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This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: Protests show Iran’s social contract is broken

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Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times. This week’s edition is about Iran, where anti-government demonstrations have broken out all over the country, triggered by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman. She was arrested by the so-called morality police in mid-September, accused of not wearing a headscarf properly. My guest this week is Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs here in London. So how big a threat is the current uprising to the Iranian government?

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Gideon Rachman
For the past few weeks, the streets of Iran have echoed to the sound of protests.

News Clip
Women in Iran set their headscarves on fire in fury. They are tired of the morality police beating them up and the Islamic Republic leaders who police their every move. Mahsa was Kurdish, but protests are spreading across Iran. A woman stands calmly in front of a water cannon until it has to reverse.

Gideon Rachman
It’s difficult for people outside Iran to get an accurate picture of what’s happening because foreign media are kept at arm’s length. Although we at the FT do have an excellent correspondent in Tehran, Najmeh Bozorgmehr. Here she is discussing the origins of the uprising.

Najmeh Bozorgmehr
The death of Mahsa Amini deeply hurt Iranians. Iranians genuinely mourned for her. She was an innocent girl. And even with the Islamic Republic standards, she had not violated the dress code. I would say she looked even conservative with today’s standards in Tehran. But surely people were already upset with promises not delivered and a gloomy outlook which makes many young Iranians think they cannot have a bright future in their homeland.

Gideon Rachman
Much of the footage and noise of the protests has been broadcast to the world through social media and then picked up by the world’s press.

News clip
Iranian riot police rushed towards Sharif University, where students are protesting against the government. One demonstrator already arrested is sandwiched on a motorbike between two officers, one of whom shoots at the camera with what appears to be a paintball gun. In another video from near the university, the screams of fleeing demonstrators mingle with the sounds of shots fired.

Gideon Rachman
The bravery and scope of the demonstrations is impressive, but the Islamic Republic of Iran has faced upsurges of protest in the past and suppressed them with brutality and success. Some analysts believe this time is different and the protests are a real threat to the regime. Others are more pessimistic and think that the Iranian state will once again regain control of events. So I began our conversation by asking Sanam Vakil what she thinks. Is this an unprecedented threat to the Islamic Republic or just the latest in a cycle of protest and repression?

Sanam Vakil
I said probably between both camps. I think the truth is always somewhere in the middle. We have seen repeated protests in Iran dating back to well before 1999 when we saw the student uprisings. We saw student protests then that were quite shocking. In 2009, we had the Green Movement protests that were primarily political and challenging the outcome of Iran’s presidential election at the time. And since then, in 2017 and 2019, there are protests that have been primarily economically driven. And then suddenly the very tragic death of a young woman has sparked a nationwide protest movement that is bringing together different cleavages. And that’s what makes it different. This is a protest that has brought out very young portions of the population. We might call them Gen Z. It’s brought out Kurds, it’s brought out Baluchi Iranians in southeastern Iran. It’s brought out frustrated labourers. Shopkeepers have gone on strike and now students are mobilising also. So it is threading together a series of grievances around the country.

Gideon Rachman
And is this the first time that women’s issues and specifically the hijab and the way women are treated has been at the centre of protest and indeed women themselves?

Sanam Vakil
It has, indeed. Women have been at the forefront of a number of campaigns in Iran, pushing for gender equality, access to stadiums, greater legal rights. The hijab has not featured front and centre since the early days of the revolution. And this, of course, is a hugely mobilising and empowering moment for women in Iran that are seizing the opportunity to push forward and really advocate for their choice on how they want to dress. And the slogan of this movement by women and supported around the country is “Women, life, freedom”. You know, they’re agitating around these issues.

Gideon Rachman
And as you say, though, women have been at the core of this, but it’s now attracted very, very wide social support. I mean, I was struck, for example, the Iranian football team came out in support of this protest movement. So how rattled do you think the authorities will be?

