Updated: Aug 8
'If you will it, it's not a dream'- Theodor Herzl
27th February 2023
One mark of a just legal system is its specificity. Criminal charges in western democracies are not predicated upon subjective ideas but objective actions. Arson, theft, murder, trafficking- all can understand the meanings of these things, and identify them in real life when exposed. Although there is still the matter of interpreting the scale of criminality in such cases, and the subsequent extent of the punishment, there is no other grey area. Murder is something you do or do not do- it is not a concept whose meaning is up for debate. Sometimes the term 'hate speech' is thrown around in western public discourse in order to try and undermine what is known as '1st amendment absolutism', and it has legal implications in UK statute law, if not American. Yet on the whole, the law is dispassionate, which is what makes democratic law courts effective and honourable.
Despotisms are not like this. Abstractions abound. Where the ruled think 'protest' or 'inquiry', the rulers think 'insubordination', 'treachery' or even 'rebellion'. During the height of the French Revolutionary Terror, centralised tribunals operating under the Law of 22 Prairial heard cases for such vague charges as 'discouraging patriotism', 'spreading false news', 'depraving public morals', and 'corrupting the public conscience'. Such zeal was founded on the government's perception of the revolution as an infallible cause. The more radical this sanguinary movement became, the more Robespierre, Saint-Juste and others spoke of the ultimate 'vertu' behind it all. Dissenters were indiscriminately and equally complicit in 'impairing the purity and energy' of the nation. Whether a fervent monarchist or revolutionary moderate, all who did not partake of the government's revolutionary extremism were discarded under legal terms entirely manipulated by the power in Paris. Reincarnations of this have reappeared in recent times across the globe. Chinese irredentism in post-colonial Hong Kong has recently stimulated the revival of an imperial anti-sedition law, strengthening China's national security law which includes the crimes of 'subversion' and 'collusion'. Authoritarian governments cannot countenance the notion that such crimes may in fact reflect virtuous causes. It is an old story. Yet few states today exemplify this autocratic malice as blatantly as modern Iran.
On November 3rd of last year, the 22 year old Mohammad Mehdi Karami was arrested by the judicial authorities for the bizarre crime of 'corruption of the land'. One of the thousands of young freedom fighters in the wake of Mahsa Amini's murder, he was suspected of complicity in the death of Ruhollah Ajmian, a member of the oppressive Basij paramilitary force, under sanction by the EU and the US for human rights abuses. His story is one of the most poignant to come out of the new Iranian revolution. Unable to hire legal representation, he was permitted only 15 minutes of self-defence before his sentence was passed. This was a pathetic attempt by the judiciary to simulate a fair trial. Under Iranian law, one is technically able to appeal the decision. Yet the Karami family's attempts to do so floundered. Mohammad Hossein Aghasi, one of the top human rights lawyers in the country, contacted both the local and Supreme courts but was routinely ignored. Human rights legislation is not a valued aspect of public life under the eyes of the theocracy. This show trial, far from producing the intended effect of dissuading further activism, has only stirred more hatred for the regime. 100 protesters have now been formally executed, in public displays of hanging that only further reflect the archaic barbarity of the system. Before his sentence was passed on January 7th of this year, Mr Karami contacted his father: 'Dad, they gave us the verdict. Mine is the death penalty. Don't tell Mum anything'.
