September 24, 2023

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A year after Mahsa’s death: Understanding the 2022 protests in Iran 

On the first anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death in police custody and the ensuing protests, it is very crucial to reflect upon the past and see the roots of those events.

Unlike the mainstream media which tend to view the matter only through the window of their political agenda, the author believes that the protests were more than just a gender-based movement or an alien plot. As it will be argued throughout the text, what happened in Iran in 2022, is multilayered and needs a multidimensional examination as well.
Although every political system, whether traditional or modern, has its upheavals (i.e. Mubarak’s Egypt, or Al-Khalifa’s Bahrain, or even Trump’s United States or Macron’s France) and Iran’s Islamic Republic is no exception for that matter, but 2022 protests that shocked this country for months is significant because it witnessed so many actors playing an almost perfect role in it. 

The first and most important factor was (and still is) the generational gap that exists between some revolutionaries of the 1970s and their kids or grandchildren. These kids were born two decades later in the new millennium and have an almost different worldview and more importantly different character. This generational schism is the result of many variables like the digital age, globalization, and higher education. A closer look into the family structure of these two groups reveals an interesting pattern too: patriarchal families have given their place to Filiarchal ones, i.e. the rule of children at home! The argument for that claim is very simple. The 1979 revolution and the 8-year resistance against the invasion of Saddam’s Iraq, made the very zealous revolutionaries fall behind on many mundane issues (e.g. housing, sports, food, and education). When the war ended, they didn’t feel relieved.

They had to pay the price for the reconstruction of the country and bore the heavy weight of the American sanctions too. As if it wasn’t enough, this ardent but tired generation decided to make yet another sacrifice: Let their children have everything they wished for. Thus a period of intense filiarchy followed. Leaning on Freud’s teachings, parents dedicated all their attention to the needs and impulses of their kids. They simply wanted their kids to feel “no boundaries”! Providing the best affordable schooling, the richest possible nutrition, new and fashionable dresses, and easy moral standards in friendships and relationships soon became the norm among many filiarchy families. But there was a problem with the system. Those parents had forgotten Freud’s other lesson: Let your children live like kings during their infancy and childhood, but after that don’t forget to teach them social norms and values.

While attending to their mundane needs, most of such parents forgot about political and religious issues: religion and values of the public sphere. They had simply insisted or encouraged sports, education, or personal hygiene, but forgot or deliberately shied away from teaching their kids their religious obligations or the reality of social norms that exist outside the family sphere. Only when these millennium kids reached their 20s and entered society, they came to feel the heat of reality for which they were generally unprepared. This can easily be seen in the case of Mahsa Amini’s sad demise and the rest of those who began to rise for her. Mahsa was the daughter of a Kurdish family who had cherished her during her childhood (her father had written a letter asking for a change of job because of his daughter’s head surgery early in her childhood) and the fact that she left her hometown without her parents, to visit Tehran and her friends, shows how easygoing her family was. But what she did not know was that society and government have their standards eventually different from those of her family.

Her defiance of the morality police, which she mistook for her parents, led to her custody and sorrowful destiny. The story of the rest of those young kids who revolted against the state because of Mahsa’s death can be read the same. They simply took the government and the public sphere the same as their easygoing parents at home who would just retreat and surrender to their wishes in the face of their harsh defiance. Such a mistaken calculation led to months of rivalry and clash between the two generations and their offspring. It was a sad encounter and what these young children didn’t learn at home, they bitterly learned on the streets. This generational gap was not the only factor for the whole protests though.  The death of Mahsa Amini was just an accidental prelude to a bigger scenario to topple Iran’s ruling system. Behind the plot were Iran’s arch enemies, i.e. Israel, the United States, and Saudi Arabia. To curb Iran’s nuclear program and its ever-growing influence in the Middle East, these countries decided to take the battle to Iran. The United States had withdrawn from the nuclear deal to cripple Iran’s economy and despite Trump’s replacement with Biden, this brutal policy continued.

Saudi Arabia, on its part, orchestrated and financed Iran’s dissident groups for a fierce political battle against the Islamic Republic. Saudi Crown Prince Bin Salman had envisioned taking the battle inside Iran’s territories instead of the whole Middle East. In a 2017 interview, he bluntly said:  “We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.” Israel had also presented its strategy towards Iran: “death by a thousand cuts” as it was called by Naftali Bennett in his meeting with President Joe Biden a year before the protests. 
This anti-Iran alliance explored every possible avenue to prepare a fatal plan. Dissident mobilization, media campaigns, arming and training terror teams, international condemnation of Iran, hefty political and economic sanctions, celebrity diplomacy, and cyber sabotage were meticulously orchestrated. 

Dissident groups like the People’s Mojahedin Organization, former Shah’s proponents, Iranian students abroad, and women’s rights groups had been on the alliance’s payroll for long, but Saudi Arabia’s new policy of funneling money helped them reconfigure and strengthen their forces. 

