Iranian Protests over the Killing of "Mahsa Amini" and the Limits of Influence

Position Paper | This paper addresses popular protests in Iranian cities, raising many important questions, such as: What are the limits of the impact of these protests on the Iranian regime? Will such protests this time be different from the previous protests the country witnessed? What are the limits of external support for the protests, and how does that support affect the protests tracks?

by Dr. Shehata Al-Arabi
  • Release Date – Oct 2, 2022

Since September 18, 2022, many Iranian cities are witnessing popular protests, following the killing of 22-year-old Iranian woman, Mehmsa Amini, after she was detained by the "Morality Police" on the pretext of not adhering to the rules of religious dress regarding the hijab.

These protests led to the death and injury of dozens at the hands of security forces, who have adopted a hardline policy in dealing with demonstrators, the matter that brought international criticism to Tehran, both by European countries and the United States of America, as well as by international human rights organizations, especially those concerned with women's rights.

The protests Iran is witnessing are raising many important questions, including: What are the limits of the protests impact on the regime in Tehran? Will such protests be different this time, compared to the previous protests in the country? What are the limits of external support for the protests, and how does that support affect the protests’ tracks?

Timing and Factors of Influence

The protests come at a difficult time for Iran. On the external level, Iran is engaged in difficult and complex negotiations on the revival of the nuclear agreement signed in 2015, such negotiations entered a decisive stage, or the stage of "finger-biting". Therefore, these protests weaken the position of the Iranian regime, especially if the frequency of protest increases in the coming period, and in a way that may strengthen domestic divisions over them. In addition to the coincidence of the protests with the indirect confrontation between Tehran and Tel Aviv, which reverberated on Iranian territory, the continuation of the protest would provide opportunities for Tel Aviv to interfere in Iran's domestic arena. The protests might also weaken the control of Iran's security and intelligence services, in a manner that made us witness covert attacks against military or nuclear facilities, possibly by foreign parties.

Domestically, the protests come in light of the frequent reports of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s illness. These protests –somehow- affect the debate and conflict within the regime over nominating a successor to the Leader. Thus, the protests may have effects on the level of cohesion within the regime, especially if the absence of the leader, from the political arena, becomes significantly noticeable.

On the regional level, Iran is facing a major crisis, regarding its influence in Iraq and Lebanon, in light of the strong disputes between Shiite forces in Iraq, besides the great political crisis that Lebanon is suffering therefrom, for which Hezbollah, Tehran's main ally in Lebanon and the region, is responsible.

Most importantly, these protests come under hard economic and living conditions that the Iranian people suffer from for many reasons. This means that the Iranian arena is ready for any demonstrations or popular protests. In this context, opponents of the Iranian regime at home and abroad are betting that such protests could be the spark that would ignite the whole situation, then overthrows the regime or, at least, pushes it to fundamentally change its domestic and foreign orientations.

Limited Impact (Factors and Dimensions)

Despite the above considerations, there are a lot of factors that lead to the argument, that the fate of these protests probably will not be different from previous ones, in the sense that the protests will end without much influence on the regime, who will be able to control them whatever the losses might be, the most important of such factors are:

First: The Rough Approach

There are precedents of more powerful and unified popular protests Iran witnessed over the past years, but not succeeded in changing the regime or undermining its hardline characteristic. Such protests include the demonstrations in 2009 that erupted in protest against the victory of former Iranian President, Ahmadinejad, for a second presidential term; where the regime was accused of fraud. Then, the protests spread throughout Iran in what was called the "Green Movement". However, the regime succeeded in putting them down, despite such protests crossed many red lines in criticism, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The same fate was waiting for the 2017-2018 protests that erupted protesting against the high cost of living, and the hard economic conditions in the country.

There are also the 2019 protests, known as the Fuel Protests, for they erupted in protest against the rise in fuel prices, spreading in almost all Iranian cities, and characterized by great intensity and momentum. During Fuel Protests, the authorities cut off the Internet, and were able to control the protests by using brute force against protesters.

This means that the Iranian regime has an experience in dealing with such protests, no matter how severe they may be, and has a history of crushing them, the matter which makes the regime ready to deal with the current protests in the same way, especially since they appear, so far, to be less impetus than their predecessors.


