Iran’s Revolution Continues

The killing of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, while she was in custody for wearing her hijab loosely, has sparked a new wave of protests in Iran. Many have said that this is the beginning of an Iranian revolution, while others say it is the same story as the many times that Iran has experienced uprisings in the past — protests that will go away. Both views are wrong. The revolution began in 2017. This wave of protests is an escalation in the war between the Islamic Republic and the Iranian people.

The revolution began in December 2017 because the notion of reforming the Islamic Republic had lost legitimacy. The regime had been in power for nearly four decades and was resented for its failure to deliver on some of the 1979 revolution’s promises and for its success at delivering on others. The Islamic Republic’s material promises of economic equality and social justice were typical of a populist movement. To achieve them, the government confiscated power, creating a quasi-communist economic structure with major industries nationalized. This caused poverty, greater inequality, and extreme corruption. The success was obtaining its “values” objective, imposing Islamic orthodoxy from the top. The result of four decades of rule has been an Iranian polity increasingly oppressed and impoverished — as well as increasingly secular, out of spite for the theocracy.

The Islamic Republic’s history can be divided into four distinct eras. The first was the Iran–Iraq War, which consumed the new regime until 1988. It allowed for the regime to grow roots but also to use wartime exigencies to justify increasing oppression and impoverishment. Next was the post-war era, with the appointment of a new, weak, and uncharismatic leader, Ali Khamenei, to succeed the regime’s founder, Ruhollah Khomeini; reconstruction, growth, and political opening and the marginal loosening of social orthodoxies led to hopes for incremental reform. The reform movement of the 1990s offered the hope of the regime’s evolving into a just one. In the third era, after the ascent of hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency, the government reverted to extreme social and political oppression. The Islamic Revolution’s Guardians Corps (IRGC; usually, and imprecisely, translated as “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps”), which is closely affiliated with the new administration, became a major political and economic player, going beyond its core security function. Then came the disillusionment era, which began with the return of reformists to power in 2013. The reformists’ failure to improve on public welfare and political conditions triggered the 2017 protests, marking the beginning of the revolution.

During the third era, foreign economic sanctions, mostly related to Iran’s nuclear program, reached their height. This became the regime’s justification for the growing economic pain. In reaction to deterioration in the quality of life and increasing oppression, Iranians went to the polls to elect reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi in 2009. The regime fraudulently declared the incumbent Ahmadinejad the winner. That sparked the Green Movement, sometimes mistakenly referred to as the “Green Revolution.” But the 2009 protests were not revolutionary. At the time, I was 19 years old and a part of those protests. I was the odd one out for calling for regime change. The vast majority wanted only for their votes to be counted and for the reformists to return to power and make marginal improvements. The protests began peacefully, but they were met with gunfire. This was the first of the regime’s steps toward radicalizing the public.

I was a revolutionary then because my father had been held for five years as a political prisoner during the war and subjected to torture. Many of his friends were executed. Although many Iranians had heard such stories, they hadn’t felt them personally, or they thought that the regime, fighting a war of national survival, had walked away from brutality against its citizens after the war. The regime’s violent response in 2009 breached public trust and convinced the people that the regime remained extremely cruel.

Noting that Iran had conducted elections with strict regulations on who gets on the ballot, Ray Takeyh, a leading Iran expert, finds the seeds of the current revolution in the 2009 fraud, which broke the social contract. But most Iranians returned to the ballot box four years later, electing reformist-backed Hassan Rouhani. The regime’s legitimacy crisis has more to do with not stealing the 2013 election than with stealing the 2009 one.

The Rouhani administration’s chief objective was to reach an arms-control agreement with the P5+1 — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany — as well as with the European Union. Whereas the Ahmadinejad administration had used sanctions as the excuse for the economic problems at home, as a candidate Rouhani had blamed the hard-line incumbent for inviting those sanctions and promised to get them lifted. In 2015, a permanent agreement was reached between Iran and the P5+1. Sanctions were lifted, and Iran’s frozen assets, worth a quarter of its GDP, were released overnight. Two years later, Rouhani won reelection in a landslide. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who had charmed the foreign world into the arms-control agreement, became Iran’s most popular figure.

Beneath the Rouhani administration’s self-congratulations, however, the revolution was brewing. Two years after the agreement, the economy was faring worse. By the time Rouhani finished his first full term in office, sociopolitical conditions had not improved. There were more, not fewer, political prisoners. The Guidance Patrol, known to English speakers as the “morality police,” was still patrolling. The IRGC’s power had grown.

Only months into Rouhani’s second term, in December 2017, Iran witnessed its most violent uprising in the Islamic Republic’s history. Unlike the unrest in 2009, this time it was a revolutionary enterprise. In 2009, the main slogan was “Where is my vote?” In 2017, the slogan was “Death to dictator,” better translated as “Death to the concept of dictatorship.” The by-product of Rouhani’s election and the Iran nuclear agreement was that the regime had been disarmed of excuses for its own failures.

