History is replete with examples of repressive regimes which seem unassailable coming crashing down because of their failure to control the fire lit by a single incident. The incident itself doesn’t have to be unique or extraordinary. In fact, oftentimes it is something quite routine. But there comes a time when even routine, run-of-the-mill repression crosses the tipping point and something — fear of the oppressor? — snaps, and sparks an uprising by the most unlikely people. Could Iran be facing a similar moment?
The officials of Gasht-e-Ershad (morality police) who smashed the head of a young Kurdish girl, Mahsa Amini, and killed her could have never imagined that they would set off a storm of protests which will sweep through Iran. After all, beating up women who these people thought were immodestly attired was a very routine thing to do. Even self-appointed guardians of morality would often hit women on streets. There was total impunity for such acts. And yet, Amini’s murder snapped something. The result is an uprising — perhaps the most widespread in the four decades of the mullah-run Islamic Republic — that some hope will lead to reform, maybe even regime change.
The street protests across Iran are quite unprecedented in both scale and spread. While there have been protests against the regime in the past, they were never of this level. The most remarkable thing about the protests in Iran is that they are being spearheaded by women who have taken to the streets. Equally remarkable is the fact that many men are supporting these protests and marching in support of the women. The defiance of the regime by the women who have been burning their hijabs, cutting their hair, confronting the police and the regime’s thugs is a demonstration of raw bravery because the consequences of their actions can be quite terrible — beatings, jail, or worse, death. The only other example of such raw courage comes from Afghanistan where intrepid Afghan women have been bravely demonstrating for their rights in the face of the brutal and medieval Taliban.
But is courage going to be enough to bend, much less break, a fanatically ideological regime? While there is no doubt that the Iranian women have captured the imagination and attention of peoples outside Iran, the real fight lies inside Iran. Outsiders can do little beyond amplifying the voice of Iranian women, and agitating their cause in their own countries.
The Iranian regime is, however, quite impervious to any external criticism. It might bristle at the condemnation coming its way, but is unlikely to change itself because of the flak it faces. There is neither any incentive for it to change, nor any disincentive for it if it doesn’t change. The regime is already ostracised by the West and faces crippling economic and political sanctions, which have dissuaded most countries from doing any business with it. Short of waging war, something no one is ready to do, there is little that the outside world can do to further the cause of the Iranian women. Media campaigns on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, or stories in newspapers and video footage on TV and YouTube channels highlighting the heroic struggle of Iranian women is basically the limit of what the outside world can and will do.
Inside Iran, the way the protests have been organised and people mobilised has certainly taken the regime by surprise. Even more striking is the fact that these protests have continued for over two weeks and still show no signs of abating. That the regime is nonplussed is quite apparent. And yet, it will take a leap of faith to imagine that these protests will be able to bring the regime to its knees.
Authoritarian regimes that are wedded to their ideology never compromise because that will be their death. They will go to any length to crush any challenge to their authority, or else perish trying to save their regime. There are statements and signs that the regime is preparing for a brutal crackdown. The Mullahs will use both street and state power to clampdown on the protests. Already nearly 75 people have been killed in police action. There are reports of counter-mobilisation of the regime loyalists to confront the protestors on the streets. If all else fails, the infamous Revolutionary Guards will be unleashed. The bottom-line is that the regime will pull out all stops, and use all the means available to bottle up the protests.
If this means more casualties, then so be it. International opprobrium will be like water off a ducks back, especially because it imposes no real tangible cost. In the regime’s calculus, it has already faced the worst that the West could throw at it. If anything, there is a good chance that the West will actually ease up on the sanctions to get the nuclear deal through. Human Rights are, after all, a fungible concept especially if they conflict with a strategic objective. What is more, there are new alignments taking place with Russia, China and a few more countries that will mitigate some of the effects of the Western sanctions.
Add to this the still large support that the mullah-led regime enjoys from the conservative and orthodox elements of the society. Most of all, there is as yet no sign of any split within the regime that could tilt the balance in favour of the women protestors. Therefore, any which way you look at it, the regime has very good reasons to feel confident that it can ride out, even snuff out, the storm of protests raging on the streets of Iranian cities.
Awe inspiring as the courage and commitment of the Iranian women is, the fire in their belly to win their liberty from the mullahs is not the same as the firepower (both literal and metaphorical) needed to defeat the mullahs.
There is also no real organised opposition that is directing the protests. Much of it is spontaneous, organised through word of mouth or social media. The compelling images of the protests might win the Iranian women admiration of the world, even of the sceptics, but will not be enough to win the cause for which they are agitating.
Sustaining these protests to a point where the regime is forced to retreat, or even bend a little, will be extremely difficult, almost impossible. Therefore, much as one would like to see the women defeat the mullahs, it ain’t happening any time soon.
The writer is Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.