Recent months have witnessed a series of protests and ongoing civil unrest against the Iranian regime. Primarily emerging among younger Iranians, the protests began on September 16, 2022, as a reaction to the death of 22-year-old Masha Amini after she was arrested by the “morality police” in Tehran. The regime has deployed police, riot control teams, and officers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) against women and men demonstrating in the streets. According to Javaid Rehman, a UN special rapporteur on human rights, at least 14,000 protestors had already been detained by early November. These detainees include human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, and students. The recent protests are distinguished from their predecessors in Iran in that they are centered around social issues of widespread resonance, namely discrimination against women and the interference of the authorities in individual freedoms and personal choices. They also differ in that women have been a driving force behind the outbreak and continuation of the protests. The “veil” as an Islamic dress code, having been enforced on women since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, has become an ideological symbol of loyalty to the regime. As such, recent protests by Iranian women against the veil were perceived as a violation not only of certain religious outlooks but as a rejection of one of the most important symbols of the state.
The precise sentiments and political outlooks that have fueled these protests have been a matter of some debate. The slogan, “woman, life, liberty” which went viral during the demonstration, centralizes the perception of women’s marginalization. However, it would be unfair to ignore the broader concerns of Iranians who are fiercely opposing the regime’s autocratic practices. The history of Iran has been riddled with protests since at least the constitutional revolution of 1906, and the goals of these protests have been many and diverse. In July of 1999, for example, sweeping student protests that started as peaceful demonstrations following the regime’s closure of the Salam newspaper grew into calls for the elimination of Islamic rule, resulting in more than 1,200 detainments and the disappearance of 70 students. Another uprising that erupted in 2009 was sparked by the belief, widespread among younger Iranians, that the regime had perpetuated election fraud to remain in power. These movements led many commentators to argue that Iranian youth were profoundly disillusioned with the country’s leadership and that they would eventually enact social and political change.
The current uprisings have already proven to be more widespread and longer-lasting compared to student movements of previous decades. The image of Masha Amini’s death as a tangible symbol of injustice and a locus of anger has probably contributed to this longevity. It is also reasonable to assume that the continuation and growth of the protests are linked to deteriorating economic conditions in the country and a feeling among Iranians born after the Islamic Revolution of intractable alienation, marginalization, and lack of horizons. Iran is a young country, and the majority of adults alive today were born after 1979. As such, they have little direct familiarity or concern with the social contexts that gave rise to the Islamic Revolution or with the corruption and tyranny that was associated with previous regimes. In contrast to the older generation, today’s Iranians see little justification for the current authority and have little attachment to it. The profound violence and repression that the regime has leveled against the protestors—justified by characterizing their demonstrations as “planned riots” concocted by the West and as being found in “enmity against God”—has done little to endear the regime to young Iranians. In early November, the Iranian judiciary chief Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei began to endorse the widespread application of the death penalty as a punishment for ordinary peaceful protest. It is clear that the regime views the protests as a threat or at least as a meaningful affront. The question that arises, however, is what practical end goals this protest movement aims to accomplish and whether or not it will be able to achieve those goals.
Understanding the Logic of Insurrection: Iranian Universities as a Site of Contestation
Like most authoritarian regimes, the Iranian leadership does not rely purely on material coercion to retain its power; it has also engaged in deliberate cultural strategies to build hegemony and win the hearts and minds of the populace. This includes arranging vast performative spectacles, such as broad marches that fill city streets and squares with loyalists calling for the love of the leader. The regime has also presided over grand celebrations of Shi’i religious events, and loyalty to the state has become institutionalized and transmitted through madrasas (Islamic schools). Perhaps most significantly, the regime has made persistent efforts to “revolutionize” Iranian culture by Islamizing universities and shaping them into sites of indoctrination rather than critical thinking. In 1981, shortly after seizing power, Ayatollah Khomeini established the Bureau of the Cultural Revolution (BCR), whose mandate included selecting and training lecturers in universities to inculcate trust and belief in the “guardianship of the jurist” (the doctrine that was used to justify Islamic rule).
