The wave of mass protests that broke out after Mahsa’s death on Sept. 16, 2022, underscored the unparalleled scale and speed with which a spontaneous and leaderless movement can challenge an entrenched authoritarian regime. The tragic death of a young woman, one who was part of Iran’s Kurdish minority, while in the custody of the morality police marked the pinnacle of a series of events causing profound disruptions throughout the country. During the first 157 days of the protests, an organization advocating for human rights documented hundreds of fatalities, with protests spanning over 165 cities and 20,000 individuals arrested.
Although anti-government protests in Iran since 2017 have differed from those in the past, they share common characteristics. The protests in 2017-18 in response to economic hardship, the 2019 protests against the rise in gas prices, and the 2022 protests for women’s rights, life, and freedom all emerged as reactions to the authoritarian state’s oppressive measures targeting citizens. In the wake of domestic unrest, the supreme leader and his supporters have resorted to harsh tactics and refused to compromise, leading to a significant escalation in the scale of the recent protests. Despite recurring waves of spontaneous demonstrations over the past five years, the regime remains in control, although it has not been able to suppress the protests entirely. The result is a deadlock that raises questions about what lies ahead for Iran.
The evolution of Iranian protests: Past and present
Protests in Iran since 2017 have shared two key characteristics: spontaneity and decentralization. This lack of prior coordination is a common feature, whereby ordinary citizens take to the streets in response to a particular event, such as Mahsa’s death. Additionally, the rise of social media platforms has played a significant role in the spread of protests. Social media has increased political engagement among ordinary citizens and provided them with tools for mobilization. However, the use of social media has also shifted street protests toward decentralized decision-making and horizontal forms of collective action, often referred to as “leaderless movements.” Lack of hierarchical political organization has affected the ability of these protests to maintain momentum and create and sustain national dissent.
The lack of prior planning in these protests highlights the deep-seated frustrations and grievances of different social groups in Iran, who feel compelled to voice their discontent and demand change in the face of oppressive governance. Their spontaneous nature also reflects the underlying tensions and dissatisfaction brewing within Iranian society, which can reach a boiling point when triggered by a specific incident or threat. Through these outbursts of collective action, the Iranian people express their desire for freedom, justice, and a more democratic system, challenging the authoritarian regime and demanding accountability for its actions.
The Islamic Republic of Iran’s history of severe repression and deep-rooted animosity toward political parties capable of articulating citizens’ grievances and transforming them into formal institutions has created an environment conducive to these leaderless protests. The regime has effectively limited the channels through which people can express their concerns and aspirations by stifling avenues for organized dissent, inhibiting the formation of cohesive opposition forces. As a result, leaderless protests become a powerful expression of widespread frustration as people come together in an ad hoc manner to demand change and challenge the regime.
The ever-increasing gap between Khamenei and the people
Despite Khamenei’s success in maintaining the unity of the ruling elite and removing any remaining reformist or moderate elements, the regime has lost its ability to co-opt opposition groups within the country. While the ruling elite has maintained cohesion, this has come at the cost of reducing political participation among segments of society that had hoped to effect change through formal channels like elections. The parliamentary election on Feb. 7, 2020, was a significant turning point in postrevolutionary Iran as voter turnout plummeted to just 42% of eligible voters, down sharply from 62% in the 2016 parliamentary election. This downward trend continued with the June 2021 presidential election, where turnout fell to 48.8%, down from 73% in 2017, making it the presidential election with the lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic. A total of 3.7 million invalid ballots were cast in the election, accounting for 12% of turnout, and these ballots were likely predominantly filled with blank or protest votes — an unprecedented number compared to previous elections. Discouraged by the Iranian elite’s monopoly on power, citizens have turned away from formal channels like elections to convey their grievances. The Islamic Republic’s reliance on coercion for its survival, rather than on cooperation and consent, is evident as Khamenei effectively keeps the ruling elite in check.
Since the inception of the "Woman, Life, Freedom" movement in September 2022, the state's ability to resolve issues through consensus and non-coercive methods has declined, with a growing emphasis on the use of physical force. Examples include the launch of a recent campaign mandating Islamic headscarves for women and the recently proposed law, criticized by U.N. experts as potentially constituting "gender apartheid," that seeks to impose severe penalties on women and girls for failing to adhere to hijab requirements in Iran. Additionally, the arrest and detention of the families of those killed in recent protests demonstrates the leadership's inclination to adopt policies using force rather than seeking peaceful resolution. These developments resemble the oppressive measures that triggered previous nationwide protests, notably in the wake of Mahsa’s tragic death while in custody. The unwavering determination of the authorities to maintain their grip on power and quell dissent increases the likelihood that fresh waves of nationwide protests will emerge.
Khamenei and his allies’ lack of willingness to compromise has made street protests the only way for regular Iranians to express their grievances, reducing the government’s options. This has culminated in a protracted deadlock wherein the ruling regime remains unable to quell the recurring waves of protests, while the demonstrators find themselves incapable of bringing about regime change. On the one hand, the protesters lack the requisite means to overthrow the regime; on the other, the theocratic establishment is forced to employ increasingly violent means to dissuade protesters from taking to the streets. This inevitably raises questions about the potential efficacy of these spontaneous protest waves in bringing about real transformative change within Iran.
If Iran’s waves of spontaneous and leaderless protests continue going forward as expected, there are four broad potential outcomes that can be envisioned, excluding any external interventions.
The initial scenario entails the potential for the Islamic regime to increase the influence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) within the political system in order to suppress the uprising in Iran. With the political system increasingly leaning toward coercion over consent, it would be reasonable to anticipate, in this instance, an expansion of the IRGC's influence in Iranian politics beyond its current scope.
The second possibility is regime change. However, this would require a significant portion of the Islamic Republic’s government, including influential figures or factions, to participate in or defect to support the protests. Such an internal rupture within the state structures could create an opportunity for a new political order to emerge. However, the likelihood of this scenario is heavily dependent on the extent to which the protesters can gain traction and mobilize support within the government’s power structure and society as a whole.
The third possibility is the erosion of state authority to the point where it can no longer enforce coercion within its borders. In such a case, waves of protests would continue without successfully overthrowing the regime. As the protests escalate, the state’s response would remain ineffective or turn violent, exacerbating citizens’ disillusionment with and loss of faith in the existing governance structures. The result would be a breakdown in state functions and the creation of a power vacuum that could give rise to regional instability or the emergence of non-state actors.
The fourth potential outcome from the ongoing protests in Iran is a democratic transition. Despite Iranians expressing a desire for democracy and freedom through protests, the potential for a democratic transition remains uncertain due to the authoritarian regime’s ongoing repression of civil society groups and organizations. A democratic transition requires solid political forces within civil society or the state to demand and drive it. However, severe repression in Iran has led to the dismantling of all organizations and entities that could contribute to such a transition, making the prospect of democratization highly improbable in the short term. Nevertheless, the ongoing waves of spontaneous protests highlight the desire for change among many Iranians.
In light of the surge in demonstrations in recent years, the forthcoming wave of protests will likely expand geographically and involve a larger number of people. However, the success of the protests will ultimately hinge on their ability to fracture the ruling elite and its control over the state apparatus.
Kourosh Rahimkhani is a journalist and professorial lecturer in the Department of Political Science at George Washington University. He has done extensive research on Iranian politics, including elite circulation, electoral politics, ethnoreligious mobilization, and demographic changes. Kourosh is the co-author of Postrevolutionary Iran: A Political Handbook.
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