Mustafa Fahs

Is Iran At a Crossroads?

In its effort to quell the crisis of protests over the murder of Mahsa Amini by the morality police, the Iranian regime has done many things in parallel.

To turn attention away from the protests that have been ongoing (though their scale has been oscillating throughout) for two weeks, it invoked and inflated the conspiratorial role of the West and took its fury out on the opposition Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, targeting its sites in northern Iraq with 73 ballistic missiles, which almost led to massacre as one of those missiles landed near a children’s school close Erbil.

In doing so, the IRGC sought to present itself as waging a foreign war against an armed group associated with Iran’s enemies that is sowing domestic unrest.

As the protests enter their third week, however, the Iranian government has not achieved its objectives. It has failed to incite national and sectarian strife aimed at creating rifts among the protesters after the protests went beyond their national and regional dimensions, spreading to regions scattered across Iran.

And despite the violence that the regime has met these protests with, as dozens fell to the fire of the security forces, Tehran has struggled to stifle the protests. So far, the viciousness that the protesters have been subjected to has not stopped the spread of their movement. However, it is only the middle class and university students who are protesting. They have adopted a strategy of gathering in small groups, which allows them to mobilize and come together, as well as retreat to avoid arrest and repression, swiftly.

Thus, these protests can go on at this rate for weeks. Nonetheless, for this movement to turn into a popular uprising, it requires shifts, which it does not seem will come soon, in public opinion across class and ethnic lines. The current protests could be considered the most threatening to the nature of the Iranian regime to date. Still, in order to avoid the fates of those that preceded them over the past ten years, they must succeed in going beyond the traditional conditions that Iranian society, which has the capacity to decide their fate, has imposed on movements for change.

The movement for change in Iran must bring two dichotomous communities together. The first dichotomy is one of ethnicity, as the movement must garner the support of the Persians and Azeris, the two largest ethnic groups in Iran whose members hold the levers of power within state institutions; strong participation on their part ensures popular support for any protest movement.

The second dichotomy is one of social class. The middle class must ally with those who live on limited incomes. The former cannot continue with the impetus of the latter. The two coming together would prevent the regime and its apparatuses from co-opting the impoverished and taming them with promises, as well as preventing the isolation of the middle class, especially university students.

On the opposite side of the fence, it seems that Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who considers Amini’s murder to be part of a “conspiracy plotted against Iran to curtail its progress,” has implicated the Iranian judicial establishment by calling on it to investigate the circumstances surrounding her death. This institution, which falls directly under the supreme leader’s supervision, faces a grave threat as Raisi awaits its final report.

The judicial establishment has two options. On the one hand, it can affirm that the police had made a mistake and call for the punishment of the perpetrators, which would have implications for the future of the relationship between the institutions and apparatuses of the state; it would also push the members of these apparatuses to behave with caution and become less vicious in their treatment of citizens in order to avoid punishment going forward.

On the other hand, if the Iranian judiciary decides not to punish the perpetrators, ruling that Amini’s death was the result of their torture, it would induce a strong reaction on the Iranian street.

Raisi is indeed facing a conundrum as he decides between these two difficult choices; regardless of whether he condemns the perpetrators directly, the morality police as a whole, or the victim, his decision will have a strong ripple effect.

And so, it seems that the next few days will carry many surprises, but one constant remains. Iran is facing changes that put it at a complicated crossroads, and it will face major or marginal losses whichever direction it takes.