The regional fallout of Iran’s protests is inevitable
Iran is again at a tumultuous stage in its political history, as younger Iranians take to the streets, demanding more social liberties as signified by massive anti-hijab rallies. There are many variables here. For one, the country’s spiritual leader has entered his twilight years and the search for his successor is already being discussed, albeit in muted tones. The revival of a nuclear deal still appears distant and sanctions have imposed a heavy toll on the economy. Intermittent protests have been a regular feature in recent years but were successfully suppressed by the government.
Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish Iranian girl died in a Tehran hospital a few weeks ago while she was in the custody of Iran’s notorious Morality Police. Her relatives suspect the death occurred due to police highhandedness. She had been arrested for refusing to cover her head. Days later, a teenage girl and protestor Nika Shahkrami also died, it appears, for similar reasons. These incidents have sparked widespread protest rallies all over Iran. What is most fundamental to any understanding of the significance of the protests in Iran, is to consider that it is students-- an entire generation of them-- who are in the vanguard of these national rallies against the government. More than 100 youth and over a dozen security personnel have lost their lives during protests, and the regional impact of these developments-- current and potential-- is worth looking into.
The quest for gender rights in Iran has been a morale booster for women in Afghanistan who have begun demanding education, jobs and wider societal engagement since the change of government last year. Recently, Afghan women chanted solidarity slogans for their Iranian sisters outside the Iranian Embassy in Kabul. Though the rally was quickly dispersed by the Taliban government, a message has been clearly conveyed. It would appear that both in Iran and Afghanistan, the demand for gender rights is robust and cannot be brushed aside.
The clerical state that Iran became in 1979, had limited space for female participation in the political arena. Its first female minister was appointed by President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in 2009. The current Iranian cabinet has no female representation though the Iranian parliament does have some women. It is clear that female participation in government departments in Iran is far less than their presence in the private sector. Iranian women are active in cinema and sports, to name a few areas, and their aspirations for choosing their own dress code or wider political participation cannot be denied for long.
What is most fundamental to any understanding of the significance of the protests in Iran, is to consider that it is students-- an entire generation of them-- who are in the vanguard of these national rallies against the government.
Zahidan is one of the worst affected cities in the current wave of protests, and it was earlier being suggested that Pakistan should get ready for refugees from Iranian Balochistan. However, the anticipated exodus of refugees did not happen. In general, it is unfortunate that proper media coverage of the developments in Iran has been so limited in Pakistan, even though social media is doing the job well. It is young people, those most savvy with the use of social media as an information dispenser, who are leading the protests and their peers all over the world are responding loudly in support.
Although the possibility of regime change in Iran due to the current unrest it faces may seem like a long shot, it is eventually going to be an inevitable reality as these issues chip away at the stone and people’s frustrations reach boiling point. This is an important moment in Iran’s history, and years from now it could be seen as a turning point for its politics.
One hopes this changed politics, whenever it comes, will be less meddlesome in regional countries. The region needs respite and deserves tranquility. This is not only essential for regional peace but also in the interests of the international economy.
For now, it is only a matter of time before heightened unrest across the border spills into Pakistan in some form. Pak-Iran border management has been problematic for many years. The fencing on both sides has improved the situation, to an extent, but the easement rights long enjoyed by divided tribes living on both sides still make this border practical for nefarious activities. Foreign agencies also try to fish in these muddy borderlands.
Iran stands at a crossroads today. One hopes that its ultra-conservative leadership will adapt its policies in accordance with the wishes of its people and its youth-- and the needs of the time. So far, that seems highly unlikely.
- Javed Hafeez is a former Pakistani diplomat with much experience of the Middle East. He writes weekly columns in Pakistani and Gulf newspapers and appears regularly on satellite TV channels as a defense and political analyst.