How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The current protests in Iran sound the death knell of the Islamic Republic. The killing in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was arrested for wearing the hijab incorrectly, has unleashed a wave of angry and bloody demonstrations, boycotts, work stoppages, and wildcat strikes that have exhausted the country’s security forces and spread to more than 100 cities. The government has endured major protests before, notably in 2009, 2017, and 2019, but these demonstrations are different. They embody the anger that Iranian women and young Iranians feel toward a regime that seeks to stifle their dearest desires. And they promise to upend Iran’s establishment.
Since Iran’s 1978–79 revolution, the Islamic Republic has relegated women to second-class status under sharia and the strictures of the Iranian constitution. But women, especially young women, have had enough, and they are now volubly rejecting the requirement to wear hijabs along with the social order that the Islamic Republic has sought to impose on the country. Some women have burned their headscarves, an act that two months ago was punishable by lashing and a jail sentence but now is not that rare an act in Iranian cities.
It is said that revolutions devour their children, but in Iran the grandchildren are devouring the revolution. Iran’s clerics have responded to this existential challenge with brute force, but violence and repression will not snuff out the will of a nation so roused against its government.
The Islamic Republic rests on three ideological pillars: vehement opposition to the United States, obdurate antagonism toward Israel, and institutional misogyny, especially in the form of compulsory hijab rules requiring women to wear coverings in public spaces. If any of these pillars weakens, the whole edifice of the Islamic Republic falls down. Tehran needs enmity with the United States and Israel to keep the revolutionary flame alive. Anti-Americanism is seared into the Islamic Republic’s identity. The enforcement of the dress code for women is also a redline for the clerical leadership. The compulsory wearing of the hijab is to the Islamic Republic what the Berlin Wall was to communism, a symbol not just of power and endurance but of vulnerability. The Berlin Wall was also an admission of the fragility of the communist system, which depended on exercising great control over people. Similarly, compulsory hijab laws reflect the Islamic Republic’s fear of allowing its citizens personal freedoms and its intent to control society by treating women as if they are pieces of property to be corralled and protected. Once the Berlin Wall fell, communism was doomed. The same fate awaits the Islamic Republic once women can throw off their veils and participate in social life as men do.
The Islamic Republic began to enforce dress codes on women soon after the Iranian revolution. The architects of the revolutionary state wanted to control how women dressed in public, banning tight-fitting clothes, bright colors, and makeup and insisting that women cover their hair. Under the country’s compulsory veiling laws, women and girls as young as seven are forced to wear a headscarf. Women who disobey face harsh punishment and are often charged with “inciting corruption and prostitution.” The state has given a number of women, including the activist Yasaman Aryani and her mother, Monireh Arabshahi, jail sentences—some as long as 16 years—for defying these laws. But hundreds more have paid and continue to pay that price for seeking the freedom to choose how to dress.
Compulsory wearing of the hijab is to the Islamic Republic what the Berlin Wall was to communism.
Iranian women have never quietly accepted the imposition of the headscarf. In 2014 alone, according to government figures, Iran’s so-called morality police (the detachment of Iranian law enforcement charged with upholding Islamic moral standards) warned, fined, or arrested 3.6 million women for “inappropriate dress.” Data for subsequent years were not publicly released, probably because it would reveal the extent to which Iranian women are fed up with restrictions on their dress. Even before Amini’s death, Iran’s clerics could sense the rising tide against the hijab. In early July 2022, the morality police issued warnings to women that they would be arrested if they did not comply with the hijab requirement. On July 12, the authorities held the annual celebration marking the National Day of Hijab and Chastity, which involved public rallies by pro-government loyalists in large stadiums to encourage the wearing of the hijab. But simultaneously, many women challenged the regime, using the hashtag #no2Hijab on social media and posting videos and photographs of women not wearing the hijab in public spaces. The regime arrested and beat up some of these dissenters and forced them to make apologies on national TV.
Iranian officials have used footage from surveillance cameras in public places such as subways and motorways to help identify and fine women who flout the mandatory hijab rule. The chief of the Headquarters for Enjoining Right and Forbidding Evil, a government body responsible for enforcing Islamist laws, warned in August that women who post pictures of themselves without a hijab on the Internet will be deprived of some social rights for six months to one year. Authorities have prevented women whom they perceive not to be in full compliance with the dress code from entering government offices and banks and from riding on public transportation.
Such measures have not stopped Iranian women from resisting the hijab. For the past decade, the authorities have had to deal with greater online militancy by Iranian women. With traditional media completely controlled by the state, Iranians have flocked to social media, especially platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Twitter, and WhatsApp, to push back against the veil. For instance, millions follow the social media campaign “My Stealthy Freedom,” which seeks to get rid of compulsory hijab laws in Iran, and its various initiatives, such as White Wednesdays (encouraging women to wear white scarves on Wednesdays as a sign of dissent), Walking Unveiled (when women unveil themselves in public), Men in Hijab (when men post pictures of themselves wearing hijab), and My Camera Is My Weapon (in which women share mobile phone footage of abusive men or interactions with the morality police), all designed to enable women to challenge the onerous dress code. The campaigns have empowered women to take off their hijabs and defy the strictures of the regime. Using their mobile phones, women have shared so many videos of morality police harassment via “My Stealthy Freedom” that the government introduced a 2019 law that made sending videos to the campaign an offense punishable by ten years of imprisonment.