But the failure to improve economically was not the only, or even the largest, problem. Iranians had not only run out of patience for incremental reform but also lost faith in it. They refer to it as the “loosen, tighten” game, whereby the regime would ease some pressure during reformist administrations, purchasing time for itself by giving the people hope, and then re-exert extreme pressure for eight years after hard-liners returned to power. Since the end of the Iran–Iraq War, the vast majority of Iranians had agreed that their country needed change. But they preferred for reform to come in stages and gave it two shots, being disappointed each time. That’s what convinced Iranians that sanctions and hard-liners were not the problem but rather the entirety of the regime. A recent poll conducted by GAMAAN, a Dutch nonprofit research foundation in collaboration with an Iranian rights group — and the only reliable public-opinion organization focusing on Iran — found that 86 percent of Iranians blame the internal structure of the economy, not foreign sanctions, as the primary cause of the country’s deteriorating economic conditions. Only 28 percent prefer reforming the Islamic Republic or maintaining it as it is.

As most Iranians had grown irreligious, even the religious had grown politically secular. Another poll conducted in 2020 by the same organization showed that only one in three Iranians calls himself or herself Shiite Muslim, and even then not necessarily supportive of political Islam. My old friends who judged me for drinking alcohol are now cursing at God. The number of underground Evangelical Christian churches, estimated to have up to 3 million members, has risen. Atheism and agnosticism have become prevalent. People have begun identifying as Zoroastrians — the only indigenous, pre-Islamic Iranian religion. The fertility rate of 1.7 is further evidence of the decline of religion in Iran. As is the sudden and widespread ownership of dogs, considered najis, or dirty in nature, in Islam and hence banned by the faith — and the government. Islam, the core identity of the regime, has become a minority religion among the people.

The first wave of the revolution in 2017 rose suddenly and went away after a month of violent crackdown. The outside world largely ignored it, and it was forgotten. But the revolution didn’t die. Two years later, a larger and more violent wave returned. This time, it was the sudden tripling of gas prices — in Iran, they are set nationally by the government — that sparked it. The outside world again covered it through the lens of economic grievance, even though the new wave was also about justice and rights. Donald Trump’s message in Persian supporting the protesters, in contrast with Barack Obama’s silence in 2009, became the most liked Persian tweet in history. Trump himself, together with other regime critics such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and even Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, became popular among Iranians. The Iranians who had celebrated Obama’s extended hand to the Islamic Republic were celebrating Trump’s iron fist only a few years later. Again, the government succeeded in cracking down on the wave. Within months, the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the world, and the revolution in Iran was put on pause for the next three years.

Which brings us to 2022. It is not a coincidence that a new wave of revolutionary protests has appeared immediately after the end of the pandemic in Iran. This time, it is even larger and more violent than its 2019 predecessor. Though triggered by the brutality of the compulsory-hijab law, this wave too is radical and revolutionary — and against not only the compulsory hijab but the regime that mandates it.

During this wave, a home-recorded song, “Baraye,” meaning “For,” went viral and has become the anthem of the revolution. The lyrics, a window into the wide and irreconcilable gap between the regime and the people, are simply a compilation of Iranians’ tweets of their grievances and hopes: for gentlemanliness, against oppression of women, for liberty, against imprisoning dissidents, for environmental conservation, against the command economy, for the right to kiss in public, against mandatory heaven (forcing people to observe Islam so they go to heaven). The song’s popularity suggests a (classically) liberal polity aggrieved by social theocracy and economic socialism.

What best captures Iran’s political transformation is the attitude toward a slogan chanted by millions in 2009, “Ya Hossein, Mir-Hossein,” invoking the name of the Shiite saint in support of the reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. A year ago, another survey by the Dutch nonprofit found that 76 percent of Iranians opposed the chant’s message. Certainly, a significant portion of the respondents were part of the regime’s hard-liner and anti-reformist base (who rejected the message because Mousavi is pro-reform), but the vast majority were secular and anti-regime (who rejected it because Mousavi is part of the regime).

The Islamic Republic has lost legitimacy, and the Iranian people seek a just regime, but the people are also vengeful against the current regime. Each time it dials up brutality to crack down on the protests, more of the public becomes radicalized, and extreme means become more popular. The discontent is now spreading even among the regime’s rank and file, from bureaucrats to members of the security forces. The regime is probably still capable of ending this round of protests. But as we have learned from the previous five years, its success will be temporary. Each new wave has been larger, more durable, and more violent. If the past is any guide, this wave, should it subside, will be followed by a fourth one, larger and more violent, because the regime is finally so widely seen as illegitimate.

It is said that evolution is better than revolution. But Iranians have come to realize that an ideologically illiberal regime that believes that it has a divine mandate for violence will never allow reform because it sees reform as an existential threat. The revolution has arrived because evolution failed.

Shay Khatiri is a senior policy analyst at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America. An immigrant from Iran, he writes on Europe and the Middle East for the Russia–Iran File Substack.

Originally published in National Review.