Protests following the death of Iranian woman Mahsa Amini have spread to other countries, including Lebanon. Wael Hamzeh/EPA/AAP
Protests following the death of Iranian woman Mahsa Amini have spread to other countries, including Lebanon. Wael Hamzeh/EPA/AAP

As protests in Iran drag on into their fourth week over the violent death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman, there are two central questions.

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

The first is whether these protests involving women and girls across Iran are different from upheavals in the past or will simply end the same way with the regime stifling a popular uprising.

The second question is what can and should; the outside world does about courageous demonstrations against an ageing and ruthless regime that has shown itself to be unwilling, and possibly unable, to allow greater freedoms?

The symbolic issue for Iran’s protest movement is a requirement imposed by the morality police that women and girls wear hijabs or headscarves. These protests result from a much broader revolt against discrimination and prejudice.

Put simply, women are fed up with a regime that has sought to impose rigid rules on what is, and is not permissible for women in a theocratic society whose guidelines are little changed since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979.

Women are serving multi-year jail sentences for simply refusing to wear the hijab.

Two other issues are also at play. One is the economic deprivation suffered by Iranians under the weight of persistent sanctions, rampant inflation and the continuing catastrophic decline in the value of the Iranian riyal.

The other issue is that Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old whose death sparked the protests, was a Kurd.

The Kurds, who constitute about 10% of Iran’s 84 million population, feel like a persecuted minority. Tensions between the central government in Tehran and Kurds in their homeland on the boundaries of Iraq, Syria and Turkey are endemic.

Another critical question is where all this leaves negotiations on the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The JCPOA had been aimed at freezing Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. Former President Donald Trump recklessly abandoned the 2015 agreement in 2018.

The Biden administration and its United Nations Security Council partners, plus Germany, had been making progress in those negotiations, but those efforts are now stalled, if not frozen.

The spectacle of Iranian security forces violently put down demonstrations in cities, towns and villages across Iran will make it virtually impossible for the US and its negotiating partners to negotiate a revised JCPOA with Tehran in the short term.

Russia’s use of Iranian-supplied “kamikaze” drones against Ukrainian targets will have further soured the atmosphere.

How will the US and its allies respond?

So will the US and its allies continue to tighten Iranian sanctions? And to what extent will the West seek to encourage and support protesters on the ground in Iran?

One initiative already underway is helping the protest movement circumvent regime attempts to shut down electronic communications.

Elon Musk has announced he is activating his Starlink satellites to provide a vehicle for social media communications in Iran. Musk did the same thing in Ukraine to get around Russian attempts to shut down Ukrainian communications by taking out a European satellite system.

However, amid the spectacle of women and girls being shot and tear-gassed on Iranian streets, the moral dilemma for the outside world is this: how far the West is prepared to go in its backing for the protesters.

Since the Iranian protests began, there have also been pro-government rallies in response.
Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA/AAP

It is one thing to express sympathy; it is another to take concrete steps to support the widespread agitation. This was also the problem during the Arab Spring of 2010 that brought down regimes in US-friendly countries like Egypt and Tunisia.

In light of contemporary events, it should not be forgotten that Iran and Russia propped up Syria’s Assad regime during the Arab Spring, saving it from a near-certain end.

In this latest period, the Middle East may not be on fire as it was a decade ago, but it remains precarious. Iran’s neighbour, Iraq, is influential without a government after months of violent agitation. The war in Yemen is threatening to spark up again, adding to uncertainties in the Gulf.

In a geopolitical sense, Washington has to reckon with the inroads Moscow has made in relations with the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia.

The recent OPEC Plus decision to limit oil production constituted a slap to the US ahead of the mid-term elections in which fuel prices will be a potent issue.

In other words, Washington’s ability to influence events in the Middle East is eroding partly due to a disastrous attempt to remake the region by going to war in Iraq in 2003.

The US’s ability to influence the Middle East is much weaker than before it went to war in Iraq in 2003.
Susan Walsh/AP/AAP

A volatile region

Among the consequences of that misjudgement is the empowerment of Iran in conjunction with a Shia majority in Iraq. This should have been foreseen.

So quite apart from the waves of protest in Iran, the region is a tinderbox with multiple unresolved conflicts.

In Afghanistan, on the fringes of the Middle East, women protesters have taken the lead in recent days from their Iranian sisters. They have protested against conservative dress codes and limited access to education under the Taliban.

This returns us to the moral issue of the extent to which the outside world should support the protests. In this, the experience of the “green” rebellion of 2009 on Iran’s streets is relevant.

Then, the Obama administration, after initially encouraging the demonstrations, pulled back on the grounds it did not wish to jeopardise negotiations on a nuclear deal with Iran or undermine the protests by attaching US support.

Officials in the administration, who are now back in the Biden White House, believe that approach was a mistake. However, that begs the question of what practically the US and its allies can do to stop Iran’s assault on its women and girls.

What if, as a consequence of Western encouragement to the demonstrators, many hundreds die or are incarcerated? What is the result, beyond indulging in the usual rhetorical exercises such as expressing “concern” and threatening to ramp up sanctions that hurt individual Iranians more than the regime itself?

The bottom line is that irrespective of what might be the desired outcome, Iran’s regime is unlikely to crumble. It might be shaken and entertain concerns that the revolution that replaced the Shah is in danger of being replicated. Still, it would be naïve to believe that a rotting 43-year-old edifice would be anything but utterly ruthless in putting an end to the demonstrations.

This includes unrest in the oil industry, in which workers express solidarity with the demonstrators. The oil worker protest will be concerning the regime, given the centrality of oil production to Iran’s economy.

However, a powerful women’s movement has been unleashed in Iran. Over time, this movement may well force a theocratic regime to loosen restrictions on women and their participation in the country’s political life. That is the hope, but as history has shown, a ruthless government will stop at little to re-assert its control.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Vice-chancellor’s fellow, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.