Welcome to The President's Inbox, a CFR podcast about the foreign policy challenges facing the United States. I'm Jim Lindsay, Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. And this week's topic is protests in Iran.
With me to discuss the origins and consequences of the protest racking Iran is Suzanne Maloney. Suzanne is the vice president and director of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. She has also served as an advisor in the State Department working for both Democratic and Republican administrations. Suzanne has written extensively about Iran, and she recently edited the book, The Iranian Revolution at 40. Suzanne, it's a delight to have you back on The President's Inbox.
Thanks for having me, Jim. Great to be here.
I'd like to begin, Suzanne, if we could with just sort of a recap of where things stand in Iran at the present moment. News reports suggest that there has been sort of a fresh round of protests, particularly at university campuses. But sort of set the scene for us. Give us a sense of what is happening in Iran today.
Well, we're approaching this third month of protests that erupted originally in mid-September after news of the death of a young woman in police custody. The woman, Mahsa Amini, was a tourist in Tehran visiting from her native Kurdish region of Iran, and was arrested for apparently not wearing her headscarf to the standards that were expected by the morality police.
This is a not uncommon phenomenon in Iran. Millions of women are issued citations every year for what is known as bad hijab by the morality police. And this has been a persistent issue and concern for Iranian women. But something about the case of Mahsa Amini struck a chord with Iranians all across the country. And within days, there were protests that had erupted both in her hometown of Saqqez, but also in the capital of Tehran as well as in what amounted to 80 other cities across the country over the course of subsequent weeks.
The protests have ebbed and flowed, but there does appear to be a kind of sustained momentum that is challenging the capacity of the Islamic Republic to manage in a way that I think no other set of unrest has really done, at least since 2009, the Green Movement, and possibly since the Islamic Revolution itself 43 years ago. So this is really an unprecedented series of protests that have sustained over, now, seven or eight weeks and don't appear to be subsiding anytime soon.
Suzanne, there's a lot there to unpack, and I'd like to unpack it for people who aren't familiar with how Iranian society operates, or even with the makeup of Iran as a country. And maybe we could begin with this notion of something called morality police. Are these groups distinct from what we would traditionally think of as police? Or is this a nickname for ordinary police work?
Well, there's a particular part of the security forces that are charged with enforcing moral codes in Iran, but, of course, there are a variety of different security forces that operate and that Iranians interact with in their daily life. The Gasht-e Ershad, which is the Persian name for the morality police, are overseen by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance. This is in and of itself part of the web of control that the government has over daily life for ordinary Iranians.
And the issue of proper hijab has been one that has really provoked controversy since the earliest days of the revolution. In fact, the very first protest that erupted in Iran only weeks after the shah had left and Ayatollah Khomeini had returned to Iran in 1979, was a protest by women, who came to the streets on International Women's Day in March of 1979 out of concern that, in fact, laws would be passed to regulate and enforce veiling and other aspects of Islamic morality. And so ever since then, this has been a very controversial issue for women as part of a larger legal system of segregation and lesser rights for women in Iran.
Now, another aspect of this story is that Mahsa comes from the Kurdish portion of Iran. I understand she's ethnically Kurdish. To what extent does that play into these protests, given that the dominant ethnic group in Iran would be Persian?
Well, Iran has always been a multiethnic country, both during the period of the monarchies and also, of course, under the Islamic Republic. Only about 51% of Iranians are Persian, and there are large other ethnic groups, including the Kurds, who are intermixed and intermingled in society, but who's ethnic identities have often been repressed by the dominant government, which has, both under the monarchy and even under the Islamic Republic, sought to assert a more Persian dominance.
And so there have always been concerns about access to native language and native culture for minority ethnic groups like the Kurds and in fact, Mahsa's name, she apparently went by a Kurdish name of Jina, in and of itself speaks to some of the concerns that those from minority ethnic groups have that their native cultures are subordinated to requirements of an Iranian nationalism, which prioritizes Persian identity.
