The death of Kurdish woman Jîna Mahsa Amini in the custody of the Tehran morality police has become a symbol of Iran’s deep social malaise. It has sparked an all-out jacquerie, with youths taking control of the street and beating up police officers. Celebrities and labour unions have shown support for the uprising, while women have begun to openly flaunt the country’s mandatory dress code.
Inevitably, the regime change activists have come out in full force, declaring it the beginning of the end for the Iranian state, with demands that the US government begin “organising plots against the regime to bring down the Islamic Republic.” Meanwhile, conspiracy theorists — including Bolivian state-affiliated media — have decided that Iran is already the victim of a US-led coup, with the protesters as bait. This interpretation has been endorsed by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, who has accused the US of collaborating with Israel to engineer the protests.
Both sides misread Washington’s intentions towards Iran. Although US pressure has deeply impacted Iranian politics, it is not leading to “regime change.” Instead, US policy is structured to inflame Iran’s social contradictions. And that policy has borne fruit, trapping Iran in a cycle of polarisation.
US pressure is designed to exacerbate the tensions between the aspirations of Iran’s educated middle class and the values of the Islamic Republic. It achieves this by shrinking the economic pie for everyone, primarily through sanctions. By targeting certain imports over others — forcing a tradeoff between bare necessities and luxuries — the sanctions have led to “intensified income inequality and inflation,” former sanctions architect Richard Nephew claimed.
At the same time, US power has targeted elite Iranian factions who could drive change. Many Iranians had pinned their hopes on the Reformists, a loyal opposition movement that united old guard revolutionaries with young liberals. But the most intense US pressure on Iran took place after the Reformists took power. President Donald Trump reversed US diplomatic outreach to Iran, and placed the country under severe economic sanctions and military threats. Violent unrest broke out across the country in November 2019, ensuring that the legacy of Reformism was not only humiliation abroad, but also blood-soaked repression at home.
With a military coup d’etat unlikely, the United States offered alternatives that seemed almost designed to fail. The Obama administration helped reconstitute the Mojahedin-e Khalq, an Islamic socialist faction that was purged from the Iranian revolution and later earned a reputation as Saddam Hussein’s muscle squad. Under the Trump administration, US government funding and private donations flowed into an Iranian-American activist scene plagued by petty toxic politics.
The Iranian deep state is confident that it has defeated the attempts to overthrow it. That is why it pushed through Ebraham Raisi, a bureaucratic yes-man lacking charisma, in the tightly-controlled 2021 presidential election. And that is why it intensified the morality police patrols, a hated symbol of state authority which had begun to disappear under the last Reformist administration.
The Islamic Republic has fallen into the trap laid for it, viewing its own population as a vanquished enemy rather than pursuing national reconciliation, and placing responsibility for the protests firmly with the Americans. The Biden administration will continue to apply pressure, and quietly sit back as sparks fly. Last month, social media providers took down a network of fake accounts likely run by the US military. The disinformation front not only spread anti-Islamic Republic propaganda, but also promoted hardline pro-Islamic Republic talking points, suggesting that Washington wants to encourage political chaos above all else.
The next Republican administration will continue in this vein, and will probably do so more brazenly. Activists will hold solidarity rallies and shout over each other about what the Iranian people want. None of it will be designed to go anywhere.