The Courageous Example of Iranian Women and Girls
Iran is a non-Arab outlier in the Middle East, but what happens there reverberates in the region and vice versa. Thus the 2009 Green Movement in Iran, against a fraudulent presidential election, was in some ways a precursor to the 2011 Arab Spring. A decade later, the protests that erupted in Iran following the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini are arousing feelings of solidarity among women in many Arab countries. Merissa Khurma, who directs the Middle East program at the Wilson Center, wrote that video clips of Iranian women cutting their hair, burning their scarves and chanting “Women, Life, Liberty” are being shared across the region and have sparked demonstrations in support of their Iranian sisters by women in Tunisia, among other places.
Legal and other forms of discrimination against women are widespread in Arab countries, even if they do not enforce veiling or segregation by sex. All these societies have male rulers, most of them kings or military dictators. While they may enact superficial reforms, they are misogynistic at heart. Countries that enforce legal discrimination against women generally repress all their citizens and try to make men “feel superior” by giving them power over women. It is a bad bargain for men and women alike. Hopefully, the courageous example of Iranian women and girls will inspire Arab women and men to demand the personal and political freedoms they have been deprived of for too long.
—Barbara Slavin is the director of the Future of Iran Initiative and a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
What Arab Rulers Are Learning From Iran
The regime in Iran is violently suppressing protests that started over the killing of a young woman deemed by autocratic Muslim authorities to have breached highly conservative dress codes. Those protests quickly picked up more widespread anti-regime sentiments, springing from a dearth of employment and economic opportunities coupled with housing, food and water shortages, political repression and rigid, religio-societal parameters. Several of those factors prevail in Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Syria and Egypt. The Arab Spring was one widespread manifestation of citizens’ rejection of the status quo and desperation for change. The Syrian uprising-turned-civil-war was another, more prolonged, attempt to transform society. Like the Green Movement demonstrations after Iranian elections in 2009, the Arab Spring, and especially the Syrian uprising, were brutally extinguished by ruling authorities often working to prop up each other. Those Arab states now have more advanced surveillance technologies than before the Arab Spring and show no hesitation in deploying them to quash dissent. Even elites are no longer exempt from repression by their peers, including the silencing of dissenting members within ruling families as witnessed in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan. Recently, protests in Egyptian universities over the introduction of conservative dress codes were snuffed out rapidly before they could gain traction.
Despite their rivalries with Iranian leaders, Arab rulers are learning from the current situation within Iran to not let dissent find public expression in case it galvanizes the population to seek regime change. So, the trajectory of events in the Middle East points to less freedom and personal choice, routine trampling on human rights, and ever more repressive, narrowly-based governments for which regime survival will remain paramount.
—Jamsheed K. Choksy is Distinguished Professor of Central Eurasian and Iranian Studies in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University, and was a member of the United States National Council on the Humanities from 2008 to 2019.
—Carol E. B. Choksy is Senior Lecturer of Strategic Intelligence in the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering at Indiana University.
Will Repression Work?
Six weeks since the start of Iran’s protest movement, galvanized by the death of Mahsa “Zina” Amini, it appears that the protests continue to gain steam despite the regime’s crackdown, which human rights groups say has killed at least 233 protesters, including 32 children.
Tehran is employing tactics similar to its response to widespread demonstrations in 2009 and 2019-2020, including firing at demonstrators and forcibly shipping dissenting students to psychiatric institutions. However, this time, with the advent of technology, Tehran is also employing a longer game that includes tracking, surveillance, infiltration and targeting presumed leaders as well as their families—tactics currently used in several post-Arab Spring states to quell and prevent future protest.
The question is, will the repression continue to work, and will this women and youth protest movement change anything? Two-thirds of Iran’s population is under 30, and protests have the support of unions, students and civil society groups. And with hundreds of victims, cycles of religious mourning are creating a culture of protest and gatherings. Protesters remain undeterred, evidenced by the continued demonstrations despite the head of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards warning protesters that last Saturday would be their “last day” of taking to the streets, in the clearest sign that security forces may intensify their already fierce crackdown on widespread unrest.
