Iranians are dissatisfied about their quality of life. But rather than liberalize the economy (as China did in past decades) or widen social freedoms (as Saudi Arabia has done recently) to distract from political repression and economic malaise, the Islamic Republic’s custodians continually stymied reforms and stonewalled opportunities to revive the nuclear deal, which would have ushered in sanctions relief. They closed Iran’s political space, including to the country’s more pragmatic forces, eliminating any channel through which people could air pent-up grievances and affect policy. The regime then doubled down on harassing half of the population by enforcing a policy that was already a lost cause: the mandatory hijab, which constituted one of the pillars of the Islamic Republic’s identity.

The hijab crackdown came after several years of de facto liberalization under the administration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who governed from 2013 to 2021. Polling data showed that in 2018, 70 percent of women were wearing the hijab “improperly.” Losing this newly tasted liberty under current president Ebrahim Raisi was thus especially painful. Iranian people were clearly provoked when, last summer, images circulated of a desperate mother blocking a Guidance Patrol van and begging the country’s police not to take her sick daughter, who allegedly disregarded the Islamic dress code, to a “reeducation center.” They were again angered when they saw a coerced televised confession of a visibly tortured 28-year-old artist accused of immodest clothing. When Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, died in the custody of the Guidance Patrol on September 16, it unleashed an avalanche of fury.

Iranian women’s struggle for emancipation is not of recent vintage. From Tahirih, a poet who unveiled herself in an assembly of men in 1848, through the resistance against compulsory unveiling during Reza Shah Pahlavi’s reign in the 1930s up to the protests today, the struggle has survived the test of time.

So has broader opposition to theocratic policies. The current regime’s failure to Islamize Iranian society in its own likeness burst into the open on a night in November 1997, less than two decades after the revolution. On that cold evening, Iran claimed the final spot in the following summer’s World Cup after a tense match against Australia. A tidal wave of celebration swept across the country. People drove around honking their horns and blasting loud Persian pop music produced in Los Angeles. Women dropped their scarves and danced with men in the public arena.

At the time, I was a 17-year-old high school student living a double life—conforming to Iran’s religious strictures outdoors while existing by liberal standards indoors. A common witticism was that, prior to the revolution, people prayed inside and partied outside, while after the revolution, they prayed outside and partied inside. But on that night, such piety fell by the wayside. Suddenly, a country that was still emerging from the ravages of war with Iraq, in which there was little color and no air, was blooming with life and energy. A clear, palpable desire for secularism and normalcy coursed through the country, overtaking whatever remained of Islamic and revolutionary zeal. 

The political manifestation of those demands was the upset victory of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who came to power with an overwhelming mandate for sociopolitical reforms earlier in 1997. In my first time voting, I cast my vote for him, and I hoped for a new dawn through evolutionary, not revolutionary, change. But Khamenei and the unelected institutions under his supervision, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), moved aggressively to sabotage and obstruct his agenda. When, in 1999, the regime muzzled the press that Khatami had cautiously freed, it sparked a Tiananmen Square moment for Iran. Along with thousands of other university students, I took to the streets to protest the Islamic Republic’s oppression. But security forces and right-wing vigilantes violently crushed our movement. They raided our dorms and beat the demonstrators. A few students were even thrown off the roof.

When I lost my father to cancer in 2018, I could not go back to Iran.
After graduating, I faced a difficult decision: whether I should stay or leave. Iran was my home and the only country I knew. But it was a country that did not allow for political participation, could not meet my professional aspirations, and incessantly harassed me for my beliefs and lifestyle. Ultimately, I left and moved to Switzerland in 2002 for my graduate studies. Hundreds of thousands of university graduates emigrate from Iran every year, making that same decision. According to a recent survey, 71 percent of the country’s university students have grim views on Iran’s future, and 85 percent want to move abroad. During the recent protests, someone wrote on a wall: “we have nothing to lose, other than our shackles,” capturing this bleak perspective.

Iranians continued to struggle, of course, after my departure. In 2006, Iranian women worked to collect one million signatures for a petition that demanded the country repeal various discriminatory laws. The regime—brooking not even the most civil form of protest—prosecuted the movement’s activists and leaders, eventually destroying it. A few years later, the unelected Guardian Council, which supervises elections, rigged the 2009 presidential contest to ensure ultraconservative Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reelected, resulting in eight months of widespread demonstrations. In these protests’ early days, three million people silently marched on the streets of Tehran. But the regime once again brought down its iron fist, and what became known as the Green Movement eventually faltered. Its leaders were put under house arrest, where they remain today.

