Is Iran Experiencing a Revolution?

On the 16th of September 2022, groups of women gathered around the Iranian capital of Tehran and began taking off their hijabs. Holding them aloft on sticks and with crowds of onlookers cheering them on, they set fire to the headscarves, chanting slogans like “death to the dictator”. These demonstrations were in response to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini who was beaten and killed by police after being arrested for improperly wearing her hijab.

The government’s reaction was immediate. Authorities attempted to violently crack down, attacking and arresting demonstrators. But the spark had already been lit. Within a matter of days, protests had spread to cities across Iran. Women old and young marched side by side, refusing to be silenced. Despite the government cutting off internet access, footage quickly began circulating online of women burning hijabs, cutting their hair and dancing in the streets.

Video of violent arrests also emerged in addition to reports of numerous deaths related to the crackdowns. Demonstrations have continued to grow both in size and scale, reaching every one of Iran’s 31 provinces. Other groups dissatisfied with the government’s leadership have joined in, calling not only for an expansion of women’s rights but an end to Iran’s political regime. Students have organized their own protests, workers and shopkeepers have gone on strike, and high-profile celebrity figures have voiced their support.

Iran has a long history of civil disobedience, especially in recent years as political corruption has grown and the economic situation in the country has deteriorated. But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the rest of Iran’s authoritarian leaders have survived all past attempts to undermine their control. Some observers are suggesting that this time may be different. Although more than 200 people have been killed in the fighting, protesters are showing no signs of backing down. Many seem willing to give up their lives for the cause. 

Considering all of this, it begs the question, are we seeing a revolution happening before our very eyes? To get a better sense, we need to understand what exactly a revolution is and how it happens. There are many definitions of this phenomenon, ranging from the broad to the narrow. Noted 19th century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville referred to it as a “change that profoundly modifies the social state, the political constitution, the mores and the opinions of a people.”

Importantly, he differentiated between revolutions that happened suddenly and violently, observing that these often seek to fundamentally transform society, and those that happen more gradually. The Indian independence movement is one example of a revolution that took decades. Between 1857 and 1947 Indian nationalists advocated tirelessly first for home rule and then complete liberation from the British Empire.

For nearly 100 years, they resisted their colonizers using every method imaginable, staging demonstrations, organizing civilian groups and sometimes violently rebelling. But it wasn’t until Mahatma Gandhi was able to unite the country behind his non-violence movement that British occupation was finally ended, though even this took over 30 years. Other political theorists employ more specific definitions, often dividing revolutions up into categories.

For instance, certain schools of Marxism delineate between pre-capitalist, bourgeois and socialist revolutions. It becomes even more complicated when you consider that a revolution doesn’t have to come through a mass popular movement. Sometimes, a sufficiently powerful minority is enough to alter the social and political life of a nation, as was the case of the Communist revolutions of Russia, China and Latin America.

What’s more, revolutions can be localized or nationwide, expansive in their demands or highly specific, largely peaceful or extremely violent. For the purposes of this video, though, we will narrow down revolution to mean any instance in which a state or government is overthrown or otherwise transformed by a popular movement. Although every revolution is unique, stemming from the particular circumstances of a given time and place, there are fundamental threads that run through all of them.

The foundation of any revolution is some core grievance concerning a nation’s social, political and/or economic conditions that create  widespread discontent among its citizens. There are always numerous influences that contribute to a population’s unhappiness, but often a movement can be encapsulated by a single ubiquitous and unifying frustration.

The French Revolution, for instance, can be boiled down to three words: liberty, equality, fraternity. This simple slogan served as a battle cry for the peasants and poor urban workers fed up with a system that burdened them with high taxes while offering little in the way of direct representation. Although other factors such as severe food shortages and the influence of the American Revolution played significant roles, ultimately it was this pervasive economic and political inequality that inspired revolt.

