The ongoing protests in Iran have been cited as the biggest threat the Islamic Republic has faced since it seized power in 1979. Ignited over the regime’s mandatory veiling of women and the recent death of Mahsa Amini while in morality police custody, the uprising is rooted in the Iranian people’s long struggle for freedom, says Pouya Alimagham, a historian of the modern Middle East.
In his research, Alimagham, an expert on Iran, Iraq, and the Levant, explores such themes as revolutionary and guerrilla movements, imperialism, “Political Islam,” and post-Islamism. His book, “Contesting the Iranian Revolution: The Green Uprisings” (Cambridge University Press, 2020), explores the political movement that contested the 2009 presidential election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and how it challenged the regime’s legitimacy to its very core.
Alimagham discusses the historical context behind the current movement, compares it with other uprisings in Iran, and explains what this could mean for the country’s future. He also organized and moderated the MIT Starr Forum: Iran and the Struggle for ‘Normalcy’: Woman, Life, Freedom on January 26, 2023.
Q: Is the current protest movement the biggest threat the Iran regime has faced since seizing power in 1979?
A: I have read the current protest movement described as the biggest challenge since the clergy seized power in 1979 after the Iranian Revolution, as well as the biggest challenge since the Green Movement protests in 2009, when an uprising erupted after widespread allegations of election fraud in which the state declared its preferred candidate and incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as the “winner.”
In sheer numbers, the Green Movement was far bigger. On just one day, June 15, 2009, 3 million people gathered in Tehran to protest the state—this sum does not include protests across the country on the same day. We have yet to see protests of that magnitude in the uprising today. What is markedly different between 2009 and now is the continuity of the protests today. The uprising in 2009 transpired every day for a full week until it was driven underground, only to resurface on specific political holidays to renew the struggle. Iran has holidays programmed into its political calendar in which the state encourages people, typically its supporters, to come out and walk in step with the government to mark specific occasions. One such example is the National Day Against Global Arrogance, which marks the seizure of the US embassy in Iran on November 4, 1979. When the Green Movement was temporarily suppressed and was unable to organize protests on a daily basis, it would use the cover of such political holidays to emerge and reignite the protest movement. It carried on in such a manner for months, until February 11, 2010—one continuous week-long uprising morphed into several spread out on Iran’s calendar.
Today’s uprising, while smaller at the moment, has been a continuous, daily movement—despite the government’s best attempts to violently put it down. As of now, the death toll is about four times higher than the casualty rate of the Green Movement, which was larger and longer but more sporadic.
Q: What sets this protest apart from other protests in Iran including the Green Movement, which is the topic of your book?
A: There are important similarities and differences. For one, both started over an issue and immediately morphed into something much bigger. In 2009, the protests were initially about the election results, but quickly began to target the entire state that ratified the election results—the initial slogan of “Where is my vote?” in June 2009 gave way to “This month is the month of blood, Sayyid Ali [Khamenei] will be toppled” by December of the same year.
Today’s protests started over the mandatory veiling of women and the death of Mahsa Amini in morality police custody, and likewise became about much more, such as targeting the entire state for enforcing such draconian policies.
Both movements had women martyr figures. The Green Movement had Neda Agha Soltan, whose death was captured on camera on June 20, 2009, and became one of the most televised deaths in history, and today’s uprising has Mahsa Amini. A key difference is that while gender and political issues were also very important to 2009, gender issues have risen to be on par with political issues, and women and girls are at the very forefront of the uprising. That is, the slogan for the protests today is tellingly, “Woman, Life, Freedom.”
I think there is also an important continuity between the two moments. Analysts often refer to the Green Movement as a “failure” for failing to abrogate Ahmadinejad’s election “win” or failing to overthrow the state that ratified the election results, but there were other important successes. One such success is that the Green Movement both shattered the political taboo of challenging the cornerstone of the Islamic Republic state, the Rule of the Jurisprudent, and broke up the state’s monopoly over its Islamic and revolutionary symbols of legitimation. In that vein, the Green Movement started by contesting the election results, then it contested the sources of the state’s legitimacy. In doing so, it undermined the state’s ideological foundations. The movement ended with a total negation of the state. Every protest movement since 2009 has picked up where the Green Movement was put down—targeting the state as a whole. In that vein, one of the slogans of today’s uprising is a modification of a Green Movement rally cry, “This year is the year of blood, Sayyid Ali [Khamenei] will be toppled.”
It is worth mentioning that however unlikely it is for the government to compromise, it may very well be too late even if it does. Iranians have been reeling under the heavy boot of the government’s authoritarianism for too long and may not accept such compromise, even if it was forthcoming.
