By Saeed Peyvandi
March 31, 2018
The Iranian year that ended on March 20 was marked by the escalation of public dissent, unprecedented street protests in many cities, and bolder demands from labor unions.
The unrest took new forms and was more radical than in years past. Iranians openly undermined social norms and courageously called for regime change. The social crisis reached such a magnitude that state officials could not avoid discussing it, and were forced to confront the government’s inefficiency and the prospect of a collapse.
Turning A Corner
This past year’s upheaval came after years of civil stagnation. The defeat in 2009 of the Green Revolution, which brought millions to the streets, was a hard blow to civil rights activists and provided an excuse for the regime to suppress civil society.
The ensuing crackdown by the government and its intelligence and security forces brought all independent civil organizations to heel.
During the 1990s and 2000s, the government largely saw civil society organizations as threats against Islamic rule. They view civic engagement as something negative to be dealt with rather than encouraged.
The intelligence and security forces’ ideal society is one without any organization, except of course for gatherings like the one held earlier this year for the 39th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, which they view as a referendum in their favor. Any other mass gatherings or demonstrations are always illegal, thus suppressing all NGOs, independent political parties, and trade unions.
The government directly intervenes in unions’ elections and views smaller local organizations, for example those formed to support children or the environment, with suspicion. The government also does not like the emergence of influential figures within these organizations.
This explains the harassment of civil and human rights activists such as Nargess Mohammadi and Nasrin Sotudeh. Instead the government promotes individuals such as General Qasem Soleimani, who blindly obey the system.
Fighting A Losing Battle Against Free Media
The Iranian people triumphed over the government in the area of media activity this past year. Despite the Islamic Republic’s severely restricted media environment and censorship regime controlled by extremist elements within the ruling system, most Iranians do not trust state media and turn instead to alternative sources of information from inside and outside the country.
In recent years, technology has brought about new modes of communications which are largely free from government censorship. Social media is so widespread that most government officials have also joined these networks, which lend the leaders some added legitimacy.
The rise of the influence of social media as the main platform for news and information last year prompted some state officials to embrace it, while others insist it should be banned.
An Existential Crisis
The series of crises seen last year has seriously undermined the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy.
On the threshold of its 40th anniversary, the Islamic Revolution does not have much to be proud of. It has failed in the main areas of governance. Poverty, recession, underdevelopment, economic crisis, constant tensions in international relations, widespread corruption, social and environmental vulnerabilities, and public dissent have fractured Iranian society.
The Islamic Republic’s track record is shocking even in the areas of ethics and religiosity. It has brought ethical decline and religious hypocrisy. The current widespread financial corruption is only one of the manifestations of the bankruptcy of an Islamic Republic devoid of spirituality and religious values.
Systematic suppression has left no outlet for critical dialogue, leading civil activists to look for new ways of voicing their dissent. Angry and frustrated social groups seize every opportunity to take to the streets and undermine social norms.
Women take off their headscarfs to protest the compulsory hijab, the youth protest poverty, discrimination, and social injustice, and workers go on strike to protest their economic hardships. People have lost their confidence in the government and are signaling revolt.
If the regime stays in control in the face of all this, it is merely because of the weakness of the opposition and civil organizations.
Those in power have ignored the message of dissent and its social and political meaning. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s statements against the anti-hijab protesters and his analysis of last year’s events in his New Year speech in Mashhad reveal a vast chasm between an unhappy public and the leaders who have lost contact with the realities on the ground.
For the regime, the precariousness and uncertainty of a society on the verge of revolt is neither a good end for the Iranian year 1396, nor a promising beginning for 1397.