Five weeks​ into the protests that erupted across Iran in response to the killing of Mahsa Amini, the floundering Iranian authorities thought it would be a good idea to put up a massive poster in central Tehran depicting dozens of eminent Iranian women as supporters of the mandatory wearing of the hijab. Photographs of academics, writers, directors, artists, actors and athletes were shown in a collage with the slogan ‘Women of Our Land’ which was plastered on the billboard the regime reserves for its most urgent public messaging, a massive structure towering over Valiasr Square. The display included such unlikely figures as the novelist Simin Daneshvar, who wore the hijab only after the revolution made it compulsory, depicted patriarchal oppression in her fiction, and is on record saying that she wished ‘the world was run by women’.

Within hours, several women demanded their images be removed. The existence of a photograph showing them with a headscarf did not mean they were pious or even that they respected the government; it simply meant they had observed the law. Parvaneh Kazemi, who has climbed Everest, posted on Instagram that she was angry ‘the name and image of us women are used only for abuse.’ The actor Fatemeh Motamed-Arya uploaded a furious video. She appeared bareheaded, and said that she was the mother of Mahsa Amini and Sarina Esmailzadeh, a teenager killed in the protests: ‘I am a mother of all the children who were killed in this land, not a woman in the land of murders.’ The son of another actor who was included in the collage pointed out that his mother had barely been tolerated by the clerical authorities when she was alive. A screenwriter noted on Instagram that one woman on the poster, the photojournalist Nooshin Jafari, was serving a prison sentence for ‘insulting state sanctities’. Overnight, the billboard vanished. It reflected, as the reformist journalist Abbas Abdi observed on Twitter, the ruling system’s ‘contradictory and blocked sensibility’, its wish to co-opt such women and its wish to impose morality policing at the same time.

More than two hundred people have been killed since the protests began in mid-September and the clerical authorities show no sign of relenting. Despite this, the demonstrators have reason to celebrate. On the streets and in daily life, they have defeated the state’s mandatory hijab policy, which is often described as the key pillar of clerical rule, but more tangibly is used as an instrument of policing whose function is control and distraction from the state of the country. Last month, I watched girls in central Tehran walking around with their hair showing, impressed by their ease and fearlessness. Some even sat on the marble steps of a mosque sipping melon juice and chatting, scarves down. Last week, an Iranian climber competed in an international competition with her hair uncovered. A crowd of ecstatic supporters gathered to meet her at the airport on her return to Tehran. The authorities’ imperious response to public anger was a serious miscalculation, sustaining the protests and leading them to grow more radical. Morality policing lies in ruins. No one knows what senior politicians are hearing from their wives, sisters and daughters, but never have the Islamic Republic’s political elite and its most dogmatic constituencies looked so divided at a time of crisis.

In Tehran, the nightly confrontations have spread into the squares and boulevards of northern areas, a sign that a less economically battered class is now also participating. In girls’ schools, the courage to scrawl a slogan on the blackboard is spreading to younger groups. Headteachers have been told to release girls one by one after school, in order to discourage gatherings and make it easier to spot any gestures of protest, and to remove the austere pictures of the revolution’s founders from classrooms, so that the girls can’t tear them down and stomp on them while their friends film them on their phones and upload the videos. As dissent winds its way through different age groups and neighbourhoods, the movement has remained remarkably steady: it hasn’t become destructive or violent, lost public sympathy or its radical feminist spirit. Previous protests in Iran have swiftly descended into destructive rioting, been viciously crushed or have petered out, driven by too narrow a grievance.

The movement’s leaderlessness is at once a great strength and its greatest vulnerability. With the internet shut off and no figurehead to speak on the protesters’ behalf, anyone can tell their story. And as international celebrities like Carla Bruni trim their split ends in solidarity, and Barack and Michelle Obama, Melinda Gates, Balenciaga, Meghan Markle, Oprah Winfrey and Jill Biden take notice, powerful currents with an interest in destabilising Iran are also getting involved, seeking to define what Iranians want, what they will be satisfied with, and who their enemies should be.