It is post-Arab Spring states that are carefully watching. Over the past several months, human rights defenders have ramped up pressure on the Egyptian government to drastically improve the rights situation in the country as the U.N. climate summit approaches. Posts on social media are currently calling for protests in Cairo on Nov. 11, as Egypt has experienced a significant currency devaluation that has hit its economy and population hard. Protesters in Tunisia took to the streets this week, as the country suffers from fuel and food shortages after President Kais Saied moved to consolidate political power. One year after Saied’s coup, Tunisian activists continue to mobilize despite deadly crackdowns.
As post-Arab Spring states look at the continued popular mobilization in Iran, they are also witnessing a return of protesters to their own squares. And while the outcomes remain unknown, what is becoming clear is that despite the increased repression throughout the region, there are growing pockets of women and youth that remain undeterred.
—Dalia Fahmy is an associate professor of political science at Long Island University and a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University. She is also a non-resident fellow at DAWN.
A Third Revolutionary Wave?
Arab dictators are watching the protests in Iran very closely, no doubt with a sense of anticipation. Now into its second month, an incipient revolution seems to be emerging that has shaken the Islamic Republic to its core. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who funds a Persian language TV channel, has been giving this uprising maximum coverage, likely hopeful that Reza Pahlavi, the son of the last Shah of Iran, can assume power and pro-Western monarchies can once again exist on both sides of the Persian Gulf.
MBS and his club of fellow Arab dictators, however, might want to dampen their enthusiasm for the Iranian uprising. While it may be politically expedient to cheer on the Iranian protesters, these autocrats should be careful what they wish for. Nearly identical social, political and economic conditions that gave rise to the revolt in Iran exist across the Arab world. There is also a historical precedent for revolutionary change in Iran inspiring similar demands in the Arab world.
The International Monetary Fund ranks the Middle East and North Africa as the worst-performing corner of the world economy since 2011. Over the next few years, the IMF forecasts, the region will retain its unique distinction. The key socio-economic indicators in the Arab world suggest a coming societal explosion is inevitable.
The Middle East has the world’s highest youth unemployment rate. It also has one of the fastest population growth rates in the world. A recent study on poverty in the region, based on a careful analysis of data and trends from World Bank and U.N. Development Program, concludes that poverty rates are four times higher than previously assumed. Two-thirds of the total Arab population can be classified as poor or vulnerable. Mass pauperization is now a common feature of the region and, according to the 2022 Global Inequality Report, it is the most unequal part of the world, where the top 10 percent capture almost 60 percent of the national income.
Post-Arab Spring, the region has also experienced expanding state repression. When judged by key indicators—such as democratic development (both civil and political rights), press freedom, censorship, women’s representation, status of minorities and state-sanctioned executions—countries in the Middle East have some of the lowest scores in the world. Annual reports by Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders, the World Press Freedom Index, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch all confirm this picture. Politically, what people in the Arab world and Iran have in common is the general absence of basic citizenship rights. Corrupt ruling elites remain in power, refusing to share it or relinquish it. When the people protest, they are met with state-sanctioned violence and extreme brutality.
Looking ahead, an ideal outcome for the Middle East would be a nonviolent democratic transition in Iran that replaces the Islamic Republic. This would then inspire Arab societies to replicate this toppling of authoritarianism. There is a precedent for this sequencing of events where demands for structural political change in Iran reverberate and inspire similar political demands in the Arab world.
The 1979 Revolution in Iran rocked the political status quo across the Arab-Islamic world. The second moment was roughly 13 years ago. The historian Nikki Keddie has observed that the Iranian Green Movement of 2009 “may be considered part of the 2009–2011 [Middle Eastern] revolutionary wave.” Future historians, she suggested, would look on this period in precisely this way. Perhaps, this third wave in 2022 will be the charm.
—Nader Hashemi is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies and an associate professor of Middle East and Islamic politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is also a non-resident fellow at DAWN.
