In Iran, and all around the world, people are demanding that the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) recognize the humanity of its citizens and respect their basic freedoms.[i] Heads of states,[ii] foreign ministers,[iii] parliamentary representatives,[iv] and UN bodies[v] have urged the IRI to cease its violence against peaceful protestors and to recognize the rights of Iranians to bodily autonomy and other human rights. Iranians and their supporters are demanding a combination of social, political, and economic rights. The issues relating to the compulsory hijab and bodily autonomy lie at the epicenter of this sweeping movement. But how can we identify this movement? Are the protestors and their supporters demanding reform? Or are they fighting for a revolution?
Some see revolutions as chaotic, or as unleashing a mob mentality[vi]—a self-defeating entropy. On the other hand, there are those who glorify revolutions as the rising of the oppressed against their oppressors, with the resulting violence necessary to ensure the permanent destruction of the foundations of oppression.[vii] But examples of revolutions (constitutional, communist, Arab) have shown us time and again that these are in fact descriptions of two sides of the same coin. Perhaps what is consistent across most definitions of revolution is the occurrence of “forcible change in government, mass participation, and a change in institutions,” accompanied by a “driving ideology” with a “vision of social justice.”[viii]
The freedom movement of Iran, both within Iran and across the world, appears to meet these criteria. While there are many causes of unrest within the Iranian society (economic shortages and exclusions, brutal treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, and gender inequalities in socioeconomics and politics, to name a few), the unifying cause, the “driving ideology” of this movement, is freedom. This complex idea is enshrined in the slogan of the uprising: “Woman, Life, Freedom.” Chants of “death to Khamenei” and “death to the dictator” also unambiguously reflect the unyielding call for a change, not only in the governing persons, but the institutions which are collectively depicted as the dictatorship. There is no call for negotiation, only the finality best expressed as death.
The participation element is, of course, harder to track. With non-state approved media bans,[ix] internet shutdowns,[x] social media site bans,[xi] and dissemination of false statistics and propaganda by the IRI, [xii] several inaccuracies arise in assessing participation. The most obvious is the issue of lack of access to information. Restrictions of media, denying access to information, and brainwashing society to accept falsehoods as truth make up the IRI’s quintessential Orwellian authoritarianism.
These tactics go a long way to ensure that people are not informed, cannot effectively communicate and collaborate, and, most importantly, cannot unite. In spite of this, Iranian broadcast networks outside the country (such as BBC Farsi, Iran International, and Manoto) have relentlessly published videos of nationwide protests which are sent to them by citizens on the ground.[xiii] These videos show protests ranging in size from one single person on the streets[xiv] to much larger groups;[xv] these numbers are plain to see to the naked eye, whatever the IRI’s refutations.[xvi] However, this information is far from complete and not professionally obtained. All we have are a few amateur videos taken with cell phones, which most of the time capture incomplete information because people must record without being seen.
The second inaccuracy in estimating or perceiving participation arises from the inability to track social media involvement. Without access to the internet and with censorship of most sites (including but not limited to social media platforms), those who may be involved on the ground in Iran are not apparent to us on the outside.
But revolutions are rare. While this fight certainly shows many indications of compliance with a revolutionary movement, we also understand that a ‘revolution’ is an ex post facto description; that is to say, it is a reflective word indicative of an already occurred event. By way of analogy, a revolution is much like an earthquake in that one can predict the conditions that will give rise to one and what defines it, but it is only an earthquake once it has happened.[xvii] The foundational requirement for a revolution is an “unstable social equilibrium” (USE).[xviii] This USE can result from national fiscal strains,[xix] “alienation and opposition among the elite,”[xx] “increasingly widespread popular anger at injustice,”[xxi] “a persuasive shared narrative of resistance,”[xxii] and “favorable international relations.”[xxiii]
There is considerable national economic strain on Iran, not least of all owing to the broad economic sanctions. The elite are, despite appearances, fragile and fragmented between reformists and conservatives.[xxiv] The killing of Mahsa Jhian Amini was the final straw that broke the popular camel’s back, uniting the people in a rebellion which spreads from primary school students[xxv] to oil industry workers[xxvi] and teachers’ unions.[xxvii] The people of Iran now widely share a narrative of resisting the last dictatorship that has plagued them for four decades.[xxviii] And while the support of the international arena has been slow and largely impotent, it does seem to be gaining in speed and force with governments [SJ1] [SJ2] such as Canada,[xxix] the UK,[xxx] and the European Union[xxxi] imposing fresh sanctions. The amalgamation of these factors presents an arguable case for the presumption of a USE in Iran.
There are several “structural” and “transient” [TB3] causes for these disruptions to the social equilibrium.[xxxii] The long-term structural causes include a burgeoning youth population suffering socio-economic crises and unable to create an acceptable standard of living[xxxiii] as well as systemic oppression and abuse of women[xxxiv] and minorities.[xxxv] Relatedly, in the transient causes, the killing of Mahsa Jhian Amini proved to be the galvanizer, stirring the Iranians to stand against the injustices they have so long suffered at the hands of the IRI. To supress demonstrators and regain control, the IRI has only managed, thus far, to further anger and motivate the movement.
While an excellent case can be made for a possible revolution, the first thing to remember is that for all its possibilities, it has not yet happened. While we can characterize certain events as ‘revolutionary,’ it is not yet time to speak of revolutions. It must also be kept in mind that the people of Iran still have many hurdles to overcome: the proven resilience of the IRI in the face of crises; the unwavering support of the government by military and para-military forces; and the burning question of who will take the leadership mantle. Of course, these are all dynamic factors, and Iranians show no signs of backing down.
