Iranian hardliners portray the anti-government demonstrations as the work of Western powers and Israel, but reformists and moderates are unwilling to back that argument.
Iran has faced many protests since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, but the country was able to shake off every act of public dissent through the use of brute force along with accusations against “foreign forces” inimical to the country.
The story, however, appears to be different this time.
Since the death of 22-year-old woman Mahsa Amini in mid-September, Iran has been convulsed by widespread public protests on a scale never before seen in the country, especially against Iran’s law that makes the hijab mandatory in public places.
Even after months of protests – which have often turned violent and led to the death of more than 400 people according to human rights groups – the Iranian state’s strong-arm tactics have not been able to deter the protesters or dismantle the demonstrations.
Even as the protests rage on, a growing debate on disbanding the controversial morality police has gained ground in the Iranian political landscape. However, what will happen to this unit has not been clear yet.
What has, however, become apparent are the broad divisions in the country over the hijab law, the protests and how the government has responded to the call for reforms.
While hardliners – especially in parliament – are demanding the death penalty for the protesters, the moderate and reformists are asking the Raisi government to slow down on its suppression of the protests, according to a Tehran-based Iranian journalist who wants to stay anonymous due to security concerns.
“But most moderates and reformists are still voiceless because they are afraid of the risks of speaking about the protests,” she tells TRT World.
Ali Vaez, Iran Project Director of the American think-tank International Crisis Group, too says that “the more moderate forces have asked the leadership to address the people’s grievances”.
Despite Raisi’s harsh rhetoric against the protests, some reformists like Mohammed Khatami, a former president, publicly backed the protesters, saying that they had legitimate reasons to be on the streets over their concerns for the country’s economic and political problems. Some clerics and reformists have also urged the government to hold a new referendum on Iran’s constitution.
But Vaez does not believe that “the kind of elite fracturing that happened in the 2009 protests has not occurred” yet this time around.
While the Iranian elite’s differences over the protests might not be so significant, some members of the country’s prominent political clans – like the Khomeinis and the Rafsanjanis – have shown their disapproval of the Raisi government’s crackdown on the protests, forcing the hardliner president to reach out to them.
“There has certainly been an outreach, but if the objective was to bring them out to support the current government, it has failed,” Vaez tells TRT World, referring to the Raisi administration’s recent contacts with family members of the Rafsanjanis and Khomeinis to get their backing for his government.
“The Rafsanjanis have been much more outspoken in support of the protests to the extent that Faezeh was among the first prominent figures to be arrested,” says Vaez. Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani is the daughter of the former two-term President, the late Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the leading political figures in the country. Faezeh is a women’s rights activist who had earlier served as a member of parliament.
“The Khomeinis have been much more cautious,” she adds. The Khomeini family’s patriarch Ayatollah Khomeini – the spiritual leader of the 1979 Revolution – had very much laid the foundation of the current state.
The Tehran-based journalist also confirms Raisi’s appeal to the two political families to help calm down the protests but adds that the family members rejected it for fear of public backlash.
What has emerged out of the chaos, the Tehran-based journalist says, are some differences among the hardline ranks within the ruling establishment.
“I guess we can see a spectrum of different views between hardliners too. Some like Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the speaker of parliament, is now speaking about accepting some of the protesters’ demands,” the journalist says.
Also some hardliners like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former president, has continued to be silent on the protests, not publicly condemning demonstrations, which shows not all hardliners are on the same page.
Vaez is not reading too much about the apparent differences among hardline ranks. “The hardliners seem to differ only in how harsh a crackdown they seek. But there are no cracks in the edifice around the supreme leader,” he says. According to the Iranian journalist, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continues to stay an influential figure across the Iranian establishment.
Like many hardliners, Khamenei keeps harping about external powers responsible for the ongoing protests, labelling them “the enemy” of the country.
“The enemy is trying to make not only the people and youth, but also the officials lose hope, and unfortunately, the enemy has an internal extension that they are also trying to instill hopelessness and despair by using newspapers and cyberspace,” he was quoted as saying by the state media last month, referring to Western powers as “the orchestrating” force behind the protests.
Khamenei’s conspiratorial view was echoed by a former top Iranian official, who spoke to TRT World on the condition of anonymity. “The Middle East is facing an information war. While US soldiers are leaving the region and no more American boots are on the ground, fellow citizens are killing each other by remote manipulation via social media. We all warn our citizens of this new hybrid war,” he says.
The official believes the protests will make the state even more powerful against the alleged foreign intervention. “At the end, it is an opportunity for further vaccination of Iran” vis-a-vis disinformation campaign that has its roots outside, he says. The protests provide an opportunity for the Iranian state, which “carefully identifies” anti-government elements inside and outside of Iran through “a screening process,” he adds.
Is Raisi up to the job?
Despite the official’s hardliner views, recent developments like the state’s “review” of hijab law also show that things are not going so well in the Iranian system under Raisi, who does not have a powerful appeal among Iranian masses, unlike Khamenei, according to the Iranian journalist.
“But there is no need for him to be fit for the presidency because the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is doing his job,” the journalist says, referring to the country’s most powerful security apparatus.
“He is destroying almost the whole bureaucracy right now, and a lot of people get fired from their jobs, and a lot of them will be fired in upcoming months,” she estimates, referring to Raisi’s dismantling of reformists and moderates from power circles. “He is freeing up more space for those who have absolute loyalty [to him and the hardliner establishment],” she adds.
Vaez also believes that the Raisi government is making things much worse in a country which faces significant Western sanctions and many economic problems. “What the current leadership seems unable to grasp is that the problems that have created this mess do not have rhetorical or superficial solutions,” he says, referring to Raisi’s political actions like reaching out to the powerful families.
While Iranian republic, a theocratic rule with some democratic credentials, has allowed reformists and moderates to come to power from time to time, Raisi’s election last year sounded like a total setup by the country’s hardliner establishment.
Before Raisi’s election, many reformist and moderate candidates, as well as some hardliners, were eliminated by the country’s Guardian Council, which determines the eligibility criteria to run for political offices.
The absence of those candidates in the election has alienated the country’s reformist forces from Iran’s political system, eventually leading some of them to ally with the current protest movement, according to many observers.