I also took to the streets in 2009, but in Boston, where I was completing a postdoctoral fellowship. I wanted the Obama administration to abandon negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program and increase the pressure on Iran. I was also becoming newly attentive to U.S. politics, and I watched as Israel and the United States mulled attacking Iran to curb its rapidly expanding nuclear program. I worried that such an action would kick-start a deadly and devastating war that would allow the regime’s most hard-line elements to change the subject away from domestic issues and consolidate power as they did during Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980. I shifted from an academic career in science to working in the field of Iran policy, where I hoped I could help my host country avoid the mistakes it committed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

My career shift came in parallel with a shift in Iran’s calculus. Khamenei, spooked by the Arab Spring in 2011, sought to rehabilitate the political system’s ailing legitimacy by allowing a competitive presidential election (by the Islamic Republic’s standards) in 2013. The contest was won by Rouhani, a loyal insider but also a relative moderate who was critical of Ahmadinejad’s radical ways. In 2015, he signed a nuclear deal with China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, helping ease the sanctions that had afflicted Iran’s economy. But under Rouhani, as under Khatami years before, unelected institutions blocked any further hopes for better ties with the West or for socioeconomic reforms. The IRGC’s cooperation with Russia in Syria to preserve the Assad regime, the arrest of U.S. sailors whose boats had drifted into Iran’s territorial waters, and provocative ballistic missile tests dampened the mood. Rouhani could neither deliver on his promise of releasing the Green Movement’s leaders nor tax conglomerates affiliated with the IRGC or the supreme leader’s office.

That year, I visited Iran to discuss nuclear and regional diplomacy with Iranian officials and experts in my capacity as the representative of an international conflict prevention organization. My close friend Siamak Namazi also traveled to Iran to visit his family. I returned to the United States after a week, but Namazi did not. While in Tehran, he was arrested on bogus charges of conspiring to overthrow the government and sent to Iran’s notorious Evin prison. He has been there ever since, making him Iran’s longest-held American detainee. His arrest was a warning shot to me and anyone else who hoped that the nuclear deal would be the floor, not the ceiling, of the Islamic Republic’s willingness to make peace with the outside world.

My home country’s door was therefore shut to me. When I lost my father to cancer three years later, I could not go back. The regime’s cancerous paranoia about dual nationals deprived me, like many others, of seeing a parent before his death, being with family in dark times, and attending a loved one’s funeral. 

The election of Donald Trump to the White House ushered in a newly hostile era of Iranian-U.S. relations—and a more difficult time for the Iranian people. Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018, reimposed sanctions on Iran, and brought the two countries to the verge of conflict as he sought to present the regime with a binary choice: either make sweeping concessions to the United States on foreign and domestic policies or face economic implosion. His administration’s approach, more vendetta than strategy, employed indiscriminate coercive tools to achieve unrealistic strategic ends. It impoverished Iranians while discrediting the more pragmatic forces within the country’s government, in turn empowering and entrenching the hard-liners.

Benefiting from U.S. mistakes, Khamenei tried once again to monopolize power. He seemed to conclude that Ahmadinejad’s failure, which led to economic ruin and Iran’s isolation, was due not to a defective concept but to a flawed character. In the 2021 elections, instead of a self-made demagogue who owed little to the man at the helm, he chose a tested apparatchik who owed everything to him: Raisi. And unlike 2009, in 2021, the Guardian Council rigged the elections before the polls, barring all serious challengers to Raisi to make sure Khamenei’s chosen candidate was assured of victory. It was the last nail in the coffin for the institution of Iranian elections.

In the background, Iranian society was still fighting for its fundamental rights. In 2017, the 32-year-old activist Vida Movahed stood bareheaded on a utility box on Tehran’s Enghelab Street, silently waving her white headscarf. She was imprisoned, but thousands of women followed suit, posting their photos on social media in what became the Girls of Enghelab protests. In 2019, Iranians protested in reaction to an overnight spike in gas prices. According to Amnesty International, the regime killed more than 300 protesters in three days; some estimates go far higher. The brutality was shocking to Iranians, but instead of terrorizing people into submission, the state’s response catalyzed more fury. 

The Iranian regime has experienced no significant defections.
Then came a moment of moral convulsion: the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 by the Revolutionary Guards on January 8, 2020, which killed all 176—mostly Iranian—passengers and crew. The government initially blamed the crash on a technical issue with the plane. The price of this lie was more lies. It was only after three days and intense international scrutiny that the IRGC shifted to blaming “human error,” announcing that they mistakenly took the flight for an incoming U.S. cruise missile aimed at the supreme leader’s office in retaliation for Iran’s ballistic missiles attack on U.S. bases in Iraq, itself a retaliatory act for the U.S. killing of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad a few days earlier. The incident and attempted cover up irredeemably deepened society’s mistrust toward the state. To this day, the regime has failed to bring those responsible to justice. Once again, protests broke out; once again, the regime put them down.