'Don't tell Mum' has become something of a rallying cry for a people in distress. For most of us, this saying hides trivial truths, such as sneaking out late and having one too many beers. For the Iranian protesters, whose estimated average age is no more than 15, it is a reminder that their actions risk consequences far graver than a grounding. Mr Karami's stoic example, however, is what the young need to topple a regime that has shown itself to be not only oppressive but bloodthirsty. The morality police, under the guise of fundamentalist Shia ethics, offer a modern day parallel to the French Revolutionary Armies in its vicious approach to maintaining law and order. According to Iran Human Rights, at least 522 protesters have thus far been killed as of January, including 70 children. The clerical autocracy itself has become parasitic on its subjects. Young men and women disappear on a frequent basis. Prisons filled with dissenters and renegade journalists have been incinerated. The Kurdish, ever harassed across the Middle-East, have been lumped in with the guilty. There is evidence that .50 calibre machine guns were fired on civilians in parts of Kurdistan. This type of weapon is typically used in war zones, with bullets measuring 138mm from top to bottom. In December of last year, 1200 Iranian students across 6 universities were reportedly poisoned by the regime in anticipation of anti-government activity. While the state predictably denies such claims, the sudden lack of electrolytes at university clinics suggest that this was a deliberate attempt to undermine protest participation. The Ayatollah and his twisted acolytes, in short, waged biological warfare on their own people, from within the very institutions that foster the next generation.
The title of this piece calls the events in Iran a revolution because it offers, if carried out fully, a complete reversal of the post-1979 status quo, and because, given this prospect, it must be viewed as a refraction of that which it seeks to overturn. Protests, street violence and discontent have manifested themselves before. Yet the scope of their reasoning had been more parochial- water crisis, economic difficulties, perhaps electoral irritations were the major motivations. Not that these are no longer relevant. The rial has lost 50% of its value against the dollar since August 2021. One US dollar now can buy 380,000 rials. Compare that to 1978, right before the Islamic Republic was established and one US dollar back then could buy 70. A backwards theocracy is also an incompetent one. The threat of further economic sanctions may risk the suspension of petrol subsidies, and the resultant price increase amidst growing inflation echoes conditions that have sparked demonstrations before. Punitive measures for an economy reliant on oil exports (Iran sells 1 million barrels of petrol a day abroad) may also mean an inability to fund basic services- the army included. Politically, the Ayatollah's puppet President Ebrahim Raisi is far from pristine. His victory over his more moderate predecessor Hassan Rouhani with a 62% majority is considered less an indication of popular approval than gerrymandering. He is wanted for crimes against humanity by human rights organisations and the US for his role in the execution of thousands of political prisoners in Iran in 1988 as one of four members of the 'prosecution committee', now labelled the 'death committee'. He is only one of 9 Iranian officials the US has sanctioned for human rights abuses. All the usual problems of Iranian politics are still very much alive.
Yet the movement today transcends the particularities of socio-economic or political context. It stretches to the ideological. The generation gap between the Iranian dissidents and the ones which overthrew the Shah in 1979 reflects a stark difference in political motivations. While the revolutionaries who ushered in theocracy considered westernisation a serious threat to political and cultural autonomy, now the divisions that characterise western and Islamic governments have become very much secondary. The modern sense of removal from their revolutionary forebears is now endemic in Iranian society. State polling on societal religiosity is notoriously propagandistic for the regime. The traditional modes of face-to-face interactions and telephone communication are highly coercive. Yet private organisations offer clear indications that the tide has turned thoroughly against the Ayatollah. Professor Ammar Maleki, who runs the independent polling station 'The Group for Analysing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran' uses untraditional methods for greater transparency. The results are striking- of 17,000 polled in 2022 and 40,000 in 2022, an average of 72% were found to express disapproval of the compulsory hijab. Extreme dress codes for women are a hallmark of the Iranian dictatorship in particular amongst shariah legislating countries. Although now draconian laws restricting female choice of appearance exist across the Islamic world, it was Khomeini who in 1979 provided the original impetus towards Islamic conservatism. The strict enforcement of the hijab and niqaab in Saudi Arabia for instance was a direct reaction to the activities of its Shia rival. The militants who seized the Grand Mosque in 1979 pressurised the House of Saud into conservative reform only to remain Iran's competitor for the lead of the Muslim world. Radical dress prescriptions for women, in other words, has always been a quintessentially Iranian characteristic. So, to dissent from the establishment by targeting specifically this feature is indicative of a seismic shift, mirrored by contemporary liberal sentiments that are only on the rise.