A segment of Iranians in the diaspora, most of whom haven’t been to Iran in years or decades, think the Islamic Republic should be brought down by any means, including support from Saudi Arabia and Israel. Many people in Iran, disenfranchised and without any hope for a better life, also feel the system is irredeemable. The ferocious chants targeted at the supreme leader and clerical rule in general make this clear. But do they want change propelled from the outside? External interference does not announce itself as such. It comes through discreet funding, often difficult to trace, for lobbyists, disinformation-spreading media, and strategic communication platforms which seem to be authentic citizen collectives and upload content documenting state brutality. One platform that emerged last year, 1500 Tasvir, publishes a huge volume of content on the protests. It has recently started imposing conditions on access, branding groups or individuals whose politics it disapproves of as tainted, and forbidding them, at least rhetorically, from using its data. In the last week or so it has used its feed to attack women journalists it considers collaborators with the regime and enemies of the Iranian people’s revolution.

These patterns are familiar from the Syrian civil war, where the scope for disinformation and manipulation was vast, and what started as a peaceful citizens’ uprising devolved into a proxy conflict between external forces that had a stake in the state’s collapse. The ‘Syria-isation’ of Iran is something officials now warn of frequently, as they paint the protests as a threat to the country’s territorial integrity, in the hope that those at home who admire the demonstrations’ spirit will be frightened by the threat of blood-letting, chaos and national destruction. As in Syria, much of the content shown on such platforms is genuine. But the strategic communicators are moving swiftly, and media verification of both the content itself and the sources that collate and promote it is haphazard and inadequate.

All of this is unsettling new territory for the Islamic Republic, whose leaders seem perplexed by an outcome they brought about themselves. At the start of October, the speaker of parliament, Mohammed-Baqer Qalibaf, acknowledged that there were, for the first time, protests taking place against the regime which were not ‘reform-seeking’. He didn’t address the root causes, but instead made what sounded like a plea: ‘I ask all who have any reason to protest not to allow their protest to turn into destabilising and toppling.’

The day before I left Tehran, two weeks into the protests, I stopped for coffee in the west of the city, not far from the mosque where Cherie Blair’s sister received spiritual guidance before her conversion to Shiism and across the street from a mosque with a pilates studio and gym in the basement. The café is part of a chain, Lamiz, whose coffee shops are dotted throughout the city. They have blue velvet armchairs, cortados, apple galettes and a reputation for being the money-laundering venture of a regime heavyweight. Two young women stood outside the door, defiantly bareheaded but wearing facemasks, holding up a poster that said: ‘Boycott Lamiz for two weeks, and Starbucks will take its place.’ The message was playful and unambiguous: protest hard enough, and a new Iran might be within reach. Nearly everyone I spoke to in Tehran who joined the protests said they wanted an end to the Islamic Republic. ‘Those who are still sitting at home are stuck on the question of the alternative, of who will come next,’ one protester told me. ‘But it’s a mistake to think we should wait to figure out the alternative, because we’ll just be sitting at home for ever. Nobody knows who should come next.’ What isn’t yet clear, though, is whether those sympathetic people sitting at home will ever be persuaded to come out.

Nassim is a clerical worker in her early twenties with a serious health condition. The medication she needs to take every day cannot be imported because of US sanctions, and she spends two or three days each month searching pharmacies around the city to find what she needs, often at exorbitant prices. Nassim is pious but supports the protests. She believes women should be allowed to dress freely, and that a relaxation of dress codes will also stop some women trying to subjugate other women. In her town – like many of Iran’s rural areas, it is more conservative than Tehran – she’s often scolded in public by tiresome old women for showing too much hair, even though she covers her hair by choice. Mandatory hijab, in her view, encourages the controlling tendencies not just of the state, but of parents and relatives at home, and strangers on the street. For Nassim, a liberalisation of Iran’s social order that reduced religious hypocrisy and helped establish a stable, sound economy would be a satisfactory outcome. Her life wouldn’t be vastly different if the Islamic Republic became secular overnight, but it would be if the state could deliver basic economic welfare. She would be able to get her medication reliably, and have the money to pay for it. Her favourite sister wouldn’t be trying to emigrate to Europe in search of work. For now at least, women like Nassim, critical of the state but not ready to confront it, far outnumber the protesters.

