The courageous uprising of young Iranian women is not just about the oppressive symbolism of the obligatory Islamic veil. It has sparked a wave of deeply sincere and necessary international solidarity in support of a movement which is more than a simple revolt. Indeed, it is, on the one hand, a low-intensity conflict involving a myriad of local protests rather than huge demonstrations in the big cities. But it is also a high-intensity conflict in that it is the end result, the synthesis of a dramatic, complex, and paradoxical dynamics which, despite the repression, has never ceased to agitate an Iranian society which has nothing in common with the one that overthrew the Shah in 1979.
Can this new social-political reality bring about a political transformation? The know-how, the experience and the repressive force of the Islamic factions which have governed Iran for forty years now are such that we must not be naive, and avoid pushing the protestors into a tragic blind alley. The Western countries which have never ceased interfering in Iran’s domestic affairs via putsches, sanctions and even wars, may now have an opportunity to reconsider their policies.
Street protests: a legacy of the revolution
A power structure controlled for four decades by the Shi’ite clergy has often been challenged but has always relied on undeniable popular support, built around a revolutionary and nationalist consensus, held together by founding myths: the overthrow of the monarchy, the personality of Ruhollah Khomeiny and above all the Iraq-Iran war (1980–1988). The other consensus, born of the 1979 revolution, is the commitment of every single Iranian to the Republic, to freedom, the right to vote, free speech, the spirit of protest and, if necessary, the right to rebel.
This “revolutionary” spirit is shared by all Iranians, whether they are favourable to the Islamic regime. For its devotees, the “revolution” ended in 1979. It is a sacred model, frozen and unalterable, it cannot change. For its opponents, the “revolutionary,” dissenting spirit of those who had the courage to overthrow the imperial regime, is still alive. Despite the repression, the three generations that have grown up under the Islamic Republic have never stopped speaking out, making demands that were political, economic and today cultural.
At 63, President Ebrahim Raisi is a perfect example of those young Islamist, nationalist and technocratic militants who did not theorise the revolution but served it and subsequently imposed the new political regime. They were not so much ideologues as “apparatchiks.” They were not Khomeiny’s comrades but his “sons.” The war against the US-inspired Iraqi aggression created a bond between the young men of that generation who served as soldiers, Guardians of the Revolution or ordinary militiamen (bassiji). As veterans they were granted material advantages. The whole country is in their hands, be they ministers or clerks in a neighbourhood post office.
Many are still attached to their revolution, their heroic war, and the slogan “Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic”, even if they sometimes regret the third term’s hang stifled the other two. But they do not call into question their youth or the system that nurtured them. For decades “conservatives” and “reformers» have managed the system together and taken on board the 1979 consensus, revolutionary, nationalist, Islamist and anti-American. In 2009, many of them denounced the rigged election (’”Where is my vote?") in Tehran with biggest street demonstrations since 1980, but the Green Movement in support of Mir-Hossein Moussavi, former Prime Minister during the war, never really developed. For that generation (the over-sixties make up 12% of the population), the priority is the stability of the Islamic regime and the preservation of the advantages, moral and material, huge or modest, which they have obtained.
The demoralisation of the new middle classes
Age 30 to 50, these “grandchildren of Khomeiny» have benefited en masse from the very proactive policy of public education implemented by the Islamic Republic in the eighties in order to islamise (and”shi’itise“in the Sunni provinces) the society through the schools and universities. Today, practically the whole population, including women in rural areas and the suburbs, can read and write and Iran has over 4 million students, many of the highest calibre. This new middle class is plethoric (40% of Iranians are between 25 and 60) and are of humble origin. Their parents made the revolution. They are mostly good Muslims but have reservations about Islamist ideology and”Revolutionary" ideals, because their education has opened their minds, allowed them to discover the modern world and given them personal ambitions. Social and economic success for the majority is an objective shared by most people. They are outraged by the corruption of the elites but at the end of the day have accepted a modus vivendi.
In 2015, the conclusion of the nuclear agreement (JCPOA), negotiated mainly between Barak Obama’s USA and Hassan Rouhani’s Iran with the tactic approval of Guide Ali Khamenei gave rise to great hopes of change among all those engineers, cadres, ordinary technicians and workers who are well trained but unemployed. The lifting of economic sanctions immediately brought a rush of foreign companies to Iran. After the painful experience of four decades of political Islamism, a country which had remained at the margins of globalisation emerged at last from its revolutionary isolation to deliver its full potential as an emerging power in every domain, technological, industrial, or artistic. Prosperity and Iranian soft power replaced at last “the Iranian threat” and its revolutionary rhetoric.
The relation was short-lived. By tearing up the nuclear deal in 2018, Donald Trump quite literally “murdered” the ambitious middle class and dashed all hope of a political evolution. Indeed, the new economic sanctions drove Iran to resume its nuclear program, sparked an unprecedented economic crisis and favoured the rise to power of the most radical conservative factions. The disillusionment of young adults, those “grandchildren of Khomeiny” was immense. Most of them abstained in the election that made Ebrahim Raisi president in 2021 and while they approve of their children’s rebellion, they have not joined their movement because they are overwhelmed by the financial crisis, demoralised by the collapse of their professional career, discouraged by the absence of any political alternative and disabused by Europe’s timorous response to Donald Trump.
