By William Tucker
Mass protests have once again taken hold in Iran with people taking to the streets. The spark for this round of unrest stems from the death of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman who recently died while she was in the custody of Iran’s morality police.
According to the morality police, Amini was allegedly wearing a hijab headscarf improperly, resulting in her arrest. However, witnesses claim that the police beat Amini with batons while taking her into custody, likely causing a cerebral hemorrhage and stroke. The security police, however, claim that Amini collapsed from a heart attack.
Though the ruling Iranian regime has promised to investigate, the protests of Amini’s death have spread to 80 cities and have taken on an anti-government tone. Security forces have taken measures to battle these protesters, but people remain in the street despite spreading violence.
Iran Human Rights, an organization located in Oslo, Norway, reported that at least 76 civilians have been killed as of September 26. It has been a few years since Iran experienced protests, mostly due to economic issues, and although the current unrest is widespread, it is not yet a threat to the current regime.
Iranian Protests Has Occurred Several Times Over the Last Few Decades
Iran is no stranger to popular unrest. The 1979 revolution that brought the current government to power began with angry citizens opposed to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s rule. The ensuing years were consumed with the Iran-Iraq War, but the country eventually stabilized somewhat in the early 1990s although Iran was still under Western sanctions.
In 1999, protests spread over the closure of a reformist newspaper, Salam, that largely spoke to supporters of the Mohammad Khatami government. Those protests only lasted for a week, but they demonstrated that a segment of the Iranian population could cause havoc for the ruling clerics.
The next round of notable Iranian protests occurred 10 years later in 2009, due to the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that many deemed to be fraudulent. These protests, however, lasted for nearly seven months before Iranian security forces finally put an end to the unrest. It wasn’t just the reelection of Ahmadinejad that provided momentum to the protesters; it was the expansion of the Iranian Republican Guard in economic affairs that led to a host of economic issues that impacted many Iranians.
Major Protests in Iran Have Coincided with Economic Downturns
Economic issues may not have been part of the headlines that covered Iranian unrest over the years, but economic downturns have coincided with every major protest. The Iranian protests in 2019 were undoubtedly economic as inflation and food shortages inflamed tensions between many citizens and the ruling clerics. Even then, the regime managed to weather the storm and continue to hold onto power, despite each successive protest becoming more anti-government.
Two Factors Allow the Iranian Government to Maintain Its Grip on the Country
There are two factors that help the current regime maintain its grip on the country. First, many Iranians who are not protesting are religious conservatives who back the government. Second, the 1979 revolutionaries corrected deficiencies in the Shah’s security structure that made the previous government susceptible to popular unrest.
Former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini kept the Iranian military after he assumed power, but he also created a military and security force called the Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) that was responsible for protecting the revolution and served as a counterweight to the regular military. He took a similar approach with Iran’s intelligence services, with the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) reporting to the ruling President and another IRGC component reporting to Khomeini.
This bifurcated system was then augmented with a volunteer force (Basij) that was strictly meant for domestic security, but it also kept tabs on potential dissent in places where other services were blind. The Basij played a key role in bringing the 2009 unrest to an end, and it has continued to work against protests when police or the security services need augmenting. This approach has worked well for the Iranian regime, and it is guaranteed to work indefinitely.
The Current Iranian Protests Will Not Dispose Iran’s Rulers Until Security Services Refuse to Harm Civilians
The current Iranian protests may not yet threaten the regime until we see a fracturing of these security services, which generally starts by refusing their orders to harm protesters. A refusal to harm fellow citizens will be one key event to watch, because without it, the unrest cannot topple the Iranian government if the regime maintains a monopoly on violence.