After the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in custody, following her arrest by Iran’s Guidance Patrol—the morality police—for “improperly” wearing her hijab head covering, fierce protests spread across the country. They amounted to one of the biggest challenges to the Iranian regime since the Islamic Revolution brought it to power in 1979. In response, Iran’s authorities have cracked down with detentions and executions, including public hangings.
While organized demonstrations have since faded, there are signs of anti-regime sentiment everywhere. And while Iran has been pursuing new diplomacy to ease its ongoing clashes with Saudi Arabia and other Arab neighbors, these countries too struggle with similar problems—from a growing distaste for social control and political repression to a withering tolerance for high youth unemployment, bad governance, and corruption. What’s going on in Iran’s streets—and what does it potentially mean across the region?
Kim Ghattas is a journalist based in Beirut, covering the Middle East, international affairs, and U.S. foreign policy. She’s the host of the podcast People Like Us and the author of Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East. To Ghattas, Iran’s demonstrations represent a growing rejection of the Islamic Republic’s moral foundations. The regime may have won the battle for the moment, but it’s in deep trouble in its ongoing war with a society that’s increasingly alienated from it.
It’s a conflict, Ghattas says, in which autocracy has every near-term advantage but no long-term sustainability. And for everything that distinguishes Iran from the broader Middle East, this fundamental reality is ultimately the region’s.
J.J. Gould: What’s happening with Iran’s protesters?
Kim Ghattas: The big anti-government demonstrations have died out, but there are still regular daily acts of civil disobedience. There are young people playing music and dancing in the streets, in mixed crowds—men and women, women without their veils. There are students provoking clerics. There are women walking around publicly without the hijab. It’s all a continuous expression of opposition to the regime.
And the regime clearly feels vulnerable, because it’s been on an execution binge. Last year, it killed 580 people—a 75 percent increase from the year before. Half of those executions were late in the year, after the protests had broken out. And it’s continuing this year—with sentences against social-media activists, athletes, journalists, and others.
Niloufar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi, women who reported on Mahsa Amini’s death, have been imprisoned for more than eight months on charges of “conspiracy and rebellion against national security” and “anti-state propaganda.” They now face the death penalty. Others are being charged with blasphemy, of all things.
In this environment, I expect to see the recent wave of protest in Iran rising again. If you look back, you can see it building for years. Since 2017, there’ve been regular outbreaks of unrest. They die down, of course, but then they pick up. Sometimes the wave is smaller, sometimes it’s bigger. And what we saw late last year, after the murder of Mahsa Amini, was the biggest since 2009.
Meanwhile, the economy is under stress. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—the longest-ruling dictator in the world—is 84 and thinking about his succession. So the regime is very sensitive about how people react to what’s going on in their lives, as well as to what’s going on at the top of the power structure that governs their lives.
The regime may have won the battle in recent months, but it hasn’t won the war against a society that feels more and more divorced from it.
I recently saw a quote from an Iranian artist: “The regime is dead. It just doesn’t know it yet.”
Gould: Meaning, the regime can’t now stop the protests from rising again and again, because the social reality that’s driving them is too persistent and powerful?
Ghattas: Nothing has fundamentally changed. The reasons for the protests last year—which were the reasons for the protests the year before, which were the reasons for the protests the year before that—haven’t changed. Nothing’s been addressed. Nothing’s improved.
The economy is still broken. Unemployment is still high. Inflation is persistent. And for most young people—who want to live as they see and imagine other young people living around the world—there’s an intensifying sense of suffocation.
These people aren’t just protesting against their living conditions anymore; they’re protesting against the very foundations of the Islamic Republic—and the retrograde life and worldview they see it representing. Iranian women aren’t just protesting against a piece of cloth on their heads; they’re protesting against a pillar of the Islamic Republic, on account of which women are subjugated en masse to, frankly, a retrograde gerontocracy.