But this kind of victory does not make a victor. With its electoral legitimacy in ruins, public trust in Iran’s institutions plummeted as moral indignation grew. And yet the Islamic Republic continued to undermine itself. Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, the daughter of one of the regime’s key founding fathers, claimed that the shah’s repression paled in comparison with what the Islamic Republic has done so far. (She was arrested in September.) A regime that glorified its defense of the country against an “imposed war,” when former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in an act of aggression, claimed that NATO would have eventually attacked Russia if Russian President Vladimir Russia had not preemptively attacked Ukraine—going further than Putin himself. A country that was the victim of Iraq’s chemical weapons looked the other way when its Syrian ally did the same against its own people. The Islamic Republic’s characterization of regional foes as “child-killing regimes” now rings hollow given the number of children that have fallen victim to its heavy-handedness.

By stubbornly refusing to listen to its own people, by believing its own propaganda, and by not allowing any pathway for change other than protest, the Islamic Republic brought itself to a point of social upheaval. It shows, however, no sign of splintering at the top. The regime has experienced no significant defections. Unlike the shah’s government, the Islamic Republic’s elite do not have villas in the Côte d’Azur, the Swiss Alps, or southern California where they can flee. There is also no one promising them a way out or amnesty in a post-Islamic Republic era. It is easier for the regime to simply double down on claims that the protests are a massive foreign-orchestrated plot than to hold up a mirror to itself.

On the other hand, there are the people of Iran. They can be divided into four different groups.

At the forefront are the revolutionaries. Mostly in their teens and early 20s, this is a generation that has thrown caution to the wind and its headscarves to the flames. Even though they appear to be a minority, they seem unwilling to yield. They are not as risk-averse as my generation, whose parents remembered the revolution and knew radical change often ends in grief. In fact, they seem determined to be cleansed of their fathers’ and grandfathers’ failure to confront the regime, which deprived them of their future.

Bred in the crucible of despair, this generation now seeks to reclaim their world from zealots they see as enemies. The demonstrators’ mantra—“our enemy is right here; they lie when they say it is the United States”—captures this sentiment. They have displayed a remarkable degree of creativity in their protests, creating a movement that is leaderless, spontaneous, amorphous, and atomized, which has made crushing it akin to a game of Whac-A-Mole for the regime’s forces.

In the second group are the people who empathize with the young revolutionaries but have yet to fully mobilize. It is comprised mostly of the middle class, which is increasingly middle-aged and, as a result, harbors deep reservations about radical change in the absence of a viable alternative. It frets over the possible consequences of fighting the regime in the streets, in part because it has little cushion left after years of sanctions and mismanagement and can therefore ill afford a prolonged and costly confrontation with the state. This is, for the most part, a generation that, in the French novelist Victor Hugo’s words, “asks nothing but repose; it thirsts for but one thing, peace. . . . Of great events, great hazards, great adventures, great men . . . we have seen enough.”

The United States cannot afford to ignore Tehran’s nuclear program.
This group has created a mathematical dilemma for the movement. If the protests do not reach a critical mass and develop a positive vision for the future, the silent majority is unlikely to join. Reaching that threshold, however, will not be possible unless they join. In the near future, another trigger could alter the calculus, bringing this generation out to the streets. But that point has not yet been reached.

In the third group are the regime’s constituents, who have either ideological or financial vested interest in the status quo. Although these true believers and beneficiaries have shrunk to an absolute minority, unlike the monarchists who were unwilling to come to the streets to fight the Islamist Jacobins in 1978 and 1979, these elites are willing to resort to violence to defend their way of life and the system that embodies it, increasing the risk of infighting among different strata of society.

Finally, there are the diaspora Iranians. They have come together in ways not seen in the past four decades to support compatriots inside their tormented homeland. They have shed a bright light on horrors committed against the Iranian people and have garnered international backing for the protesters’ cause. Yet for some of the loudest voices among them, this is a fight to topple the regime, regardless of the cost. In a visceral environment, they turn against anyone who would dare harbor views that differ in the slightest from theirs on how Iran should transition to democracy while containing the Islamic Republic’s greatest threats to international peace and security. Their failure to  be the Iran they want to see—and to adopt a big-tent approach in the fight against the Islamic Republic—has led to fragmentation among the Iranian opposition.

