On September 16, 2022, 22-year old Jina Mahsa Amini, was killed for not properly wearing a headcovering. Following her death, protesters began chanting “women, life, freedom,” and “death to the dictator” referring to Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader. Internet access for the Iranian people including WhatsApp, Instagram, and mobile Internet was shut off, making it difficult for the world to follow what exactly was happening.
The protests we’re seeing today are different from the 2009 and 2017-2019 protests. They’re not driven by economics or a single political decision, they’re driven by a generation that wants to see changes, big changes. The young population of Iran has been exposed to life with democracy by the internet and this younger generation of Iranians don’t see value in the current tyrannical theocracy that dominates Iran. The Shari’a law that currently governs Iran,suppresses women in more ways than just hijab mandates. The gender apartheid in Iran is the largest form of discrimination, surpassing the ethnic discrimination between the minority Kurds and the dominating Persian population. Like any other set of laws that govern a nation and people, Shari’a law is long and complex, but at its core, women are seen as second-class citizens.
To understand why a government would restrict so much of its population, we need to look at Iran’s history. The geopolitical history of Iran is long and complicated; it’s one of the oldest civilizations in the world with the first city being founded around 3200 B.C and the Iranian people have endured rule under monarchy, Western influence, and theocracy. This article aims to explain what is currently happening in Iran by breaking down what has happened in Iran from the twentieth century, and explain the 1979 revolution, which gave rise to the Islamic Republic. This will help answer the question of how there can be a gap so large between a country and its people, that now the governing Islamic Republic of Iran does not represent Iranians. Arguably, the Islamic Republic of Iran represents no one, as even the clergy in charge are known to send their children to Western countries to get educated. What this regime does support is the push of extremist ideologies and centralized wealth and power to those in charge. The people have had enough, hence the protests and the slogan: “women, life, freedom”.
Iran underwent big changes in the twentieth century growing from a population of 12 million to 69 million people by the end. Infant mortality was drastically reduced, life expectancy greatly increased, the literacy rate went from a measly portion of the population to the majority of Iranians being literate, and the percentage of people who understood Persian also increased. By the end of the century, Iran had entered the modern world. Politically, Iran was ruled by a shah at the beginning, who was not very powerful, due to having no state bureaucracy or standing army. The people were ri’yat, subjects, but by the end of the century, the central government was very powerful. A new word even entered the Persian language, shahrvandi, meaning citizenship, and shi’ism, the official religion of Iran, became political.
Iran is a Middle-Eastern country rich with oil and this hasn’t gone unnoticed by the West. In 1950, the elected prime minister, Muhammad Mossaddeq, wanted to nationalize oil and created the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC). Prior to this, oil had been controlled by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a British oil company. Oil nationalization threatened the power of the Shah and neither the islamists nor Britain and the United States was in support of the nationalization. Much of the world depends on oil from the Middle East and if other countries such as Iraq followed suit in the nationalization of oil, the western economies would suffer. This gave rise to the 1953 coup. With the help of the Americans, the coup resulted in a stronger establishment of the monarchy and lifelong house arrest for Muhammad Mossaddeq.
This started a series of pivotal events leading to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The 1963 White Revolution describes when the Shah in power, Muhammad Reza, put forth a series of reform policies to both quell any opposition and to win international favor of the United States. The monarch was seen disfavorably by both islamists and iranians who saw him as a Western puppet. The policies included land redistribution, nationalization of forests, and voting rights for women. In total there were eighteen reform policies. While some of these policies were beneficial to the people, not all the promises of these policies were fulfilled. Criticism of the White Revolution was seen as opposition against the Shah and praise was seen as loyalty towards the regime. Then something happened in 1974, international oil prices quadrupled. Over twenty-three years, oil provided Iran with more than $55 billion and accounted for over 60% of revenue in any year. However this money was not equally distributed, the military saw a lot of this money, as the Shah spent in weaponry and salaries and expansion, and the state bureaucracy power was greatly extended. Then in 1975, the Shah created the resurgence party, stating that Iran was now a one-party state and every citizen must join the party. SAVAK was a group known as the Shah’s “eyes and ears” and they removed every mention of democracy from libraries and bookstores. The Shah wasn’t all bad in the eyes of the people, as women’s rights were expanded under this time with women allowed divorce, the marritable age was raised to eighteen, and the Family Protection Law was better enforced which directly contradicted Shari’a law.
The Shah was still not democratic and was put in power by foreign influence. The brutality of SAVAK and the clear dictatorship of the Shah silenced various opposition groups. People saw him as an illegitimate ruler due to his rise from the 1953 coup with help from America which culminated in the beginning of the famous Iranian Revolution. People wanted human rights, democracy and freedom. The clergy class, who had a lot of political influence, and less opposition from the Shah were able to become the dominating force leading the revolution, with their main figurehead being Ayatollah Khomeini.
In February of 1979 the Shah fled Iran, and one month later Khomeini returned to Iran. A short while after, the Islamic Republic of Iran was founded in an obviously rigged election, with Khomenei as the face, the Supreme Leader. After a series of invasions, the Iran-Iraq war ends in 1988 and a new Supreme Leader is elected, Khamenei who rules as the previous Khomenei has. The same reason the 1979 revolution could occur, a lack of a strong central government, was the very reason the revolution was not successful in creating a good government. Without an established governmental system, the prospects of establishing a strong government were slim, especially as the area is rich in oil and has attracted players who are not for the people.
In essence, internal and external conflicts in Iran have left the country vulnerable to tyrannical and oppressive rule from Western influence, monarchy and theocracy. These systems don’t need to support the people to function, rather they thrive off of exploiting the people. Under monarchy, freedom was suppressed, Westerners were concerned with oil, and the theocratic rule was focused on furthering their ideologies, hence supporting extremists shīʿīa groups in Iraq and surrounding countries. The people are not represented and have not been represented by Iran. Citizenship had not even entered the vocabulary until the twentieth century. A question some may ask is “if life has been so oppressive for Iranians for so long, why don’t they revolt again?” One possible answer is the revolutionary guards which are a military branch put in place by Khomeini to stop revolutions from occurring and have accrued great power over time. The government has never needed to represent the people so it hasn’t, but the people of Iran in 2022 are tired of a government that doesn’t represent them, and as they protest, the world is watching.
By: Sophia Lehmer-Peasley
Image: Max Zindel