A Whole Generation Revolts Against the Iranian Regime

From Baghdad to Beirut, Tehran’s opponents are exploring the possibility that a wave of protests might help weaken Iran’s grip on their own countries.

A woman walks in front of a mural of the Iranian flag
Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agency / Getty

“From Beirut to Tehran, one revolution that does not die,” people chanted on the streets of Beirut during a wave of protests against Lebanon’s corrupt politicians in October 2019. It was catchy, it rhymed in Arabic, and it was an expression of a surprising new sense of solidarity among members of a young generation connected across borders.

The protesters were not chanting in support of the revolution that turned Iran into a theocracy in 1979, but against an Islamic Republic that oppresses its people at home and wields power well beyond its borders. They were singling out a foreign government that upholds dysfunctional political systems in other countries so that it can manipulate them to its advantage and deploys proxy militias that mete out violence from Baghdad to Beirut against those who rise in opposition to Tehran’s dark worldview. The protests in Lebanon, which were only partially focused on Iran, were taking place just as Iraqis were marching through the streets across their country, openly protesting Iran’s stranglehold over their politics, their economy, and their clerical establishment. Meanwhile, Iranians, angered by an increase in fuel prices, were chanting “Death to the dictator” and setting dozens of government sites on fire.

This explosion of anger, domestically and regionally, was one of the most complex challenges Iran had to face since 1979. Brutal, lethal repression did away with some of the protesters; by March 2020, the pandemic sent the rest of them home.

Protesters are back in the streets across Iran, picking up where they left off two years ago, their lives and prospects having deteriorated in the interim. And just as in 2019, we are witnessing expressions of solidarity across the Middle East, where many, impressed by the courage of Iranian women in particular, are cheering the protesters on.

But since 2019, the Islamic Republic’s domestic and regional competencies have taken a hit, and its hand in the regional game has worsened. Now, from Baghdad to Beirut, those who oppose Tehran are exploring the possibility that the protests might help weaken Iran’s grip on what it considers its forward defense bases: Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and, to some extent, Yemen. So far, in all these countries, no one has found a local mechanism to outmaneuver Iran—it can only come as a result of changes in Tehran.

The Syrian opposition activist in exile Yassin al-Haj Saleh recently tweeted that the “fall of the regime of the mullahs [would be] the best news. Supporting [the Iranian uprising] is a must.” Since 2013, Iran has been deeply involved in Syria, both militarily and financially. It has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose efforts to crush a civilian uprising against his rule quickly descended into all-out war.

Revolutions are hard to read and their tipping points difficult to anticipate. Who or what replaces a dictator is also a guessing game, which is why regional or international consensus often settles back on the status quo. And as we watch the protests in Iran, it’s best not to engage in too much wishful thinking about the potential demise of an Islamic Republic that has repeatedly proved its cunningness and willingness to use deadly force to remain in power.

Yet something feels like it’s coming undone, as though the project of the Islamic Republic is running out of steam and the black wave unleashed by the 1979 revolution is ebbing, exhausted by recurrent protests, building on top of one another since 2009, and reaching new heights since 2017. Iran is in a constant state of ebullition—hundreds of protests take place across the country on a regular basis, even though they don’t all make headlines. The repeated challenges to Iran’s hegemonic ambitions along its periphery are also unprecedented.

The latest outpouring of rage started on September 16, triggered by the death of the 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish student Mahsa Amini, who was bundled into a morality-police van reportedly for wearing tight trousers. Witnesses say she was violently beaten in the van and later collapsed inside a correction center, before being transported to a hospital where she died three days later. The protests, led first mostly by women and focused on ending the mandatory wearing of headscarves, have morphed into a national revolt, bringing out men and women, workers and celebrities, chanting on university campuses and dancing in the streets, burning hijabs in public in small towns and large cities.

From Beirut to northeastern Syria and all the way to Kabul, women, including those who cover their hair by choice, have come out in support of Iranian women who are rejecting the hijab imposed since 1983 by law in the Islamic Republic. They’ve cut their hair in front of the cameras just as Iranian women are doing, and have chanted the same slogans as on the streets of Iran: Zan, zendegi, azadi (“Women, life, freedom”). But all of these protests are about much more than a piece of cloth—they are directed at one of the pillars of the Islamic revolution and reflect the struggle for Iran’s identity and future, and for those outside Iran, they echo the grievances expressed during the protests that broke out across Iran’s axis of misery in 2019.

