The answer to this question can, in part, be found in the institutionalized nature of the Islamic Republic as well as the regime’s externalization of the crisis, ruthlessness, and pragmatism.
Three months since the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody, protests are continuing across Iran, though currently at a slower pace and smaller scale than initially, on the streets and in metro stations, in schools and universities, and in markets and other public spaces. They have been meeting a violent response from the government, captured in countless videos shared on social media, and death tolls have been on the rise, including of children.
The situation in Iran has seemingly reached a point of no return and maintaining the status quo appears impossible. Cracks are appearing within the system. Some former senior officials, including former President Mohammad Khatami and former Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, as well as some outspoken clerics, including Hojjat al-Islam Fazel Meybodi, have suggested that time is running out for the regime, and there is a need for a national dialogue to address the deep-rooted grievances of the people. Regardless of the end result, there is a clear change of narratives inside and outside of Iran that is taking place on three levels.
A Move Away From Islamic Revolutionary Ideology
First, is the change of narrative on Iran itself. Over four decades, the Islamic Republic has been promoting an ideology-oriented narrative in which Iran is in a fight with what the regime defines as Western colonialism – with Western countries and their partners in the region. Although, Iran has never been colonized, the regime’s narrative has perpetuated a discourse in which Iran has been a victim of Western colonialist strategies and therefore was freed by the Islamic Revolution. Linking the colonialist narrative to a good-evil dichotomy, the regime presented the 1980-88 war with Iraq as a fight between good (the Islamic Revolutionary government) and evil (Western-backed Iraq). This narrative has been further extended in recent years through various government projects that aim to “rerevolutionize” Iran. The regime has operationalized this “rerevolutionize” narrative in a wide range of domestic and international issues and policies, for example, the regime issued a code of conduct to compel the public to live a simple lifestyle in accordance with the ideology of the Islamic Republic.
The regime seeks to manipulate the world view of the country and present an image to international audiences that there is widespread public support for this narrative. Iranian leaders have used election participation, national rallies on the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, and events such as the funeral of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Major General Qassim Suleimani as signs of strong domestic support for the Islamic Revolutionary government.
But there has also always been a different, lesser-known reality inside Iran of widespread dissent. The regime has been actively marginalizing dissidents, and as a result, around 3.1 million Iranians have left since the revolution. According to government reports, in 2020, 900 university lecturers left Iran.
However, many have stayed and expressed their dissent. Since the death of Mahsa Amini, Iranians have demonstrated their rejection of the regime’s ideology and state-imposed narrative by taking to the streets in protest. Iranians are no longer willing to remain silent about this narrative that isolates Iran from the global community and keeps the country in conflict with regional players and under sanctions. Protesters have made numerous important symbolic moves demonstrating this rejection, such as bringing down the post-revolution Iranian flag with the Islamic Republic symbol in the center, burning headscarves, and chanting slogans rejecting the social norms in which women are required to cover themselves to avoid the “moral slipping” of men. One of the most popular protest slogans has been “You are a philanderer, you are rake, I am a free woman.” Several videos have shown groups chanting revolutionary songs in mourning ceremonies for Iranians who lost their lives during government crackdowns on protests, rather than singing religious songs or reciting verses from the Quran.
The brutality of the security forces outraged protesters and mobilized higher numbers, particularly in smaller cities and areas where ethnic minorities, such as Baluchis and Kurds, are located. It is evident that the regime is willing to escalate the violence, and there is no sign of an inclination for having a dialogue on either side. But the demonstrations are clearly displaying this narrative change: Iranians are not revolutionary and anti-Western. They want freedom, and they demand a “normal life,” as jailed Iranian rapper, Toomaj Salehi, said in his popular song.
New Narrative of Resistance, Demanding Regime Change
The second narrative change is that of the people in Iran on the state. By overcoming the fear of state-imposed punishment and oppression, the people are expressing a new narrative of resistance, rejecting the state’s legitimacy, and demanding regime change. In a video that emerged after brutal attacks on the campus of Sharif University, host to the most talented Iranian engineering students, students chanted: “Why travel?,” meaning migrate, ”Stay and take back” Iran. Since the early years of the revolution, executions, long prison sentences, and surveillance have been defining characteristics of the state in Iran. Over weeks of demonstrations, Iranian leaders (particularly the head of the IRGC) issued warnings to protesters. The security forces roamed highly populated residential areas in Tehran with loudspeakers, mostly where mass protests had taken place, and verbally warned the residents of the harsh consequences of protesting. In response, some Iranians created their own “raid alert sirens” inviting people to join the “revolution.”
The fear of oppression and heavy-handed use of violence seems to be failing to achieve what it did in previous round of uprisings in Iran (e.g., 2009, 2017, 2019). Despite the regime’s effort to shut down protests through oppression and violence, the new narrative of the Iranian people for the state is not formed based on fear of oppression. Instead, it is formed around complete rejection of the legitimacy of the regime and demand for change.
The Global Narrative
Finally, since the beginning of the uprisings in September, there has been a major shift in the international community’s narrative on Iran. Members of the Iranian diaspora and people from mainly Western countries, expressing support for the Iranian protesters and protection of human rights, have shifted the global narrative on Iran from a decadeslong position of sidelining human rights violations, over fears of jeopardizing nuclear talks, to a narrative that separates the regime and the people. Various petitions have been signed across the world to demand holding the government accountable for violence against protesters. The European Union, the United States, and Canada have made statements and imposed new sanctions on entities and senior officials with links to the security and military apparatus in Iran. For example, the EU has imposed sanctions on the Iranian telecommunications company Arvan Could, which has been involved in filtering and limiting access to the internet across the country. Anti-regime Iranian Americans campaigned in the November mid-term elections to vote out candidates who were perceived to have been less supportive of regime change in Iran.
A Point of No Return
A return to the previous narratives on Iran seems impossible. The Iranian protesters seem to have reached a point of no return in their demands, despite the state’s brutal violence. The regime in its current structure, formed around Islamic and revolutionary ideologies that are imposed by force, no longer appears able to deny the widespread dissent. There is a huge loss in the political legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, not only in the eyes of Iranian citizens but also among Western leaders. Long-term and short-term decisions and strategies of the regime, protesters, and international community will indeed play an important role in shaping the outcomes of the ongoing unrest in Iran. Both protests and the government’s violent response are likely to intensify, and many developments may change the course of events over the coming weeks. However, these narratives in and about Iran look to be dominant for the foreseeable future.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. She is the Marie Curie Fellow at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies working on Iran’s economic diversification and economic resilience strategies.
This report is based on the presentations and discussions during the UAE Security Forum 2022, “Expanding Regional Partnerships for Security and Prosperity,” held on November 17, 2022 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
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