Q: How is the regime responding, and what does this tell us about the future of the regime?
A: The regime has doubled down with repression, as it did when activists challenged it in 2009, 2017-2018, and today. It sees compromise as showing weakness. It has such a perception because of the history of the Iranian Revolution, through which this government was born. In the revolution, the Shah dithered between compromise and heavy-handedness, often employing both approaches at once. For instance, the Shah amnestied political prisoners, which gave momentum to the revolution as activists interpreted the amnesty as proof that they could net political results if they continued on their trajectory. At the same time, the Shah implemented a military government and martial law, which prompted further revolutionary ire and a new target for mobilization.
The Iranian state today, on the other hand, knows this history and has never compromised in the face of protesters. In 2009, it affirmed the election results and cracked down on demonstrations. In November 2019, when it removed a gasoline subsidy that sparked protests, it did not backtrack and killed scores. Today, it likewise has sought a security solution to protesters instead of a political one. That is not to say that compromise is impossible, it just means that given this history, it is not likely. It is worth mentioning that however unlikely it is for the government to compromise, it may very well be too late even if it does. Iranians have been reeling under the heavy boot of the government’s authoritarianism for too long and may not accept such compromise, even if it was forthcoming.
Q: Finally, can you briefly provide a historical context for today’s protests in Iran?
A: Today’s struggle is part of a long genealogy of revolutions in which generations of Iranians have sought a more representative, democratic, accountable, equitable, just, and humane government.
Previous moments in Iranian history have been aborted, such as when Imperial Britain and Tzarist Russia intervened during Iran’s Constitutional Revolution more than a hundred years ago, or when the CIA-MI-6 overthrew the democratic-elected government of Dr Mohammad Mossadeq, Iran’s first true experiment with democracy, in 1953.
The Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 was about freedom and independence. It achieved the latter, but faltered miserably when it came to the former. Today’s uprising is rooted in this past as it seeks to rectify its shortcomings; Iranians continue to struggle for freedom.
Brazilian journalist Gabriela Sá Pessoa joined CIS as its 2023 Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow. The seven-month fellowship includes a research position at CIS, and reporting assignments at The Boston Globe and The New York Times.
Passionate about the intersection of human rights and climate change, Sá Pessoa plans to explore the Amazonian economy and how the policies forged by the government of Brazil affect the lives of Indigenous communities who are attempting to survive amidst environment crimes and deforestation.
"Being selected as an Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow is one of my life’s greatest honors. At this moment of history, when we are routinely watching setbacks in women’s rights, this experience renews my faith and courage to keep working as a journalist to explore the issues that matter the most to the world."
“Women journalists’ courage and compassion have always inspired me,” said Sá Pessoa. “Being selected as an Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow is one of my life’s greatest honors. At this moment of history, when we are routinely watching setbacks in women’s rights, this experience renews my faith and courage to keep working as a journalist to explore the issues that matter the most to the world.”
Sá Pessoa took leave from her news researcher position at The Washington Post, where she produces reporting on the Amazon, human rights violations and environmental crimes. Prior to The Post, Sá Pessoa worked for two media outlets in Brazil: Folha de S.Paulo, covering local and national politics, and UOL, where she was assigned to COVID-19 coverage and the investigative desk. At UOL, she was part of the reporting team honored for its coverage of President Bolsonaro’s family. In 2015, Sá Pessoa won the Roche Prize for Health Journalism in Latin America from the Gabriel García Márquez Foundation for a New Ibero American Journalism for her investigation of legal abortion. In 2019, Sá Pessoa received a scholarship to Columbia University, granted by Ling Institute to promising Brazilian journalists.
The Elizabeth Neuffer Fellowship is awarded annually by The International Women’s Media Foundation and provides its recipient with educational, training and coverage opportunities related to their reporting on global injustice. Sá Pessoa was selected from a pool of more than 130 applicants from 51 countries.
“The Center is delighted to welcome Gabi to our research community. Her reportage on human rights and environmental justice demonstrates a commitment to addressing social inequalities, very much in the spirit of Elizabeth Neuffer. My hope is that she will find her time at MIT both refreshing and rewarding,” said Richard Samuels, director of the CIS and Ford International Professor of Political Science.
Neuffer, whom Samuels knew personally, died in an automobile accident in 2003 while on assignment in Iraq as a reporter for The Boston Globe. In her honor, the Center helped the IWMF establish the Elizabeth Neuffer Fellowship to advance women journalists working in the field of human rights and justice.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is having a global impact on many areas of the world today, affecting the balance of power among states and creating a contest between democratic and authoritarian alliances. It is also having a major impact on the global energy supply. European states have scrambled to reorient their consumption away from Russian natural gas, while Russia has used its energy assets as political leverage while finding new economic partners.