Now, Suzanne, why do you think this particular incident has had the consequences it has had? I would imagine giving the operations of the morality police that they've arrested lots of women. And I would imagine some of them have been beaten up, harassed, or otherwise mistreated. But this seems to be an incident that resonated not just in Kurdish portions of Iran, but across the country.
I think that's very true, and it's not entirely clear to me why it is that the death of Mahsa Amini has precipitated such a striking set of protests in Iran. I think some of it is that the ground has been paved by women over the course of at least five years who've been undertaking acts of civil disobedience that focus attention on hijab. This began in 2017, at the same time that there were protests that erupted as a result of economic concerns, several women stood on the streets, took off their headscarf, and waved their headscarf like a flag. They were arrested.
These images were captured on social media and shared. And it became a sort of iconic image of some of the previous rounds of protests. And there have been, as part of this, activists, both in Iran and outside Iran, in the Iranian diaspora, who have sought to focus attention on this issue of the headscarf and what an imposition it is for women. Both in terms of their legal rights, but also in terms of their day-to-day safety and access to opportunities.
So I think that this has been an issue that for many people outside Iran was often underplayed, because there were so many other concerns for Iranian women, so many other fights that they were seeking to advance in terms of legal rights and professional opportunities. This issue of the headscarf, for those who have to wear it, for those who have to go about their daily lives without knowing if they're going to be stopped on the streets by someone who claims to come from one or another arm of the security forces, for those who simply have to worry about the safety and comfort of their sisters and their mothers and their wives, this isn't just an issue for women. And it's clear that the protests have brought together people from across society.
I think that one of the many takeaways for those of us who focus on Iran, who tried to understand what's happening within Iran, is that we often, I think, underplay some of the more important grievances and concerns and clearly the issue of not Islamic law or Islamic scriptures, but rather the issue of a legal mandate for women to adopt a certain type of dress code. One that is enforced with brutality, and in a very arbitrary way, is something that clearly is a galvanizing force for people from across Iranian society.
To what extent, Suzanne, do you think other factors are playing into the protest? I will note that the Iranian economy is in pretty tough shape. I've seen statistics claiming that something on the order of one out of three Iranians is impoverished. Iran also appears to be a fairly corrupt society with the regime controlling major access points to the country, controlling corporations, and basically taking steps that allow the regime to insulate itself from the impact of the economic isolation brought about by the policies they have pursued.
Well, your question raises an important issue, which is that those who've come to the streets since the death of Mahsa Amini have not been articulating slogans around hijab, even if that has been a primary symbol of some of the activities that they engage in these protests by taking off their hijab or burning their hijab. What those who have come to the streets over the course of the past two months have demanded is an end to the Islamic Republic in vociferous, and often infuriated terms. And I think that you suggest the other issues that have played into this protest movement, and it really speaks to a broader alienation of ordinary Iranians from the system that rules them.
And I think a much deeper and more corrosive sense of de-legitimization of the regime itself. We know that many of those who are protesting are quite young. Statistics that have been published show that about 40% of those arrested are under the age of 20. So this is a very young generation born not just since the revolution, not just since the end of the war, but really who've come of age at a time when Iran was appearing, or at least proclaiming that reform from within might be possible.
This generation clearly does not believe that. They want an end to it all. They are articulating slogans that essentially put a pox on all the houses, all the different factions of the regime. And much of this derives from this sense of frustration over the predicament that the country finds itself in. Isolated from the world with an economy that has never resumed the trajectory that it was on prior to the revolution, and that has suffered even greater deprivation since the application of maximum pressure by the Trump administration, and the failure of the Iranians to come back into compliance with the nuclear deal, which might have led to some kind of improvement in the economy as a result of sanctions relief.
But it's not just economics. I think it's quite clear that we've seen prior rounds of protests that were primarily about the economic situation, and those were quite infuriated as well. Those were quite vociferous in their denunciations of the regime. But this current round of protest is quite different from what happened in 2017 and 2018 and 2019, which were small, spasmodic bursts of unrest largely precipitated by specific events, a raise in the gasoline price for example.