The sense of hopelessness is most acute in Iran’s border regions. The largest ethnic and religious minorities, the Baluch, Kurds and Arabs, live in provinces ringing the periphery, and have historically intimate ties, of culture, religion or language, with their compatriots outside Iran’s borders. These regions also face specific challenges – drought and water shortages in the south-west, drug trafficking and insecurity in the south-east – that aggravate the deteriorating conditions all Iranians face. Poverty is worse in these areas, unemployment is worse. All have a long history predating the Islamic Republic of state neglect and of separatist movements.

Mahsa Amini was an Iranian of Kurdish origin – her Kurdish name was Jina, which means ‘life’ – and the protests at her killing began in her home region. The movement’s slogan is ‘woman, life, freedom’. Jina wasn’t arrested for being Kurdish: you can’t tell whether an Iranian woman is Jewish, Armenian, Azeri, Lor, Baluch or Arab by her appearance. But any unrest in Iran’s minority regions tends to be swiftly politicised by the state as a matter of national security. This is in part because Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal gave an implicit green light to a regional campaign to destabilise Iran which has led to the funnelling of cash and weapons to armed militant networks in border areas and the inflammation of separatist sentiment. The sustained and angry protests in Kurdish areas over Mahsa/Jina’s death prompted the authorities to launch missile strikes across the border into Iraqi Kurdistan, claiming that a separatist group was exploiting the protests to wreak havoc.

The protests in Iran today are not expressly about the economy, but they are propelled by despair about the future. Many of the things Iranians want for their futures – a promising job for a skilled graduate, an academic career for a bright researcher, marriage, children, foreign travel, study abroad – are undeniably bound up in material realities. Iran’s frozen ties with the West and its increasing obsession with security are entwined with its economic isolation and decline. Mass protest is often provoked by a specific humiliation, but the underlying oppression explains why unrest races through society. Things have deteriorated for Iranians in recent years, particularly for Iranian woman and girls, and this has shaped their response. The economy of the Islamic Republic, a country rich in oil and natural gas reserves with a highly educated population and a tourism potential to rival Thailand or India, has chronically underperformed since 1979, when its GDP was much greater than that of Turkey and South Korea. Mismanagement and corruption have been endemic in Iran for decades, but the biggest shocks to the economy in recent years have been a result of US sanctions.

In 2012 and 2018, the United States imposed severe sanctions first on the central bank, through which Iran sold its oil, and later on the energy, shipping and financial sectors, penalising firms in other countries that did business with it. Household incomes plummeted, the rial lost half its value, and the cost of living soared. Women and girls have been disproportionately affected. Their unemployment rate is higher than men’s, even though they make up less of the labour force. Young women who were living independently have been driven back to live with often controlling families. Rising costs and falling incomes have pushed survivors of domestic violence back into abusive situations. Two years ago, when I tried to discover the impact these conditions were having on female activism, the women I spoke to told me they scarcely had time or energy left for organising around political demands. By the time they had worked several jobs, cared for their children or their sick and elderly parents, they had nothing left for politics.

Acknowledging the way these hardships have diminished women’s ability to agitate for their rights doesn’t absolve the state of responsibility. Iran used to have one of the most capable women’s rights movements in the region. It grew alongside but independent of the reformists who came into government in the early 2000s: they were dismissive of women’s concerns and saw no reason to expend political capital on them. Female activists organised a campaign to get a million signatures in support of a statement arguing that gender inequality was structurally intertwined with the way the clerical state ruled in defiance of the public good. They travelled across the country, and spoke to women on their doorsteps, presenting feminism as a way for them to understand how culture and law discriminated against them in many spheres, from child custody to inheritance, from workplace protections to divorce.

The feminist movement wasn’t calling for the downfall of the regime or the end of theocracy, but its collection of signatures was shut down by the authorities. Over the years its leaders were imprisoned, interrogated and cast into exile. Those who remained went underground or focused on less controversial issues such as sexual harassment on public transport. The feminist movement of the early 2000s recognised women’s disenfranchisement as one of the most destabilising realities of the Islamic Republic. But the movement was dismantled and suppressed. Many of the protesters on the streets today are the daughters of those activists. The demonstrations unfolding across Iran may not have a leader, but they do have a provenance.

