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22 March 2024

What Iranians want

The author Arash Azizi on protests, the regime’s motivations, and how Iran feels about the Palestinian cause.

By Alona Ferber

On 1 March Iranians went to the polls in historically low numbers. Overall voter turnout in elections for seats in parliament and in the Assembly of Experts – the body that appoints Iran’s supreme leader – was just 41 per cent. In Tehran province, it was as low as 24 per cent.

These numbers are an indication of the profound lack of faith in Iran’s authoritarian regime. There is a huge chasm between what the Iranian state wants and what its citizens want. Tehran continues to spend billions on its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) militia and its proxies in the Middle East. Meanwhile, since September 2022 and the death in police custody of Mahsa Jina Amini for allegedly breaking the country’s hijab law, the “Woman, life, freedom” movement has seen protesters across the country demand an end to the regime’s oppressive rule.

The Iranian-born writer and historian Arash Azizi explains in his new book, What Iranians Want: Women, Life, Freedom, what the gap is between the regime’s hardliners and the bulk of public opinion in the country.

Alona Ferber: You grew up in Iran. Why did you leave?

Arash Azizi: I left for Canada with family to study [in 2008].I wanted to get a degree in Canada and I remember thinking “I’ll go back to Iran”. I was a political activist at the time, I had some run-ins with the law, but I still imagined I would be able to go back. Then the 2009 Green Movement happened, and that changed everything. We were very optimistic that the government would [fall], so I was less [careful]. I was 19 or 20 years old. I became more openly politically active abroad. After that it became impossible to go back home, and it has been impossible to this day.

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AF: You open your book with this quote from the writer and academic Eva Hoffman: “And yet, the country of my childhood lives within me with a primacy that is a form of love.” Do you feel this kind of longing for Iran?

AA: Yes, definitely. In the first part of the quote, which I didn’t include in my book, Eva Hoffman says, “I was never a patriot, nor was I ever allowed to be.” But I consider myself an Iranian patriot and I allow myself to be one.

This book is very dear to me for this precise reason, because I consider myself to be very privileged to be part of this nation – and not just because of its ancient glories and its wonderful poetry, and all the things that makes us proud. But because of how Iranians have time and time again awed the world by the incredible courage and resistance that they’ve shown, and how they’ve often tried against all odds to not let the Islamic Republic define them.

AF: What is it about Iran as country or a culture that enables people to protest in that way?

AA: Iranians can often be self-exceptionalising, so I hope not to contribute to that too much, but if you look at modern Iranian history, the reality is Iran is a legacy to a grand civilisation. It inherits all this weight of representing something, but in the modern era it has struggled for sovereignty. Iran is one of the very few countries in the world that was never formally colonised. To keep out a variety of European powers it has had to struggle. It’s a struggle for development, and this has always been also a question related to politics [and] liberty.

It’s very interesting that many in the “Woman, life, freedom” movement look back to Iran’s Constitutional Revolution of 1905 as its closest example. [This was at the same time as the] Russian 1905 revolution, [it] predates the Ottoman Revolution of 1908 by a few years, and predates similar movements in China, so it was really a grand movement for rule of law, for liberty, for human dignity, for all the things that we are struggling for today.

The role of women is very important and interesting – and not just in the [“Women, life, freedom”] movement of 2022, but for the last 20 years. I think a lot of Iranian men like myself know or acknowledge the place of women [in Iran’s protest movements]. Being a good old Marxist I don’t think this is intrinsic. Iranian women on the level of their social place are relatively high, even compared to countries of the region. They’re very well educated – more educated than their male counterparts. Iran had female judges in the 1970s, it has female ambassadors, cabinet ministers. Yet in the laws of the country, since the Islamic Republic was founded in 1979, women are treated as worse than second-class citizens. There’s this massive gap between how they’re treated in law and the social life that they’ve had. That’s why they’ve really been at the forefront of every important movement, including the labour movement, the environmental movement.

AF: The slogan “Woman, life, freedom” encapsulates how a feminist struggle is not just about gains for women. The slogan has clearly resonated across Iranian society. Why do you think that is?

AA: The slogan originates in the Kurdish movement in Turkey and Syria. There’s a large Kurdish population in Iran, and Mahsa Amini was Kurdish herself so that’s how it transported itself. But why did it become so popular? It really was something that people could identify with. If you look at every important conjuncture since the late Nineties to now, women have been there and leading the ranks of the struggles in Iran, [because of] the massive legal repression that they have to go through. The compulsory hijab, which sparked a movement, is really a symbol of it.

