A different challenge - GulfToday

A different challenge

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Protests over the death of a Mahsa Amini, 22-year-old Iranian woman, outside of the United Nations in New York.

Protracted protests and clashes in Iran following the death in custody of the morality police of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for “bad hijab,” or improper headscarf, are quite different from previous rounds of demonstrations.

This time women have been in the vanguard and backed up by men: the slogan is, “When women lead, men don’t retreat!” The “hijab” has become the symbol of protests and Mahsa Amini has been regarded as a martyr. Demonstrators took to the streets in her hometown in Iranian Kurdistan in the northwest following her burial and protests spread to dozens of cities and towns in most of Iran’s 31 provinces.

The authorities said she she died of heart faiure and was not mistreated while in custody. However, the hospital where she lay in a coma for three days before she died reported she had been struck on the head and was brain dead when she was admitted. Her family argued she died of injuries either while in the van en route to the police station or at the station itself. Her brother, who was with her when she was arrested, was also beaten when he tried to prevent the police from putting her into the vehicle.

Women streamed into the streets demanding abrogation of the law requiring them to wear the hijab. Wearing national dress willingly is one thing and being detained and prosecuted for even slight infringements is another. Millions of Iranian women have been castigated in the streets, shoved into vans, beaten and subjected to “re-education” at police stations over the past four decades.

The protesters’ demand amounts to a direct challenge to the 43-year reign of the clerics who toppled the Shah. The system they installed, Valeyet-e Faqih, which is rule by righteous and infallible Shia jurists. The law dictating female attire was adopted shortly after the regime’s founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power and has been upheld by his successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Therefore, cancelling this law would amount to admission by the clerics that they are mistaken or wrong-headed on this issue.

The hardliners now in power cannot afford to capitulate. Even moderate, reformist administrations did not cancel the law when there were previous, smaller-scale anti-hijab protests.

Iranian mass protests began in earnest in 1999, during the presidency of reformist Mohammd Khatami, when university students took to the streets in July to condemn the closure by hardliners of the reformist newspaper, Salam. The demonstrations spread throughout the country, lasted six days.

The next major demonstrations, known as the Green Revolution, took place a decade later when there were nation-wide protests against the alleged manipulation of the election result which gave victory to a controversial conservative rather than a popular reformist.

In Bloody November 2019, tens of thousands of Iranians, including farmers, took to the streets to demand the reversal of fuel price hikes ranging between 50-200 per cent. Some 1,500 were killed in destructive rioting.

As protests escalated, each round was seen as the largest and most serious popular unrest since the 1978-79 uprising ousted the Shah.

Censorship, elections and the cost of fuel are civil issues and do not challenge fundamental tenets of the clerical regime as does compulsory hijab. This is why Iranian President Ebrahim Raisic said Iranians could protest over economic and political issues — but did not mention the hijab.

The latest demonstrations reflect popular frustration on economic and political as well as social levels as have previous protests and are the most serious since 2019. In all four cases the government has adopted the same response. Security forces are deployed to contain protesters and crack down if this does not halt demonstrations. The army threatens a tough response and pro-government marches are staged to demonstrate the power and popularity of the regime.

Concern has been expressed that the protests could have a negative impact on the protracted negotiations to reinstate the 2015 agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for

lifting sanctions. While a final text has been tabled since August, Iran has continued to demand guarantees that the US will not withdraw from a new deal as Donald Trump did in 2018 and an end to a nuclear monitor probe into traces of uranium found at three undeclared Iranian facilities.

However, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told Al Monitor on Sunday that Tehran is ready to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency to provide technical answers to its queries. This could remove this obstacle, leaving guarantees which are difficult to provide.

While Iran is to blame for the latest stall in concluding a new deal, the current US administration is solely responsible for the long-drawn-out negotiations because the US did not re-enter the agreement as soon as President Joe Biden took office. If Biden had immediately returned without posing conditions outside the ambit of the deal — which he eventually dropped — Iran’s situation might be very different. Given a victory, Iran’s reformists might not have been replaced by a hardline conservative president and government.

Many punitive sanctions would have been removed and Iran would have nearly four years of sanctions relief during the Biden administration to recover from Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanction before the 2024 US presidential elections. This could return an anti-Iran administration which could, again, pull out of the deal. For Iran to prosper, sanctions have to be removed. Sanctions do not target its rulers but Iranian civilians who become victims of collective punishment which is illegal under international law.

The main driver of all four rounds of protest is economic pressure on Iranian citizens caused in large part by hundreds of sanctions enforced by the US since 1979. Sanctions prevent Iran from exporting oil freely, depriving the country of revenues to grow the economy, create jobs, and invest in infrastructure, manufacturing and other sectors. Sanctions are depriving the country of foreign currency needed to import essential goods such a food, medicine, medical devices and spare parts for Western-built commercial aircraft.

While sanctions impact men, women and children are especially vulnerable because sanctions deny struggling households food, basic consumer goods, and medicine.  

Photo: TNS

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