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What in the World?

Iranian protests likely won’t succeed in overthrowing mullahs

Sep 30, 2022


The death of Mahsa Amini, 22, from the Iranian Kurdish town of Sagez, has sparked massive protests in several Iranian cities, where activists cite 83 killed over the last two weeks. Amini died in a hospital three days after being detained by “morality police” for not wearing a hijab. Family members claim she was tortured in a van after her arrest and at the police station. Straight Arrow News contributor Peter Zeihan puts the protests in context and argues that despite their magnitude, they will likely not challenge Iran’s ruling regime.

Excerpted from Peter’s Sept. 30 “Zeihan on Geopolitics” newsletter:

Iran is in the midst of one of the most serious rounds of public unrest since November 2019, when a hike in fuel prices sent potentially hundreds of thousands of Iranians out into the streets. Dozens of structures were burned during those protests, statues of regime figures pulled down, and plenty of calls for death of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the Islamic regime itself. Outside observers estimate over a thousand Iranian citizens were killed, and over ten thousand were arrested. Current protests are being met with the same harsh response by regime security forces, even if we have not yet reached the scale of brutality seen in 2019. In January of 2020, Iranian military forces shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, setting off another wave of intense national protests. Iran has had a series of significant protests movements since then, sparked by everything from the country’s abysmal handling of the COVID-19 epidemic, to runaway inflation, drought and lack of water in places like Khuzestan, etc. 

The most recent protests were sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman who was arrested because of improper adherence to hijab laws while visiting Tehran with her brother. While details out of the Iranian regime are sparse, activists say that head injuries sustained at the hands of Iran’s morality police lead to her death in custody. Another round of national protests has erupted since her death on Sept. 16, though what had initially started as a women’s rights protests against hijab rules has quickly escalated to encompass the broad swathe of frustrations and discontent of many Iranian citizens, especially the youth.

I don’t think there is anywhere in the world where protests are watched with as much bated breath as Iran. In part due to history (mass social unrest lead to the collapse of the Shah’s regime in 1979), in part due to international intrigue (since the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has had few feuds that have lasted as long as the one with Iran), and in part due to Iran’s own behavior (Iran is an aggressor state against most of its neighbors and has links to militant groups around the Middle East and world).

And so the gruesome death of a young Kurdish woman, and the subsequent protests around it, have captivated a rapt audience. It would be an almost too delicious irony if the death of a young Kurdish woman who refused the imposition of the hijab was the ultimate downfall of the Iranian regime. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to be the case. And while Iran’s Kurds remain perhaps the most organized, most politically active subgroup of Iran’s multi-ethnic society, Iranian Kurdish desires for autonomy/statehood are largely anathema to most other Iranians. It’s hard to imagine current solidarity would extend much beyond any potential toppling of the regime.

Iran’s constant protests are unlikely to stop anytime soon, and while they do point to an erosion of the regime’s ability to maintain an iron grip over its citizens, current protests are unlikely to lead to a direct exit of the ayatollahs and mullahs at the apex of the regime. Frustration is a powerful motivator, but Iran’s protestors lack a charismatic national leader or unifying ethos beyond discontent. Ayatollah Khomeini famously leaned on a pan-Iranian, Shi’ite identity enforced with a big stick to create his vision of a post-Shah Iran. And that big stick remains in the hands of the regime today, ready to cudgel any opposition back into submission. Until that changes, or pillars of the regime defect, or significant foreign aid and coordination steps in on behalf of the protestors, Iran is destined to continue an unfortunate pattern of everyday citizens yearning for change clashing with a regime determined to crush them to ensure its own survival. 

Everyone, Peter Zion here still in Birmingham. The other big issue that’s going on, because there’s just no shortage of these things these days, is that in Iran, we’ve got some of the most robust protests that we have had in 20 years, certainly, at least since the Green Revolution of 15 years ago. The issue is that a woman was killed by the security services because she was not appropriately dressed in their eyes. And so we’ve got this mix of combustible activity, that is women’s rights and general Liberty issues and pro Western issues, but also all the normal mix of groups that have been oppressed within the Iranian systems, Baluchis Arabs, as areas and so on. At the moment, excuse me. At the moment, outside influence on this round, seems negligible. No one is doing what the Iranians would do if they were backing protesters elsewhere in the Middle East. So there is no sign that the protests are being armed, for example. And there’s no specific targeting of the security services by any sort of paramilitary organization at the moment. But that doesn’t mean that this is going to succeed in overthrowing the mullahs. In fact, probably not. For a country like Iran to have a significant political shift. A lot has to go right or wrong, I guess, based on your point of view. We’ve all seen 300, right? Remember, they were talking about the 1000s nations of Persia. That’s not too far off. Persia, Iran is a country of mountains and mountain valleys. And each Valley has its own identity. And after centuries, millennia of a combination of ethnic cleansing and intermarriage and trade linkages, and trying to rub out a lot of the smaller groups. Even today, only half of the population of Iran considers itself Persian is a quarter of a mercenary, you’ve got a bunch of Baluchis and Arabs and others, dozens of them. And so in order to get something to flip the government, you either have to mobilize all of the minorities, as well as a fair chunk of Persians or the Persians that have to do it themselves. And we’re just not there yet. Now, if you were going to do this, you would also need a personality, somebody charismatic, who can bring all the factions together. The last time this happened was 1979. And that guy was Ayatollah Khomeini. So you know, be careful what you wish for when you’re talking about government change in the Iranian system. Also, the United States is out the Middle East now for the most part. So that short midterm boogeyman that the Iranians have always been able to rally around a rally against just isn’t there. So this is Iran, more or less doing its own juices. And considering the general issues of economic dislocation across the country, because things have been getting worse and worse and worse for years. This some version of this is probably the Iranians new normal for at least another 10 or 20 years slow, steady, low to mid level protests that never really end that is kind of heat on. But this is what the Iranian security services were designed for Iran because of its mosaic of ethnicities. The Persians have always been nervous that that could be a rebellion. So they maintain in per capita terms, one of the largest militaries in the world over a million for a country of its population of about 75 80 million. And that means that they basically occupy themselves in order to prevent these groups from ever rebelling. And a million man army is more than enough to keep a lid on protest that at this point, simply haven’t risen to the threshold of regime challenge. Okay, that’s it for me. Till next time.

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