This time around, we see many of those same working class, lower class Iranians coming to the streets and voicing their anger, but we also see some of those same groups and classes who came to the streets in 2009 as part of the Green Movement, and those were primarily political protests. I think this is really the first episode of unrest in Iran that is brought together both working class, university students, those from the upper and middle classes that have found a way to live relatively comfortable lives under the Islamic Republic. This does appear to be very cross class and cross ethnic and cross cultural in the sense that it's drawing on populations from all around the country.
You mentioned the 2009 Green Movement, which was forcibly put down by the regime. Is it your sense that the current set of protests will exceed the Green Movement in terms of its impact and sort of crosscutting allegiances in society?
I think that what we're seeing today is the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic, but with a trajectory that is very uncertain and could be very protracted.
Whoa, that's a big claim. I have to ask you to unpack that for me, because I could read a lot into it maybe more than is there.
Well, it is a big claim, but I think that you know what is distinct about what's happening today within Iran is that the fear factor is simply gone. You raised the parallel of 2009, the Green Movement, which was at the time an incredibly dramatic and unprecedented challenge to the state itself led by senior figures from within the regime, and joined by millions on the street. Nothing like that is happening today, so let me be clear to differentiate that.
But what is happening today is in many ways, I think, more dangerous for the Islamic Republic. There is a widespread willingness of young Iranians to go to the streets and demand a change of the system, to denounce everyone associated with the current system, and they're completely undeterred by the use of force and the threats of prosecution against them. That has never happened in the Islamic Republic, and we've never seen a movement that is sustained over weeks and weeks really since the earliest days of the revolution itself.
I think what's also quite important is that even if there is a greater use of force, which enables the regime to quiet the streets, even briefly, the elements of this movement definitely go beyond mere protest. What we have today is a movement that actually has its roots, as I suggested, in acts of civil disobedience and can be sustained by those acts of civil disobedience. Individual women who come to the streets, as they appear to be doing from reports on social media, all around the country, on a day-to-day basis, walking without their headscarf appearing to go about their daily business without wearing the required hijab.
That is going to confront the security forces with a decision on an individual basis in cities around the country at any given moment in time, and that's going to be incredibly corrosive. Either the security forces will have to decide to arrest and potentially abuse one of those women precipitating yet another round of protests, precipitating yet another potential situation of martyrdom, which itself creates a self-sustaining momentum to the gatherings and demonstrations.
Or they'll have accede to the erosion of one of the core principles of the Islamic Republic. This reliance on control of the population by enforcing Islamic moral codes. And that's a very difficult choice, especially because many of those ordinary security forces who will be confronted with that choice are conscripts, and they will have to make that decision on a day-to-day basis.
In addition to these acts of civil disobedience, we see at least some evidence of gathering efforts to try to mobilize economic strikes in key industries. They're fairly small scale to date, but the fact that there have been major labor unions that have expressed support for the protestors is for the Islamic Republic a worrisome sign. There have also been acts of sabotage, cyber attacks against the national broadcasting authority, against the central bank and other economic establishments.
Do you think those have been internally generated?
I think we don't know entirely, for sure, but there's an awful lot of technical capability from within.
And my sense is the regime has argued that those instances are the results of malefactors beyond the border not domestically driven.
Well, the Islamic Republic will always try to pin any of its opponents on foreign conspiracies, and so it's entirely possible that there has been some external assistance to some of the cyber attacks on the Islamic Republic's broadcasting authority, for example. But I think we also know that when you see the MIT of Iran go to the streets in such large numbers, that there are considerable internal capabilities that can be aimed against the infrastructure of the system.