A movement whose core mantra could not be more pluralist and progressive (“Women! Life! Freedom!”) is being instrumentalized by some in the diaspora who are advancing a vengeful campaign against other expats they wrongly accuse of being regime collaborators. Cyber-vigilantes abusively troll pundits and policymakers as the exiles turn on one another to settle scores and jockey for the messiah’s mantle. I recognize that they might smear and slander me for this article, too, but this group’s intolerance and penchant for undemocratic means mimics the authoritarianism that has long plagued Iran. It also risks helping this culture of tyranny outlive the Islamic Republic.

It is unclear how much support exists within the country for the objectives the diaspora is pursuing. Iranian protesters, for example, do not appear to be demanding that Western states stop nuclear talks with Iran or that they expel Iranian diplomats. Conversely, the protesters’ demand for a referendum on Iran’s political order is not reflected externally.

Many Iranian exiles want the United States to do more, replicating what the West did in the early 1990s to midwife democracy in South Africa. They do not consider that the apartheid regime relied on, rather than defied, the West, or that today’s Iran has no Nelson Mandela or, just as important, a Frederik Willem de Klerk. Nor do they consider that revolutionary change in Iran in 1979, Tunisia in 2011, and Egypt in 2011 did not result from U.S. sanctions or imposed isolation. Conversely, Washington’s expressed desire to get rid of leaders in Syria in 2011 and in Venezuela in 2019 did not succeed. The United States’ attempt to manufacture a new order in Iraq was arguably an abject disaster.

The uncomfortable truth is that the Iranian people’s cause for their emancipation stands or falls on its own. Foreigners are mostly bystanders.

That is not to say there is nothing the United States can do to help, and the Biden administration has taken important actions. It has consistently expressed solidarity with Iranian protesters at the highest levels, shed light on their plight in international forums, and isolated Iran globally. Washington has used sanctions both to punish the regime and to help ordinary Iranians: tightening restrictions against human rights violators and relaxing them to facilitate the Iranian people’s access to information amid the government’s efforts to cut its people off. The Biden administration has sought to strike a delicate balance. It did not stand aside as the Obama administration did in 2009, but it also did not jump in the middle of the fray as the Trump administration did in 2019 with its thinly veiled pursuit of regime change.

The United States also has other considerations in Iran. It cannot afford to ignore Tehran’s nuclear program, which is now closer than ever to creating nuclear weapons, or the fate of the three U.S. citizens who remain Iranian hostages. Yet if Washington deals with the custodians of the Islamic Republic, critics at home and abroad will admonish the United States for rescuing a regime seen to be on the ropes. At the same time, not engaging in diplomacy might push Iran to cross the Rubicon and develop a nuclear weapon as the ultimate deterrent against perceived threats to the regime, which will serve neither global peace nor the cause of democracy in Iran. A U.S. or Israeli military intervention to stop Iran’s dash toward nuclear weapons could also make the regime more determined to acquire them, further securitize and militarize Iran’s domestic space, and destabilize the region as a wounded government strikes back—hoping for a rally-around-the-flag effect to staunch the loss of legitimacy it has brought on itself. It is hard to see how the nuclear crisis coming to a head will help transition Iran into a democracy.

Predicting what comes next is a fool’s errand. The regime has tried everything to stop the demonstrations. It has waited in the hope that the movement will fizzle out, and it has carried out violent clampdowns to prevent mass gatherings. It has tried to radicalize the peripheral provinces—where Iran’s mistreated minorities largely reside—to deepen fears of civil strife. It has attempted to divide and conquer the movement through dialogue with some reformist figures and by fueling infighting among the exiled opposition. It has executed, or as the UN has characterized it, engaged in the “state-sanctioned killing of” protesters to instill fear. But all of these efforts, at best, buy the regime time until the next inevitable confrontation between the state and society.

The Iranian people have changed over the past 44 years. But the Islamic Republic has not kept up. It is incapable of admitting its mistakes and rectifying itself because it fears that conceding under pressure will only invite more pressure—both bottom-up and from the outside. For its part, the exiled opposition admits that the struggle against the regime is likely to be a marathon, not a sprint. This opposition seeks a campaign of ultimate pressure and isolation in the hope of accelerating the regime’s demise. What all this pressure on the Iranian people—from above, by the regime, and from outside—will do to the fabric of the country’s society seems to be an afterthought to either side. There are also no obvious off-ramps from Iran’s deteriorating relations with the West, as both sides continue to climb the escalatory ladder: Iran by ratcheting up its nuclear program and assisting Russia in its war of aggression against Ukraine, and the West by tightening sanctions.

I now fear that my dream of a more pluralistic, prosperous, and free Iran moves further away with every new hanging at the gallows, new sanction, and the growing politics of hatred. I hope against all hope that this moment neither ends in horror nor becomes an unending horror. But there is one thing I am certain of: nothing will ever be the same.

ALI VAEZ is Director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group and an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.