Gould: Vali Nasr shared a supporting view back in November—that the protests represent a social and cultural challenge to the whole regime in Iran, not least to its Islamist foundations. So Mahsa Amini’s murder triggered outrage both on its own terms and as a symbol of this more diffuse feeling of anger and alienation you’re describing?
Ghattas: Absolutely. It symbolized everything that’s wrong with the way the regime rules—and specifically, the way it rules a country where 60 percent of people are under the age of 30.
Gould: And yet the government seems to have made some concessions—saying it’s taking the morality police out of public spaces and cooling its enforcement of the hijab. What does that tell you about the extent of the threat the regime is facing here?
Ghattas: The regime is very good at sounding like it’s making concessions—but then not actually making any. The conceit that the morality police have been removed from public spaces is more or less irrelevant, because they haven’t really stopped policing morality or enforcing the hijab at all. In fact, they’re doing it in new ways—such as installing high-tech cameras to identify unveiled women and sending them warnings via text message. It’s quite incredible.
So how much of a threat is the regime actually facing? For everything we don’t know, what we do know, I think, is that the threat is continuous and ultimately relentless. From the perspective of the people protesting, it’s a war of attrition: They’re just going to keep going at it. Women are going to keep removing their veils and walking in public. Men and women are going to gather on the street. There’s going to be music. There’s going to be dancing. And protests are going to flare up again. We know this, and the regime knows this, and it only makes them more determined to clamp down—and to clamp down harder. I think it’s going to be a tough couple of years.
Gould: Looking out into the region, you wrote in your book Black Wave about the decades of struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Now the two countries have agreed to restore diplomatic relations—an agreement brokered by China. Back in March, when the deal was announced, Steven Cook looked at it in terms of geopolitics: Iran wants to pull Saudi Arabia further away from the U.S.; the Saudis want to find a way out of its involvement in the civil war in Yemen; both want to exert greater independent control over their fates as American power wanes in the region. Do you see this deal being related at all to the domestic pressures the Iranian regime is facing?
Ghattas: I do. The regime wants to gain legitimacy somehow, somewhere. Now, in a way, it can tell its people and the world, Look, we’re a legitimate government. People may be protesting, but we’re sitting at the table with the Saudis and the Chinese, and even our foes are talking to us.
I think the deal was in this sense disappointing for a lot of the protesters and Iranians in the diaspora, who were hoping that Iran would remain isolated. Now, instead of being shunned by almost everybody, the Iranians have new friends; they’re talking to the Saudis.
For the Saudis, there was an imperative to decrease tension in the region rapidly, because for the last year or so, they’ve been on the receiving end of attacks by Iranian proxies—within Yemen but also against oil facilities in Saudi Arabia itself.
And because of the domestic pressure that the Iranian regime was facing, it wanted to divert attention from them by sounding increasingly bombastic against Saudi Arabia. The Saudis saw this and feared that one way for Iran to create a diversion from its domestic situation would be to strike at Saudi sites.
There’s meanwhile also been tension rising in the region on account of Iran’s nuclear program and Israel’s saber-rattling about it. The Saudis have been concerned that if Israel strikes Iran, Iran would retaliate against Saudi Arabia for that too. In this context, Saudi Arabia has been highly focused on trying to diffuse tension in its immediate neighborhood so it doesn’t become more of a target.
I think the Saudis are clear-eyed about the fact that this deal hasn’t ultimately changed anything about what Iran wants, or what it’s doing, or what its worldview is. Really, the Saudis are just trying to de-escalate and buy as much time as possible, because Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and prime minister, has big plans to grow his economy, and he doesn’t want to deal with a war when he’s dealing with that. But the Iranians made virtually zero concessions. And the two countries have had rapprochements before. I don’t expect this one to last long.
Gould: Saudi Arabia also has a vice police that enforces religious strictures. It also has a big youth population—and problems with youth unemployment. How much anti-regime feeling is there in Saudi Arabia?
Ghattas: It’s very hard to tell because Mohammed bin Salman is possibly the most authoritarian ruler that Saudi Arabia has ever had. His government is silencing people aggressively, jailing them for things as small as a tweet expressing criticism.
