Iran: Political Deadlock or Social Tinderbox?

Published by ISPI Online

For the past quarter of a century, Iranians who demand sociopolitical change have often alternated between strategies of electoral participation and street protests. Closing of one avenue has often encouraged resorting to the other. We thus saw massive electoral participation of pro-change voters in parliamentary and presidential polls of 1997, 2000, 2001, 2009, 2013, 2016 and 2017 as well as significant anti-regime street protests in 1999, 2009, 2017-18, 2019-20 and 2022-23. However, in the last few years, the Iranian society has come to face a particular deadlock. The street protests have gotten nowhere due to regime’s brutal repression (including killing of hundreds of protesters on streets and via executions) while, since 2020, all effective avenues for pro-change electoral participation have also been closed. 

While the elections held under the Islamic Republic have never been anything resembling free and fair, they have sometimes been competitive enough to warrant popular participation. However, since 2020, even that minimal degree of competitiveness has been taken away. For the parliamentary elections of 2020 and presidential elections of 2021, the Guardian Council – the vetting body which decides who can run in elections (and whose 12 members are all, directly and indirectly, appointed by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) – threw out the nominations of the vast majority of reformist or even moderate conservatives. The body has done the same for the upcoming March 1st elections for the parliament and the Assembly of Experts with its disqualifications reaching farcical proportions: the candidacy of Hassan Rouhani, a sitting Assembly of Experts member and a former president who has previously held some of the top security posts in the Islamic Republic, was thrown out. Even before his candidacy was disqualified, Rouhani predicted that most people won’t vote in these polls. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former conservative president, has said he won’t vote. The Iranian Reformist Front, an umbrella of reformist parties, has declared that it won’t actively participate in the elections. Even if it did, the reformists have lost most of their popular support since their strategy of loyally paying allegiance to the Islamic Republic in the hope that they’d be allowed a couple of seats at the table has manifestly failed.   

The political deadlock is not limited to internal politics of the Islamic Republic. The opponents of the regime have also struggled to offer a coherent political alternative to it. The spectrum of those who openly call for an overthrow of the Islamic Republic has never been broader. Last year, Mirhossein Mousavi, a former prime minister (1981-89) under the regime founder Ayatollah Khomeini, called for a referendum to fundamentally change the Iranian political system in three phases. Firstly, by initiating a referendum for a change in the constitution or the drafting of a new constitution. Secondly, should the people vote affirmatively, by establishing a Constituent Assembly based on free and fair elections. Thirdly, by conducting another referendum on the constitution proposed by that assembly, with the aim of creating a system founded on the rule of law, in accordance with standards of human rights, and rooted in the will of the people. Similar positions have been taken by many former regime officials. More crucially, civil society figures who had previously encouraged electoral participation, now advocate for an end of the Islamic Republic. During the 2022-23 street protests, known as the Women, Life, Freedom movement, there were significant anti-regime protests in an unprecedented number of Iranian towns and cities, all over the country, and an unprecedented momentum for the exile-based opposition political figures and organisations. Yet, despite massive media opportunities and diplomatic overtures by Western countries, the opposition failed to unite to offer an alternative to the regime. The only significant attempt at unity was the coming together of a handful of well-known opponents of the regime in the form of the Alliance for Democracy and Freedom in Iran (ADFI) in early 2023. However, this coalition collapsed in a matter of weeks amidst escalating attacks and recriminations between its supporters, particularly followers of two of its best-known members, former crown prince Reza Pahlavi and anti-hijab activist Masih Alinejad.  

In short, the reformists and exile-based opposition both discredited themselves since they failed to offer effective political pathways for change. This has helped the feeling of a political deadlock in Iranian society with a widespread feeling of despondency and hopelessness, leading to increasing rates of emigration. Many now see the upcoming death of the Supreme Leader, who will soon celebrate his 85th birthday, as the next big moment of political crisis. Rumours that his son, Mojtaba Khamenei, is being groomed for leadership have unsettled many.  But, despite the deadlock at the political level, the Iranian civil society has continued its valiant struggles and its moral credence is at a height. This was demonstrated on an international level in October 2023 when the Nobel Peace Prize went to activist Narges Mohammadi.  

Domestically, the wave of protests continues unabated at a local level. Millions of Iranian women continue to engage in a daily act of civil disobedience by refusing to wear the mandatory hijab, despite many paying a high price by being fined, arrested or even lashed. Last month, writer Parastoo Samadi made history by taking off her hijab as she gave a speech in support of the Women, Life, Freedom movement, in a gathering held by the Nation’s Union Party, the main reformist political party.  

While the regime’s repression has not eased, the opposition to it also remains robust. On January 23, the regime executed Mohammad Ghobadloo for his participation in 2022-23 street protests. In response, political prisoners have organized regular hunger strikes in various prisons. Earlier this month, an umbrella body of teachers’ unions was joined by a dozen other trade union and civil society organizations in calling for weekly hunger strikes on Tuesdays. However, dozens of other political prisoners remain on death row including, most recently, Mohammad Khezrnejad, a Sunni cleric in western Iran.  

There is also a lively scene of economic protests. As the collapsing Iranian economy is destroying the livelihoods of pensioners, they have been holding regular protests. Those of the Telecommunication Company of Iran, for instance, hold protests in Tehran and about a dozen other cities every Monday. Earlier this month, in Ahvaz, they shouted the slogan: “We have seen no justice, we just hear lies.” 

As a new Iranian year approaches next month, the regular worker-led protests around setting of the annual minimum wage are getting going. The declared new daily wage is to be increased by 20% to 2.1 million Iranian rials which is about 4 USD and amounts to a monthly wage of 115 USD. Given the widespread inflation, it effectively counts as a pay cut. It also makes Iran one of the poorest countries in the region. The minimum wage is now about half the 260 USD in neighbouring Iraq and much lower than the 560 USD in Turkey not to mention the 800 to 900 USD range in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain.  

In response, workers’ protests have been ongoing in dozens of workplaces around the country including gas and oil fields and facilities of southern Iran, hospitals in southwestern Khuzestan province, ice-cream factory workers in Tabriz and steelworkers in Qazvin. Speaking to media, Foad Keykhosravi, a spokesperson for the Independent Iranian Workers Union (IIWU), said “workers have nothing left to do but protest” and added that given the economic and political impasse, “fundamental changes to the country’s political structure” was the goal the workers’ movement had set itself.  

We are thus faced with a familiar situation in Iran: an impasse at the top political level and a tinderbox on the societal level.  

The views expressed are strictly personal and do not necessarily reflect the positions of ISPIREAD THE DOSSIERArash Azizi

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