If there’s anything the current regime learns from its overthrowing of the monarchy, it is that it cannot afford to look weak in the face of the protests.
Saurabh Kumar Shahi
The protests that have rocked Iran following the custodial death of Mahsa Amini are once again being seen by the motley group of exiled monarchists, members of Mojahedin-e-Khalaq, neo-cons and some liberals as a sign that the regime in Tehran is about to collapse anytime. Except for the first and the second, the others are not to be blamed for thinking so. Like in the past, the coverage of such protests in the anti-Iran press in general and the Western press in particular has been exaggerated, tone-deaf and devoid of context. So if you are getting your news from Radio Farda or BBC Persian, you can be forgiven for thinking that the Vilayat-e-Fiqh will be upturned any moment.
The reality, however, is complex. I have covered as many as seven Iranian Elections and, at least, two large-scale protests from the ground in Iran. This includes the most massive ‘Green Revolution’ protests of 2009 that followed the crushing defeat of reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi by the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
That protest raged for over a month and a half and had the tacit support of not only the entire reformist and moderate factions but also power brokers within the principlist domain. However, as someone who was covering it from ground zero, I saw that not for a moment did the regime think it was in danger. Not even when one million protestors came out on Friday. Compared to that, the current protests, though several degrees more violent, are visibly small and already petering out into a low-yield protest that will trade size with shelf-life and continue to simmer for several weeks.
So why do these protests that raise the hopes of the motley group always fizzle out? There are several reasons.
The first, and the most important, factor is that, like it or not, the majority of the Iranians still favour the Islamic republic. Do the majority of them like the regime? I don’t think so. However, this is where we need to differentiate between liking and favouring the current dispensation. While a lot of Iranians might not like the regime, they understand that it is at least their regime. They see towards the neighbouring countries and realise the grip of the Anglo-Saxon empire over them. The grip makes itself visible sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly, but it is there. Iranians have generational memories, or should I say nightmares, of the days when the Anglo-Saxon cabal controlled its ruling despot and milked the country dry. When Western-backed individuals like Masih Alinejad or Shirin Ebadi become the face of any protest, that protest is condemned to die. Because Iranians are smart enough to see Western interference. They don’t want those days to be back. And this is why even if they don’t like the current regime, they favour it over that uncertainty.
The second reason is the class divide. The vast majority of protesting women who are seen burning the hijab come from a specific class with very specific geography inside every city. They form a big number, however, they don’t form the majority. Far from it. Tehran is a city of about 13 million people. Even if one per cent of it turns out for protests, it is a sizable number. However, in terms of percentage, they remain just that, one per cent or thereabouts. No regime can be uprooted unless a large chunk of the population provides the critical mass for it. While a lot of Iranians have a lot of grievances, it has not collated enough as of now to provide such critical mass.
Then there’s the issue of funding. The sanctions regime has undermined the Islamic republic but it has undermined the individuals even more. There are not enough finances going around to sustain such a protest. Foreign funding still flows in big amounts but Iranian counter-intelligence has been remarkably successful in continuously unearthing such modules and neutralising them. This is not going to stop anytime soon and that means the protests will remain financially anaemic and unable to build upon their initial energy.
Noted commentator and a regime critic Esfandyar Batmanghelidj admits as much: “The first challenge is diminished capacity to mobilise. Economic precarity makes it harder to sustain protest movements. Many Iranians literally cannot afford to organise and mobilise over weeks and months. Workers are reluctant to strike given the risk of losing their jobs. Even those who retain the economic means to protest lack the tools to organise. Institutionally speaking, sanctions have weakened civil society organisations that help mobilise the middle class. Charities, advocacy groups and legal aid providers are starved of resources.”
This is the reason that, in terms of size and scope, these protests are not smaller than the ones in 2009, they are smaller than the ones in 2019 and 2020. Clearly, while the ‘maximum pressure’ tactic of the US is provoking more protests, ironically, it is also diminishing them in size and scope by snuffing out the financial life.
So what will these protests achieve? Quite a lot! While the ‘morality police’ isn’t going anywhere, their days of swagger are now gone for good. Doesn’t matter who is in power in Tehran—principlists, moderates or reformists—this institution will see its gradual decline into oblivion if not outright death. Every protest manages to snatch some rights from the regime at the cost of the blood of the young. However, any such concession will only be given when the protest dies completely. Because if there’s anything the current regime learns from its overthrowing of the monarchy, it is that it cannot afford to look weak in the face of the protests. If it gives concessions while the protests are raging, it will be taken as a weakness and the demands will rise incrementally.
The protestors have definitely earned something. What exactly it is, however, will only be clear after several weeks if not months.
Saurabh Kumar Shahi has covered The Greater Middle East for over 15 years and has reported from Kabul, Peshawar, Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus, Beirut, and Jerusalem among other places.