A Unique Threat to Arab Autocrats
Though several Arab autocrats throughout the region have cheered the protests in Iran and undoubtedly enjoy seeing a regional adversary undermined domestically, the protests also represent a unique threat to their own authority and legitimacy. Many of the underlying grievances fueling the protests in Iran—such as the manipulation of religion for political purposes, imposed patriarchy, crony capitalism, and other forms of exclusion and repression—are present throughout countries in the Middle East. These governments fear that the protests in Iran could inspire mobilization throughout other parts of the region. Moreover, regional autocrats do not desire the emergence of genuine democracy within Iran, for this would seriously challenge the broader authoritarian status quo that prevails throughout the region. They want to see the ruling regime in Tehran undermined, but they do not want Iran to emerge as a powerful democracy capable of considerably altering the center of gravity in the region and the regional balance of power. Gulf Arab autocrats in particular, especially Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, fear an empowered democratic Iran for these reasons, as does Israel, all of which would lose the ability to exploit the “Iran card” in Washington as part of their attempts to garner American support. Hopefully, the protests in Iran will serve as a wake-up call for the United States: The only stable Middle East is a free and democratic Middle East.
—Jon Hoffman is a PhD candidate at George Mason University specializing in Middle East geopolitics and political Islam.
There Is No Going Back, in Iran and Across the Region
This feminist uprising in Iran is a continuation of a century-old movement for equality and basic rights. It is incredible to watch from the outside as women and young girls, shoulder to shoulder with men and allies, are braving bullets and brutal violence on the streets of Iran. This uprising is being closely watched by women across the Middle East, many of whom live in similarly patriarchal and repressive communities, and are in awe of the bravery of Iranian women and have shown their support with messages of solidarity. Iranian women and girls are chanting “Woman, Life, Freedom!” with immense courage and dignity, paving the way toward equality and showing the path to women in the rest of the region. Iranian women saw themselves in Mahsa Amini, and Iranian men saw their sisters in her. So they rose up to say never again to decades of discrimination and state-sanctioned violence. This is a historic moment in Iran and across the region, and there is no going back to how things were before September 2022.
—Negar Mortazavi is an Iranian-American journalist and political analyst based in Washington D.C. She is the host and editor of the Iran Podcast.
Why the Status Quo Will Persist
A weakened, significantly toned down or even ousted Iranian regime will impact the Middle East region in historic ways—just as the 1979 Iranian revolution spawned the so-called “resistance and deterrence front” that has been one of the two dominant ideological poles of the region since then. This is because it would shake and probably cripple the regional network of close ideological and military allies that is the Islamic Republic of Iran’s most substantial foreign policy success. This evolving network has included Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Syrian government as its two principal allies, along with strong ties to the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Palestine to changing degrees, and around half the kaleidoscopic political forces in Iraq.
This iron-fisted regional bloc has anchored the active opposition to the American-, Israeli- and Saudi-Emirati-led grouping of states. It also often enjoys strong support among Arab public opinion that loves anyone who defies this U.S.-Israeli-Gulf alignment. Iran remarkably has been able to withstand decades of brutal, U.S.-led international sanctions, and sustained assassinations and sabotage of its technological systems by Israel, while continuing to develop advanced nuclear capabilities and skirt oil export bans. Its defiance and active resistance against those who have tried to subdue it finally forced the U.S.-led global powers to meet its demands to pursue nuclear technology for peaceful purposes under intense international supervision.
The Iranian government’s bloody suppression of the current protests and previous mass protests remind the region that it promises its citizens and regional allies more of the same: repression and economic weakness at home, but ideological defiance and technological prowess regionally and globally. This sad reality reflects the ways of its half a dozen regional allies, whose swagger and technical capabilities have forced Israel into a de facto truce along its land and sea frontiers with Lebanon, and stunned the Saudi-Emirati-U.S. military camp in Yemen.
It is possible that a humbled and milder Iranian regime could slow down or reverse the successes of its regional allies and allow Arab citizens throughout the region to form governance systems that promote dignity, freedom and development. But there is no hard evidence of either happening now. Instead, there are the recent examples of autocratic forces that have beaten back democratic impulses in Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Bahrain, Algeria, Bahrain and Sudan. It is clear that as long as the government of any Middle Eastern country enjoys sufficient foreign currency reserves and loyal soldiers who will shoot their fellow citizens, the status quo will persist.
—Rami G. Khouri is the co-director of the American University of Beirut’s Global Engagement Initiative, and a political analyst and writer.