The BCR, and its successor organization, the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution (SCCR), were granted the power to create laws independently of the Iranian parliament (Majles). They were also granted the power to punish violations of these laws, which generally focused on political or “moral” crimes such as not following the Islamic codes of dress and behavior that were endorsed by the council. University students became a prominent target for such activities. According to the 1987 SCCR law on “The Regulation of Preservation and Maintenance of the Rules of Islamization of Higher Education Institutions,” universities were required to separate men and women into separate classes (or at least separate seating rows). Numerous similar forms of discrimination and restrictions on freedoms of association, behavior, and thought were inflicted upon the Iranian academic community. The process of Islamization further intensified after the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential election, after which the regime reviewed universities’ curricula, syllabi, and textbooks to “purify” their contents. Such revisions affected all types of academic subjects, including the humanities, social sciences, history, law, and psychology.
The decision of the regime to target institutions of higher education was not surprising, given the prominent role of universities in introducing millions of students to broader worldviews and critical thinking skills. By its own admission, the Iranian leadership has long viewed the control of universities as a central focus of its Islamization agenda. For a while, during the 1980s and 1990s, these efforts were successful in nearly eliminating independent student movements and intellectual criticism. A climate of mistrust, insecurity and fear descended over academic life in Iran, and many scholars and students who had the resources to do so emigrated to other countries where the freedom of expression is more respected. This “brain drain” has corresponded to a sharp erosion in the quality of Iranian education, as lecturer positions have increasingly been filled by political loyalists who hold weak academic credentials. Over the past couple of decades, however, student movements have begun to re-emerge, as increasing numbers of young Iranians have grown disillusioned with this state of affairs and come to reject the regime’s indoctrination.
Iranian Loyalism and Cultural Legacies of Authoritarianism
To better understand the challenges faced by the Iranian protest movement, it is important to consider how socialization is propagated under authoritarian regimes and the ground-level impact on citizens’ behaviors and attitudes. To the extent that such questions have been analyzed in the Iranian context, commentators often fall back on reductive notions of sectarian conflict and patronage networks as an explanatory framework for the country’s power dynamics. The more central issue, I would suggest, is the extent to which the political ideologies or legitimation frameworks perpetuated by the regime have been internalized by Iranians of various social positions. A common argument in studies of public attitudes toward civil liberties is that
education and political communication influence the level of citizens’ support for such norms. Illiberal and authoritarian regimes perpetuate a similar process of socialization, often by seeking to link their preferred political narratives to other values held by the populace—in Iran, this is most notably carried out by identifying the survival of the regime with the survival of Shi’i religious identity.
It can be difficult to study the impact of such socialization efforts in authoritarian regimes since the usual methods of surveys, and interviews cannot be considered reliable when people may be afraid to state their sincerely held views or to voice political criticism. It is also very difficult to gauge the long-term impact of indoctrination in a particular community, as there is no control group to measure how public attitudes might have evolved in the absence of such political persuasion. Nonetheless, there is evidence to suggest that at least some segments of Iranian society have strongly internalized the narratives of the regime. For example, as senior Iranian officials scrambled to contain the unrest, they were able to quickly assemble large groups of women, most dressed in traditional black chadors (fully body coverings), to hold counter-protests. State-controlled television broadcasts showed such women chanting, “We stand behind the Supreme Leader!” and waving Iranian flags and posters. It seems unlikely that such demonstrations of loyalty were entirely forced or inauthentic.
Younger Iranians have been persistently targeted by regime propaganda. For example, earlier in 2022, the state media conducted a campaign in which children were recruited to perform a patriotic song called “Salute the Commander” in schools, squares, and stadiums across the country. The effort seemed intended to make the song “go viral,” and it was blasted by critics as an attempt to brainwash vulnerable children. In addition to leveraging religious faith and mingling it with political loyalty, the propaganda efforts that are pervasive in Iran offer seductive narratives blaming the dismal and declining prospects of the country’s youth on external forces (usually the United States)—anything other than the repressive policies and norms enacted by the Iranian leadership. While the current protests show a growing refutation of such indoctrination efforts, it would be unwise to underestimate the extent to which the regime’s narratives may have taken root, leading to heartfelt, affective, passionate loyalty among its supporters even in some segments of the younger population. Considering the extent of this propaganda speaks volumes about the challenges that will be faced by anti-regime protestors even if they do manage to make inroads into the country’s formal political structures. Such authoritarian cultural legacies often require decades of civic engagement and consolidation of civil society to overcome.
