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Geopolitics & Security

The People of Iran Are Shouting for Regime Change – But Is the West Listening?


Commentary2nd October 2023

Just over a year after Mahsa Amini’s death in police custody, women stepping out onto the streets of the Islamic Republic of Iran face an intensifying threat of arrest, physical abuse and even loss of life for the crime of “improper hijab”. The Iranian regime has not only been targeting women through the use of new surveillance technology, its morality police and the proposal of an even more oppressive “Hijab and Chastity” bill, but in recent weeks has been imprisoning dozens of women’s-rights defenders and their families. Far from submitting to this threat, Iranian women have redoubled their protest efforts, moving beyond simply calling for greater gender equality to demand complete regime change.

In the lead-up to the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death the protests gained momentum once again, with limited attention from the West. From the EU and UK’s reluctance to proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to the recent platforming of Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi at the UN General Assembly, Western decisions on Iran have ultimately not sided with Iranian protestors. Far from being “small and sporadic” incidents that have “largely subsided”, the protests represent the culmination of a dramatic and widespread shift in Iranian attitudes and an increased appetite for risk in voicing opposition to the regime. Since 16 September 2022, more than 4,000 street protests have taken place across every province in Iran. While more than 21,000 protestors have been arrested and more than 550 people killed, the desire for change continues to unite Iranians. This is not a flash-in-the-pan moment for Iran but a movement with an unprecedented level of support across all demographics. Polling conducted by the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran (GAMAAN), whose detailed data were exclusively provided to the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI), shows that – whether old or young, male or female, rural or urban, school- or university-educated – Iranians overwhelmingly support demonstrating against the regime and its actions.

Figure 1

Polling from December 2022 shows a high level of support for the protests across all demographics

Source: GAMAAN. Note: Due to rounding of the polling data and/or a focus on visualising specific responses, the data visualisations may not add up to exactly 100%.

Having emerged as a reaction to Mahsa Amini’s treatment at the hands of the morality police, these protests swiftly transformed into a resistance movement that is anti-regime to its core. The protests reflect the underlying mass secularisation and liberalisation that has been taking place in Iranian society even under the governance of an increasingly ideological and regressive regime. As the realisation dawns that liberal and secular demands will be left unanswered by the Islamic Republic, the gap between the state and its society is widening rapidly. Iranians will no longer be placated by the manufactured promise of reform after enduring the slew of ‘reformist’ presidencies that were anything but, resulting in the proliferation of anti-regime resistance that we are now witnessing on the Iranian streets.

Since 2017, when the new wave of exclusively anti-regime dissent began, protests calling for regime change have been on an upward trajectory. Between February 2022 and December 2022, there was a sharp rise in anti-regime sentiment across all demographics. While support for regime change was already increasing in Iran, the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2022 has intensified this sentiment.

Figure 2

Respondents were asked in February 2022 and December 2022 which option came closest to their political orientation

Source: GAMAAN. Note: Due to rounding of the polling data and/or a focus on visualising specific responses, the data visualisations may not add up to exactly 100%.

As the frequent targets of the regime’s repressive policies and entrenched gender apartheid, Iranian women have always been at the vanguard of the country’s resistance. Now, however, almost as many men as women want regime change over reform. In the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death and with the increasing repression of women’s rights, growing numbers of men are expressing outrage at the treatment of Iranian women.

Figure 3

Anti-regime sentiment increased among both men and women between February 2022 and December 2022, with almost as many men as women now favouring regime change over reform

Source: GAMAAN. Note: Due to rounding of the polling data and/or a focus on visualising specific responses, the data visualisations may not add up to exactly 100%.

Over the past year the anti-regime movement has ebbed and flowed, taking a range of forms including strikes, online resistance, street protests and civil disobedience. With every violent government crackdown, the people – not just the women – of Iran have responded with a host of resistance measures. The regime’s announcement of the planned executions of two protestors in January led to demonstrations against the sentences outside the prison in which the men were being held. More recently, efforts to tighten restrictions on women led to an increase in both civil disobedience – including women defying compulsory-hijab laws – and online resistance. Use of the hashtag commemorating Mahsa Amini (#سالگرد_مهسا) skyrocketed on social media after the regime’s launch of a new campaign to strengthen its morality police. The social-media element of the anti-regime resistance has historically been useful in spreading awareness of Iran’s protests in the West; however, the regime recognises this and frequently retaliates with internet shutdowns.

Figure 4

In December 2022, men and women were asked if they had participated in the protests, may participate in future, or would never participate

Source: GAMAAN. Note: Due to rounding of the polling data and/or a focus on visualising specific responses, the data visualisations may not add up to exactly 100%. (These percentages are of the December 2022 survey's target population of literate individuals over 19 years old and refer to the protests spanning over three months across the entire country.)

In the run up to the anniversary, protestors once again took to the streets, confirming that anti-regime sentiment has not dampened or dwindled. However, to prevent the escalation of the protests, the regime responded by deploying security forces in Iran’s major cities. Despite the regime’s continued attempts to suppress protests, polling at the end of 2022 revealed no signs of the resistance winding down: a resounding majority of Iranians from all walks of life said they had either already participated in public demonstrations or were considering taking part in future.

Figure 5

Polling at the end of 2022 showed no signs of the anti-regime resistance winding down

Source: GAMAAN. Note: Due to rounding of the polling data and/or a focus on visualising specific responses, the data visualisations may not add up to exactly 100%. (These percentages are of the December 2022 survey's target population of literate individuals over 19 years old and refer to the protests spanning over three months across the entire country.)

While Iran’s urban youth are leading the resistance, this protest movement singularly united citizens from all demographics as they commemorated the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death this month.

It is inevitable that as the protest movement proliferates, the regime will continue its violent crackdowns on the people of Iran; but, contrary to some Western thought, this countrywide movement, carried as it is by such a strong wave of secularisation and liberalisation, might not be easily quashed. As Iran’s anti-regime trends shown by the polling continue, it seems that these protestors will likely defy the odds and continue to occupy the streets of Iran until their anti-regime demands are actualised. The Iranian people’s support for the anti-regime protests, despite ever-harsher repression, is a sign that the regime is losing its popular support – and therefore its legitimacy – more quickly than Western leaders may realise. The West seems to be hoping for gradual reform, but Iranians are shouting for regime change. Western governments should instead consider basing their decision making on the realities on the ground.

This commentary, like our November 2022 report Protests and Polling Insights from the Streets of Iran: How Removal of the Hijab Became a Symbol of Regime Change, draws on polling by GAMAAN whose detailed data were exclusively provided to TBI for the purpose of writing this piece. This piece draws on two polling surveys: one conducted in February 2022 on political systems and another conducted in December 2022 on the ongoing protest movement.

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