In Iran, not only do we lack political and civic freedom; we lack the most basic human freedoms. You can get arrested and be lashed in Iran because you were holding hands with your boyfriend or girlfriend. There are very few countries in the world, if any, that have conditions like that. Iranians want to simply live. They don’t want to be stopped from doing the most basic things. They want to be able to have ice cream in their car without a hijab without being arrested (which can happen to people). My mother is a film-maker, and I remember growing up in Iran, once she was arrested with me when I was a teenager because [the police] thought she was my partner.

AF: They thought you were her boyfriend?

AA: Yes. [This] shows the bizarreness of the whole thing. The other time I remember she was arrested with my father. They were stopped on the street and they didn’t have their marriage certificate. But also as a film-maker, she was an impressive person who did all these things [professionally], but she couldn’t rent a room by herself. She couldn’t get a hotel room without the permission of her husband. She couldn’t work any more without the permission of her husband. Her testimony in court would be worth half that of a man [under Iranian law].

The one biggest struggle is for motorcycle licences. Women are not allowed to ride motorcycles. They’re not allowed to ride bicycles. Women of Iran have presented their films at Cannes Film Festival, and yet in their own country they have to fight for their right to ride a bicycle. As an Iranian male it affects me too, to live in a society in which half of the society are treated like this.

AF: In your book you write that under Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has been in power since 1989, things won’t change. But when he does go there’ll be a reckoning. You don’t think Khamenei will give in to the demands of protesters in any way?

AA: Khamenei has been the supreme leader my entire life. I’m 36. I don’t think he’s going to give it up now that he’s close to 85 and he holds absolute power. The official doctrine of Iran is Velayat-e faqih – or absolute guardianship of the jurist [the system of governance that has underpinned Iran’s government since the 1979 Islamic Revolution].  

The absolute part is very important. He’s the one who decides how everything happens in Iran. He has a history of being relatively flexible on some foreign policy matters, but he has abandoned even that policy in the last few years, where he’s closed off the political space ever more. He’s every bit like a classic despot in the golden age. I do believe that after him there will be a reckoning and things will change. Iran’s aggressive foreign policy, its obsession with wanting to destroy Israel and the United States – these are likely to change. That’s my bet for Iran after Khamenei.

AF: How much support is there for the regime and its ideology now?

AA: Most Iranians are sick of the system, and it’s not something that I say because I want it to be true. If you asked someone in the supreme leader’s office today, they will tell you the same thing. They know that they’re hated. If you listen to the ideologues of the regime, they often say that of course it doesn’t matter what people want – that people are kind of stupid, that they might believe in the wrong thing, and they know his role is supposedly divine. There is widespread disillusionment with the system.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 really wanted to change the world, but it’s very hard to look from the perspective of 2024 and say, yes, this has created a better life. Iran today is not more spiritual. It’s not more religious. It’s a hyper-capitalistic country. The first decade of the revolution had some socialist policies, but since 1989 Khamenei has wedded the country very closely to hyper-capitalism. It’s a very corrupt place.

The only real basis of support for the regime is this crusade against Israel. It’s true that the Iranian regime is really the only one in the world who is fighting Israel head on, and all those [militia groups or countries] that do get very generous military and financial help from Iran. Now the problem is Iranians are not particularly interested in the Palestinian cause, they don’t have a particular enmity against Israel. The reason they don’t is that they also don’t have a particular enmity against Mozambique: it’s a different country. It’s not directly linked to us. Iran is not an Arab country. For us, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is really something else happening somewhere else.

As I say, Iranians can be pretty self-centred. They really care about their own country. The problem that has helped the regime’s prolonging survival is that nobody, including the opposition, has been able to offer anything of a real alternative.

AF: Is that partly because the regime has clamped down so violently on protest?

AA: Absolutely. It’s been able to stop any sort of organisation. When I say alternative, I mean an effective alternative. My book is full of examples of Iranian civil society [that represent] alternatives for a different Iran, a democratic Iran, and those abroad have also been riven by division between themselves and the regime’s attempts to shut them up and divide them and play them against each other. But there’s no doubt that there is widespread disillusion, and we can also see it in election results. Pro-regime candidates very rarely get more than 10 or 15 per cent of the electorate.

AF: Everybody is looking at the Middle East and since 7 October, Iran’s role has been under the spotlight. Do you think the West underestimated Tehran’s aims in the region?

AA: I don’t think there is an underestimation. There are many bright minds in the European and American foreign policy establishments that have thought deeply about Iran and interacted with Iran. The problem is that they often don’t commit to a strategy in the Middle East, I think because the US has been wanting to basically get out of the Middle East at any price in the last three administrations. Really, there is a bit of wishful thinking sometimes.

