How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Iran is no stranger to mass protests, but the demonstrations sparked by the killing in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman detained by the so-called morality police, signal a tipping point. For weeks now, Iranian women have shown extraordinary courage and a willingness to resist security forces in schools, in the streets, and in every other corner of the public sphere. They have stood bravely in intersections, marched down major thoroughfares, occupied squares, and erupted in chants at school assemblies, removing their headscarves in defiance of the strictures of the state. Their dogged resistance in the face of brutal crackdowns and arrests augurs the beginning of protracted protests throughout the country. In effect, every woman’s veil has been transformed, becoming a symbolic weapon against the regime, a unifying cause connecting all segments of the society, and a tool to galvanize global support.
The protests sweeping Iran are demonstrations not just against the compulsory wearing of the veil but against a system that appears to have extinguished hopes for reform. Paradoxically, the Islamic Republic’s hubris may have weakened its ability to maneuver in the face of dissent. The conservative government under President Ebrahim Raisi is closely aligned with the religious establishment under the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, so much so that many Iranians believe that they have exhausted all electoral—and possibly nonviolent—ways of pursuing change. The Islamic Republic is capable of great violence against its citizens, but in the absence of a new social contract, their anger and discontent may have no outlet other than further confrontation and rebellion.
For decades, the regime managed discontent through elections that offered the promise of reform. Since the rise of the Islamic revolutionary state in 1979, Iranian politics have been defined by the tensions between the elected government, under the president, and the parallel state and its associated institutions, under the supreme leader. Elections could channel much of the unrest in Iranian society—leading to the presidencies of reformers such as Mohammad Khatami in 1997 and Hassan Rouhani in 2013—while leaving intact the parallel state and its presiding role over Iranian society. But the last presidential election produced a different sort of outcome with the election of Raisi, a hard-liner. He became president in August 2021 after Iran’s Guardian Council disqualified most candidates, including many senior conservative officials, in advance of the June vote. These moves were a clear sign that Khamenei, 83, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) aimed to bring the entire state apparatus under the control of a younger generation of ultraconservatives as the country prepares for a transition to a new supreme leader. As a result, the Islamic Republic has become more monolithic than ever with the purging of veteran reformists, pragmatists, and more moderate conservatives through a series of elections that the parallel state engineered to produce its desired result and saw record low turnout.
Hard-line conservatives were emboldened by Iran’s resilience in the face of the Trump administration’s campaign of “maximum pressure” and by the relative success of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen in recent years. Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and subsequent Iranian failures to improve relations with the outside world helped IRGC-led groups capture the parliament in 2020 and then take the presidency in last year’s elections.
They managed this feat despite roiling popular discontent over economic, environmental, and labor issues that have spurred protests in the past few years. Before coming into office, Raisi promised to ease certain social pressures, for instance by using the morality police to tackle corruption rather than to strictly enforce religious codes. The new administration sought to expand its base by reducing the enforcement of compulsory veiling for women: state-sanctioned surveys have shown that about 70 percent of Iranian women do not strictly follow the dress code promulgated by the Islamic Republic, a figure that has been increasing every year. Conservative commentators have opined that women in black chador—a more concealing covering that the state prefers—feel like an “absolute minority” in Iranian society, an embarrassing optic for the 43-year-old “Islamic” state. Even in government agencies, few women properly obey the law. As Gholamhossein Karbaschi, the reformist former mayor of Tehran, recently pointed out during a live interview with a state-controlled television channel: “If they want to implement the law, then in this very studio, they have to start arresting all women, including this woman who just fixed my microphone.”
The anger of Iranians may have no outlet other than rebellion.
But then a series of incidents, including street clashes between supporters and opponents of the compulsory veiling followed by the detention and death of Amini, upended any possibility that Raisi’s government could simply keep a lid on tensions between the state and Iranian society. The brutal treatment of an apolitical and ordinary Iranian citizen who allegedly dressed “immodestly” has set the country aflame. The regime wanted to reduce the political salience of the veil by easing up on enforcement; needless to say, the reverse has occurred.
In solidarity with the protesters, Iranian women inside and outside the country are cutting their hair. Actresses are removing their veils, knowing full well they could face permanent bans for such gestures. Opposition to the government does not come from only the more secular segments of society; even religious women who dress in the state’s preferred black chador have come to criticize the compulsory law. Fatemeh Sepehri, an Iranian women’s rights activist based in the holy city of Mashhad, appeared on a satellite television channel to harshly criticize the regime for killing protesters. She decried Khamenei’s silence in the face of the death of Iranian women at the hands of the police. It was a silence made all the more deafening by the supreme leader’s outspoken reaction to the police killing of George Floyd in the United States in 2020, when, according to Sepehri, Khamenei’s “tongue was bigger than his turban.” Sepehri was soon arrested and remains in detention.
