Omer Onhon

Resentment and the Crisis in Iran

The wave of protests in Iran ignited by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on September 17 continues to this day. The number of people killed is unknown but it is said to be close to 200 and maybe even more.

In fact, this is one of the many crises Iran has experienced throughout the years. For instance, in 2009, many Iranians who believed that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected for a second term only as a result of irregularities and election rigging took to the streets.

In 2019, they were back on the streets because of steep increases in fuel prices.

Every time, they were faced with forceful and fatal intervention from security forces.

There are three main features of the current crisis.

- Women are at the forefront. Amini became a victim and the symbol for what she was not supposed to do as a woman. Iranian morality police detained Amini, because in their judgement, she was not wearing her headscarf properly. Many female demonstrators are now burning their headscarves and their slogans show that their patience has reached its limits.

- Amini was ethnically Kurdish and there is a big Kurdish angle to the present crisis. The riots first started in her hometown and spread all over the country. The western press is especially keen to emphasize these aspects.

- Demonstrators on the street are mostly young people, including the generation Z. (Iran has a population of 85 million out of which 24.11 percent are between the ages of 0-14 years and 62.3 percent between 15-54 years).

Even though each group has its own specific reasons for not being content with the regime, they have common ground on a majority of issues built on the basis of expectations and disappointments.

On the domestic front, political oppression, corruption, economic mismanagement and abuses of all sorts are very much present. In fact, these were among the main reasons which pushed Iranians to rise up against the Shah regime and topple it in 1979. Actors have changed, but the essence is the same.

On the economic level, inflation, a very weak currency, a percentage of the population living below the poverty line and loss of wealth are among major problems.

We need to remember that we are talking about a country which is among the richest in the world in terms of proven natural gas and oil reserves. These ever-valuable assets are even more so at a time when most of the industrial world is in search of alternative gas suppliers.

Sanctions have a lot to do with the current economic difficulties Iran is facing, but to put all the blame on them would be misleading.

Regarding international relations and foreign policy, Iran is a major regional actor. It has ambitions; regional, nuclear and other.

Iran is at the center of what is called the “resistance axis” against Israel. This and the position it pursues in the Shiite world, the so-called Shiite Belt extending from Iran to Lebanon, deep involvement in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen are worrisome for many in the East and West.

The Iranian regime must have been concerned with the current crisis which is said to be different from the previous ones in the country’s history.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called Amini's family and promised a thorough investigation. The Speaker of the Parliament talked about the need to reform the morality police’s approach. The parliament set up a committee to investigate.

All these may be seen positive. But at the end, the official investigation report stated that “Amini had died of a disease rather than as a result of beating” and protestors continue to be countered with brute force and more repression.

A regime of that sort cannot be expected to give in easily. This regime, as all others like it, is convinced that any concession or step which could be perceived as a concession would lead to the weakening of absolute power, leading to an eventual total loss of power.

The reflexes of the Iranian regime are the same in all countries where leaders and regimes are unsure and unsafe and their preferred method to control is oppression and use of force. Look what happened in Syria and how Iran acted there.

One of the most remembered self-protection moves by the regime was back in 2021 when Khemani took measures to make sure that his candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, won the presidential elections. These measures included barring any candidate who could pose a challenge to Raisi.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Basij Resistance Force and the morality police are the ideologically loyal bodyguards of the system. They have identified their lives with that of the regime’s as they make a living out of this system. If the system is gone, they will lose all that.

Under direct command of Khamenei, the Iranian security apparatus appears to be determined to protect the system at the expense of going to the very extremes.

It must also be said that the regime continues to have its staunch supporters. Not all Iranian women are burning their headscarves.

Iran blames the west for inciting the protests. It argues that this is one of the many conspiracies against Iran by the enemy. True, Iran has many enemies, but the crisis can by no means be attributed to this alone.

The Iranian regime vows not to allow chaos and disorder. But the fact is that it is basically their way of ruling and their actions, which have led to what they call chaos and disorder.

At one point there is always an incident which leads to an outburst of negative energy in society. This is not unique to Iran.

The street riots in the US when George Floyd was killed by the police were a revolt against the never-ending racial prejudices and discrimination. The street riots in France on a number of occasions also fall in the same category.

I remember listening to Iranian officials who claimed at the time that these demonstrations and riots were purely because of the system and attitudes in these countries. The same Iranian authorities claim that crises in Iran are a result of outside intervention.

Iranians who are out in the streets challenging the regime demand changes. Many want to get rid of it. They have the courage but there is no symbol figure as leader and no organizing political structure.

On the other hand, some Iranians who are not happy with the way the country is run, do not want to change the regime but to improve it. These are the reformers from within the system which the conservatives dislike and probably even fear more than the other group.

The West in general is backing the demonstrators but nothing like the support they give to Ukraine.

That is not surprising on many accounts. Just imagine a crisis of such a magnitude in Iran which would have effects beyond its borders especially at a time with all that is going on in Ukraine and with Russia.