For the regime, trying to control a young generation that wants social change and stronger connections to the West is an uphill battle. Despite widespread censorship, Iran’s Internet penetration rate (the percentage of the country’s population that have access to the Internet) at the beginning of 2022 was 84 percent, a high mark. Iran has over 130 million mobile subscriptions, which gives the country of 84 million people a staggering mobile phone penetration rate of 161 percent, with the average person having more than one phone. The reported number of Internet users in 2022 increased to 72 million from 58 million in 2020, and the real figure could be even higher.
Although the regime has banned many websites and social media platforms, Iranians have found ways to bypass censorship through the use of virtual private networks, or VPNs. According to a member of the Iranian parliament who was lamenting how strict censorship laws force Iranians to circumvent them, almost 80 percent of Iranians with Internet access have installed anti-filter and VPN software to evade censorship.
Young Iranians want the same freedoms and choices available to youth in the West. The Islamic Republic cannot bend to these desires without undermining its own authority, so it has contended violently with this wave of protests. Authorities have killed dozens of women, including 16-year-olds Sarina Esmailzadeh in Gohardasht and Nika Shakarami in Tehran.
The protests in Iran put the West in an awkward position. The Biden administration has tried hard to restore some version of the nuclear deal that the Trump administration jettisoned. But this deal cannot be salvaged. The Islamic Republic is not an honest broker: it has a track record of cheating (failing, for instance, in May to answer International Atomic Energy Agency probes about unexplained traces of uranium at three undeclared sites) and it has yet to fully come clean on its past attempts to develop a nuclear program with potential military uses. And worse, should U.S. President Joe Biden manage to reach some compromise with Iran, a new deal would fly in the face of his forceful condemnation of the regime’s crackdown on protesters. Any deal would likely release billions of dollars to the Iranian government, funding the same authorities who are viciously attacking citizens in the streets.
Instead, Biden needs to take a clear and forthright stand. He should use the bully pulpit of his office to deliver a major address on Iran—speaking to its people, its diaspora, and the world. Biden should applaud the democratic ambitions of the Iranian people and move beyond the White House’s narrow focus on the nuclear issue to demand that the human rights of protesters be respected. The administration has made the contest between autocracy and democracy a central theme of its foreign policy. Iran should be part of that policy. It is time to encourage the Iranian people to fulfill their democratic aspirations.
Beyond rhetoric, the U.S. government and its western European allies involved in making the nuclear deal should halt negotiations with the Islamic Republic as long as Iranian authorities are suppressing the protests and throttling the Internet. The United States should introduce respect for human rights as a condition for continuing any negotiations. Congress should also refuse to release frozen Iranian funds in foreign banks, conditioning doing so on tangible improvement in Iran’s treatment of its citizens.
It is time to encourage the Iranian people to fulfill their democratic aspirations.
At the same time, the United States should work with Starlink, the satellite Internet company, and other enterprises with similar capabilities to help provide Iranians with a free and secure Internet. The U.S. government should create a special method exempt from U.S. sanctions (perhaps by moving funds through banks in Erbil in northern Iraq and the Persian Gulf and leaning on the trust-based hawala system of money transfers that makes tracking payments difficult for states) to disburse frozen Iranian funds to striking workers inside Iran. Such support could embolden the strikes that have spread in parts of Iran and lead to a convergence of labor and political movements that would represent a significant threat to the Islamic Republic.
Senior members of the Biden administration should hold private and public meetings with members of the Iranian diaspora, Iranian dissidents, and Iranian opposition groups to get a better understanding of the true situation inside Iran. Congress should also get involved and hold public hearings, both on the protests in Iran and on how the regime threatens U.S. citizens, including members of the Iranian diaspora, to raise awareness of these challenges.
Some in Washington fear that if the United States overtly backs the protesters, the Iranian regime will more easily be able to shut them down, painting them as foreign or U.S. agents. In 2009, the Obama administration followed this line of reasoning and refrained from supporting the protests then roiling the country; Obama even made overtures to the clerical leadership just days after the protests began. Obama’s restraint did not make any difference: the regime still labeled the demonstrators as U.S. stooges intent on destabilizing Iran and throwing the country into chaos.
Since then, Iranian protesters have taken to chanting, “They tell lies when they say it’s America. Our enemy is right here.” That should be of interest to U.S. policymakers. Although the translation doesn’t do the chant justice, the message is clear: Iranians see the clerical regime as their real enemy. If the United States were to revive the nuclear deal with Iran at this moment, it would be meddling in the country’s internal affairs. It would strengthen an unpopular regime that is savagely crushing peaceful protests. The United States would be standing on the wrong side of history by propping up the Islamic Republic.
With women leading the way, Iran’s transformation from theocracy to a democracy will be remarkable. It will not happen overnight. But in their bravery, the Iranian people have voiced one central request to Western governments: Don’t save the Islamic Republic. In 2009, the Obama administration opted to deal with to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, rather than support the pro-democracy Green Movement. The Biden administration should not repeat that mistake. Now, more than ever, it is time for advocates of freedom to think seriously about a world after the Islamic Republic.
An Embattled Regime Faces Mass Protests—and an Ailing Supreme Leader