The whole world was watching Iran with a great deal of anticipation on 16 September 2023. One year after the death of Jina Mahsa Amini, many experts predicted, or hoped, that the movement would make a comeback. After all, anniversaries of deaths play a key role in protest choreography in the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), where the political opposition uses Islamic mourning ceremonies on particular days after a person’s death to collectively express its discontentment with the political system.
Hamid Mohseni was born in Iran and grew up in Germany. He has followed developments in the country since 2009 and is involved in left-wing solidarity initiatives support the democratic and social protests there.
Were these hopes fulfilled on the anniversary? That comes down to what people were expecting. Those who were (naively) yearning for a seamless return to the spectacular upheaval of a year ago were disappointed — those who thought there was no scope for protest at all, given the massive state repression leading up to the anniversary, were pleasantly surprised.
In fact, thousands of people took to the streets of cities across the entire country — Tehran, Mashhad, Karaj, Ahvaz, Lahijan, Saqqez, Sanandaj, Zahedan, etc. — and revived the revolutionary spirit with slogans like “Woman, life, freedom” and “Down with Khamenei”. Moreover, most of Kurdistan went on strike. The fact that people were not completely intimidated is itself a victory for the movement, as a woman in one video said: “Thank God the people came out”.
In Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Balochistan province and, alongside Kurdistan, the second vital centre of the revolution, there were numerous expressions of solidarity, like “An attack on Kurdistan is an attack on Balochistan”.
Statements like these show that the various ethnic and religious groups in the multi-ethnic Iranian state see themselves as a unified revolutionary subject. That solidarity exists not only between the categories of ethnicity or religion, but also between genders, classes, ages, and locations (urban/rural). It is a distinguishing feature of the past year’s revolutionary episode. More than that, it is the key reason why Iran is currently well advanced in the process of revolution.
Revolutionary Process, Not Reformism
What are the characteristics of this revolutionary process? For as long as it has existed, Iran under the mullahs has had notable critical voices: students, workers, and women have challenged the regime again and again, sometimes in strategic alliances with Iran’s reformists.
Reformism was hegemonic for decades, and invariably canalized socio-political revolt. It created small openings for fundamental change and occasionally gave people a taste for it. One such period was the late 1990s, when there was some political breathing room and freedom of speech and assembly were greatly expanded, by IRI standards. This was also when the “Burnt Generation” — the Iranians born in the 1980s, who have never known a world without the IRI in it — cut its political teeth during, for instance, the big student protests in 1999, the women’s movement’s One Million Signatures campaign, and the widely noted Tehran bus drivers’ strike in 2004.
One everyday form of civil disobedience particularly infuriates the mullahs: throughout the country, women keep turning up again and again without headscarves, which have been a contested symbol in Iran for countless years.
But the regime’s response to protests like these has always been harsh: delegitimization, arrests, torture, and executions. Over the long term, the many social struggles were unable to change power relations at all. In the process, the reformists proved themselves to be a collection of pro-system gasbags who have restrained these struggles, failed to keep their promises, and yet regularly mobilized many desperate Iranians to vote in the hope that they might at some point achieve a slightly better regime.
That hope, and with it the promise that the regime is reformable, was pulverized during the protests of 2017–18. At the time, tens of thousands of precarious workers and poor people mobilized autonomously, particularly in the rural areas, for militant protests in response to the deteriorating economic conditions. These protests were explicitly directed against the system and buried the notion of reform, spurred by the slogan “Conservatives, Reformers: Game Over”.
That was the start of the revolutionary process, because it was when the regime’s traditional social base directly and irreconcilably broke with it. To this day, that rift has not been mended. On the contrary, social struggles grew more and more intense in the years that followed, up to their present apex. The regime is under continuous pressure, and nobody talks about reforms any more. The consensus on the street is that the regime has to go.
In 2022, the Jina movement brought together every social sphere, and the key to that was solidarity. It was clear for months how strong a nationwide movement could be, and the revolutionary process reached its high point. But revolutions are not linear events — the Jina movement, too, got bogged down and is now in a stagnant phase. Winter set in, and the regime struck with brutality: human rights organizations say that over 550 people have been killed during the protests, thousands injured, and over 22,000 arrested. These may all be low estimates. Moreover, seven people have been executed in connection with the protests.
Therefore, the revolutionary moment has not yet come, but there is no longer any way back. The anti-regime consensus in the country is too strong, and the rift is too great between an extremely young populace, which has an average age of 31.7, and the mullahs’ state, which is often represented by old men. The generational conflict has only intensified in the course of the Jina movement. It was primarily young people (particularly young women) who drove the protests, and many of them lost their lives in the process.