In short, there is also a battle over energy surrounding the invasion, as a panel of experts analyzed at a public MIT event on Friday. The online discussion, “Energy As a Weapon of War,” was the latest Starr Forum, MIT’s prominent event series on foreign policy and international relations.
The forum’s two featured speakers both discussed energy issues as well as the larger course of the war. Margarita Balmaceda, a professor of diplomacy and international relations at Seton Hall University and an associate of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, listed three key aspects of the energy issue implicated in the invasion.
In the first place, she noted, European reliance on Russian natural gas is a long-term issue that also existed with the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, but is only now being managed differently.
“If we look at the case of Germany … you can see that the temptation of this reliance in particular on Russian natural gas was not simply something that you could ascribe to one or two corrupt politicians,” said Balmaceda, author of the book “Russian Energy Chains: The Remaking of Technopolitics from Siberia to Ukraine to the European Union.” Instead, she said, “it’s something that went to all levels of economic life,” including industrial consumers of natural gas, regional governments, and other stakeholders.
Secondly, Balmaceda observed, many core manufacturing industries, especially in Germany, have been particularly dependent on Russian energy, making the need for alternatives something that has direct effects in key production sectors.
“In my view, the real story, and the story we have to pay much more attention to, has to do with … industrial users of natural gas,” Balmaceda said. In fact, she noted, gas consumption is a major part of the production cycle in Europe’s chemical, cement, steel, and paper industries, supporting about 8 million jobs.
Finally, Balmaceda observed, European boycotts of Russian energy may have temporarily stymied Russia, but the regime has subsequently found new markets in China, India, and elsewhere.
“It’s very important to understand that this story does not end in the European Union and North America, and if we don’t deal with the real energy concerns of global South countries, we will not get very far in trying to reduce Russia’s energy power moving forward,” she said.
While the alliance supporting Ukraine has been valuable, Steinmuller said, she believes the US and Europe need to give Ukraine even more backing in terms of weaponry in particular.
Constanze Stelzenmuller, director and Fritz Stern Chair of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, offered some political context as well as her own perspective on paths forward in the war.
While policymakers in Europe frequently praise the response of the Biden administration in the US, in support of Ukraine, “It’s also remarkable how steadfast the European response has been,” Stelzenmuller said. She added, “It’s something I was very worried about.” She also praised the German government for “decoupling German dependence from Russian gas and oil imports in ways I honestly would not have thought possible.”
While the alliance supporting Ukraine has been valuable, Stelzenmuller said, she believes the US and Europe need to give Ukraine even more backing in terms of weaponry in particular. “It is unclear, at this point still, whether Ukraine will have the means to retain full control over its territory.”
Meanwhile, Russia’s relationship with China, she added, is profoundly consequential for the long-term trajectory of the war. So far, China has been nominally pledging broad support of Russia while publicly de-escalating the nuclear rhetoric arising from the war. However, Stelzenmuller added, if China decides to “actively support” Russia militarily, “that would be, I think, the worst game-changer of all, and one that … would be the single greatest challenge that I can envision to our ability to help Ukraine win, and to maintain our own security in Europe.”
The Starr Forum is organized by MIT’s Center for International Studies (CIS). Friday’s event was co-sponsored by MIT’s Security Studies Program and the MIT-Eurasia program, in addition to CIS.
The event’s moderators were Elizabeth Wood, a professor of history at MIT, author of the 2016 book “Roots of Russia’s War in Ukraine,” and co-director of the MISTI MIT-Eurasia Program; and Carol Saivetz, a senior advisor in MIT’s Security Studies Program and expert on Soviet and Russian foreign policy. Wood and Saivetz have helped host a series of Starr Forum events over the last year scrutinizing several aspects of Russia’s invasion and Ukraine’s defense.
Understanding the role of energy in the war “is obviously of critical importance today,” Wood said in her opening remarks. That includes, she noted, “How energy is being used by Russia as a tool of aggression, how Ukraine is suffering from attacks upon its critical infrastructure, and how the alliance of European [states] and the US is responding.”
In response to audience questions, the scholars outlined multiple scenarios in which the war could end, either on more favorable terms for Ukraine or in ways that strengthen Russia. One audience member also queried about the extent to which the current war could also be thought of as a “carbon war, or climate war,” in which a move toward clean energy also lessens global dependence on large gas and oil suppliers, such as Russia.
In response, Balmaceda noted that the ongoing infrastructure development in Ukraine might, in theory, leave it with no choice but to modernize its energy infrastructure (though its own orientation toward fossil fuels represents just a small portion of global demand). Steinmuller added that “Ukraine will need much more than just to reorient its energy [demand]. … It will have to change its role in the global economy,” given its own industrial reliance on coal and other fossil fuels.