Following Joe Biden’s election, the talks have resumed in Vienna in an attempt to repair the damage and sign a new JCPOA, but political conditions have changed and the negotiations are repeatedly blocked by one-upmanship on both sides. The United States, subjected to intense Israeli lobbying, as well as certain European countries like France, are always very punctilious when it comes to nuclear issues, while Raisi’s Iran, where many are hostile to any political or economic overtures, demands impossible economic guarantees. It is against this backdrop of dereliction that the revolt of young women has exploded.
They just want to be free
Paradoxically enough, these young women between 15 and 25 are the pure products of two sets of values inherited from the revolution and often neglected by the Islamic Republic: universal education, freedom of speech and above all the spirit of rebellion. This younger generation is small in number since their mothers often had fewer than two children and they do not have the same economic and social responsibilities which their parents had. These college students, high school students or out of work youngsters are not steeped in the myths and memories of a revolution and a war of forty years ago, from even before the fall of the USSR. For them, the wearing of the Islamic veil, which encouraged working-class women to join the mass demonstrations against the Shah, is nothing but an historical relic which has lost all its “revolutionary” value and no longer corresponds to present-day moral standards, even among the poorest classes. They all just want to be free.
Given this environment, women’s situation is exceptional. Many sociological studies have shown the degree to which Iranian women form a social group which is more “coherent” than that of the men, because they have experienced deep transformations (the fall in fecundity, education, their place within the family, work…) which the Islamic regime has always fought against, even though, paradoxically, it has fathered them. Hence, this women’s rebellion signifies a turning in the history of the Islamic Republic, marking as it does the end of the 1979 revolutionary consensus, which unified, in spite of everything, the political life of the country. Which does not mean that the institutions are about to collapse.
The demands and the slogans shouted by the protestors (woman, freedom, life) have little in common with the revolutionary political slogans in the mouths of their grandparents, or the economic worries of their parents. The use of the Internet and the social networks have given rise to a virtual world which is in sharp contrast with the reality in the streets, the society, and the institutions. The Khomeiny revolution was brought about with the help of mini cassettes but these were listened to in those local or cultural circles (dowreh) which still today structure “traditional” Iranian society in the neighbourhoods and villages. Thus, on many subjects a great rift separates this third generation and the two previous ones; which explains both the admiration elicited by this revolt and its fragility, the risk which it runs of being isolated and violently repressed despite the moral support it has obtained at home and abroad.
Throughout the country, many male teenagers and adults from various social groups have joined in the protests, but so far as we know now, the commitment of the second generation appears limited and several regions, especially in central Iran, seem little affected by the uprisings which may therefore be easily put down by the internal security forces (police and Guardians of the Revolution) which were reshuffled in December 2021. Mutatis mutandis, this situation may remind us of May ’68 in France, when the student movement did not take its full dimension until the trades unions joined in the protests.
Conclude the nuclear deal as soon as possible
The revolt of these young women is not simply a new dramatic accident but proof that Iran has changed in depth. To accompany this lasting mutation, a change of policy on the part of Europe and France seems urgent and realistic. In the past, France and some of its European partners have often taken constructive initiatives, especially in 2003 by signing a first nuclear agreement. Unfortunately, besides some empty rhetoric, no concrete actions were forthcoming, either from the USA or the Europeans, except for the imposition of new sanctions the consequences of which, as in the past, were the opposite of those expected: bolstering the Islamic regime in its repressive logic against “foreign agents”. What international political action would be powerful enough to modify in depth and peacefully the balance of power in Iran’s social and political life and consequently support the women’s movement? Quite obviously the only rapid and realistic answer would be the conclusion in Vienna of a new nuclear accord which would put an end to the economic sanctions decreed by Donald Trump, at the same time officialising the right of the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor the Iranian nuclear program.
Today the second generation, the young adults discouraged by the economic crisis, does not carry much political weight, and cannot see what its role could be in this revolt of its children. Iran is under lockdown. Right now there are practically no permanent foreign residents in the country, no news correspondent or academic researchers – except for those in prison. Shutting down the Internet is not difficult. And what good is an unemployed engineer? The question would be different if he or she was at the head of an international company, active once again in Iran after the end of the sanctions. Would it be possible to gaol a woman at the head of a European firm who failed to wear her veil according to the rules? The issues of women’s employment, men’s paternalism, the role of trade unions, would be added to that of the hijab. New prospects for the whole of society.
Of course, the arrival of foreign capital would enable the government to buy social peace, and as per usual, the corrupt elites would profit by it. But most important of all, it would provide Iranian society with the means to liberate itself peacefully. Far from being a gift to the Tehran government, it would be a return to the hopes and dynamism of 2015, bitterly fought by the Conservatives, who advocated “economic and cultural resistance”. At the time they were terrified – and still are – by the prospect of the arrival of large numbers of foreign residents and an uncontrollable economic openness followed by social and cultural changes and, at the end of the day, by political ones.
For a year now the Vienna talks, sponsored by the Europeans, are bogged down. The Iranian women’s revolt will oblige the Europeans and especially the French, when the Vienna talks resume in November, to take the political initiatives and diplomatic steps necessary to make Iran accept a new JCPOA.
Thus, the revolt of the young women of the third generation will not have been in vain, obliging the Tehran government to accept economic openness, the necessary prelude to other changes, to a new national consensus.