Regarding 7 October and Iran’s role of supporting all these groups [such as Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon] – anti-Israelism is really one of the only things that keeps the regime going. Solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and bringing about a Palestinian state could have been the biggest blow to the Iranian regime, but for many years that hasn’t been the priority. People told themselves that [the problem] would just disappear, you could have peace between Gulf countries and Israel without Palestinians.  

I think also sometimes during the [Hassan] Rouhani years [president from 2013-21] – I supported the Iran [nuclear] deal and the negotiations – [the West] got carried away once they forgot that Khamenei is a genuine, committed revolutionary. He is not going to change his ideas so easily. They’ve had a tough time making it Iranian policy, too, because we Iranians keep fighting against the regime. It’s very customary to complain about the West, but frankly, I think in the last couple of years the West was very willing just because of its own interests to support the Iranian opposition – but we weren’t able to offer it anything to support.

[See also: The Iran problem: How the US is losing control of the Middle East]

AF: What is the biggest mistake the West makes in its relations with Iran?

AA: To not have a comprehensive long-term strategy. They really need to understand that the Iranian regime is a revolutionary actor that’s very serious in wanting to fight against the world order, and that’s no joke. Yes, they can be pragmatic, but you can’t change that outlook so long as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is there. The second thing is Iran cannot be reduced to this [revolutionary mindset]. There’s a nation that happens to not be very supportive of this regime and a policy needs to empower that nation against the regime.

Unfortunately, the policies haven’t done that. For example, the economic sanctions that have really plagued the Iranian economy for the last 20 years have done the exact opposite. They’ve strengthened the regime. How can Iranians come out and protest and do anything when we don’t have any money? They’ve helped destroy the Iranian economy based on this theory that if a people are economically pressed, they’ll overthrow the government. But it hasn’t quite worked out, as it hasn’t worked anywhere else either.

AF: Do you think that the JCPOA nuclear deal should have been conditioned on Iran stopping funding these militias and groups in other countries? 

AA: The Iranian leadership at the time was very clear that they didn’t want it to be linked to that. Informally, effectively, when you were talking to Iran, you could go [into a] meeting and say you will also talk about Yemen, we’ll also talk about Iraq. So I think the historic blunder by the Trump administration was to leave that deal.

But also, I think the way to fight Iranian influence in Iraq and in Yemen and other countries, would go through those countries [instead]. [The US] didn’t really commit to helping these countries. Same in other places, like Lebanon. Syria is more complicated obviously with the war, but they’ve given up on Lebanon effectively for years. It’s the best news for Hezbollah and for the Iranian regime.

AF: Tehran funds various proxy groups, but does it want to be dragged into direct warfare itself? 

AA: They don’t want war. They know a war will destroy them. They know Iranian society is not ready to go to a war for these groups [Hamas, the Houthis, Hezbollah]. I think Khamenei is also just not a fighter. He’s not interested in direct confrontation, and he’s gotten away with growing these groups for years, partially because of Western inattention or lack of a strategy.

AF: How much are protesters calling out the regime for spending their taxes on the IRGC and various proxies?

AA: People have criticised it heavily for years now. Some of the [protest] slogans in recent years are things like “Leave Syria, think of us”, and there was “No Gaza, no Lebanon, I give my life for Iran”, which was a protest against Iran’s adventures in Palestine and Lebanon. Why is Iran spending all this on these sorts of adventures, not to mention also positions like its support for Russia and its invasion of Ukraine? This is a political point of protest in Iran, for sure. I think the interventions in the Arab world are broadly not that popular.

AF: You end your book saying where things stand with the “Women, life, freedom” protest movement. How do things look now? 

AA: The civil disobedience of women not wearing their hijab en masse has continued, but so has the regime’s repression. There has been no softening. The regime has passed new, even more strict, compulsory hijab laws. There’s a situation of despondence and hopelessness and this is very widespread. If there’s one thing that I’ve seen since July [2023 when I finished my book] to now, emigration out of the country is reaching epic proportions.

But also, of course, Narges Mohammadi won the Nobel Peace Prize in October of last year, so it was a tremendous recognition. There is, I think, a sense also of people having given up hope on a broad-based opposition, [meaning that] there’s a real hope [for a] real clarity of vision – a lot of people who were opponents of the regime but don’t have any commitment to basic liberal and civic values. The lines of demarcation are perhaps clearer.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

[See also: The ugly truth about Russia’s missing money]

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