Are the protests in Iran fuelled by a Western conspiracy?

The impact of Mahsa Amini's killing on a global scale, particularly among the Iranian diaspora in the West, is undoubtedly bigger and fiercer than the Bloody Aban protests of 2019.
Published November 17, 2022

Over the last four years, Iran has been jolted by political tremors at increasing frequency.

Starting with what came to be known as the “Bloody Aban” insurrection, a nationwide civic rights protest in late November 2019, initially against rising fuel costs, but which later turned into anti-regime protests.

The protests were followed by the assassination of Qasem Soleimani in 2020 by American forces, which led the country to the brink of war with the US. But it was the more recent killing of Mahsa Amini that has triggered what have arguably been the most significant anti-regime protests witnessed in Iran in recent years.

Some may argue that the recent demonstrations are not as wide scale as the 2019 protests. However, the impact of Amini’s killing on a global scale, particularly among the Iranian diaspora in the West, is undoubtedly bigger and fiercer than the Bloody Aban protests.

Friction pours out of Iran

For one, Amini’s killing has seemingly exacerbated the polarisation between pro- and anti-regime Iranians, with the conflict between these two groups becoming even more visible among the diaspora in the West.

On September 25, 2022, anti-regime protesters turned violent and tried to attack the Iranian embassy in London. The riot police eventually dispersed the protesters and cleared the area. The dispersed mob then marched from the embassy to the location of the annual Arbaeen procession (an approximately 2km distance) and clashed with the procession’s attendees.

More tragically, the same mob later attacked the Islamic Centre of England, a Shi’a religious centre known for its close affiliation with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Similar incidents were also reported in other European countries such as Germany, where at least three people were injured in a clash during a vigil.

While one understands that the aggression on display at some of these protests is rooted in decades of political suffocation and subjugation, there should be no defence for thuggery and violence against ordinary people such as clashing with attendees at an Arbaeen procession that is attended by Shia Muslims from various nationalities, many of whom may have no political association with Iran.

The foreign conspiracy narrative

On the other hand, a group within the pro-regime supporters in the diaspora also echoes the regime’s narrative regarding the protests as being planned by “America and the Zionist regime”.

The Iranian interior minister has yet again alleged that some of the rioters were funded by foreign states.

To be fair, Iran’s paranoia about foreign-backed movements does have historic roots, much of it courtesy of the US. The CIA has admitted its role in the 1953 coup against the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddeq. Similarly, the Carter administration reportedly influenced and helped Ayatollah Khomeini return to Iran.

Thus, US involvement or obsession with Iran’s internal politics has always been a concern and the regime’s ontological insecurity vis-à-vis the West is used as a pretext to counter anti-regime or civic rights movements in the country.

This fear of foreign involvement in Iran’s politics is also at play in the ongoing protests. Several pro-regime observers have criticised some of the protesters’ actions, claiming that they were being encouraged by the West.

For example, videos circulating on social media show unidentified people assaulting Shia clerics and knocking off their turbans in the streets in what has become a new form of protest against the regime. Reacting to the footage, one cleric termed it a ‘conspiracy of the devils’. Similarly, the women-led protests were seen as a Western conspiracy and its involvement behind them.

However, when one reads the writings of Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the country’s first supreme leader, and situates them in the context of the ongoing protests against the regime, one may connect and trace back — the act of stripping off turbans and women’s participation against the regime in response to the state’s enforcement — in the founding leader’s writings.

The purpose of writing this piece is not to create a whataboutery here; it is merely an attempt to situate the protesters’ action in the Iranian political tradition and highlight the duality in response to the protests from the pro-regime observers.

‘Take off their turbans!’

In Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini (1981), translated and annotated by Hamid Algar, the author quotes Khomeini as writing that he was disappointed with those clerics who were quiet and stayed indifferent during the Shah’s rule, terming them ‘pseudo-saints’.

“Our youths must strip them of their turbans. The turbans of these akhunds [Islamic scholars], who cause corruption in Muslim society while claiming to be fuqaha and ’ulama, must be removed,” Khomeini wrote, according to Algar.