The protests that year started in Iraq, then spread to Lebanon and on to Iran. Demonstrators marched against corruption, unemployment, and a general sense of despair and oppression. In each country, there were specific complaints driven by local dynamics: a corrupt economic class in Lebanon that emptied the coffers of the state; an oppressive religious gerontocracy in Iran ruling the country like it’s still 1979; and in Iraq, a Shiite majority protesting against a barely functioning corrupt state, besieged by pro-Iran Shiite militias, still unable to build itself almost two decades after the U.S. invasion. In both Iraq and Lebanon, there was also a specific rejection of sectarianism, a favorite tool of Iran (and until recently Saudi Arabia) to rally the masses. The participation of Shias, albeit in limited numbers, in Lebanon’s protests targeting Hezbollah, put the Shiite militant group and Iran on the back foot.

The reaction everywhere was swift. In Iraq, the protests were brutally quashed by Iran’s proxy Shiite militias, answering to Qassem Soleimani, the notorious leader of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. More than 500 protesters were killed. Demonstrations in Iran were also put down violently, with more than 1,000 killed, according to Iranian officials at the time. In Lebanon, where the protests were multi-sectarian, the use of violence was more limited but still effective; the movement was put on hold by the advent of the pandemic, and then died from exhaustion in a collapsing country.

Even if there is no immediate prospect that protests will resume in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s opponents in the political system will be watching events in Iran closely to assess opportunities to squeeze concessions. In Iraq, the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr continues to rebel against Iranian interference in the country’s political affairs. This includes Iran obstructing Sadr’s ability to form a government after he and his allies defeated pro-Iran parties at the polls in October 2021. Sadr’s supporters took to the streets in August, bringing the country to the brink of civil war. A nationwide day of protests on October 1 commemorated the protests of 2019 and demanded justice for those killed.

All of this is unfolding while opponents of the Islamic Republic, inside and out, know full well that several key developments over the past two years will hinder Iran’s ability to navigate this coming period. Topping the list is the killing of Soleimani in an American strike ordered by President Donald Trump in January 2020. Soleimani was the mastermind of Iran’s regional influence; he instilled fear and respect, and he knew all the players personally. Over the course of his decades-long career, he oversaw military battles, played kingmaker in other countries’ politics, and ordered protesters shot. His replacement, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, has none of his charisma, personal connections, or cunning.

Iran’s crisis of competence (which also extends to its stumbling president, Ebrahim Raisi) could prove problematic in Syria, where Assad might feel exposed if Russia can’t sustain its military support for him while Iran is stretched thin quelling protests at home. Meanwhile, the most pressing issue on the mind of ailing, 83-year-old Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is ensuring a smooth succession and the survival not only of the Islamic Republic but of its ultra-hard-line bent, which he has nurtured. Two weeks ago, rumors swirled that Khamenei was dying, but he resurfaced to give a speech. He hasn’t been seen since the start of the protests, though. The regional shifts that saw Gulf countries formally sign peace treaties or informally increase their security cooperation with Israel present another strategic headache for Iran. And finally, with Trump gone, the Biden administration’s efforts to engage with Iran on nuclear negotiations have left Iran again facing a united Western camp, which blames Tehran for the lack of progress in the talks.

But Iran has learned a few things as well over the past decade, as it watched the Arab uprisings unfold. There is the example of Syria, where Assad’s inability to offer even modest reforms further galvanized the protesters. As the regime unleashed violence against them, many took up arms, rebel groups formed, and the regime adopted a scorched-earth policy. A decade of war later, Assad’s Pyrrhic victory has left him ruling over a pile of rubble.

Then there is the example of Egypt, where, in an effort to save the “deep state,” the military establishment decided it was best for President Hosni Mubarak to bow out quickly in the face of the hundreds of thousands of protesters who were thronging the streets. Mubarak was gone within three weeks, handing over power to the army. After a short interlude during which Mohamed Morsi, a leading figure of the Muslim Brotherhood, was democratically elected as president, the military stepped in again to remove Morsi, in a coup led by Commander in Chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who then became president.

I fear that the outcome in Iran could look like Syria, but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will most likely try to use the Egypt playbook and save the edifice of the state—light on religion and heavy on repression. However the next few weeks and months unfold in Iran, the repercussions will extend beyond its borders.