Iranian people hold pictures of Mahsa Amini with their hands painted in red during a protest outside the Iranian consulate in Istanbul on Tuesday. Photo: EPA-EFE
Hagai M. Segal
Hagai M. Segal

Iran is rocked by Mahsa Amini protests, but a second revolution is not yet on the cards

  • The scenes across Iran should be no surprise after years of economic mismanagement, state brutality and heavy spending that fails to benefit the public
  • The revolt seems to be spreading as workers walk off the job in solidarity, but the loyalty of state security forces will shape the future of the protests
This time could be different. Iranians have protested before – in 2009, large numbers rose up after an election widely seen as rigged – but not since the 1979 Islamic Revolution have scenes like the recent ones been seen across Iran. More than three weeks into the current protests, it is becoming clear that truly historic events are unfolding. But the Iranian regime is not done yet – it is still too early to know if this will be a true second revolution.

These protests should come as no surprise, though. In recent years, Iran has been hit by crisis after crisis following decades of mismanagement and brutality from the Islamic Republic’s leaders.

When Covid-19 hit, Iran’s initial response was inaction and complacency. The result is the highest Covid-19 death toll in the Middle East.
The regime spending heavily to fund its theological and ideological obsessions – arming Shiite militias in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, as well as pushing ahead with a controversial nuclear programme – has created a double whammy of external isolation together with domestic economic collapse.

The numbers are damning. The cost of goods and services has increased more than 1,100 per cent in the past 10 years, with staples such as cooking oil almost 4,000 per cent higher and dairy prices more than 2,000 per cent higher. Iran’s currency, the rial, has collapsed, today just 10 per cent of its value a decade ago.

So many people tried to mine cryptocurrency to generate non-rial revenue that it caused major power shortages and blackouts, bringing a government ban on bitcoin mining in May 2021. Key to understanding the current protests is that youth unemployment is almost 30 per cent, with nearly a quarter of all female university graduates unable to find work.


Iranian women join hijab-burning protest after Mahsa Amini dies while in ‘morality police’ custody

Iranian women join hijab-burning protest after Mahsa Amini dies while in ‘morality police’ custody
Iran’s leaders blame “the West” and Israel, highlighting Western sanctions while shooting off one conspiracy theory after another. Everyone is to blame but them. But Iran’s youth – connected by modern technology and social media to the rest of the world – are not fooled.
Add to this decades of political and social repression – including the banning of all political candidates not acceptable to the clerics, and the abuse of “ morality laws” to restrict women’s rights and even visibility in society – and the scene was set for revolt.

A public response from disillusioned and disenfranchised youth – who represent a growing percentage of the population, with the average age around 31 – might have come earlier were it not for the pandemic. As the Covid-19 crisis eased, all that was needed was the right spark.

The killing of 22 year-old Mahsa Amini – whose Kurdish name is Jina and who has become a symbol for protesters for the rights of women and Kurds – was it. Now the cries of “women, life, freedom” and “death to the dictator” echo across the country.

In Iran, India or France, women’s dress should be women’s choice

There are signs the revolt is spreading. Workers have walked out at oil refineries that produce vital revenues for the ailing economy. It would be a major moment if workers’ organisations and other civil society bodies formally join the protests, as in 1979 it was such developments that were the beginning of the end for the Shah.
So which way will it go? Both sides are all too aware of events from 2009 to 2011, including the experiences in the Arab world during the Arab spring. Iranian state brutality worked in 2009 – beatings and bullets ended the protests – but protesters today have learned from this and what followed in neighbouring Arab nations.
In 2010 and 2011, Arab governments fell when security forces sided with protesters or the protesters were externally provided with military support. In Egypt, where initial police brutality just brought more people out onto the streets, the army felt it had to support the protests before they turned on them.
Where governments survived, most notably in Syria, it was because key military units ideologically linked to the regime were willing to do whatever it took to keep the government in power. The result was huge civilian casualties and a civil war that still rages more than a decade later.

There are obvious parallels with Iran. Key elements such as the Basij – a paramilitary volunteer militia established in 1979 on the orders of Ayatollah Khomeini – and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is an army in its own right, are ideological forces who swear allegiance to the supreme leader rather than the Iranian state.

Will these and other security forces and state institutions stay loyal, or will sections decide enough is enough and join the protesters? At present, both the Basij and IRGC have given their answer, openly shooting protesters in the street.
But despite attempts by Iranian authorities to shut down phone and internet connectivity, thousands of videos are being shared every day depicting state violence in graphic and shocking detail. Videos of Iranian forces walking through streets shooting anyone in sight have rightly caused international shock and condemnation.

The test in the coming weeks will be which has more staying power – the determination of protesters risking their lives for freedom, or the self-preservation-motivated brutality of the regime. The protesters will have to do this on their own, and they know it. The next few weeks will tell us which way Iran will go.

Hagai M. Segal is a leading authority on geopolitics, counterterrorism and the Middle East