Overall, Balmaceda added, “Regardless of whether Russia wins this conflict or loses, the rottenness within Russia is deep enough to be bad news for all of us for a long time.” For her part, Stelzenmuller underscored again how vital increased alliance support would be.
“We should show that we are willing and able to defend not just a country that has been attacked by a great power, but willing to defend ourselves,” Stelzenmuller said. Otherwise, she added, “If we didn’t do that, we would have set for all the world to see a precedent of giving in to blackmail, including nuclear blackmail, and allowing this to happen without us being willing to see the defense of Ukraine through to the end.”
With new support from the Office of the Associate Provost for International Activities, MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) and the MIT-Africa program are expanding internship opportunities for MIT students at universities and leading academic research centers in Africa. This past summer, MISTI supported 10 MIT student interns at African universities, significantly more than in any previous year.
“These internships are an opportunity to better merge the research ecosystem of MIT with academia-based research systems in Africa,” says Evan Lieberman, the Total Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa and faculty director for MISTI.
Research internships are one way that MIT can build mutually beneficial partnerships across Africa’s research ecosystem, to advance knowledge and spawn innovation in fields important to MIT and its African counterparts, including health care, biotechnology, urban planning, sustainable energy, and education.
For decades, MISTI has helped MIT students to learn and explore through international experiential learning opportunities and internships in industries like health care, education, agriculture, and energy. MISTI’s MIT-Africa Seed Fund supports collaborative research between MIT faculty and Africa-based researchers, and the new student research internship opportunities are part of a broader vision for deeper engagement between MIT and research institutions across the African continent.
While Africa is home to 12.5 percent of the world’s population, it generates less than 1 percent of scientific research output in the form of academic journal publications, according to the African Academy of Sciences. Research internships are one way that MIT can build mutually beneficial partnerships across Africa’s research ecosystem, to advance knowledge and spawn innovation in fields important to MIT and its African counterparts, including health care, biotechnology, urban planning, sustainable energy, and education.
Ari Jacobovits, managing director of MIT-Africa, notes that the new internships provide additional funding to the lab hosting the MIT intern, enabling them to hire a counterpart student research intern from the local university. This support can make the internships more financially feasible for host institutions and helps to grow the research pipeline.
With the support of MIT, State University of Zanzibar (SUZA) lecturers Raya Ahmada and Abubakar Bakar were able to hire local students to work alongside MIT graduate students Mel Isidor and Rajan Hoyle. Together the students collaborated over a summer on a mapping project designed to plan and protect Zanzibar's coastal economy.
“It’s been really exciting to work with research peers in a setting where we can all learn alongside one another and develop this project together,” says Hoyle.
Using low-cost drone technology, the students and their local counterparts worked to create detailed maps of Zanzibar to support community planning around resilience projects designed to combat coastal flooding and deforestation and assess climate-related impacts to seaweed farming activities.
“I really appreciated learning about how engagement happens in this particular context and how community members understand local environmental challenges and conditions based on research and lived experience,” says Isidor. “This is beneficial for us whether we're working in an international context or in the United States.”
For biology major Shaida Nishat, her internship at the University of Cape Town allowed her to work in a vital sphere of public health and provided her with the chance to work with a diverse, international team headed by Associate Professor Salome Maswine, head of the global surgery division and a widely-renowned expert in global surgery, a multidisciplinary field in the sphere of global health focused on improved and equitable surgical outcomes.
“It broadened my perspective as to how an effort like global surgery ties so many nations together through a common goal that would benefit them all,” says Nishat, who plans to pursue a career in public health.
For computer science sophomore Antonio L. Ortiz Bigio, the MISTI research internship in Africa was an incomparable experience, culturally and professionally. Bigio interned at the Robotics Autonomous Intelligence and Learning Laboratory at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, led by Professor Benjamin Rosman, where he developed software to enable a robot to play chess. The experience has inspired Bigio to continue to pursue robotics and machine learning.
Participating faculty at the host institutions welcomed their MIT interns, and were impressed by their capabilities. Both Rosman and Maswime described their MIT interns as hard-working and valued team members, who had helped to advance their own work.
Building strong global partnerships, whether through faculty research, student internships, or other initiatives, takes time and cultivation, explains Jacobovits. Each successful collaboration helps to seed future exchanges and builds interest at MIT and peer institutions in creative partnerships. As MIT continues to deepen its connections to institutions and researchers across Africa, says Jacobovits, “students like Shaida, Rajan, Mel, and Antonio are really effective ambassadors in building those networks.”