Ghazal Miyar is an attorney of the High Court of South Africa and doctoral researcher at Sciences Po Paris, specializing in decoloniality of human rights.
[i] “How Two Teenagers Became the New Faces of Iran’s Protests - The New York Times,” accessed October 21, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/13/world/middleeast/iran-protests-killed-teens.html.
[ii] Agence France-Presse, “Iran Protests: Joe Biden Says US Stands with ‘Brave Women’ after Mahsa Amini Death,” the Guardian, October 15, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/oct/15/iran-protests-joe-biden-says-us-stands-with-brave-women-after-mahsa-amini-death.
[iii] Staff and agencies, “Canada to Host Meeting on Iran Protests for World’s Female Foreign Ministers,” the Guardian, October 19, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/19/canada-to-host-meeting-on-iran-protests-for-worlds-female-foreign-ministers.
[iv] “UK Parliament Asked British Government to Take More Decisive Action in Supporting Uprising in Iran - NCRI,” accessed October 21, 2022, https://www.ncr-iran.org/en/news/iran-protests/uk-parliament-asked-british-government-to-take-more-decisive-action-in-supporting-uprising-in-iran/.
[v] “Iran: UN Condemns Violent Crackdown against Hijab Protests,” UN News, September 27, 2022, https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/09/1128111.
[vi] Jack A. Goldstone, Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction, 2013, 2; Daniel Chirot, You Say You Want a Revolution?: Radical Idealism and Its Tragic Consequences (Princeton, UNITED STATES: Princeton University Press, 2020).
[vii] Goldstone, Revolutions, 2.
[viii] Goldstone, 3–4.
[ix] “Press Freedom in Iran,” accessed October 21, 2022, https://www.hrw.org/reports/1999/iran/Iran99o-03.htm.
[x] Sophie Bushwick, “How Iran Is Using the Protests to Block More Open Internet Access,” Scientific American, accessed October 21, 2022, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-iran-is-using-the-protests-to-block-more-open-internet-access/.
[xi] “US Condemns Iran’s Restrictions on Internet Access,” VOA, accessed October 21, 2022, https://www.voanews.com/a/us-condemns-iran-s-restrictions-on-internet-access/6799228.html.
[xii] Najmeh Bozorgmehr, “Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei Blames US and Israel for Street Protests,” March 10, 2022, https://www.ft.com/content/ba83383a-63ed-4a0d-93a4-2e345911b124.
[xvii] Goldstone, Revolutions, 15–16.
[xviii] Goldstone, 16.
[xix] Goldstone, 16.
[xx] Goldstone, 16.
[xxi] Goldstone, 17.
[xxii] Goldstone, 18.
[xxiii] Goldstone, 19.
[xxiv] Sanam Vakil, “Iran’s Elites Are Far More Fragile Than They Look,” Foreign Policy (blog), accessed October 22, 2022, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/01/10/irans-elites-are-far-more-fragile-than-they-look/.
[xxv] “In Iran, Schoolgirls Leading Protests for Freedom,” Human Rights Watch, December 10, 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/10/12/iran-schoolgirls-leading-protests-freedom.
[xxvi] David S. Cloud, “Iran Oil Workers Strike as Antigovernment Protests Expand,” Wall Street Journal, October 10, 2022, sec. World, https://www.wsj.com/articles/iran-oil-workers-strike-as-antigovernment-protests-expand-11665416396.
[xxvii] Celine Alkhaldi Pourahmadi Adam, “Iranian Teachers Call for Nationwide Strike in Protest over Deaths and Detention of Students,” CNN, October 21, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/10/21/middleeast/iran-teachers-nationwide-strike-students-intl/index.html.
[xxviii] “Despite Lethal Repression, Iran’s Protests Continue,” The Economist, accessed October 22, 2022, https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2022/10/12/despite-lethal-repression-irans-protests-continue.
[xxix] “Canada Announces New Iran Sanctions amid Protests over Mahsa Amini Death - National | Globalnews.Ca,” Global News, accessed October 22, 2022, https://globalnews.ca/news/9211475/canada-sanctions-iranian-officials-entities-human-rights-violations-mahsa-amini/.
[xxx] “UK Sanctions Iran over Kamikaze Russian Drones,” GOV.UK, accessed October 22, 2022, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-sanctions-iran-over-kamikaze-russian-drones.
[xxxi] “E.U. Places New Sanctions on Iran for Supplying Russia With Drones - The New York Times,” accessed October 22, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/20/world/europe/eu-sanctions-iran-russia-drones.html.
[xxxii] Goldstone, Revolutions, 21–25.
[xxxiii] https://plus.google.com/113403756129291503583, “Iranian Youth Unemployment Reaches 24 Percent in Q1,” Financial Tribune, July 18, 2022, https://financialtribune.com/articles/domestic-economy/114387/iranian-youth-unemployment-reaches-24-percent-in-q1.
[xxxiv] “Women in Iran: Political Representation without Rights,” Middle East Institute, accessed October 22, 2022, https://www.mei.edu/publications/women-iran-political-representation-without-rights.
[xxxv] “Rights Experts Urge Iran to End ‘Systematic Persecution’ of Religious Minorities,” UN News, August 22, 2022, https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/08/1125162.