Iran’s spiritual leaders to grapple with deepening dissent in 2023 – SABC News

National protests sparked by the death in custody of Iranian Kurd Mahsa Amini have ushered Iran into a new era of deepening crisis between clerical leaders and society at large.

Amini’s family said she was beaten after being arrested by morality police on September 13 for violating the Islamic Republic’s dress code. Amini died three days later. Authorities blamed the 22-year-old’s death on pre-existing medical issues.

Her death unleashed years of simmering discontent in Iranian society over issues ranging from tightening social and political controls to economic misery and discrimination against ethnic minorities.

Faced with the worst legitimacy crisis since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran’s religious leaders have sought to portray the unrest as ethnic minority separatist rebellions threatening national unity rather than spiritual rule.

Those efforts by the authorities were undermined by solidarity between Iran’s various ethnic groups during the protests, according to activists and rights groups, with protesters chanting pro-minority slogans.

Protesters from all walks of life took to the streets, calling for the fall of the Islamic Republic. The women tore and burned the obligatory headscarves in a rage.

Iran’s rulers blamed a coalition of “anarchists, terrorists and foreign enemies” for orchestrating the protests, in which activist news agency HRANA said 506 protesters had been killed as of December 21, including 69 minors.

HRANA reported that 66 members of the security forces were also killed. Two protesters were executed, prompting strong Western condemnation, and thousands were arrested.

Why it matters

The turmoil, with women and youth at the fore, poses a serious threat to the priority that has defined Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s rule since 1989, the survival of the Islamic Republic and its religious establishment at all costs.

However, the ongoing unrest does not mean that the four-decade-old Islamic Republic will soon disappear given the power wielded by its security apparatus. The protest movement is leaderless, challenging to impose a new political order.

But the unrest has shown the establishment’s vulnerability to popular anger, raising fears among senior leaders that one misstep could spell more trouble even if the current protests die down.

There is no guarantee that more force will end the unrest, as the violent crackdown so far has only fueled more protests.

A crackdown on protests and Iran’s alleged transfer of drones and missiles to Russia to help Moscow in its war in Ukraine have made Western leaders reluctant to push for a resumption of a 2015 nuclear pact that would provide Tehran additional resources worth billions of dollars.

Alarmed by popular discontent, clerical leaders fear economic misery could alienate core supporters among middle- and lower-income Iranians if the nuclear deal remains on hold.

What does this mean for 2023?

The Islamic Republic will be gripped by what analysts call a “revolutionary process” that is likely to fuel more protests in 2023, with neither side backing down.

Because Khamenei, 83, believes that compromising on the republic’s ideological pillars, such as the hijab, will lead to its downfall, the authorities will redouble the crackdown, fueling more anger among the population of 85 million, 70% of whom are under 30 .

The question of who will ultimately succeed him as supreme leader, a role with enormous power, could intensify competition among the elite, potentially deepening rifts within the establishment.

Four years of sanctions have not stopped the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program or curbed its support for proxies abroad. But its domestic crisis is likely to give Western powers more opportunities to increase pressure on Tehran.

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