A sobering comparison to the current situation in Iran is that of Syria, in which a powerful opposition movement has managed over more than a decade to achieve little other than a violent standoff against regime loyalists. Furthermore, much of the opposition in Syria appears to be driven by some of the same “revolutionary” ideas and muscular worldviews that have been disseminated for decades in the Syrian Baathist state media. As Fred Halliday has argued, true change in such contexts must come from the difficult possibility of terminating such socialized outlooks and finding alternative paths of cultural and political development. This is not a change that can happen overnight.
The Prospects of Nonviolent Action for Overthrowing Authoritarian Regimes
Researchers have generally found that nonviolent protest is more successful in creating a transition from authoritarianism to effective democracy and long-term internal peace compared to violent insurrections. Indeed, this dichotomy is highly pronounced; in one analysis, nonviolent resistance was found to be a decisive factor in 50 out of 67 total successful national transitions to democracy between 1973 and 2005. It is notable, however, that such movements are not inevitable successes—in Burma and in China, where hundreds of thousands of ordinary people have demonstrated for free elections, human rights, and an end to corruption, the movements have been decisively suppressed. Elsewhere, such as in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Indonesia, peaceful transitions toward democracy have seen moderate successes that were slow to take root even after achieving institutional reforms. The outcomes of anti-authoritarian movements often threaten to slide toward ethnic nationalism or Balkanization, a prospect that some commentators believe is likely for Syria.
Despite the rising toll of deaths and arrests, the actions of the Iranian regime have so far failed to quell the demonstrations. “We’re not a movement any more,” said one protester at a university in Tehran, “We’re a revolution that’s giving birth to a nation.” Nonetheless, the current Iranian authoritarianism is strongly entrenched. While the most outspoken of the current protestors seem to have consolidated around the demand of establishing secularism and ending Islamic rule, this goal may not be shared by the larger number of Iranians whose sympathies derive from anger at economic conditions or at police abuses. In the most credible recent surveys, the vast majority of the country’s citizens continue to place a high value on their religious identity. If the recent protests are no longer demanding more economic security or measured reform within the system, but the complete overthrow of the theocracy, will such an outcome be welcomed by the broader populace?
Perhaps the most likely scenarios are either that events will calm down without any major concessions from the regime (as has happened with previous protests); or that there will be minor reforms in areas, such as the policing of dress codes, that will prove satisfactory to most of the public, combined with continuing brutality against those who have sought broader changes. It is possible, however, that the protests will continue to grow, an outcome that may plunge the country into a larger conflict. As Guillermo Trejo has noted, and as it seems accurate in relation to other Middle Eastern regimes such as Syria, “the quintessential governance strategy in closed autocracies is to reward loyalists and repress independent citizens and movements.” The core of repressive and fully indoctrinated loyalists who maintain the Iranian regime have tremendous power and the willingness to use it, and the only thing that seems certain at the current moment is that authoritarianism in Iran will not be easily or quickly defeated by civic unrest.
 Alex Hardie and Hande Atay Alam, “As Many as 14,000 Arrested in Iran over Last Six Weeks, United Nations Says,” CNN (Cable News Network, November 3, 2022), https://edition.cnn.com/2022/11/03/middleeast/iran-protests-arrests-united-nations-intl.
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 Fred Halliday, Revolution and World Politics, pp. 135, 157. It is worth noting that even Halliday somewhat prematurely predicted the end of the Islamic Republic in Iran in a 1994 article: Halliday, “An Elusive Normalization: Western Europe and the Iranian Revolution,” Middle East Journal 48 (Spring 1994), p. 326.
 See Mauricio Rivera Celestino and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, “Fresh Carnations or All Thorn, No Rose? Nonviolent Campaigns and Transitions in Autocracies,” Journal of Peace Research 50, no. 3 (2013), pp. 385–400; and Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).
 Adrian Karatnycky and Peter Ackerman, How Freedom Is Won: From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy (Washington, DC: Freedom House, 2005).
 “Ten Years of War Have Broken Syria into Pieces,” The Economist (The Economist Newspaper, March 13, 2021), https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2021/03/13/ten-years-of-war-have-broken-syria-into-pieces.
 “Could Iran’s Regime Fall?,” The Economist (The Economist Newspaper, October 27, 2022), https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2022/10/27/could-irans-regime-fall.
 Maleki, Ammar and Pooyan Tamimi Arab. 2020. Iranians’ attitudes toward religion: A 2020 survey report. Published online, gamaan.org: GAMAAN.
 Guillermo Trejo, Popular Movements in Autocracies: Religion, Repression and Indigenous Collective Action in Mexico (Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 31.