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Can Iranian Protests Turn Into A Widespread Social Movement?

Iranian protesters in Isfahan set fire to a motorbike, most probably belonging to riot police. November 16, 2019

Violence by Iranian security forces against protestors in over 100 Iranian cities during the past week have given rise to many political discussions among the people and in the media. The main question is where are widespread protests and social upheavals headed?

Can these upheavals pave the way for a serious change in Iran? Or, do they pose a serious threat to the Islamic Republic?

Answers to these questions are particularly significant as Iranians have already experienced the failure of a social movement in 2009 and a mass upheaval in 2017-18 and have lived through numerous failed civil attempts to change the situation in Iran.

A New Generation of Protest Movements

A major part of social movements against political systems in various countries during the past two decades have special attributes that separates them from previous movements.

In the new generation of social movements during the past two decades, the role of intellectuals, elites, political parties and civil institutions have been marginalized. There is no vertical leadership and instead, social networks and new activists on the Internet are the driving force of these movements.

The same attributes make these movements fragile, as without civil organizations and clear leadership and plan, they are not necessarily always successful although they have a significant mobilizing power.

The 2009 Green Movement in Iran was a good example of digital-age social mobilization and the forerunner of protest movements in the Middle East.

Civil Deadlock and the Culture of Suppression and Humiliation

The latest wave of protests in Iran started with a sudden rise in the price of gasoline against the backdrop of the people's widespread dissatisfaction with their living conditions and the country's mismanagement.

As far as a large part of the Iranian society is concerned, the country's numerous problems are the outcome of the inefficiency and incapability of the religious government, widespread corruption, lack of democracy and transparency, a costly and adventurous foreign policy and various forms of discrimination and injustice.

What Iranian officials call radical behavior on the part of the people, is the direct outcome of the religious government's exemplary stubbornness in rejecting reforms as well as being the results of political deadlock, economic crisis, poverty, discrimination and prejudices against women and the youth.

The sudden and unpredictable nature of protest movements in recent years are also the outcome of these features as well as a distrust of the Islamic regime's officials, limitations imposed on civil organizations, and lack of opportunities to change the situation through the ballot box.

Slogans that call on "Khamenei" or the "Dictator" to "be ashamed" of himself and "leave the country," reflect the people's deep anger and dissent as they undergo many ordeals and do not see any improvement in their situation. On the other hand, the officials show that they do not understand the people's frustrations. The government spokesman acknowledges "people's right to protest," but does not say how one can voice his protest in Iran without fear of violent repression.

While the media are warned not to cover the protests and the state TV only repeats official statements, how can one believe that the government recognizes the people's right to protest. And they have seen that the government's answer to protests has always been threats, beatings, torture, forced confessions or a bullet in the head.

If the people block roads and roundabouts, they want to be seen and heard. This is exactly because they do not trust the claims of officials about recognizing the people's right to protest.

The government and its military forces do not understand the culture of dialogue and listening to civil society. The Iranian society has been stuck in a deadlock for years and activists' efforts have been suppressed.

Slogans and Demands

Another deadlock is the weakness and inefficiency of civil structures. The explosive nature of protests are partly due to this deadlock. First slogans in recent protests only reflected what protestors do not want. Even slogans in support of monarchy are simply nostalgic and do not define a project.

A full-fledged social movement should reflect a collective understanding of something the society wants as an end to crises. Things such as a referendum about the form of government, or a demand for free election under international supervision, or a change in the Constitutional Law, or ending the clerical rule and the like.

Fear of Insecurity and Chaos

Some officials respond to protests by warning about the possibility of insecurity and chaos in a bid to prevent solidarity with protest movements. This explains the use of words such as "thugs, mercenaries paid by foreigners, radicals," and so on. The officials know the psychology of the society and in particular its middle class, so they try to create an association between political struggle and insecurity.

This reminds people of the significance of choosing methods for protest that would create the largest possible coalition among social groups and turn suppression into a moral defeat for the Islamic government.

Protestors need to attract the sympathy and support of the silent majority. It is only in this way that a public movement will be no longer vulnerable to suppression.

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    Saeed Peyvandi

    Professor of sociology from Paris 13 University, Saint Denis, France. He contributes occasionally to Radio Farda.