At the same time, there’s a large swathe of the Saudi population that are huge fans of Mohammed bin Salman, because he’s transformed their lives. First of all, unlike the Iranian leadership, he’s effectively has done away with the vice police. So when you walk the streets of Riyadh of Jeddah, women are there with the abaya—the long robe Saudi women have traditionally been expected to wear—or without it. There’s no more separation between men and women in restaurants. There are dance parties in the cities. There are rave parties in the desert. There’s theater, there are concerts, there are DJ clubs. Women are driving. It’s quite extraordinary.
We may not want to acknowledge all of this because of Mohammed bin Salman’s excesses in the war in Yemen, which has been devastating, or because of his involvement in the assassination of the journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi. But it’s important to recognize that for Saudi youth, the changes he’s ushered in have been absolutely transformative. So today, in contrast with Iran, anti-regime feelings in Saudi Arabia are very contained. That doesn’t mean they won’t reappear later if Mohammed bin Salman fails to deliver on his economic vision, particularly where it comes to employment for young people.
Gould: How do you see the prospects for that, given the Saudi regime’s dependence on oil and gas for its economy—and the world’s gradual movement away from them as energy sources?
Ghattas: Mohammed bin Salman has been smart enough to recognize that he needed to defuse the Generation Z time bomb that’s been ticking in his country, as it has been in Iran, and as it has been elsewhere in the region. He’s been able to do that in ways the Iranians haven’t.
He’s making sure that oil prices stay high enough that the Saudi government can balance its budgets and he can sustain his strategic spending for quite some time. He’s also investing massively in solar energy and other alternative energies. So overall, he seems focused on preparing for this transition to the longer term, while getting the maximum possible benefits from his current economic levers in the shorter term.
Something that would always concern me about the Saudis’ planning, though, is that they have a tendency to overspend on a good day and not save for a rainy day—and I’m not entirely sure how well they’re actually preparing for the day after a world of hydrocarbons.
Gould: When you think about the stability of autocratic regimes, on the one hand, and the prospect for democratic openings, on the other—in Iran and Saudi Arabia and across the region—what are the key considerations in your mind?
Ghattas: The first would be that autocracy is now ascendant in the region. Tunisia, which started the wave of Arab Spring democratic uprisings in 2010, has now fallen back toward autocratic rule. Sudan, which emerged as a beacon of democratic hope a few years ago, has now descended into a terrible civil war. Syria, which had its iteration of the Arab Spring brutally crushed by President Bashar al-Assad—who essentially massacred his population—is now normalizing its relationships with its Arab neighbors and other world leaders.
The second would be that, in this context, U.S. and Western attitudes and policies continue to play a massive role in the region—despite China’s presence, for example, in helping get the recent agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia over the line—and these attitudes and policies are unsustainable. It can easily seem convenient, or practical, for the West to partner with or support autocratic regimes in the Middle East for all kinds of reasons—to ensure regional stability, to safeguard shipping routes, to control oil prices, and so on.
But in the longer term—as we saw when the Arab Spring broke out in 2011, and as we’re seeing in Iran now—these autocracies don’t ultimately have durable social bases of support. In the longer term, the only truly sustainable approach for the West, in my opinion, is to wean itself off its political and economic dependencies on the region’s autocratic regimes and to figure out how to align itself deeply with the region’s societies.
The question is a long-term one. It’s about a generational transformation in the region and in the West’s relationship with it. And when we look at what’s happening, I think it’s important to see it in this context: The Arab Spring failed for reasons that vary somewhat from, day, Tunisia to Sudan to Syria. But the resurgence of autocracy that’s come out of that failure isn’t just a regional story; it’s part of a global story of the resurgence of authoritarianism. With the Arab Spring in tatters, and with its aspirations suppressed, this is how I would hope to see the U.S. and the West to look at the region—as part of that global story, not as just that region over there that’s always trouble.