Second: the Religious Dimension

There is an important religious dimension in these protests. In June 2022, the Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, ordered to make the necessary coordination between cultural and executive bodies and institutions, in order to implement the decision of the parliament and the decision of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution of 2005 on the hijab and chastity. This puts the issue in a different context from the context of previous protests; the regime promotes the idea that those who are behind the protests oppose the state's religious moral principles, and that it is not about women's rights, but that this slogan is being taken as a means of harming the regime by "enemies" according to Iranian official and media discourse. This speech is accepted by conservative and religious currents.

Moreover, the forces tasked with confronting these protests, whether the Basij or the Revolutionary Guards, are ideological, meaning that they are willing to do anything to defend the regime, because they view any protest movement against the regime as a "foreign conspiracy" by hostile parties, the matter that is reflected in the adoption of a rough approach to popular protests.

Although the Iranian authorities talked about opening an investigation on the killing of the young Iranian woman in detention, the regime, at the same time, showed a tough pace in halting the protests. The Iranian police command warned that its units will "with all their might" confront the demonstrators, saying "Today the enemies of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and some rioters, seek to tamper with public order and the security of the nation, using various pretexts".

This situation makes the cost of protests for the protesters be hefty, so that it would not be tolerated over time, then, gradually shall such protest regress as in previous protests.

Third: Women Protests

Compared to the previous protests in Iran, the current one looks like women protests, given the control of the female element over them, especially since it is a women's issue, namely the hijab. This undoubtedly reduces the strength and impact of these protests compared to previous protests that included most segments of the people and not a group in themselves.

Moreover, this time, the issue is not about living issues, related to people's lives such as high prices, hard economic situation, corruption or other issues, rather, they are related the issue of freedoms, especially freedom of dress. This puts such protests in a narrow scope on the one hand, and allows the regime to besiege them and portray them as "liberal" protests supported by the West and carried out by "Western-oriented" currents.

Fourth: Lack Leadership

Unlike the Green Movement demonstrations in 2009 that had clear, visible, and well-known leaders such as Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mohammad Khatami, and Mehdi Karroubi, the protests over the killing of young Iranian woman, Mehsa Amini, without having a leadership or without a head (so to say) in the describing protests of such kind. This is the protests’ Achilles heel, because the lack of leadership affects the cohesion of the protesters, as well as the nature of international support for them.

Fifth: Lack of Foreign Support

In spite of the support statements or the protestors in Iran, issued by Western capitals, especially the U.S., but the foreign support for such protests is faint, ineffective, and exceeding nothing but verbal statements. It seems that the Iranian regime and the protestors alike are aware of the foreign support limits, the matter that encourages the authorities to practice more suppression facing the protestors, while making the protestors disappointed at the same time, pushing them back as time passes.

Such position was repeated with all the demonstrations Iran witnessed during the past years, where the Western support, especially the U.S one, was nothing but verbal support even during president Donald Trump term, who adopted towards Iran policies that were the most radical in the past decades.

There is also another consideration which underestimates the U.S. support to the protests in Iran, that is the world, especially the U.S. are busy in the crisis in Ukraine and the hazardous repercussions it has on all levels. This gives the Iranian regime a wide space to use its different tools to confront any protests, without being worry of the international positions.

With that being said, the protests on the killing of Mahsa Amini would likely be not different, in terms of effect and result, from the previous protests Iran witnessed during the past years, even that such protests' success will not be more than some amendments on the Morality Police's method of work, especially after the criticism against the Morality Police from inside the regime concerning such method of work. An example for that is what the government-affiliated Promoting Virtues and Combating Vices Authority requested, to "halt arresting the women who do not put their hijab appropriately on, or who may make their hair be explicit, for this would flare the domestic situations up" to be limited to "issue a law that allows imposing a financial fine against women". Some parliamentarians also called to review such Police's method of work, as they cause many damages to the country.  

The opinions expressed in this study are those of the author. Strategiecs shall bear no responsibility for the views and/or opinion of its author on security, economic, social, and other issues, as they do not necessarily represent the views of the Think Tank.

Dr. Shehata Al-Arabi

A Researcher on Middle east