The unrest following Mahsa Amini’s death transcends gender, class and ethnicity. But is the movement strong enough to overthrow the government?
In September, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was arrested by Iran's "morality police" for not wearing a proper hijab and died in police custody, sparking a wave of protests against the compulsory hijab and the regime itself. Since then, people across Iran have been protesting for regime change, and rights groups estimate that nearly 450 people have been killed by security forces. But do these protesters pose a serious challenge to the regime? Do they have the capacity to overthrow it?
The answer is complicated. In the short term, the unrest has made the Iranian government more repressive, with hundreds of people arrested and dozens killed by security forces in a crackdown on dissent. But this has galvanised public opinion against the regime and sparked widespread international condemnation. It could lead to increased economic pressure, ultimately weakening the regime.
In the long term, much will depend on how the protests evolve. If protesters are able to maintain momentum and organise effectively, they could grow into a larger movement that threatens the regime’s stability. There is also fear of protesters turning into organised armed opposition, similar to what happened in Syria, which could put not just the regime but also the country itself at risk.
The turban tossers
One of the most striking features of this women-led protest movement is its call for regime change, instead of reform. People have burnt flags, pictures of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and posters belonging to political parties. The protesters have denounced the entire clerical establishment, calling for an end to the absolute power of the Supreme Leader.
Videos published on social media show protesters tossing the turbans of clerics in the street. Called “amameh parani", these protests have gone viral because that garment worn by clerics is an iconic symbol of the Shia clerical establishment. This level of defiance and disrespect of the regime’s symbols is widely considered an unprecedented threat to the regime and has caused alarm in the government.
"The protesters want to abandon Iran’s theocracy rather than reform it," Kali Robinson wrote for the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, "and the women-focused demonstrations chip away at the regime’s legitimacy."
"Chants of ‘woman, life, freedom’ and calls to end mandatory hijab-wearing challenge the Islamist ideology that Iran’s government is based on. These protests have unusually widespread support, unbound by class, ethnicity, or gender," she added.
The Generation Z factor
Another critical factor that makes this protest movement so powerful is its youthfulness – many of those participating are part of Generation Z (people born between 1997-2010). This generation has grown up with access to technology, social media platforms, and other information sources that were previously unavailable to them.
In Iran, Gen Z comprises only 7% of the population (nearly 6 million people). "Yet they have undisputedly been among the foremost leaders of the current protests," wrote Maysam Bizaer for the Washington, DC-based Middle East Institute. "In general, Iranian Zoomers have the reputation of being indifferent to politics, religion, customs, and traditions, like many others their age around the world. Unlike previous generations in Iran, they tend not to worry about being judged and will openly speak about their interests or dislikes, even if it loudly crosses the ruling system’s traditional red lines."
Many of these young people have been raised in an environment of economic insecurity, government corruption and repression, high unemployment rates, environmental problems and political instability. This has led to a deep disillusionment with the regime, which is now being manifested in their collective demand for freedom and rights instead of the previous generations’ quiet resignation.
Law and order on the line
Though there have been reports of some members of security forces joining or sympathising with protesters, it's unclear how widespread such sentiment is throughout the military and security apparatus. According to a recent Iran International report that cited leaked documents from the official Fars news agency, "at least 115 military personnel" have been arrested for their alleged participation in the protests. It's not clear if those arrested include members of the police or the Revolutionary Guard or any active-duty officers.
The regime has also sought to quash the protests by unleashing its security forces, arresting thousands of people, and blocking access to social media networks like Telegram and Instagram, which have been used to disseminate information about the protests. While some protesters have resorted to violence as a form of resistance, this is still far from being a widespread phenomenon. Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, recently told Newsweek that at least 70 uniformed personnel had been killed in the protests so far.
The Kurdish angle
Kurds, who make up approximately 10% of Iran’s population, have been largely supportive. Rallies backing the protesters have taken place in various Kurdish cities such as Marivan, Sanandaj and Saqqez, where Amini is from. In addition to their chants of “Down with Khamenei” and “Death to the dictator”, Kurdish protesters have also demanded an end to discrimination against their ethnic group.
The Kurds include armed factions that have long engaged in sporadic uprisings against the regime and are thought to be Iran's most organised opposition force. Those militant groups, including Komala, the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI), and the Party of Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), have so far appeared to be on the sidelines of the protests, but could potentially become more involved in the future. PJAK is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Turkish-Kurdish rebel group designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Fearing the role the Kurds could play, the Iranian regime has sought to repress Kurdish protesters with even greater intensity than elsewhere in Iran. Last month, Reuters reported that Iran had deployed more troops to the Kurdish regions as part of a wider crackdown on the protesters. The government has also been engaged in drone and missile strikes against the KDPI bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, killing several of its fighters.
An unpredictable situation
The extent of support for the protesters among Iran's security forces, and the involvement of Kurdish militant groups, are two factors that will shape the future trajectory of the protests and their ultimate impact on the regime. It remains to be seen how much support these groups can muster in their efforts to challenge the ruling system, but it is clear that they pose a serious challenge to the regime's stability.
As long as protests continue and show no signs of abating, it could be difficult for the Iranian government to entirely quash them. The longer the demonstrations persist, the more likely it is that foreign powers may be drawn into the fray in order to protect their interests or even undermine the Iranian government.
With its very survival at stake, it remains to be seen how much further the regime will go in its attempt to quell the protests and cling to power. But if Syria, an Iran ally, is any guide, the situation could quickly become even more chaotic and unpredictable because the regime is unlikely to back down easily. It could take a long time before the full extent of the challenge Iranian protesters pose to the government is clear. However, it is already apparent that they are a serious force to be reckoned with.
Written by: Olivium staff
Middle East Monitor: Protesters burn images of Iran supreme leader, ex-IRGC head
Iran International: Over 100 military personnel arrested during Iran protests