Another prominent Iranian woman, Faezeh Hashemi—whose late father, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was an architect of the Islamic Republic—has sided with the protesters and condemned the use of violence against women. In a recent interview, she said the Islamic Republic’s repression has been a thousand times worse than that under the dictatorial Mohammad Reza (Shah) Pahlavi in the 1960s and 1970s. She was arrested as well. Others, such as Parvaneh Salahshouri, a reformist former member of parliament, insist that humiliating women by denying them agency over their bodies has only encouraged violence against them at all levels of society.
The current wave of protests, led by women and animated by a rejection of the norms imposed on Iranian society by the revolutionary state in the name of religion, could spark greater upheaval still. The Islamic Republic has made the decision not to formally relax the veiling laws, even in the face of a rising tide of popular anger. Doing so could remove an unnecessary source of contention and win the government many new supporters. But the veil was once a powerful symbol: its compulsory use has been the identity marker of the supposedly Islamic state. Were the state to allow women to discard the veil, the edifice of clerical rule could weaken and eventually collapse. A change in the veiling law might embolden Iranians to demand more, such as ending clerical rule altogether. In the eyes of the regime, maintaining the dress code is a practical matter of the survival of the Islamic Republic.
The protests have posed such a stern test of the regime that authorities might be bending and allowing some quiet policy adjustments. Khamenei recently insisted that many Iranians who do not wear “full hijab” are still “among the serious supporters of the Islamic Republic”: their reluctance to adopt strict Islamic dress codes, he was suggesting, did not make them any less patriotic. Some accounts indicate that the morality police have disappeared from the streets so as not to further provoke the public. The state-controlled media routinely show and interview partly veiled women, trying to project a sense of acceptance, normality, and unity. Conservative elites predict that the government will adopt new social policies to relax some of the veiling enforcement without changing the law itself.
Such measures, together with the swift and sweeping crackdowns on demonstrations, could freeze the conflict but will not resolve it. Protesters continue to challenge the Islamic Republic through civil disobedience. Overarching political circumstances make the situation even more dangerous for the state. Iranians have seen the rise of an “elected” government that marches in lockstep with the parallel religious state. They have little faith in the ability of elections to produce meaningful change. Coupled with state repression, that loss of hope could lead some young protesters to pursue violent methods of resistance. Iranian political activists have warned that the current environment is reminiscent of the late 1960s, when many dissidents became convinced of the necessity of armed struggle against the shah. After the U.S.-backed monarch closed all political channels, radical circles mushroomed in secret in Iran, following the footsteps of the armed Marxist revolutionary rebels in countries such as Algeria, China, and Cuba. The ensuing violence, although eventually repressed by the heavy hand of the shah, paved the way for the 1979 Iranian revolution.
The regime sees maintaining the dress code as a matter of its survival.
In the absence of electoral channels, the political landscape is polarized between those who warn that the monolithic regime is risking the disintegration of the country, and those who believe that only a monolithic system can stave off such a disaster. Both sides raise the specter of not just a state collapse but a civilizational one as well, the implosion of an ancient nation.
If the protests continue and even rise to the level of a broader uprising, the Islamic Republic may have to resort to other means to suppress them. It has used external shocks in the past to quash dissent. The Islamist takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 helped end leftist student activism in Iran as religious forces appropriated the mantle of anti-imperialism and the anti-American cause from the left. Once Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then the country’s supreme leader, endorsed the taking of U.S. hostages, some prominent leftist female activists welcomed the religious dress code and expressed support for it as an anti-imperialist act. Similarly, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980 helped consolidate the Islamic Republic as Iranians rallied to the regime to defend the country from Iraq’s attack; this national security threat helped silence the opposition.
The regime further coerced women to comply with the new dress code by claiming that the martyrs who had died fighting Iraqi forces had urged women in their final battlefield wills to adopt the veil. Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989 was not just targeted at a British novelist far away; it was meant to stifle emerging dissent, particularly in religious circles, after the humiliating end of the Iran-Iraq War the previous year. More recently, the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, by a U.S. drone in January 2020 brought hundreds of thousands of patriotic mourners into the streets. The outrage following Soleimani’s death helped divide and suppress protests throughout the country about economic and political issues that had grown in strength in late 2019.
With these events in mind, outside actors, especially the United States, must be careful not to contribute to the perception of an external threat that the Islamic Republic could use to crack down on the protesters. They should strongly and unequivocally condemn the use of violence against Iranian citizens but refrain from imposing further sanctions on Iran, which have only impoverished the country and empowered the parallel state.
An Embattled Regime Faces Mass Protests—and an Ailing Supreme Leader