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10th Dec 2022

Column

The Iranian regime's expiration date

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Admiration. That is the only way we can look at the 'headscarf revolution' in Iran.

Women are taking to the streets en masse in 30 of Iran's 31 provinces. They are taking off their regime-mandated headscarves, waving them publicly or even burning them. The scale and intensity of the protests are unprecedented, surpassing the revolts of 2009, 2017 and 2019.

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  • This is not the first revolution Iran has faced — the main question is what will happen if Ayatollah Khamenei dies?

The inevitable question, then, is whether or not the Iranian regime is faltering? But also, is there anything the EU should do?

Before trying to answer the first question, and to understand the current protests, we need to go back in time.

When ayatollah Khomeini took power from the Shah in 1979 during the Iranian Revolution, the country was quickly transformed into a strict Islamic state.

Women were required to walk the streets in chador, a black garment that leaves only the face uncovered. Listening to music was banned, as were dancing, nail polish or make-up.

Anyone who has ever read the biographical comic strip Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi knows that this was very strictly enforced by the vice squad. Anyone caught with an illegal cassette of Western music was immediately arrested.

Throughout the more than 40 years since the revolution, many women have increasingly opposed the chador. Step-by-step, they started wearing headscarves with different colours and in such a way that they are increasingly visible.

One Iranian woman told me that she received a comment about this from a municipal official when she had to apply for papers with her mother. Her mother snapped at the official that he should not look at the hair of strange women.

The years of the presidencies of reformist Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021) were a time when women felt they could afford a bit more freedom.

Vice police are back

Under the more conservative presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) and the current Ebrahim Raisi (since 2021), the vice-police and ideological Basij militiamen feel empowered to roll back those small acquired freedoms. By force if necessary.

For instance, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was arrested on 16 September for wearing her headscarf inappropriately. She did not survive her arrest.

This headscarf revolution is therefore about women's rights or human rights in general and police brutality. Moreover, it is a leaderless revolution that is not driven by a leader or a group, but erupted spontaneously.

This makes this uprising very similar to the Arab revolution (or Spring) of 2011.

In Tunisia, an uprising started in December 2010 after a police officer confiscated a street vendor's vegetable cart. When the young man named Mohamed Bouazizi begged her to give him back his only possession, she punched him in the face. In desperation, Bouazizi set himself on fire and died of his injuries two weeks later.

In Egypt, the revolution had been brewing for a year when We Are All Khaled Said was beaten to death by police for posting videos of police brutality on the internet.

The revolution also broke out in Syria in 2011 after secret police tortured children for writing a revolutionary slogan on a wall.

This brings us back to the question of whether the Iranian regime is now faltering? Clearly, the police are not getting the situation under control. Even the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia are too few to keep the angry masses under control.

They often fire at protesters at random from their motorbikes, resulting in at least 60 deaths. Moreover, at least 12,000 people have already been arrested, but even that does not keep the Iranian protesters off the streets.

Regime change?

But despite the chaos, mass resistance and global sympathy for the brave protesters, I consider it rather unlikely that this protest will lead to sudden regime change.

Here too, we can draw lessons from the Arab revolutions.

Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country on 14 January 2011, after a month of street protests. Today, however, it is clear that he, and certainly his wife, had no intention of leaving at all. They were lured by their own security men into a plane that took them to Saudi Arabia. That was the end of his presidency.

Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak also had no intention of giving in to the protests. This is very clear from his speech on 10 February 2011. The fact that he was no longer president a day later was the result of an internal coup against him.

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad learned from these two episodes that concessions were dangerous for his own survival and that he needed to keep a tight rein on himself. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, he did not allow any protests to take place, and stifled any resistance to the hilt. His entourage knew and still knows that if Assad leaves, they too will fall deeply. Therefore, ranks were closed at the top, even if this resulted in a long and very bloody civil war. Still, Assad would never have survived the revolution against him if he had not received full support from Iran.

In short, this is not the first revolution Iran has faced.

The Iranian regime has gained the political upper hand in Syria and Lebanon and has a major stake in the politics of Iraq and Yemen.

Internally, both the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia are dependent and loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader since 1989. Khamenei and his men are therefore doing everything they can to pamper these loyal troops. Moreover, part of the population believes that this regime has a divine mandate, where — unlike a dictator — you cannot simply change the supreme leader.

So the main question is what will happen if Ayatollah Khamenei dies?

His health is not good and he is 83 years old. When he succeeded Ayatollah Khomeini, he initially had some difficulty enforcing authority. One reason was that he lacked the necessary religious credentials. Today, no one stands ready with those credentials, nor with the necessary authority.

In other words, while today's headscarf revolution may not bring about change, let alone regime change, this Iranian regime probably does have an expiration date. Indeed, if today's protests make anything clear, it is that support for the Islamic Republic of Iran has shrivelled in recent years. The day this regime ends will usher in a new era in Middle Eastern history.

However, the EU should not just sit back and wait for this to happen. Since the election of president Rouhani in 2013 and the start of the negotiations on the nuclear deal with Iran, the EU list of sanctioned people has been frozen.

It's now the time to reopen this list and put travel bans and asset freezes on those people from the morality police and the Basij militia who are responsible for the excessive repression and violence on protesters.

The European Union has the instruments. It's the right moment to use them.

Author bio

Koert Debeuf is Middle East research professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels and president of the board of EUobserver. This piece was adapted from a piece in De Standaard.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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