The Root Cause of Anti-Regime Protests in Iran: Modernization Without Democratization

10 Jan 2023

The Root Cause of Anti-Regime Protests in Iran: Modernization Without Democratization

The Iranian regime is unwilling, or unable, to adapt to a society it has transformed over the past four decades.

By Ali Alfoneh

The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW)

January 10, 2023

Multiple waves of protests have swept over Iran since the arrest of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, on charges of noncompliance with the Islamic Republic’s mandatory dress code for women, and suspicious death in police custody September 16, 2022. Initially, the anger of the protesters was directed against the Headquarters for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, also known as the Morality Police. Soon, however, slogans of the protesters targeted Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s head of state, and the regime in its entirety, indicating the protests had deeper roots. What then, is the root cause of anti-regime protests in Iran, if not the mandatory dress code for women and its violent enforcement? The short answer is modernization without democratization, or the unwillingness or inability of the regime to adapt to a society it has transformed over the past four decades.

Since the 1979 revolution and establishment of the Islamic Republic, the state has been the driving force of modernization in Iran. However, by failing to link modernization with democratization, the regime has created an urban middle class that lacks genuine and legal paths for political participation. The absence of such paths of political participation, in turn, leaves street protests as one of the few instruments for voicing political demands and expressing grievances, which largely explains the occurrence of increasingly violent anti-regime protests in Iran.

The Amini case shows not only the modernization effort of the Islamic Republic but also the regime’s inability or unwillingness to link modernization with democratization. A native of socioeconomically underdeveloped Saqqez in Iran’s Kurdistan province, Amini completed primary and secondary education, passed the university entrance exam, and was admitted to the Orumiyeh branch of the Islamic Azad University. Besides preparing for university, she also sold clothing at a small stall in Saqqez’s bazaar. During a holiday visit to Tehran, she was arrested on charges of noncompliance with the dress code for women and died in police custody.

To judge by World Bank statistics, Amini’s profile is representative of many women in Iran. The World Bank does not have data on adult literacy rates in Iran from 1977-86, so a precise comparison between Iran on the eve of the revolution and today is not possible. However, in 1976, the adult literacy rate in Iran was 37%, rose to 52% by 1986, and reached 89% by 2021. By comparison, the female adult literacy rate was a dismal 24% in 1976, rose to 41% by 1986, and reached a staggering 85% by 2021. Development in the enrollment rate at tertiary schools (any formal post-secondary education, such as university or vocational) was just as dramatic: In 1978, only 5% of Iranians were enrolled in a tertiary-educational program, but this number increased to 58% by 2020. The female tertiary-school enrollment rate followed a similar pattern, jumping from 3% in 1978 to 57% in 2020, though, having declined from 67% in 2015. While the World Bank’s education data illustrates impressive development, its figures on female labor force participation show shocking stagnation: In 1976, 13.4% of Iranian women participated in the formal labor market, and by 2022 the number remained nearly unchanged at 13.9%.

On the one hand, the Islamic Republic educates women, but on the other hand restricts their access to jobs and limits their personal freedom in a self-proclaimed effort to encourage families and promote virtue and prevent vice, which includes imposing and enforcing a dress code for women, even at the cost of the lives of Iranian women.

The regime’s problem is not limited to educated Iranian women but is part of its larger problem with the educated urban middle class. In 1979, Iran’s total population was a modest 37.2 million, which grew to 87.9 million by 2021. In 1979, 49% of the population was composed of city dwellers, as opposed to 76% in 2021. These urbanites are connected to each other: Fixed phone subscriptions rose from 852,000 in 1979 to 29 million in 2021, and mobile phone subscriptions from 9,200 in 1994 to around 136 million in 2021. Iranian urbanites have also for some time been informed about developments abroad through Persian-language newspapers and radio and satellite television broadcasts. Most important, Iranians, in particular city dwellers, are connected to the internet: Individuals using the internet rose from 1% of the population in 2000 to 79% in 2021.

The Islamic Republic has turned mobile phones into an instrument of surveillance, censors the domestic media, wages war against satellite broadcasters to Iran, and restricts the internet. However, the combination of social change, in particular the emergence of an educated urban middle class, and technological innovation, as restricted and filtered as it may be, poses a serious challenge to the regime. Modern political theory continues to make the case that an educated and technologically well-connected urban middle class has historically demanded political power, which the Islamic Republic is either unable or unwilling to deliver.

Instead of providing the educated middle class with political power, the Islamic Republic is increasingly narrowing the path for genuine and legal political participation, even within the framework of its sham of democracy: The Guardian Council, which on Khamenei’s instructions filters ideologically nonconformist presidential candidates, disqualified 592 individuals who had registered for the 2021 presidential election. Many disqualified candidates were regime loyalists previously perceived as the pillars of the regime. Among the seven who passed the needle eye of the Guardian Council, three withdrew from the race in favor of Ebrahim Raisi, who won the election in which only 48.8% of eligible voters participated – the lowest participation rate in any election in the history of the Islamic Republic. In such an overly controlled electoral system, with choices of candidates radically restricted, choosing not to turn out to vote is one of the few ways for voters to register refusal and dissent.

Despite government censorship of the media, reformist newspapers soon pointed out the correlation between the decline in political participation since the 2009 presidential election and eruption of anti-regime protests. Such protests may not pose existential threats to a regime that does not hesitate to use force against the populace to secure its survival, but the constant flare up of scattered protests poses a political cost for the Islamic Republic. This is a cost the regime could have avoided, opting either for reprehensible measures, such as denying women education like the Taliban regime in present day Afghanistan and the “year zero” tactics of relocating city dwellers to the countryside like the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in Cambodia in the 1970s, or by adapting its political system to accommodate societal changes.