A month and a half into the protests, the Islamic Republic’s most senior figures are in disarray. Setting the official tone on 3 October, the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, mentioned Mahsa Amini’s death as though it were a sad but distant event. ‘In the accident that happened, a young woman passed away,’ he told a gathering of army cadets, ‘which also pained us.’ But the riots, he insisted, were the design of Iran’s enemies, the United States and Israel. A few days later, President Raisi, visiting a women’s university, recited a poem that likened the protesters to flies. Students heckled him and told him to ‘get lost.’ The head of the judiciary declared himself ready for dialogue with any groups or individuals who had ‘questions, criticism, uncertainties or protests’, but three days later ordered judges to hand down stiff sentences to those arrested.

Looming over all these responses is the possibility that the supreme leader might not have much longer to live. Khamenei is 83 and rumoured to be unwell. Ali Larijani, a former speaker of parliament and a member of a prominent clerical family, gave a lengthy magazine interview recently in which he said that dress codes were out of touch with Iranian society and it wasn’t the state’s place, either religiously or politically, to regulate social behaviour. He wasn’t only contradicting Khamenei’s depiction of the protests but offering up an alternative mode of governance. It was a bit of a campaign speech, although it was so long and theologically ponderous, laced with references to the fall of Andalusia and tolerant ayatollahs, that it was easy to miss the implication that the supreme leader was becoming a bit Salafist in his outlook, too wrapped up in a reactionary Islam of laws and security.

To an extent, the Islamic Republic has boxed itself in. It has purged the reformists who once served as a useful distraction at such moments, allowing the highest authorities to claim the system was pushing back against over rapid change. In exchange for being admitted into politics, the reformists refrained from making the most telling criticisms: that Iran’s democratic theocracy was unworkable, that a system could not simultaneously be accountable to God and the people. Now that there are no reformists in politics any more, the Islamic Republic has no useful opposition and is finally on its own, aware of being in a moment of acute existential crisis, but unable to take any steps to save itself. As a former mayor of Tehran recently pointed out on state television, the government can’t have it both ways: it can’t claim millions of young women as loyal citizens when they turn out for the funeral of a Revolutionary Guard commander, as they did for Qasem Soleimani in 2020, but disown them as deviants and law-breakers when they show up on the streets now.

Television is the only outlet to the outside world now that the internet is down. There isn’t a Persian-language news sphere so much as a grand theatre for the geopolitical contest between the Islamic Republic and its opponents in the region and the West. As well as the state broadcaster there are channels loyal to the absentee royal family, and one run by the terrorist cult Mujaheddin e Khalq, whose presenters speak in the stentorian tones of the 1970s and transmit messages from their long-dead leader. Iran International, set up in London with Saudi money, broadcasts a steady stream of breathless ‘no-context revolution’ videos and occasional disinformation, and explores scenarios for a post-Islamic Republic future. One of the presenters from the channel recently addressed the subcommittee on human rights at the European Parliament. The investment in this media infrastructure by opponents of the Islamic Republic has proven especially useful at moments of crisis, giving platforms to terrorist groups and advancing the narrative that Iran is riven by sectarian divisions and on the brink of fragmentation. The result is that the lines between spirited reporting, disinformation and propaganda are often blurred.

These media outlets had a remarkable effect on my relatives when they were holed up at home during the pandemic. They came out on the other side not simply derisive of the Islamic Republic, as they’d been before, but programmed with demonstrably false lines of information and an impassioned new and formulaic way of speaking about key enemies (usually diaspora journalists or organisations). Propaganda works. Last week, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards paused before starting a military drill in north-west Iran to speak to the Saudis directly: ‘Watch your behaviour and control these media; otherwise you will pay the price.’ Iran’s own conduct has helped produce the security problem it now faces: by putting a generation of journalists out of work through censorship and intimidation, it has created a talented and eager pool of labour for its opponents’ networks.

I asked one young activist what he thought of these channels and the dissidents who appear on them, some of whom claim to be leading events on the ground, even as the protesters celebrate their leaderlessness. ‘Of course they urge people to come out,’ he said, ‘promising the day after collapse will be better, a utopia, although we know the day after is when everything is broken, and when the problems start. They know how to seduce people with trickery and showmanship. But there’s also no doubt that the country is being destroyed, and that reform is dead.’

21 October

Listen to Azadeh Moaveni discuss this article with Thomas Jones on the LRB Podcast.

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