Protests in solidarity with Mahsa Amini in Ottawa (September 25, 2022). Credit: Taymaz Valley
Protests in solidarity with Mahsa Amini in Ottawa, Canada (September 25, 2022). Credit: Taymaz Valley

Soraya Lennie is a journalist, analyst and author of "Crooked Alleys: Deliverance and Despair in Iran".

The protests in Iran began in September of last year, sparked by the death of a young woman in police custody. What did they grow to encompass?

The protests were about issues much larger than compulsory hijab, or dislike of the morality police. The death in custody of Mahsa Amini was of course the spark, but arguably the protests represent the continuing decline in public perception vis a vis the legitimacy of the state and those who hold power.

Widespread protests largely fizzled out after a couple of months but quickly evolved into a campaign for change. Ultimately, in a leaderless movement, the motivations and desires of individuals differ, but generally speaking, the demands from those who took to the streets in Iran are similar: end morality policing, impunity and the compulsory hijab – and overhaul, if not end, the current system of the Islamic Republic.

The overall campaign is now one of civil disobedience, where many supporters chant sporadic slogans against the Supreme Leader and state and no longer wear hijab in public. The number of activists inside Iran who are speaking out and risking arrest and prison, has also grown. There is also significant support for a referendum on a new constitution – which is the legal avenue to dismantle the Islamic Republic.

In your book “Crooked Alleys” you paint a picture of an Islamic Republic that is a prisoner of its past. Are the protests the sign of a younger generation demanding a better future?

Iran is a prisoner of the past due to US foreign policy since the hostage crisis [in 1979], and its own belligerent and caustic reaction. It is a complex issue, but generational change in Iran means less people have a personal stake in maintaining the debilitating status quo. They are less inclined to cling to the rationales and ideologies of the past which have helped paralyse Iran’s progress, both internally and externally. Less and less people care about yesterday’s revolutionaries, or even the Iran-Iraq war mythology, and thus are much more focused on the present, and on their own futures.

Generational change is an exceptional driver of new ideas anywhere, but in Iran, it is absolutely crucial in advancing the pro-democracy movement. They have injected new life into a movement for change that has gone nowhere the last 15 years.

How extensive has the government crackdown been, and have women faced the brunt of it?

Iran’s own Judiciary Chief suggests more than 22,000 people were arrested in the crackdown. Human rights groups say more than 500 people, including dozens of security forces, were killed. The crackdown doesn’t appear to be focused on one gender or another, as both men and women protested – and faced arrest and prison – together. Further, dozens of photographers and journalists have also been jailed – both men and women. The difference is, in many cases it is generally easier to identify a woman involved in an act of civil disobedience by virtue of appearance [including whether or not she wears the hijab], than it is a man.

Special rapporteur Javaid Rehman has told the UN Human Rights Council that the violations since the protests began amount to “crimes against humanity”. Does this seem justified?

The Rome Statute is rather generalised. In Iran’s case, there is evidence of torture and specifically, of security forces intentionally committing inhumane acts – a crime against humanity. Specifically blinding protesters with bird shot, beating civilians and subjecting thousands to arbitrary arrest. Further, many people, including journalists, were convicted of crimes in sham trials void of transparency or due process.

Some Iranians have rallied around Reza Pahlavi, the son of the Shah, to lead a transitional government from clerical to secular rule. Why do others argue that this would be bad for democracy?

There are several issues here; first, this is a diaspora project, not an indigenous Iranian one and I’ve not seen much support for it inside the country. Iran’s most legitimate civil rights activists are in jail or under house arrest, not in the United States. Second, detractors argue that Mr Pahlavi has never held elected office so doesn’t have the political credentials. Third, millions of Iranians already lament replacing one dictatorship with another (the crown for the turban) and therefore argue another unelected group or individual is the antithesis of progress.

Lastly, many people assume – as does the charter that Mr Pahlavi and other diaspora have issued – that Iranians want a ‘secular-democratic system.’ Although the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, there is no data that proves this is what an overwhelming majority of Iranians want. However, I don’t think his participation as an elected official in any future Iranian system – based on consensus of the Iranian people – is bad for democracy, so long as he is elected in a free and fair vote, like anyone else.

The role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was originally around security and “religious discipline”. What is their current role in society?

The role of the IRGC is to protect the revolution, which is embodied by the Supreme Leader, and protect the revolution’s ideals – independence, freedom and Islamic Republic. However, its role changed when Ruhollah Khomeini died in 1989, and Ali Khamenei replaced him as Supreme Leader. Although the constitution forbids active IRGC members from political activity or groups, IRGC figures are involved in every key branch of the Islamic Republic system, from the judiciary and parliament to intelligence. Further, the IRGC has morphed into an economic cartel with outsized power and leverage, even over pillars of the revolution and the clergy.

Is it possible to tackle their power, without reforming the state?

In short, no. Constitutional amendments in 1982 have ensured that. Certain articles gave the IRGC outsized power with no real checks and balances. Further, the Corps reports to the Supreme Leader, not the Ministry of Defence. It also operates its own intelligence wing, often in competition with the state’s Ministry of Intelligence. Further, it’s full budget is not subject to public parliamentary scrutiny, stripping away another layer of accountability, while increasing its already formidable role.

February was the 44th anniversary of the 1979 revolution. The government used it as a show of might and to send the message that they had won, and the protests are now a spent force. How true is that?

The anniversary of the revolution in theory, is a celebration of freedom and independence from foreign domination – widely supported concepts. But it is also a propaganda tool used by the state and its supporters to cling to legitimacy and a long dead revolutionary mythology. The most telling element at these events, is the absence of the many millions of Iranians who fought for the revolution, who are now disillusioned, if not repulsed by the system they helped create.

As for the protests, they were not as large nor as widespread as those seen, for example, in 2009. Any significant showing ended about two months after the death of Mahsa Amini – aside from in Zahedan. In essence, the protests are over, and did not lead to systematic change. But the Islamic Republic of Iran cannot claim it has won anything – in fact the opposite. The number of Iranians who view the country’s circle of elite as illegitimate has grown exponentially and this rift between the people and the state is arguably, beyond repair.

There are reports that thousands of women are now openly breaking the law and refusing to wear the hijab. What impact have the protests had on the general population in Iran?

Millions of Iranian women weren’t abiding by the letter of the law for decades and in the past ten years, it was common to see unveiled women at cafes, art galleries, and even walking down the street. Despite arrests, threats and even attacks from members of the public, the protests have emboldened more women to follow suit. The protests broke another layer of fear in the Islamic Republic and the importance of that cannot be understated.

Soraya Lennie is the author of Crooked Alleys: Deliverance and Despair in Iran (Hurst Publishers).