I think the internal challenge is one that the Islamic Republic doesn't know how to meet, and the external challenge is one that the Islamic Republic doesn't know how to meet. What we have today is a situation in which the government has essentially stonewalled efforts to try to come to an agreement to resuscitate the 2015 nuclear deal, despite fairly concerted diplomacy on the part of the Biden administration and the Europeans to bring that agreement back into force.
And you also have a government that is, of course, providing combat weaponry to the Russian war effort in Ukraine, and so it is a government that is very fast creating a situation in which it is going to be back to the pariah state. That led to the imposition of the very successful multilateral pressure campaign from 2010 to 2013 that helped precipitate the nuclear deal in the first place. The difference here is I don't think that you're going to have a cataclysmic moment from within the system where the Islamic Republic sees an opportunity to try to negotiate some kind of compromise with the international community.
I want to get to the international aspect in the moments, Suzanne. But before that, I really want to sort of close the loop on what's happening domestically. And I take your point that the regime is under pressure, it doesn't seem to have the tools, at least at the moment, to sort of force the protestors to go back home and stay home and be quiet.
But at the same time, it doesn't appear that the protestors have the capacity to compel the regime to exit from office. That creates the potential for a protracted conflict, stalemate, protested spike, ebb, spike, ebb and the like. But to just sort of think about revolutions in world history, there's some basic lessons. One is that a sign to always look for, are you seeing divisions in the existing regime? Are there some people who are just saying, "Enough is enough, I don't want to participate." Are you seeing any cracks like that so far in Iran?
We're seeing the usual types of careful negotiations by members of the elite, who are looking to avoid the blame and looking to find means of conciliating the streets. But I think we also can remember from the experience that it led to the 1979 revolution itself, that government conciliation often just fuels the revolutionary fires, as protestors see that, in fact, there isn't the will to fully crack down. What happened in the '79 revolution was that it really did just embolden and empower the revolutionary coalition to go for broke, so to speak.
I don't think we're anywhere near where we were in late '78, but I do think what we're seeing is probably analogous to what happened over the course of the months and years that led up to that. Where there is just a fury on the streets, there is a paralyzed bureaucracy that doesn't know how to contend with it. There is an aging and possibly quite ill leadership in the form of Ayatollah Khamenei, who is 83, has suffered cancer and other ailments, and is largely expected to pass from the scene in the upcoming years. And whose succession is already a subject of much conversation.
And I think that this assumption that somehow it will all die down and the system can find a way out of the mess that it's put itself in just as it has done on so many other occasions, it's a reasonable assumption. And in fact has proven true so many times. I used to joke that the Islamic Republic had survived everything short of the plague, but now of course they've survived the plague. They've survived a really tough bout with the pandemic.
But I think it's also quite clear that the kind of resilience and the capability to respond effectively to dissatisfaction among the population doesn't appear to be there. There's a demand issue in the sense that there's a very unhappy population. A younger generation, which seems to believe it has nothing to lose. But I think there's also a supply problem as well in the sense that the government, which has been brutal but effective during past periods of unrest does not appear to have manifested a strategy for managing this latest round of dissatisfaction and turbulence in an effective way.
Well, obviously, indecision can give way to forceful decision, much depends upon events to come. But I'm struck with your point, Suzanne, about the role of contingency, the importance of individuals. We have the supreme leader, he is in ill health, it is not known how much longer he will be with us. Do you see his passing from the scene as significantly unsettling the regime? Or do you think it is something that the regime will be able to rally around a figure simply because they need to in order to keep the population at bay?
I think that when Ayatollah Khamenei passes from the scene, there will be a brief but intense effort to strive for some kind of stability and normalcy. There was a quick effort in the days after the death of his predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini who was in some respects even a larger and more charismatic figure on the Iranian political scene at that time. And what happens in those early days will I think be very important to determine whether the Islamic Republic can continue in its current form, or whether there is in fact a slow motion devolution of power in some entirely unpredictable way.
If there can be a very quick rally around his appointed successor, who's likely to be the current president, Ebrahim Raisi, then I think we will see an Islamic Republic that continues but in a weaker state. Because Raisi doesn't have anything close to the political skills, the charisma, or the assembled levers of power that Ayatollah Khamenei does.
