Iran’s Revolutionary Year

Why Iran’s Gen Z is protesting, and why the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps won’t back down. These articles explain Tehran’s difficult 2022.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Iranians protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Tehran.
Iranians protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Tehran.
Iranians protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the morality police in Tehran on Oct. 1. Middle East Images/AP

2022

2022 will be remembered as a momentous time in Iranian history—just not in the way many observers thought at the start of the year.

This was supposed to be the year that the Iranian regime and the Biden administration finally addressed their stalemate in negotiations over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program. A major structural obstacle seemed to have been cleared by last year’s presidential election in Iran. Tehran’s new administration, led by President Ebrahim Raisi, was unabashedly conservative—but for that same reason, Raisi was believed to be empowered to bring talks with the West to a decisive conclusion. Those hopes, however, have been dashed: By year’s end, the nuclear deal remains in a sort of zombie state, caught in limbo between life and death.

That failure to achieve any resolution is due, at least in part, to the dominant Iranian political development of the past year—one that nobody saw coming. The “Women, Life, Freedom” protest movement began in September following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of Iran’s so-called morality police. It shows little sign of dissipating. Protesters have taken to the streets across the country to demand equal rights for women—and an end to a regime that’s proven incapable of guaranteeing them. The government has responded with brute force, killing hundreds of people and arresting thousands.

2022 will be remembered as a momentous time in Iranian history—just not in the way many observers thought at the start of the year.

This was supposed to be the year that the Iranian regime and the Biden administration finally addressed their stalemate in negotiations over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program. A major structural obstacle seemed to have been cleared by last year’s presidential election in Iran. Tehran’s new administration, led by President Ebrahim Raisi, was unabashedly conservative—but for that same reason, Raisi was believed to be empowered to bring talks with the West to a decisive conclusion. Those hopes, however, have been dashed: By year’s end, the nuclear deal remains in a sort of zombie state, caught in limbo between life and death.

That failure to achieve any resolution is due, at least in part, to the dominant Iranian political development of the past year—one that nobody saw coming. The “Women, Life, Freedom” protest movement began in September following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of Iran’s so-called morality police. It shows little sign of dissipating. Protesters have taken to the streets across the country to demand equal rights for women—and an end to a regime that’s proven incapable of guaranteeing them. The government has responded with brute force, killing hundreds of people and arresting thousands.

The movement amounts to the most serious challenge to the regime’s control of the country since the early days of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The protests are also the longest running since the Green Movement arose after the disputed 2009 presidential election. Unlike the earlier revolt, however, the current movement is leaderless—and more explicitly revolutionary in character.

The protests are an expression of an Iranian society that has become less religious and more alienated from its theocratic system of government. The regime has tried to placate the public by claiming it would disband the morality police. But it may be too late to win back the affection of Iran’s restive youth. That raises the question of what degree of coercion would be necessary to keep them in line in the year ahead.

It’s not yet clear how the movement will develop in the year ahead. But to understand how we got where we are today, read these five Foreign Policy pieces from 2022.


1. Meet Iran’s Gen Z: The Driving Force Behind the Protests

by Holly Dagres, Nov. 1

It has become a cliche to point out that Iran’s protests have been led by the country’s youth. Holly Dagres, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, goes beyond that surface-level observation to offer a full portrait of Iran’s Generation Z—born between 1997 and 2012—and the distinct point of view that compelled it to take to the streets.

Dagres describes a generation that has little direct relationship to the regime’s foundational myths—the upheaval of the Iranian Revolution and the years of sacrifice the regime has used to legitimate its rule. What they have instead is a litany of grievances—about economic stagnation and domestic corruption—and the “social media savvy” to express it despite intermittent internet shutdowns and draconian internet censorship. “Frustrated and angry with the status quo, they aren’t afraid to express themselves online or in person nor to push the red lines of the Islamic Republic,” she writes. “And they’re shaking up the aging, sclerotic clerical establishment to a degree not seen since the country’s 1979 revolution.”