Media outlets like US-funded Radio Farda, Voice of America, and UK’s BBC Persian and tens of other private opposition TV Channels joined forces with the newly established Iran International – a lavish TV network funded by Saudi Arabia and covered the issue of Mahsa’s death 24/7. Their anchors and experts presented various forms of commentary encouraging descent and even deadly riots throughout the country (as an example, they introduced the idea of “#honorable vandalism” to justify deadly riots).

Militant groups like the remnants of ISIS and Kurdish separatists also gained ground during the protests. In one particular case, ISIS terrorists attacked the holy shrine of Shah Cheraq in the tourist city of Shiraz in October 2022. They killed 13 people and injured more than 40 others. Separatist Kurds too seized the moment and brought in all their forces. Waving the flags of their dream country Democratic Kurdistan, Kurdish rebels attacked IRGC and government offices and momentarily overtook parts of a few cities (like Mahabad) on Iran’s western borders. 

Iranian and foreign celebrities also joined the battle against the state. Famous soccer players like Ali Karimi and Ali Daee, cinema stars like Mahnaz Afshar, Fatemeh Motamed Arya, and Hamid Farrokhnezhad, singers like Ebi, Googoosh, Dariush, and Shervin, even Instagram influencers all entered the scene in full-force. Their social media accounts were active throughout the protests encouraging dissent and revolt openly. Shervin Hajipoor, the young singer, released a song “Baraye” (i.e. For) which became almost the anthem for the movement. Foreign celebrities like Justin Bieber and Angelina Jolie backed the protests as well. “Respect to the brave, defiant, fearless women of Iran,” Jolie wrote on her Instagram. This all-out celebrity diplomacy had an enormous effect on the public fueling their protests. 

As if their indirect political involvement in Iran wasn’t enough, Western governments decided to intervene diplomatically too. Political leaders like Emanuel Macron, Joe Biden, and Olaf Scholz blasted the Iranian government and bolstered the dissidents by imposing even more economic and political sanctions on the country’s statesmen and military. In December 2022 for example, the US Treasury Department sanctioned Iran’s prosecutor general and several key military officials. Not inviting Iran to international events like the Munich Security Conference, or harassing her diplomats abroad were an added factor to the pressure. 

Another page to the exacerbation of the situation in Iran was the cyber-attacks on government websites and state-owned media outlets. Blocking the flow of information from government officials to the public did have a partial contribution to the media war going on during the chaos. For instance, a group of Anonymous hackers attacked and brought down the websites of the Iranian President and the IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency while Hacktivists, another group hijacked the streaming of Iran’s national TV outlets.  
Although all of the above proves the role of foreign hands in the commotion, it would still be naivety to blame the entire fuss on the foreigners. Iran’s internal politics were also a major reason for the chaos.   

Just a year before the protest, two major developments had greatly shaken the basis of the political stage in Iran internally. First, it was the winning of the presidency by the conservatives. This had completed their grip on all of the three branches of state (the Iranian Parliament and the Judiciary had formerly been conquered).

Such a development would leave a sizable portion of the political elites, i.e. the Reformists, outside of the circle which would in turn make them anxious to take their revenge on their rivals regardless of the costs for the state. In fact, on the eve of Mahsa’s death, many Reformist leaders and ideologues began condemning the state in almost every possible fashion. For example, Mohammad Khatami, the ex-president and currently the godfather of reformists in Iran issued a statement calling the slogan of “women, life, freedom”, a beautiful chant and asked the state to tolerate the demonstrations as lawful freedom of expression.

The other internal setback for the government was the failure of negotiations between Iran and the United States on the formerly signed nuclear deal. A few years before, Iranians under Hassan Rouhani had decided to wither out the Trump administration for the renewal of the nuclear deal. That moment came when Biden won the US elections, but it was rather late for the Rouhani team. As Ayatollah Raisi replaced him, the new atmosphere blew away that hard moment of mutual understanding between the two sides. Frustration over this issue led to the doubling of the inflation rate and increased discontent among the public, both paving the way for a nastier confrontation between people and the state. 

All these factors came together to form a perfect political storm in 2022. Three months of intense rebellion left about two hundred people dead on both sides but despite its gigantic pressure, the 2022 revolt failed short of toppling the political system. It withered down within a few months and considering the political reproachment between Iran and Saudi Arabia, one can hardly imagine a swift comeback for it. But since the unbounded character is engraved in a small yet noteworthy portion of the young population, political and economic predicaments are still unresolved, and the West is relentless in its regime-change policy, Iran will be the scene for possible socio-political tremors in the future.

(The views in this article are those of the writer)

Javad Asgharirad holds a Ph.D in American studies from the Freie univ of Berlin and is currently a professor of politics at Payam Noor University in Iran

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