If there is any doubt or hesitation, I think there's going to be a moment for a lot of political entrepreneurs within Iran to try to cast their lot and try to push for their own advantage. And if that happens, then it's anyone's guess where Iran goes. There's obviously been a lot of expectation and planning around Khamenei's death, and so my estimation is that there is a very clear plan put in place. But any transition of power in a country that hasn't had a significant transition in thirty plus years is going to be a moment that is unpredictable.
Well, certainly, and there's that real question of whether this is a regime that is robust or a regime that is actually fairly brittle, and we may not know until that moment comes. But to get to the issue of the foreign policy consequences of what's transpiring now, Suzanne, the supreme leader is very clear in blaming outside agitators United States, Israel, Arab countries in terms of stoking unrest in Iran.
There has been talk that the Iranians may lash out in the region. News reports over the last week or so that the Saudis have given intelligence evidence to the United States government indicating that Iran is looking to strike at targets in Saudi Arabia. What do you make of these arguments that Tehran may seek to distract the public from these protests by provoking an overseas crisis?
I think that's always a concern in a revolutionary or a pre-revolutionary situation. My guess is that a crisis with Saudi Arabia is a little bit less likely than potentially a crisis in or around Iraq. The Iranians have been hitting various assets in Kurdistan, in Iraq, and they're clearly concerned, I think, about the transnational links and to the agitation within their own borders. And so I could see an escalation of those kinds of measures.
I think provoking a full-fledged conflict with Saudi Arabia would bring them right back to 2019. And at that time it was the efforts that they engaged in both, the strike on Abqaiq, a Saudi oil facility as well as other strikes in the Gulf against Arab oil exports and tanker travel, was designed to try to precipitate the engagement of the international community to press the United States to come back into the 2015 nuclear deal.
I don't think that there's a real game plan or a real end result which facilitates either a calming of the storm at home or a more advantageous position for the Islamic Republic on the international stage by provoking a crisis in the region. They, of course, have other levers to pull, and it's my estimation that the Iranians are now throwing their lot entirely in with the Russians. They see a future that is not one of a better relationship, even economic or financial with the West, but rather a better relationship with Asia, and with the two great powers that are now in different ways confronting the United States, Russia and China.
I'm curious, Suzanne, one of the things that happened at the end of last month is we had this horrific mass shooting at a mosque in Shiraz in southern Iran, I've seen it described as the second holiest site in the country. The Islamic State, as I understand it, has claimed responsibility. How is that playing into the events that we're witnessing now?
The attack in Shiraz was a very interesting and concerning one. There has been evidence of ISIS attacks within Iran. They have coincided at times with periods of unrest within Iran, and whether that is a sign of opportunism by ISIS or whether it is a sign of a machiavellian attempt by the Islamic Republic to try to create an internal crisis in order to distract from the protests, is anyone's guess at this point.
I think it's worth noting that one of the major events of the '79 Revolution, which helped to galvanize fury against the shah at the time was in fact perpetrated by Islamist opponents of the shah, and blamed on the monarchy, and it was only after the revolution that the real truth came out.
One of the most powerful deterrents to activism in Iran for a long time has been this concern about what would happen to the country if in fact a revolution broke out. Of course, Iranians have seen the very worst of what can happen, a revolution hijacked by forces that were inimical to the initial aspirations of those who came to the streets and the examples that they have to draw upon from their own region are not very reassuring. And so the phrase "Syria sahzi," creating a situation like Syria, is one that has certainly been a factor in kind of curbing the desire on the part of some Iranians to join forces against the Islamic Republic. The concern that revolution itself could bring about a situation, if not civil war, at least the destruction of a reasonably well functioning state.