2. Iran Is Conceding Much Less Than It Seems

by Sina Toossi, Dec. 7

In early December, Iranian officials surprised observers at home and abroad by insisting that the notorious morality police would no longer operate in the country. Sina Toossi, a senior nonresident fellow at the Center for International Policy, cautions against treating this as a cause for celebration. Violations of Islamic morality remain punishable by law, and there are signs that the regime is already looking for other methods of enforcement.

“It remains to be seen whether the Islamic Republic will practically change its governance style in ways that address public grievances,” Toossi writes. But this may only lead to an escalation of the protests. “The substitution of the morality police with other punitive tools, such as shuttering bank accounts, is unlikely to placate protesters and could push even more people to take to the streets,” he adds. “For many Iranians, the Islamic Republic is irredeemable.”


3. Why Won’t the Workers of Iran Unite?

by Esfandyar Batmanghelidj and Zep Kalb, Nov. 3

Iran is no stranger to economic sanctions imposed by outsiders; for years, the country has been the target of financial pressure by the West over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program. The protest movement has tried to put pressure of its own on the regime by organizing nationwide labor strikes to shut down the economy. Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, the founder of the Bourse & Bazaar Foundation, and Zep Kalb, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles, explain why this effort makes sense in theory but has mostly failed to work in practice.

“The notion that a general strike could make the difference in Iran’s new protest movement is tied to the memory of the 1979 revolution that led to the founding of the Islamic Republic,” they write. “Beginning in 1978, strikes carried out by civil servants, municipal workers, and even oil workers put significant pressure on the shah’s regime. But the conditions that enabled major labor mobilizations in 1979 do not exist today.” Iranian workers are far more precariously employed than they were decades ago, “making it difficult for them to mobilize.”

“Iran’s Ministry of Petroleum directly employs less than a third of all oil workers in the country and relies on private contractors to provide support,” the authors note. “After years of privatization, fewer than a hundred large industrial enterprises remain in state hands. Most of the workers in these firms are employed on temporary contracts.”


4. Why Is Iran’s Regime So Afraid of This Song?

by Nahid Siamdoust, Oct. 26

Demonstrators sing “Baraye” in Washington.
Demonstrators sing “Baraye” in Washington.

Demonstrators sing “Baraye” while holding their phone lights high during a march in Washington on Oct. 22 in support of protests in Iran.Allison Bailey/NurPhoto via Reuters

It’s only fitting that a protest movement dedicated to the right to free personal expression quickly settled on a singular anthem. Nahid Siamdoust, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, offers a close reading of the song “Baraye,” which translates in English to “for” or “because of” and whose lyrics recite a list of basic grievances against the Iranian regime—basic human rights, from earning a livelihood to enjoying a kiss with a loved one. “The song reveals the simple, ordinary nature of the things that Iranians are aching for, asking for, and even dying for,” Siamdoust writes. “It is radical in revealing on a national level the cruelty of a system that denies such basic demands—exposing the devastating conditions Iranians face under the current regime.”

It isn’t just the content of the song’s lyrics but the form of its distribution that reflects the protest movement. “If ‘Baraye’ reflects a different, perhaps unprecedented mood on a national level, it also mirrors the organizational structure of this recent protest movement,” Siamdoust adds. “If it is networked and leaderless, so is the song. The lyrics were written by Iranians at large and merely set to music and vocalized by the young up-and-coming singer Shervin Hajipour.”


5. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Will Never Stand Down

by Afshon Ostovar, Oct. 18

It was an understandable impulse to wonder whether Iran’s protest movement might continue to grow until it reached a threshold that would cause the country’s security forces to back down and side with the demonstrators over the regime. Afshon Ostovar, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, explains why this expectation was always rooted in naivete. Iran’s most powerful security force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was designed precisely not to back down in such a situation.

During the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Ostovar explains, “it was the Iranian military’s decision to declare neutrality and stand down that signaled the end of the Pahlavi dynasty, setting Iran on a new course.” But by demanding an end to the Islamic system, Iran’s current “protesters challenge the IRGC’s very raison d’être. The IRGC cannot exist under a form of government that is no longer defined by the Islamic Revolution. If the current order is overturned, the IRGC will have no place in whatever comes next.” Which is why they will fight to protect it to the very end.

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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