In an attempt to create a constitution, citizens came together and formed a new political body known as the National Assembly. The king of France, Louis XVI, wasn’t exactly happy about this and responded by deploying troops to Paris. The National Assembly in turn organized its members and stormed Bastille prison, freeing political prisoners and seizing arms. Just three months later, a group of thousands of women would march on the royal Palace of Versailles, forcing the king to leave with them to Paris and effectively bringing an end to an independent monarchy.

Not every revolution needs to be politically motivated though. Often, a lack of basic resources is enough to set people marching. In fact, the most accurate predictor of whether or not a revolution will happen isn’t the absence of civil rights. It’s the price of grain. Food insecurity has an especially strong correlation with political instability. It makes sense when you think about it. Where there is food insecurity, there is often economic inequality and government corruption.

Of course, hunger is never the sole cause of unrest, but an empty stomach is a hell of a catalyst, capable of igniting tensions that before were merely simmering. In 2011, global food prices hit a record high, surpassing even the historic levels seen during the Great Recession. This spike led to an outbreak of food riots in Algeria and Tunisia, foreshadowing the protests that would soon erupt throughout North Africa and the Middle East.

Although the role of social media tends to take up much of the conversation surrounding the Arab Spring, it is an event inextricably linked with the politics of food. Egypt’s revolution in particular was influenced by it. Despite being  the most populous country in the Arab world, Egypt lacks significant amounts of arable land to grow grains or vegetables. It also doesn’t possess the rich oil reserves of some of its neighbors, the profits from which might be used to make up the deficit.

Between 2010 and 2011, grain prices skyrocketed in Egypt by 30 percent. Food and fuel subsidies in turn ballooned to a whopping eight percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Over the course of a single year, the government found it could no longer afford to feed its own people. The uprising would begin within weeks with “bread” being the first word of the signature slogan "bread, dignity, and freedom" chanted by protesters as they toppled the government.

The connection between food scarcity and political instability isn’t exactly a new idea. Roman poet Juvenal observed in the first century CE that food is an inherently political commodity, noting how politicians used cheap grain and entertainment as a way of gaining votes from poorer constituents and keeping them complacent. These voters didn’t care if they were giving away their political power to a tyrannical elite so long as they had bread and circuses.

But when the bread runs out, all bets are off as people are compelled to voice whatever other complaints they have against their country’s leadership. Often, this is met with resistance from authorities who are either unwilling or unable to meet demands. This failure by a government to address the frustrations of its populace is a second key ingredient. Revolutions are born out of a political system’s inability to change to match the needs of its citizens. This rigidity represents a fundamental weakness in the structure of the state, one which sufficiently ambitious individuals will seek to correct.

Without support from the government, civilian organizations will form to take its place. This allows new leadership to emerge, providing an alternative to state authority and uniting citizens under a common banner. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was largely organized by civilian groups dissatisfied with the incumbent regimes, starting with the tsarist  monarchy and then the Provisional Government.

Local administrations were formed in response to the failures of Tsar Nicolas II whose incompetence led to massive Russian casualties on the front line during WWI and incredible suffering back home. As people saw the work of government being done by these civilian organizations, it badly shook public confidence in the monarchy. All this would culminate in the International Women’s Day March of 1917, when millions of women took to the streets of St. Petersburg to demand the abdication of Nicolas II.

Protests spread across the empire, eventually forcing the tsar to step down. The power vacuum that followed created a volatile situation where dozens of different organizations attempted to fill in the gaps left by a vacant throne. Workers and soldiers formed grassroots assemblies called soviets that were meant to serve as a counterbalance to the ruling Provisional Government, which largely represented the interests of capitalists and the old aristocracy.

However, this competition for power often broke out in violence, coinciding with further Russian losses in WWI and efforts by the peasantry to confiscate noble estates. This chaos would eventually lead to the October Revolution when a proletariat militia armed by the Bolsheviks seized control of the government and created the world’s first socialist state. In situations where a country’s leadership is willing to make concessions, compromise can potentially be reached. This can alleviate tensions and enable meaningful change while also preserving the existing order.

