Iranian Crisis: The Regime at a Crossroads

Held on 15 November, 2022


Professor Ali Ansari | Professor of Iranian History and Founding Director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews.

Azadeh Pourzand |Human rights researcher and a civic entrepreneur, former editor-in-chief of Women’s Policy Journal of Harvard, John F. Kennedy School of Government. Executive Director, Siamak-Pourzand Foundation.

Dr Anahita Arian | Postdoctoral research associate at the Centre for Geopolitics and college research associate at King’s College, University of Cambridge.


The Fate of the Regime

"Mental fatigue has set in; the regime is entering its end-game."

Owing in part to the culmination of decades of dissatisfaction, and in part to the large cross-section of Iranian society which are effected by the abuse of the current regime, Professor Ansari isolated the current protests as a “tipping point” for the Iranian regime. The panel agreed that the cycle of protests, in tandem with the economic and environmental situation which the Iranian regime faces, is unsustainable. ‘Ideal timing’ was identified as a key factor in the power of the current protests.

In response to a question from a member of the audience and declaring that “an autocracy is most vulnerable at the time of succession”, Professor Ansari identified the potentially imminent death of Ayatollah Khamenei as a key point of vulnerability for the regime. On the other hand, such a moment could serve as a big opportunity for protestors. Professor Ansari suggested that the instability which succeeds the death of Khamenei could be the spark which will ignite a full-scale political upheaval. The panel agreed that it is not a question of whether change will come, but a question of what will follow.

Jina Amini and the Feminist Movement

“This is not about Islam, it is about the control of a regime over women’s bodies, and the lives and future of an entire nation.”

The speakers opened the discussion with a sensitive overview of the catalyst of the current civil protests in Iran, the death of Jina Amini. Although popularly referred to as Mahsa Amini by media outlets and social media hashtags, the speakers emphasised the symbolic importance of recognising the Kurdish origin of Jina’s true name, and the systemic exclusion of the Kurdish culture by the Iranian regime, put into practice in this context through the regime’s refusal to allow Kurdish originated names on Iranian birth certificates. Jina’s story exposed to the world the institutionalised violence enforced upon women in Iran through the regime, enforced by the Morality Police. The speakers discussed the nature of the current wave of protests through the lens of feminism, identifying the overtly political and feminist nature of the current protests as a point of distinction from previous Iranian protests, such as those seen in 2009 and 2019.

Touching upon the relationship between the current protests and Islamophobia, the speakers emphasised the central role of abuse perpetrated by the regime as the target of civil anger, rather than religion.  This sentiment was aptly summarised through the statement that the death of Jina Amini was “not an incident, it is a pattern of abuse”.

Generational Power

“The republic can kill as many people as it wants, but you can’t kill an idea.”

A key theme explored by the panel was the central role that social media, and the social media generation (Gen Z) have played in impacting the trajectory of the protests. Professor Ansari identified the particular tenacity and unrelenting force of the younger generation in their approach toward protest, declaring that “yet again another generation has come out with the same ideas, but this time with more force”. Professor Ansari noted the historical importance of telecommunications in Iranian revolutionary history, however, he identified the novelty of the high degree of connectivity which is being seen in the current protests. Both speakers emphasised the indistinguishable power held by the values which underpin the current protests, which can be traced back across generations, and the regime’s inability to subdue the dissent which springs from such a long-held dissatisfaction from the people.

Professor Ansari expanded this discussion into an exploration of the unique characteristics of the current protests, identifying a nationalist rhetoric and motif underlying the civic response. Drawing on the motivations behind recent protests in Iranian history, such as the 2009 protests over unjust elections, and the 2019 protests held predominantly over economic concerns, Professor Ansari identified the unique “spark” which the current protests hold.

Looking to the future: Regional Outcomes

The speakers acknowledged the magnanimous effect that a complete regime overhaul would have on the MENA region. The potential for a secular Iran, and the development of an Iranian state with broader human rights would have a tremendous impact on the ideological fabric of the wider region. In a more immediate sense, the speakers noted the sense of solidarity which has been felt by women in surrounding countries such as Lebanon and Syria, and the impact that the women’s rights movement is having on discussions on the ground in the region. Regardless of the outcome of the protests, an idea has been sparked.

In terms of political consequences, the panel suggested that a regime change would result in a new Iranian foreign policy, which could see support for groups such as Hezbollah retracted. However, due to the nature of the wider geopolitics of the region, the panel decided that it is unlikely that Iran would change its attitude toward Saudi Arabia in the near future.

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