“I do not know if our young people in Iran have died; where are they? Why do they not strip these people of their turbans? I am not saying they should be killed; they do not deserve to be killed. But take off their turbans! Our people in Iran, particularly the zealous youths, have a duty not to permit these akhunds, these reciters of “Greater be his glory!” to appear in society and move among the people wearing turbans. They do not need to be beaten much; just take off their turbans, and do not permit them to appear in public wearing turbans. The turban is a noble garment; not everyone is fit to wear it.”

In his writings, Khomeini was particularly targeting those clerics who had supported the regime and referred to them as “evil ’ulema”.

“Any faqih [an Islamic jurist] who joins the state apparatus of the oppressers and becomes a hanger-on of the court is not a trustee and cannot exercise God’s trust. God knows what misfortunes Islam has suffered from its inception down to the present at the hands of these evil ulema,” he wrote.

The act of knocking off a cleric’s turban is considered disrespectful in the Islamic tradition. Ayatollah Khomeini didn’t want to kill the clerics. He wanted to give them a message that people were fed up with the regime and their support for the Shah’s oppressive rule.

Ulema in post-revolution Iran have become a symbol of the state. Ayatollah Khomeini’s writings, particularly on the vilayat al-faqih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist), elevated the ulema’s status, particularly their political standing. “I do not defend the religious scholars because I am a member of that class myself, but because I am convinced that it is they who can save the nation, and it is they whom the people are demanding,” he said.

Therefore, anger against ulema is not because the protesters are ‘anti-Islam’; they are now fed up with that system which, unfortunately, the ulema in Iran are part of and are in fact benefiting from.

I agree that the act itself is disrespectful and condemnable. However, the question is: if knocking off the turbans of ulema is a disrespectful gesture within the (Islamic) cultural context, then how should Ayatollah Khomeini’s call to youth be translated? If it’s condemnable today, was it equally condemnable back then in the 1970s? And is it only the ulema’s prerogative to call other ulema evil?

One may argue that Ayatollah Khomeini changed some of his political positions after the revolution, therefore, this act should be seen in a similar trajectory. I am also aware that some attempted to differentiate between Khomeini’s call and the protesters’ actions, for example, by seeing it through the Manichean lens as a fight between light (Ayatollah Khomeini) and darkness (the Shah dynasty).

Therefore, Ayatollah Khomeini’s call, as the argument goes, was the righteous one. Or some may say that his statements were given in different political contexts. These are different debates and require a separate write-up. Nevertheless, the assertion that the knocking off of turbans and pitting Iranian people against the ulema is a Western plot ignores the country’s political methods of resistance employed by the very founder of the regime.

‘The women of Iran have risen’

One of the major points of contention between the anti- and pro-regime protesters is that the latter view the protests as a challenge to women’s modesty and hijab, and that the Western groups — the media and feminists — are exploiting the situation. Meanwhile, the the former claim that women are challenging the imposition of rules, particularly on the hijab.

However, what remains unsaid is that women’s mobilisation in Iran is not an anomaly in the country’s politics. Women, on both spectrums of politics, have confronted the regime throughout history.

Ayatollah Khomeini himself not only encouraged, but also acknowledged the resistance shown by the women against the Shah regime. He wrote:

“The women of Iran have risen up against the Shah themselves and given a punch in the mouth to him with the cry, ‘We don’t want to be forced into immorality! We want to be free!’ His [Shah] answer is, ’But you are free! The only thing is that you cannot go to school wearing a chador or headcovering!”

The text above shows Ayatollah Khomeini’s commitment against the imposition of ‘immorality’ by the regime.

What I find interesting and see a correlation in is that women challenged the imposition in both epochs. One opposed the enforcement of the idea of ‘immorality’ and the other challenged the imposition of hyper-morality.

No matter what the state calls these protestors, at the end of the day, they are Iranian women who have a history of political mobilisation and challenging the regime.

There is, therefore, a need to see the political expression(s) against the regime within the Iranian political context and tradition instead of brushing it off as ‘foreign encouraged’ practices. Any attempt to dismiss them on account of the latter only takes away the agency of the protesters risking their lives against a state that has felt no qualms about using force against its own citizens.

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