1st Jun 2023


The Iranian regime's expiration date

Listen to article

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • 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.


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


2011: The 'Arab Spring' was a great dream

"I was a very regular girl, working in sales and marketing. No one in my family was politically active. There was no justice anywhere, but we all kept silent. For some reason, I started to feel angry about it."


Lessons learned by an EUobserver editor-in-chief

The European project moves forward not 'despite' criticism, but thanks to those critical voices pushing for more cooperation and more democratic transparency. That is why European journalism is essential to the European project.


Why the West is losing support

Europe and the US are seen as imposing rules upon the rest but not following these rules themselves. Europe is insisting on democracy, human rights and the rule of law in third countries — but not several EU member states.


To avoid war, enforce the centre

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold", W.B. Yeats wrote. Yet now, a century later in Europe — from Italy, to Hungary, to Belgium and the Netherlands, even in the European Parliament — the centre is shrinking.

The EU needs to foster tech — not just regulate it

The EU's ambition to be a digital superpower stands in stark contrast to the US — but the bigger problem is that it remains far better at regulation than innovation, despite decades of hand-wringing over Europe's technology gap.

EU export credits insure decades of fossil-fuel in Mozambique

European governments are phasing out fossil fuels at home, but continuing their financial support for fossil mega-projects abroad. This is despite the EU agreeing last year to decarbonise export credits — insurance on risky non-EU projects provided with public money.

Latest News

  1. How EU leaders should deal with Chinese government repression
  2. MEPs pile on pressure for EU to delay Hungary's presidency
  3. IEA: World 'comfortably' on track for renewables target
  4. Europe's TV union wooing Lavrov for splashy interview
  5. ECB: eurozone home prices could see 'disorderly' fall
  6. Adapting to Southern Europe's 'new normal' — from droughts to floods
  7. Want to stop forced migration from West Africa? Start by banning bottom trawling
  8. Germany unsure if Orbán fit to be 'EU president'

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Sustainable Finance CentreJoin CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, 15 – 19 May 2023, high-level event for finance & business
  2. ICLEISeven actionable measures to make food procurement in Europe more sustainable
  3. World BankWorld Bank Report Highlights Role of Human Development for a Successful Green Transition in Europe
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic summit to step up the fight against food loss and waste
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersThink-tank: Strengthen co-operation around tech giants’ influence in the Nordics
  6. EFBWWEFBWW calls for the EC to stop exploitation in subcontracting chains

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. InformaConnecting Expert Industry-Leaders, Top Suppliers, and Inquiring Buyers all in one space - visit Battery Show Europe.
  2. EFBWWEFBWW and FIEC do not agree to any exemptions to mandatory prior notifications in construction
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ways to prevent gender-based violence
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: Economic gender equality now! Nordic ways to close the pension gap
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: Pushing back the push-back - Nordic solutions to online gender-based violence
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: The Nordics are ready to push for gender equality

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us