The No Future generation means it: freedom or death.
The Pressure Is Rising
The IRI is not even extending a hand to this frustrated and radicalized generation. The regime — which says it will not go willingly and, if it does, will leave “scorched earth” behind it — is taking up this struggle and intensifying it.
Starting in November 2022, right in the middle of the Jina movement, over 7,000 girls and young women were systematically poisoned in gas attacks at 100 girls’ schools over several months. It is an open secret that the regime itself is responsible. In their short-sighted thinking, the people in power presumably see it as an act of revenge: girls and young women symbolize the spirit of the Jina movement better than just about any other group, and now they have to pay for it. More than anyone, the youth will not forget such a dramatic event.
But the pressure on the regime is also increasing from within. Above all, criticism of President Ebrahim Raisi’s government is growing due to the country’s catastrophic economic situation. Dramatic inflation, which is estimated to be up to 120 percent, unpaid wages and benefits, masses of people living below the poverty line — these are just snapshots of the situation in Iran in 2023, where many people do not know whether they will have enough to eat or a roof over their heads tomorrow, while the regime, in the form of mullahs and the Revolutionary Guard, concentrates more and more wealth in a few hands.
Iran’s political alternative exists — it is sitting in the country’s prisons.
Another subject that has generated a great deal of criticism even within the state apparatus is the harshness of the repression, which is perceived merely as an end in itself. During the wave of arrests over the course of the Jina movement, senior Islamic scholars increasingly criticized the condemnation of arrestees as “enemies of God on Earth” (which brings with it a death sentence) for banalities like erecting street barricades. There has also been internal criticism of the impious harassment, threats, arrests, and even murders of family members of protesters who have been killed or arrested.
The same goes for the mullahs’ fanatical war on any actual or suspected revolt against the mandatory hijab, which was the reason for the closure of more than 1,000 businesses and trades were closed in Gilan province, and most recently, for the cancell of an international dental conference.
This criticism is not channelling people away from new hope for change from within, it is motivating them to keep up the pressure themselves and to stand against the deadly calm that the mullahs are yearning for. In protests and strikes, the workers continually point out the unbearable living situation.
In particular, retirees from various sectors are currently proving to be well organized and make regular appearances in public space. One everyday form of civil disobedience particularly infuriates the mullahs: throughout the country, women keep turning up again and again without headscarves, which have been a contested symbol in Iran for countless years and currently stand for the total and multi-layered oppression of women as such.
The Political Alternative Is behind Bars
These points show why Iran is still in a revolutionary process. Nonetheless, something is missing, namely the development of a political alternative. It is vital that the consensus — the regime must go — go a step further. A new would-be transitional, expatriate-led government would not amount to a political alternative. The self-designated, highly contested “Crown Prince” Pahlavi’s project to orchestrate such a transition from the United States and to assemble a network to do so failed miserably.
Iran’s political alternative exists — it is sitting in the country’s prisons. It is borne by political prisoners like Sepideh Gholian, Narges Mohammadi, Jafar Ebrahimi, Esmail Abdi, Reza Shahabi, and many thousands more. They are workers, women’s rights activists, environmental activists, children’s rights advocates, doctors, bus drivers, lawyers, students, Kurds, Azeris, Balochis, Baháʼí, Muslim, young, old, and people of all genders. They express themselves, as a form of protest, when they sew their mouths shut, engage in hunger strikes, or burn their hijabs, as well as through letters, video statements, interviews, and even books.
A slogan has caught on: “Iran is a prison, Evin is a university”. Evin is Tehran’s most notorious prison. Despite horrible conditions, including denial of medical care, torture, and rape, prisoners there have empowered themselves and managed to study, have discussions, and carry out projects. The kind of action that Sepideh Gholian took when, after her temporary release, she yelled slogans against Khamenei right in front of the prison gates and was promptly re-incarcerated has an underlying message: you can throw us in prison, but you cannot break our revolutionary spirit. That is what scares those in power — because their primary tool, behind all the violence, the terror, and the war on their own populace, is to spread fear and break the people.
People in exile, and all who support the revolution, are wise to shine a light on the protests there, give them a platform, and direct international attention toward Iran again and again. When the world looks away, the mullahs commit massacres. But it is particularly imperative to provide a voice and a platform for the political alternative and Iran’s democratic future, which is to say the political prisoners.
Translating and disseminating their statements, discussions, and political sponsorship are concrete means that have a demonstrable impact and save human lives. It is indispensable for the revolutionary process that these people are heard; they are the democratic alternative we are longing for.
Translated by Joseph Keady and Sam Langer for Gegensatz Translation Collective.