Sanam Vakil
Well, you bring up a very good point. And this is another important feature of these protests, that the protesters are being supported by prominent Iranian actors in the film industry, the sports industry, influencers and, of course, there is a huge amount of support coming from the diaspora. So, you know, taken together, it’s putting pressure on the Iranian state and it’s drawing a lot more attention to the protesters, probably making it a bit harder for the system to repress in the harsh way that it did in the 2019 protests, for example.

Gideon Rachman
Yes and as you mentioned, that precedent and I guess one of the reasons, aside from the fact that there is so much else going on in the world, that there hasn’t been as much focus as there was past on unrest in Iran is perhaps a slightly wary sense in the world that, well, we’ve seen this cycle before and we know how it ends. It ends with the Iranian state cracking down very brutally, killing a lot of people and regaining control. I mean, is there any reason to think that that pattern isn’t gonna play out again?

Sanam Vakil
Unfortunately, I think you’re quite right. The Iranian government has a playbook and they are implementing that playbook through a series of measures which have included violence and brutality. There has been loss of life. They have detained thousands of people, brought them in for questioning, perhaps released many of them. But they’re putting pressure on civil society as well as protesters to return to their homes. There is very direct violence and pushback taking place in the Kurdish and in the Baluch provinces, particularly because the regime is very much threatened by outside influence, very wary of perhaps Israeli involvement. And of course, the supreme leader very much likes to blame any internal unrest on external forces. And I think finally, as part of their playbook, they have tried to unroll pro-government rallies as well, and we’ve seen a few of those over the past few days.

Gideon Rachman
Is the geographical spread of the protests unusual? I mean, my impression was that previously it was pretty much a big city thing. It seems to be all across the country.

Sanam Vakil
These protests have spread far and wide and their estimates to as many as 80 cities around Iran. That geographical dispersion has also been seen in 2017 and 2019. So this sort of keeps momentum and shows that these are broader issues that are resonating across the population. I think what’s interesting about women’s issues and might be surprising is that there have been so many men that have come out alongside women to support them and the broader fight. And that’s because in Iran, as a result of the forced Islamicisation of the country over four decades, now there is a high degree of gender consciousness in Iranian society. And so men are very aware of the day-to-day challenges that women face.

Gideon Rachman
And for the regime itself, I mean, how important are these gender issues? Is the hijab something they could even conceivably give away on or enforce less strictly, or is it central to their identity?

Sanam Vakil
It is a central and foundational pillar of the Iranian revolution. The Islamicisation of society and the sort of patriarchal control over women has been very important to the state. But quite frankly, over the past decade — if not longer — there has been less oversight over how women dress in Iran. The morality police has been out. But sometimes they’re not there. They’ve been trying out new technology to police women so that there is not the physical presence of the morality police. And so there is a tug and pull that has been under way now for well over 10 years over the issue of dress and the issue of choice.

Gideon Rachman
Have things been pulled in a more hardline direction, however, since the election of President Raisi, who is a hardliner, came in quite recently?

Sanam Vakil
Yes, there was a decision made to exert more oversight over this issue of dress and the morality police have become more present again, particularly in Tehran, as I’ve heard. And this is where the young Mahsa Amini was caught up and her life was taken quite tragically. I think that President Raisi is trying to demonstrate his Islamic credentials, his revolutionary credentials. The Iranian president is never given complete, independent authority in Iran. He is beholden to the supreme leader. And so perhaps he has been trying to showcase that he is a loyal foot soldier in this system.

Gideon Rachman
And to that extent, it’s backfired.

Sanam Vakil
Well, it hasn’t just backfired for him. It’s backfired for the conservative hardline establishment. And I think this is why they’re caught in this very awkward moment. The average age of the people protesting is under 25. And this is sort of the data that is coming out of Iran. These are young kids that are protesting really because they want to live their lives more freely and would like less social control. And probably many of these young kids have relatives and family members working within the system themselves. So I think the political establishment is being really caught out here and trying to avoid too much lethal exposure on the streets because, you know, if they’re caught killing too many young people, it will be devastating for them over a longer period of time.