More often than not though, the ruling authority wants to preserve the status quo, fearing that any compromise might mean giving up power. In these cases, demonstrations are suppressed. This could take the form of subversion, disinformation campaigns, arrests by police and, in the worst scenarios, brutal crackdowns. If a government is sufficiently powerful or the movement small enough, these tactics can put an end to dissent.

Violence is an extremely effective tool for eliminating opposition, after all. The inherent power imbalance between the government and its citizens also means that demonstrators will likely have little recourse. The problem is that violence can incite even more people to mobilize and further expose government vulnerabilities. Even worse, it risks potentially spilling over into a full-blown civil war. If opposition groups are to survive, they need to be able to effectively organize.

This means exercising popular solidarity. Perhaps the most important ingredient of any revolution, solidarity allows disparate factions to unite, coordinate, and pursue clear goals. It also enables new alternative leadership to emerge that can rally people in the face of state violence. The end of the Cold War saw a revolutionary wave wash across Eastern Europe as millions of people sought to depose the region’s communist establishment.

Perhaps the most significant of these occurred in Poland, where a broad collation of anti-communist groups united to peacefully unseat the government. Civil resistance had been occurring in Poland since the stolen election of 1946, but these efforts were largely fragmented and uncoordinated. Because of this, the Communist government was able to play different factions against each other, undermining any sense of popular unity.

It wasn’t until 1980 that the people of Poland  organized themselves under a common name. Born out of the worker strikes, student protests and women’s marches of the mid-20th century, the Solidarity movement brought together various factions of Polish society. Coal miners and university professors, housewives and sailors, teenage punks and Catholic priests could be seen on the same side of the barricade, protesting against Communist rule.

With its roots in trade unionism, Solidarity delegitimized the ideological position of the country’s leadership, exposing its hypocritical claims of being a free workers’ state. Solidarity’s strength was in offering an alternative to communism that allowed an independent political space where new ideas and open discourse could flourish. Notably, it took nine years for the movement to achieve its goals, but on June 4th, 1989, it won an overwhelming majority in the country’s parliamentary elections, paving the way for the end of Communism.

The final ingredient needed for revolution is an immediate cause. Think of it as the spark that ignites the powder keg. This trigger serves to mobilize a nation’s citizens and can take civil demonstrations to outright revolt. Perhaps the clearest example of this comes from the Iranian protests themselves. The killing of Mahsa Amini at the hands of morality police has become a call to arms for all those who feel oppressed by the country’s authoritarian leadership.

Her story encapsulates the fears and frustrations felt by many Iranians and has united people across the political divide. Even traditionally conservative regions have seen demonstrations, as Amini’s death has shaken confidence in the government’s religious authority. But the protests are about more than just Amini. They represent a frustration built over decades. The first anti-hijab protest actually occurred a mere 25 days after the 1979 revolution as it became apparent that the new theocratic establishment would seek to strip women of their rights.

In the years that followed, more demonstrations would spontaneously break out, but always lacked the size and strength to truly threaten the regime. What we are seeing in Iran today may very well represent a paradigm shift as tensions reach a boiling point and women across the country are no longer afraid to stand up to the government. BBC Persia’s senior presenter Rana Rahimpour has been covering news stories on Iran since 2008 and has even spoken before the United Nations Human Rights Council regarding the treatment of journalists in the country.

In a recent interview, she observed that the current demonstrations seem to indicate a significant shift in the psyche of protesters, stating that “when a teenage girl jumps on top of a police car, takes off her headscarf, and says ‘I don’t want the Islamic Republic’ with no fear in her eyes […] Something happens. It gives her confidence. She feels she can do this.” From the marches on Versailles and St. Petersburg, to the Polish Solidarity movement and now the Iranian protests, women have long been at the forefront of revolution.

And while their list of grievances is long, the current movement in Iran remains largely unorganized. Without clear leadership and solidarity between various factions, the protesters risk falling victim to infighting and division. Given enough time, leaders will undoubtedly emerge. But for now, we must hold our hands in the air in solidarity for the struggles of the Iranian people, and hope that this movement truly brings about the revolution the citizens of the country so desperately need.