Is a Persian Spring Coming? The Revolt in Iran

Late last year, following nearly three months of protesters taking to the street in the wake of Jina Mahsa Amini’s death at the hands of Iran’s dreaded Guidance Patrol, also known as the morality police, the Iranian government began showing signs of assenting to protester demands. These have included steps to begin a review of the mandatory hijab policy and to discontinue the morality police, though likely only on paper. These victories, however minor, have added fuel to the protests. In the wake of government officials’ ambiguous commitments to moderate reform and continued outrage over the execution of protesters, trade unions called for mass strikes to show their support for the protests and slogans calling for the fall of the government continue to circulate. Such discontent escalated in the wake of the government’s execution of protesters and activists Mohsen Shekari and Majidreza Rahnavard in December. Their deaths were the first reported executions since the protests began in September, though subsequent– and public– executions have since driven much of the dissent underground. 

When the protests first began, Iranian exiles in the West attempted to take credit for the protests and to cast themselves as leaders of a singular movement. What has made the protests so powerful, however, has been their breadth. They have mobilized a diverse group of Iranians across the country and across ethnic and linguistic divides. The emotions and energy unleashed by the movement have made it powerful enough to threaten the Iranian state. This in turn, has only been made possible by those leading and participating in it. These are protests of the young, with young women in particular leading the charge. Storming out of high school classes, burning hijabs and portraits of political leaders, accosting officials and repressive theologians, and taking to the streets in defiance of the state’s violent reprisals, the militancy of young Iranians has inspired the biggest upheaval in Iranian politics since 1979.  

There is little sign that such radical hope is will be extinguished. Even as the numbers of protesters have begun to dwindle, lawyers, activists, journalists, and intellectuals have continued the struggle.  This struggle may not look familiar to those of us used to a certain model of revolution: led by a cadre of (largely) men at the head of a disciplined, mass organization capable of seizing the moment and toppling a state. These revolutions, from Russia to Cuba to Vietnam,  relied on the radicalism of factory floors, union halls, militia, and underground organizations; they were the product of a different economic and social reality in the era of mass parties and mass politics. Writing in 2013, David Graeber noted that revolutions, defined as events that “transform basic assumptions about what politics is ultimately about,” were always products of a given period’s particular characteristics. Future revolutions, he cautioned, would “take an entirely different form” and might even seem like failures before changing the world. 

What is happening in Iran–and what has unfolded in various other parts of the globe– suggest that future revolutions may look very different indeed. The Iranian youth are not necessarily turning to old methods to further their cause. As in Hong Kong, protesters in Iran have used spontaneous protesting and diffuse methods of communication to “be like water.” Rather than having a formal structure of leadership vulnerable to assassinations or betrayal, the protesters have remained sporadic and fluid, prompting confrontations with security forces without ever giving them room to decapitate the movement. Such tactics can overwhelm even the most repressive state’s capacity to react. One Iranian activist memorably described the protests as not “crowd-centered but situation-centered,” spontaneously taking advantage of new displays of dissent and confronting security forces on their own terms. When anger explodes everywhere, in scattered but concentrated doses, there is only so much that tear gas and baton-wielding enforcers can do. 

These protests are creating new spaces for revolutionary action and further undermining the current Iranian state. Today’s protesters do not largely seek a program of reforming the country’s existing political order. Led by young women across the country, in both cities and the countryside, and tapping into a wide variety of grievances from the Persian majority and various minority populations alike, the movement seeks nothing short of a revolution: a desire to unmake the social, economic, and political character of the Islamic Republic and to replace it with something different. It remains to be seen what that will look like. But it would likely be a real alternative.  

Any analysis of the situation in Iran and the profound energies that have been unlocked by anti-government protests there are incomplete without understanding the frustrations – and radicalism that has been born out of said frustrations–of young people generally, and young women particularly. U.S. sanctions have starved the country’s economy, and in the last decade opportunities for the young have plummeted. These changes have disproportionately affected women, who have suffered higher rates of unemployment, dropping salaries, and soaring costs of living. In the wake of the total dismantling of Iran’s toothless, reformist, and largely controlled opposition in the wake of recent political shifts in the Iranian state, young Iranians lacked a valve for releasing simmering discontent. The killing of Amini, after a  decade of lax implementation  of mandatory hijab wearing prompted them to take this discontent public.  

Such struggle has come at a high cost. Hundreds have died, and many thousands have been detained or have otherwise disappeared. The Iranian state unleashed a wave of severe countermeasures to contain the protesters, and as in Hong Kong and elsewhere, those expressing dissent toward the state have been accused of being foreign puppets, prompting the usual suspects in the United States to decry the movement as another so-called “color revolution.” With the New Year and declining foreign coverage, the Iranian state has adopted even more repressive tactics, hoping to wear protesters down. The challenge that Iran’s movement faces is thus immense, and its future is in limbo. Faced with continued U.S. hostility, escalating geopolitical competition with Saudi Arabia and Israel, ongoing involvement in conflicts in Yemen and Syria, and a continually deteriorating economic situation, Iran is teetering on the edge. Its political and military elites will likewise be eager to stamp out this dissent as quickly as they can and to assuage popular anger. 

But the movement has not been defined just by its anger. Even in their profound expressions of rage towards the theocratic regime, Iranian protesters have maintained a culture of revolutionary joy and solidarity. The protest slogan of “Women, Life, Freedom” does not just point to discontent toward the Islamic Republic and its theocratic hypocrisies. It also gestures toward the desire for a joyous society worth fighting for: justice that has long been denied, economic opportunities for all, and true democracy. Young Iranians are involved in a fight that seems to be unfolding across the world. Starved of economic mobility and weighed down by a global wave of reactionary politics, young people in various countries are channeling their frustrations into movements with novel tactics and renewed fervor. In China, they held up blank sheets of white paper to satirize state censorship; in Sri Lanka, they took selfies in the president’s extravagant residence to highlight the governmental hypocrisy with its pursuit of so-called austerity. In the United States, as recent struggles for racial, reproductive, and climate justice have shown, young people crave alternatives to the world around them. 

Iran’s youth are not alone. Indeed, with the economic crisis provoked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, corresponding rises in energy and food prices, as well as COVID-related supply chain disruptions, such discontent has exploded throughout much of the Middle East and North Africa.. Protests erupted in Syria demanding an improvement of living conditions and the end to violence at the hands of the armed forces; similar protests have rocked Iraq over the past three years. Likewise, young Palestinians have been on the frontlines of resistance against continued oppression at the hands of Israel’s hard-right government. Unsatisfied by the complacency of Palestinian elites in Fatah and Hamas alike and deeply affected by high rates of unemployment and deprivation, young Palestinians have risen up in defiance of military crackdowns and settler intransigence. In the last two months of 2022, at least one hundred died in clashes with Israeli security forces, only fueling a movement of resistance that some have dubbed the beginnings of a new Intifada

The trials that all these young people face have been different in a number of crucial ways. Though the Iranian people have offered an inspiring resistance, their victory is by no means assured. Similar hopes have been crushed before, here and elsewhere. Still, as Emily Dickinson wrote, hope “sings the tune without the words/And never stops at all.” We might cease hearing it, but hope will continue to be sung.