The disillusionment has finally set in, shown even by Iran's official polling. Hackers of Fars News leaked files that revealed a whopping 70% of Iranians equate protests with fighting simply 'injustice'. 65% think that the protests, both in purpose and in intensity, are justified. For the people, it is a zero-sum game. 60% think that there can be no cooperation or compromise with the existing powers that be. The alienation of government from governed could scarcely be sharper. Khamenei and his cabal, caught unawares by this sudden explosion of antagonism, have shown their perplexity by their inability to effectively weather the storm. Although the protests have now been momentarily quelled, for much of the past year the regime has struggled to come to terms with these new developments. The government has been aptly described by Ali Ansari as a ‘gordian knot’- impossibly bureaucratic, factional and chaotic, whose members vie for the position as sycophant supreme of the Supreme Leader. Panic has ensued. Further leaked governmental documents indicate stress at the level of public discontent with Raisi’s administration, with word clouds highlighting Raisi’s involvement in the 1988 death committee pervading discourse on social media platforms. The Qatar Men’s World Cup only caused further agitation, as the Iranian team refused to sing the national anthem in solidarity with protesters. Yet after arresting two of the players, both were released in a concession that shows only that the state is beginning to truly worry about exposure. Displays of disloyalty to Khameini and the post-1979 order has become internationally recognised. All across the liberal world, women are cutting their hair in displays of solidarity. Some of the most famous Iranian celebrities are vocal supporters of the movement. There is nowhere the Ayatollah can hide.
The dissident Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, well acquainted with the fraudulence essential to autocratic politics, once wrote of the ‘myth of power’, and analogised its function through the metaphor of a siege. A communist government has its utopian vision, and projects this to a people it deludes into believing it. Their power, they claim, is not an end in itself, although of course they must be regnant in order to realise this fantasy. Fighting against this paradisal purpose are enemies all around. The people are besieged and must fight. They fight. Yet a city under siege cannot last forever. Eventually there is a ceasefire. The people come outside city gates. They detect some foes, but they also realise that they have been shooting at many friends, or people who mean them no harm. They realise finally that what they’ve been told is a lie, and their hardship is owed to their rulers inside the walls. It is a narrative that is perpetuated to keep a people in check, an Orwellian story told over and over again to maintain the status quo. In 1984, we find this tale as the ultimate expression of absolutism: ‘The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil’. It is this fervent dichotomy, the constant alienation, that sustains tyranny only so long as the myth is believed.
Yet it is clear to the Iranian people that the real enemy is inside the walls. The state continues to hide under the veil of nonsense common to all tyrannies. Every sign of displeasure, every hijab removed, every banner lifted, is merely the product of American meddling in Iranian affairs. Khameini, like his predecessor, refers to the US in many ways- ‘the Great Satan’ or ‘Iblis’ (Islam’s primary devil) are most customary. This defamatory rhetoric is not applied just to the US. There seem to be tiers of devilry in Iranian propaganda. Britain is 'Middle Satan' for their help in deposing Prime Minister Mosaddegh in 1953, help that was requested by Iranian led resistance to his increasingly high-handed movements. The Soviet Union used to be ‘Lesser Satan’. Israel is ‘Little Satan’. How ‘little’ can Satan go? Is Iraq perhaps ‘Minute Satan’? Saudi Arabia ‘Microscopic Satan’? Iranian propaganda is all-consuming and ridiculous. Yet this stuff no longer works. The revolutionaries are consciously aligning themselves with the very western liberalism that governmental rhetoric has always attacked. The othering of Iranian activists by association with a western opposite no longer holds the weight that it once did. The veil has been lifted; the myth demystified; the cave abandoned. Only time will tell when the true upheaval will occur. The Ayatollah has successfully struggled to enforce some order. The protests have lulled in recent weeks. Yet it is only the calm before the storm, and after the winds subside Iran will wake to restful waters.