Calls for reform indicate strong feelings about strict Islamist lifestyle.
Recent street protests in Iran are just as much about the religious repression many Iranians feel as they are about the economic inequities they are facing.
That’s the view of John J. Davenport, the director of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at Fordham University. Davenport, who is also a professor of philosophy at Fordham, reflected on the significance of the protests, which began in late December and have led to hundreds of arrests and almost two dozen deaths. The budding movement, which includes calls for greater personal liberties, may be one more crack in the strict Islamist regime’s grip on the nation.
Davenport spoke with Aleteia on Friday:
Who is protesting?
It seems to be mostly young people in smaller towns all over Iran, not so much the capital, Tehran. And that’s an important point, because that’s where the center of power is, and there were hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tehran in 2009, protesting the reelection of [Iran’s former hardline president, Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad.
This seems to have been more spontaneous, more in outlying towns and small cities. …
Apparently there was this post back in late December, a picture of a woman taking off her headscarf. … That was posted on Instagram by a US-based Iranian woman journalist, and it took off from there. It started a movement of women wearing white on Wednesdays and taking off their headscarves … so that’s become like a little social movement in itself, the White Scarf Protest. …
It looks like the protests have slightly died down, although we’ll see what happens on the next Wednesday. The government has organized massive counter-protests in favor of the government. After letting this run for a few days, the Republican Guard, which answers to the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei] has come out and forcibly suppressed it. Hundreds of people have been arrested, and something like 21, 22 or more people have been killed.
Why are they protesting? What do they want?
Most commentators are pointing to the economic reasons, and I think that’s partly right. But my sense, based on the headscarf factor, is that part of this really is cultural. There have been people in the Iranian middle class—there are more educated people—and this applies outside the capital: it’s not like all of the smaller towns or rural communities are illiterate or something. That’s not the case at all. Iran is a highly educated country. A lot of these middle class people are not happy about the religious repression either. Something upwards of 40 to 45 percent of Iran’s community consists of minority groups, of many different stripes, who don’t necessarily hold with the very strict Shia Islam orthodoxy of the Supreme Leader and his inner circle and his Republican Guard enforcers. So I think that definitely plays a major role. But probably economic upset explains to some extent why there’s been so much spontaneous support among young people. Unemployment is enormous among the youth of Iran.
The cost of everything has gone up. Iran has had inflation between 10 and 20 percent for the past 15 years. … Statistics show that the consumption of meat and bread and just about everything else is down. Inflation kept up with inflation until the last four or five years.
The lifting of most economic sanctions hasn’t really corrected the bulk of the problem.
Does this movement threaten the regime? Is there a possibility that this could lead to radical change in the way Iran is governed?
I doubt it’s going to pose any kind of immediate existential threat to the regime. The current president was elected not too long ago, and he seems to still have widespread popular approval because he negotiated that [nuclear] deal with the United States. It seems like what it does mainly is increase the pressure on the more conservative side of Iran’s government, to give [President Hassan] Rouhani, a more moderate, reformist president, maybe a freer hand. If there’s any concession at all to the protesters, it’s some greater leeway for Rouhani to implement some of the economic reforms that he wants.
Part of the problem, like so many other developing nations, is you’ve got the oil and gas industry serving the interests of a small elite. Their profits have returned with the lifting of the sanctions, but that’s not trickling down. So you might see some internal economic reforms. But I don’t see any immediate threat to the dominance of that much more conservative faction that has been in power since President Carter’s days.
But it’s an indicator, as have been the last couple of presidential elections in Iran, that there’s growing dissatisfaction and discontent and unrest within the country. There have been a lot of Iranian leaders in the inner circle focusing on foreign relations, trying to extend their power, trying to make a greater Iranian sphere of influence. They control much of Iraq now, for example, because Iraq is led by a Shia government that’s aligned with them, that was put in power by the inner circle of the Iranian regime. And they basically, along with Russia, kept [Bashar al] Assad in power in Syria. So they’ve created this arc of power across the north of the Middle East. They’ve been sponsoring this civil war rebel group in Yemen as well.
So they’re spending a lot of time and resources and efforts on these foreign crusades. And just like people here got fed up with the government not paying attention to internal problems, I think there’s something analogous in Iran. Maybe this will cause the inner circle around the Ayatollah to rethink some of their foreign policy strategy. They might, if they’re smart, maybe take counsel and think more about what’s going on at home, and stop sending so many young men and militias to Syria, Iraq or Yemen. They’ve got themselves to a point where they’re almost in an outright war with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other Sunni-dominated Middle Eastern countries.
What dominates the whole region is this Sunni vs. Shia standoff. That’s largely ginned up by these guys in Tehran.
How might Iran’s religious minorities, e.g., Christians, play into this and be affected?
Christians are a very small minority there. Christians and other minority groups—there are a few Sunnis, people who speak Turkish, lots of small minority groups—they do support, for the most part, reformist political candidates. So they could be encouraged, actually. But we have to realize that the Iranian regime, speaking of the Ayatollah and his inner circle rather than the people around the civil administration of President Rouhani—it’s a country with almost two governments—those minority groups have been heavily suppressed, especially when you’re talking about non-Islamic groups, like Christians, a handful of Jews who remain there, Zoroastrians, people who follow the Baha’i faith. These are very small groups now: a lot of these people have left Iran over the last three decades. But there are minorities who are Islamic but don’t follow the regime’s ideology.
A common perception by a lot of commentators is that these groups that are sort of more out of the center of power, living outside the capital, more rural, tend to be more conservative and may ally more with the Ayatollah. Not true. The record shows that they tend to vote more for the reformist candidates, like President Rouhani. We have to remember that the president runs the civil administration, not the military or foreign policy part. That’s the “other” government. He was the least favored among the hand-picked candidates. The Ayatollah and his circle hand-pick the candidates and allow them to run. They let this guy run assuming he was going to lose. And he won. Which shows you that minority groups within the country do have some political power. They, along with more reform-minded moderates in the capital, were able to elect this guy. …
It seems to me that part of this is an expression of frustration on the part of educated middle-class women, among other youth in Iran, who don’t have anything like the civil liberties they would like. We see the regime in Saudi Arabia liberalizing their rules, and nothing like that, no concessions, forthcoming in Iran, from the government. Those sorts of things are controlled by the inner circle, the clerics. A change in the dress code and things like that would be a real sign of the weakening of their power. …
I think this is a sign of slow tectonic-like changes in Iran that over time will increasingly strengthen the hand of the reformist side. Maybe it will help them win the next presidential election and so on. If any real deep change is going to hapen it will probably be when there is a successor to the Ayatollah, when he retires or dies, if there’s a more moderate figure there in that role as Supreme Leader. … He’s quite elderly but he’s surrounded by a circle of other firebrand clerics and very hardline generals who control the Republican Guard. Unless there’s some way western nations haven’t found yet to give those people an incentive to liberalize, that seems like they’re just so committed to their religious ideology that there’s no way to do that.