Protests in IranOn the eve of a new world era?
Four days after the start of protests, the ailing 84-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei just about managed to utter the following sentence in what remains his most recent address to date: "When one is in the midst of events, it is not possible to have an overview of what is happening." How true. This sentence is just ten days old and it is the only one spoken by the most powerful man in Iran about the death of the 22-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, which has moved people around the world. People can interpret this silence however they like: it could be an expression of fear, surprise or – as Khamenei himself says – a lack of overview. The events themselves continue unabated, becoming bloodier by the day.
A world revolution?
The face of Iran will certainly not be the same as it was before Mahsa's death. The faces of the Middle East and the Islamic world will not be the same as they were before her death either. Just as the Islamic Revolution rocked the entire Islamic world 43 years ago, these protests – with their rallying cry of "Woman, life, freedom" – will undoubtedly change much beyond the borders of Iran.
Be it the Taliban, Islamic State, al-Qaida or even the recent Islamisation of Turkey by Erbakan and Erdogan, all these developments were Sunni responses, alternative political models to the Shia revolution in Iran. Just like the October Revolution in Russia in 1917, the mullahs' seizure of power in Iran 43 years ago was undoubtedly a world revolution. With the recent protests, the world is coming to the end of political Islam as we know it. It is by no means an exaggeration to say that the Iran after Mahsa's death will be very different to the one that came before it. Nevertheless, much remains uncertain.
Who are the people taking to the streets?
Much is being written at the moment about who the people taking to the streets of Iran are and why the image of Mahsa Amini has become the symbol of a pre-revolutionary state. Some of it is useful, some of it informative, some of it banal. But what about the people on the other side? How are the powers-that-be reacting? And in what direction do will they move?
Different people are demonstrating on the streets for a wide variety of reasons. The pent-up rage of four decades of diverse, legally sanctioned discrimination is spilling out onto the streets. A "We" has risen up against the system – a system in which women, religious and national minorities and indeed anyone who has different ideas about the way they want to live suffer.
The people are protesting against an order in which incompetent and thoroughly corrupt rulers want to cling to power with lies, propaganda, brutality and taqiyya, the Shia art of dissimulation – no matter what the cost. Whether the "We" on the streets will overcome the system of degradation and discrimination depends on the powers that be.
For 33 years, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has officially been the Supreme Leader of this "republic" and commander in chief of its armed forces. In over three decades of his leadership, he has seen much unrest and many protests against his rule, peaceful and radical alike. In 2009, over three million people took part in a silent march against the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "Where is my vote?" was the rallying cry of protesters at the time.
This protest was more or less inherent to the system. However, at the end of several months of rebellion, Khamenei ordered a crackdown. It is well documented what the outcome was: hundreds of people were killed and injured and thousands were arrested.
Proteste im #Iran - im Video versuchen die Sicherheitskräfte, Protestierende davon abzuhalten, von ihren Wohnungen aus Parolen gegen das Regime zu rufen. Sie schießen mit Schrottflinten Wild herum. Parolen hören aber nicht auf. #Mahsa_Amini #MahsaAmini #IranProtests #مهسا_امینی pic.twitter.com/5wsm071cti
— Iran-Journal (@iran_journal) September 27, 2022
[Translation: "Protests in #Iran – in the video security forces, firing shotguns at random, are trying to stop protesters from shouting anti-regime slogans from their homes. But the slogans do not stop."]
Ten years later, when tens of thousands took to the streets in over 80 cities across the country, shouting radical slogans in protest at rising prices, Khamenei did not hesitate. He very quickly gave orders for the Internet to be shut down all over the country and for massive violence to be used. When the dust settled, it was discovered that the security forces had killed at least 1,500 protesters and arrested thousands in the space of ten days.
His will is done
In short, the will of the Supreme Leader determines where and how a protest ends and whether or not demonstrations – be they peaceful or radical – achieve anything. The constitution grants Khamenei power that is almost as absolute as his own will for power. It is unclear how long he will be able to enforce his will. Probably not that much longer.
On the day Mahsa died, the New York Times reported that Khamenei had cancelled all meetings and public appearances in the previous week after falling seriously ill. It went on to say that he was under observation by a team of doctors, according to four people familiar with his health situation.
According to the New York Times report, the Ayatollah had undergone surgery the previous week for bowel obstruction after suffering extreme stomach pains and high fever. It said that the four people who had confirmed the report, two of whom were based in Iran, including one who had close ties with the country's Revolutionary Guards, had asked for anonymity for discussing such a highly sensitive issue as Ayatollah Khamenei's health.
Thanks to the Internet, the news spread like wildfire. After two days of official silence, the press office of the Revolutionary Guards announced that the Supreme Leader would soon be making an appearance. Two days later, he did indeed appear and, for the first time in his long rule, made a brief speech in a quiet voice while standing up. It was then that he uttered the above-mentioned sentence about being in the midst of events.
The Iranian press subsequently crowed that this address was proof that the Western press had been lying. The New York Times then wrote that despite – or perhaps because of – this bizarre appearance, it stood by its reports about Khamenei's health and stressed their correctness.
Kurdish women in Northern Syria cut their hair and burn their headscarves in solidarity with the women of Iran and in protest of the murder of their Kurdish sister Mahsa Zhina Amini.#MahsaAmini #ZhinaAmini pic.twitter.com/aKJ21gbCns
— Yashar Ali یاشار (@yashar) September 27, 2022
The son, the system and the future
Regardless of how ill or how well he is, or how long he has to live, Khamenei wants more than just to save the few years of rule he has left. His priorities are also his Islamic order and – more importantly – his successor.
"Mojtaba, you should die and not become leader" ("مجتبی بمیری رهبری را نبینی") are words currently being chanted on the streets of Tehran. Mojtaba is Khamenei's favourite son, and his will for power seems to be as boundless as his father's. In line with his father's system, Mojtaba is said to be equipped with sufficient brutality: he is equally as fanatically anti-Western as his father – at least according to those who know him well. One can only guess what the future holds for the men and women of Iran.
Khamenei Senior is currently experiencing a new phase of his rule that he hadn't anticipated. Not only he, but almost all those who know Iran well – including renowned sociologists and political scientists – were taken by surprise and are asking themselves how and why this eruption came about.
Given the rampant inflation, the rising unemployment and the lack of prospects, experts were expecting the poorest of the poor to rise up in hunger in the near future – the middle classes, after all, have been completely neutralised both economically and politically. However, no one protesting about the death of Mahsa Amini is talking about work, bread or inflation.
Mahsa was a Kurdish woman and the chant "Woman, life, freedom" ("زن، زندگی، آزادی ") started in Iranian Kurdistan and reverberated around the country – and around other regions with other minorities and among Balochs, Arabs and Azeris – so loudly that it could not be ignored. And that says a lot about solidarity across ethnic boundaries.
© Iran-Journal 2022