It doesn't appear that "Syria sahzi" has the same pull on the younger generation that it might for the older generation. But even for politicians who have been critical of their own government, this concern looms quite large. And I think the attack in Shiraz was either intended to or has served the purpose of reinforcing concerns about internal turbulence as a result of this revolutionary activism.
Suzanne, I mentioned at the outset that you've worked in the U.S. government, you've provided advice to Democratic and Republican administrations about policy toward Iran. What is your advice to the Biden administration in terms of how it should respond to the protests we are seeing?
And I say that in the context as you point out, we're seeing Tehran and the Kremlin get closer together. We still have this ongoing effort to try to revive the Iran nuclear deal. Is this a time for the United States to sit back? Is it a time for symbolic actions? I understand this United States is now leading an effort to try to have Iran removed from the UN's Commission on the Status of Women. Is this a time for the United States to be more forward leaning and actively support activists in Iran?
Well, I think it's a little bit of everything in terms of what the United States government should be doing. As you said, the symbolic actions, like leading an effort to try to force the Iranians off the UN Commission on the Status of Women are important. The symbolic actions of actually voicing support for the protestors, as the administration has at the very highest levels on multiple occasions, meeting with activists and advocates from the Iranian diaspora. These are very important measures, if only because all the prior American administrations have really sought to avoid anything that might smack of interference in Iran's domestic politics, because of the importance and the priority on trying to find a pathway to negotiations with the regime itself.
The advocacy is also important because it gets beyond the symbolic. Young Iranians are aware that the world is following their situation. The language from the White House and from the State Department and elsewhere in the U.S. government, the language and support from cultural figures and politicians all around the world is an important factor in helping those who are really putting their lives on the line to know that their struggle is recognized and supported.
But if I were to be giving advice to the administration, it would be that we have to go beyond the symbolic. And I think that it will require a stepping back from some of the assumptions that have dictated the way that we've approached Iran for most of the past four decades. There have been times when the United States believed that it could somehow help to create a different balance of power within the Islamic Republic. But for the most part, U.S. policy has been predicated on the idea of trying to get the current leadership to modulate, to compromise, to behave more responsibly, both at home and within the region.
I think what we're witnessing today is a period of time, and it may be a very protracted one, in which the current leadership is becoming less and less relevant. The assumptions that the Biden administration brought into office in January of 2021 no longer stand. This is not a system that wants to have a better relationship, even economically, with the West. This is not a system, this is not a leadership that sees its future in finding a path back to wholesale engagement with the international community.
And this is not a country in which the stability at home is a guarantee. Even if you don't accept my prediction that this is the start of something, which is going to end with real change in Iran, you have to recognize that the domestic situation itself, the turbulence itself, will make it difficult to do business with the current leadership.
The Obama administration learned that in 2009, when it sought to negotiate a confidence building measure with the Iranians in the months after the uprising, the Green Movement. They negotiated, they found an agreement on the Tehran research reactor that was intended to be a kind of starting point for broader nuclear negotiations. That agreement fell apart almost immediately, because the Iranian government itself was so divided internally, because of the protests on the streets.
And so I think that we have to step back from a strategy that was based on patience, proximity negotiations with Tehran through our European friends and allies. We also have to recognize that the same set of circumstances that helped elicit the nuclear deal, that is the constructive role that Russia played in those negotiations, the willingness of China to abide by international and U.S. sanctions to help facilitate that deal as well, no longer exists. Realistically, I think it's unlikely we're going to be able to get a viable set of concessions by the Iranians on their nuclear program. And so rather than prioritizing the diplomacy, we ought to step back and recognize that Iran is in a period of change and it's a very, very dangerous proposition.
On that sobering note, I'll close up The President's Inbox for this week. My guest has been Suzanne Maloney, vice president and director of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. Suzanne, thanks for joining me.
Thank you, Jim.
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Today's episode was produced by Ester Fang with senior podcast producer Gabrielle Sierra. Markus Zakaria was our recording engineer. Special thanks go out to Michelle Kurilla for her assistance. This is Jim Lindsay. Thanks for listening.