Gideon Rachman
And of course, that generational thing is so striking, isn’t it? I mean, you have, as you say, the majority of protests apparently, you know, in their early 20s and the supreme leader of the country, is he 82 and apparently ill? So does that add to the sense of fragility, this massive generational gap and indeed a leadership transition coming up quite soon?

Sanam Vakil
Yes, I mean, the Islamic Republic is really at a fork-in-the-road moment. It has had successive rounds of quite serious protests, protests that they’ve managed to suppress. But Iran, in fact, is showing that it’s a tinderbox and people are coming out on social justice issues, issues of equality, making it very clear that the covenant of the revolution that held together the Islamic Republic is being broken, that the social contract is failed, economic mismanagement is rife, corruption is high, the currency has depreciated. It’s estimated that 40 per cent of the country is living below the poverty line. So these are very damaging cleavages and statistics and really showcasing the legitimacy challenges ahead for the leadership.

Gideon Rachman
Some of these issues remind me a bit of the debates we’ve been having over the weeks about Russia, where people are saying, “Well, if there’s a challenge to Putin, will it come from the streets or will it come from within the power structure that somebody will tap him on the shoulder or another faction will gain power?’ And the sort of consensus in Russia seems to be that generally these things happen from within the regime. So, is it possible that there could be change from within the regime? Are there any liberal voices who might try to push things in a different direction?

Sanam Vakil
Most of the liberal voices have been contained and repressed in Iran, for example, Iran’s former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani. His family is quite progressive and reformist and his daughter, Faezeh Rafsanjani, is a fierce advocate for women, among other things. And she has been taken to jail through these protests for fear that she might be inciting further unrest. I think you’re right in comparing Iran to Russia, there are a lot of similarities, and I think the Iranian conservative establishment sees a lot of those similarities. And so the election of Raisi fortified a conservative consolidation of power and pushed out any reformists and potential opponents from within the political establishment. And so with this monopoly, it’s quite difficult to see any moment where Khamenei himself could be destabilised or challenged. The moment, really that we’re all waiting for, though, is when Khamenei finally passes on and through that succession process, that’s where the next opportunity for political change could emerge.

Gideon Rachman
And, I mean, he is, by all accounts, ill. Is he still in charge?

Sanam Vakil
Yes, he is I think, very much in charge. This is a unique political system. It’s a hybrid system that has some Republican elements to it, where the president and the parliament and this other body called the Assembly of Experts, is directly elected by the people after the candidates have been vetted. But the vast majority of the institutions inside Iran are appointed and overseen by Khamenei and Khamenei’s office. So there is more power in the informal institutions, and he has direct control over those.

Gideon Rachman
A group the one he has a lot of, following things from outside the country, are the Revolutionary Guards. How should one think of them? Are they a kind of secret police, a militia, elements of all of that? How powerful are they?

Sanam Vakil
The Revolutionary Guards have a very critical, institutionalised constitutional role in Iran. They are there to provide national security support for the Islamic Republic. And this enables them to manage internal dissent and threats, but also external threats. And this has given them a very broad remit where they have a huge intelligence office and agency, an independent sort of justice system that they have oversight of. And then of course, they’re very active in the region as well. I see the Revolutionary Guards, though, as not an independent actor, as many other analysts might describe them to be. I think that they’re part of what I call to be the Iranian deep state, a series of entities and individuals that are threaded together to preserve the security and stability of the Islamic Republic. And they have been brought together by the supreme leader himself. So he is very much the puppeteer of the system, and this Revolutionary Guards remain loyal to him.

Gideon Rachman
So as you say, the Revolutionary Guards have this internal and external role, which brings us to the geopolitical context. Does that have relevance to what’s going on? Because there’s been a lot of talk about their efforts to restart the nuclear deal with the United States, which in turn, might ease Iran’s isolation, help it economically. Where does that stand?

