What will 2023 bring for Iran and its protest movement?
Iran is heading into 2023 amid continuing protests and fraught relations with the West as it tries to entrench its regional influence and manage an ailing economy.
The number of street demonstrations in Iran has decreased in recent weeks – but they have not gone away, defying some of the early predictions that they would fade, and yet also failing to shake the foundations of the Islamic republic.
If anything, the protest movement has proven to be resilient. It has now been more than 100 days since the protests erupted across Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by morality police in September for alleged non-compliance with a mandatory dress code for women.
A high death toll – foreign-based human rights organisations say more than 500 people have been killed during the unrest – has not stopped the ebb and flow of the protest movement. Neither has a tough government crackdown, and the execution of at least two people in cases related to the protests, with the potential for more to come.
So what can be expected for 2023?
Iran is not on the verge of regime change, but the protests have fundamentally changed the relationship between the state and the population, according to Sina Azodi, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council think-tank.
“I believe the protests will continue in one way or another because the Iranian government has failed to address the root cause of the protests,” he told Al Jazeera. “I don’t think that the situation is sustainable because if the government doesn’t address the population’s grievances every once in a while, it has to show the same level of brutality to quell the protests. It is unclear at this point whether the state has any interest in addressing the grievances of the people.”
The protests have also significantly deteriorated relations between Tehran and the West, as the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have imposed human rights sanctions in response to what they have called a “brutal suppression” of protesters.
Two major Western-led efforts to punish Tehran at the United Nations also garnered majority votes, leading to the establishment of a fact-finding mission on the response to the protests and Iran’s expulsion from the Commission on the Status of Women.
In response, Iran has said that those countries were not qualified to condemn human rights abuses in Iran due to their own history of violations, and has imposed its own sanctions on American and European officials and entities.
The Iranian foreign ministry has also strictly refused any cooperation with the fact-finding mission as it views it as a “political tool” and maintains Tehran is a champion of human rights.
JCPOA and Russia
Tehran-based political analyst Diako Hosseini believes the unrest in Iran has changed perceptions in the West more than it has in Tehran.
Hosseini told Al Jazeera that groups opposed to the restoration of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers are now increasingly pushing the administration of US President Joe Biden to abandon the talks – which have been in limbo since September.
“It is the US government that needs to decide whether it wants to yield to this political pressure and leave an Iran with nuclear prospects to its own devices while accepting the risks, or do away with its errors in calculation about the protests in Iran and their future, and return to an agreement that can restore strategic stability to bilateral relations and the region,” he said.
The US has publicly maintained that negotiations to return to the accord it unilaterally abandoned in 2018 – which would lift harsh sanctions on Iran if implemented, while scaling back Tehran’s nuclear programme – are not a priority as the protests persist in Iran.
The top foreign policy representatives of Iran and the EU met in Jordan last week and both signalled that they favoured returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the deal is formally known.
But no immediate breakthrough is expected, and Iran has said it will not grant new concessions due to the unrest at home or pressure from abroad.
Analyst Hosseini also said that he does not believe Tehran will significantly alter its foreign policy goals and tactics as a result of foreign pressure, but pointed out that accusations of arming Russia with drones for the war in Ukraine may illicit some change.
“Although Russia has warm ties with Iran, Tehran prefers not to be a direct part of the war for the simple reason that it has no vital interests in it,” Hosseini said. “Iran will probably adopt a more cautious approach in supporting Russia, with the hope of not bearing unnecessary costs.”
While maintaining support for allies in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, Tehran is keeping lines of communication open with Saudi Arabia, and foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian recently said that Iran was open to holding direct dialogue with Egypt as well.
Economy and internet restrictions
Iranian authorities face considerable challenges at home in terms of the economy, as the unrest and a number of strikes tied to the protests have only piled on the pressure that US sanctions and local mismanagement had borne.
Iranians’ purchasing power continues to dwindle by the day with inflation sitting at more than 40 percent, and the country’s national currency, the rial, hitting new lows of approximately 41,000 to the US dollar during the last few days of December.
Unprecedented restrictions on internet connectivity have also inflicted untold damages on the economy as well as people’s ability to get online.
Millions of people regularly employ virtual private networks (VPNs) in Iran to circumvent online filtering, but a massive throttling of VPNs has rendered many of them unusable, leaving many disconnected from major global platforms that have been blocked.
Authorities have promised the platforms will be unblocked after “security” is restored, but internet security and digital rights researcher Amir Rashidi finds this unlikely, citing Telegram as an example of a major app favoured by tens of millions of Iranians that was blocked in 2018 following a previous round of public protests.
“In the past weeks we observed intentional throttling on international bandwidth which affected local businesses. I think Iran is moving toward implementing legal VPN and layer blocking,” Rashidi told Al Jazeera.
But Rashidi said locally developed services such as messaging apps remain his biggest concern as they could be used as tools of surveillance.
“The Iranian government is indirectly forcing users to move to those apps to receive banking services and all e-Gov services. Anyone who is concerned about the future of internet freedom in Iran should be concerned about moving users to use local tools. That is the last line of defence against national internet.”