Sanam Vakil
There are very many layers to this connected to the nuclear negotiations. The war in Russia and the JCPOA negotiations have been on and off since April 2021. And while there have been many close calls where supposedly the deal was almost signed by all parties, I think that the JCPOA is really on its last legs, really, because this system in Iran and these leaders in Iran remain profoundly suspicious of the United States. They see the US as trying to weaken the Islamic Republic, and they worry that a deal with the US that has already withdrawn from the JCPOA in 2018, when Donald Trump withdrew and then imposed the series of maximum pressure sanctions on Iran will repeat. And so this administration, the Raisi administration, will be made vulnerable again to sanctions, perhaps in 2025 when a new US president might be elected. And they also see Iran’s nuclear programme as the most valuable card that Iran holds in protecting itself from western interference and western intentions to weaken the Islamic Republic.

Gideon Rachman
And that of course, comes with an economic price not having this deal. So you mentioned that shocking statistic, 40 per cent of people living in poverty. I mean, everything you could tick off, inflation at 80 per cent, the currency falling very sharply. How much of what’s going on on the streets now is also about a sense of economic despair.

Sanam Vakil
I think the economic situation is devastating for ordinary Iranians. They’re really bearing the brunt of this government mismanagement, which is economic as well as political. And it’s clear that the population does not agree with this ideological worldview that is held at the top. But this is an authoritarian system, and a system that has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to be coercive and to repress people. And so there are, you know, pockets of resistance that we see, pockets of protests. The Islamic Republic actually has, you know, around 500 protests annually, ranging from labour issues to water scarcity. You know, there is a deep culture of protest in Iran, a release valve, if you will. But I think that the political establishment is much more interested in surviving and not, let’s say, falling apart like the Soviet Union did, which is a model the supreme leader is quite conscious of. And in order to survive and build a stronger security structure, it’s going to come continuously at the cost of ordinary Iranians.

Gideon Rachman
So you say they’re very conscious of what happened in the Soviet Union. How unsettled do you think they are by events in Russia? I mean, Putin has visited Tehran. He’s clearly courting Iran, but he’s also clearly weakened domestically and doing badly in the Ukraine war.

Sanam Vakil
I think that hardliners see in this war an opportunity, an opportunity to forge a stronger resistance-based ties with Russia and, of course, with the big ticket, China. And yes, Putin has turned out to be much more of a paper bear than they expected. But this is affording Iran, again, an opportunity to showcase their technological progress in sending them drones. There are opportunities for stronger economic ties. It’s unclear how this is going to develop also because I think in the early days of the war, the Iranians, along with many other leaders across the Middle East, I think, expected the war to net out in favour of Putin. But Iran is opportunistic and it plays a longer game. So it sees in either outcome a chance for Iran to remain less isolated. And those are the goals and objectives of the conservative establishment at the helm today in Tehran.

Gideon Rachman
So finally, I mean, as you pointed out, this story has been going on a long time now. They’ve been in power for more than 40 years. Do you have any sense of optimism now as you see these protests in the streets? Clearly, civil society wants something different. Is there any prospect that they’ll get it?

Sanam Vakil
I think it’s hard to be optimistic in the immediate term because I’m not confident that the economic and political hopes of these young people will be met. In fact, I’m worried that they will be repressed and become further depressed by the outcome of these protests. Over time, I do think that the system will make compromises within the social realm and provide them with greater freedoms, but it might not be immediate. And I think over the long run, where I am optimistic, there is still civil society in Iran because for a while I was worried that it had been fully driven out. And secondly, I am just very impressed by the resilience and the determination of this young generation. You know, they’ve grown up in the Islamic Republic and they are the ones that are living and breathing in the Islamic Republic. And the fact that they’re pushing back and showing their resilience, I think, is a foreshadowing for perhaps better days to come when they build stronger bonds and develop organisational capacity and leadership and perhaps define what their broader objectives are.

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Gideon Rachman
That was Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East Programme at Chatham House, ending this edition of the Rachman Review. Thanks for joining me and please listen again next week.

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