“There is no telling what will happen in an authoritarian system once the dam breaks”

Symbolic picture for the article. The link opens the image in a large view.
Prof. Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt vom Lehrstuhl für Menschenrechte und Menschenrechtspolitik. (Bild: FAU/Harald Sippel)

Human rights professor and former UN Special Rapporteur Prof. Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt recommends cultural campaign instead of sanctions

The raid is usually on Thursdays: In Iran the morality police are very strict at checking that women are wearing the hijab correctly and impose punishments of varying severity on those who are not, sometimes even resorting to violence. The young Iranian woman Mahsa Amini died in jail on September 16 after being detained by the morality police. Since then, crowds of protesters – predominantly women – have taken to the streets. Prof. Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt, Chair of Human Rights and Human Rights Policy at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU), explains what makes the current situation so volatile and how the West should react.

Prof. Bielefeldt, you were not only the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief for a long time, you are also an expert on Iran, its history and its political development. Terrible images are currently reaching us from the country. What is happening in Iran, and how should we in the West see it?

First of all, some background information: As I am sure you are aware, the current protests were sparked by the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by police for failing to be dressed “correctly” and who died in custody, presumably due to abuse. The topic of the hijab – the rules governing what women are allowed to wear – is by no means new. Dress code was a central aspect for the Mullahs in the Iranian revolution of 1979. The face of the country was to change over night to make it clear that Iran had undergone a radical change, moving away from “Western decadence” to “Islamic virtues”. The dress code was imposed stringently from the outset. Many people within Iran have never accepted it, and sometimes flaunted their disagreement deliberately and ironically, almost playing games with the headscarf. Women wore headscarves because they had to, but they draped them so that they could barely be considered to be wearing one at all.

And it is not only the dress code. A lot of what the regime has imposed on people appears unbelievably contrived. I have experienced gender separation at first hand. Two separate lines at the entrance to a museum, one for men and one for women, but after paying to enter, everyone mingles again. The same applies when entering a plane: different lines, but no segregation inside the plane itself. This separation is basically orchestrated symbolically, but taken to absurd extremes in reality.

A further example involves the hypocritical sexual morals in the country. Iran is one of seven countries in the world where homosexuality can be punished by death. At the same time, the Mullahs allow for a type of de facto prostitution in the form of what is known as a temporary marriage: for a holiday, for one week, for two nights or forever. Temporary marriage is nothing other than prostitution hidden under the guise of laws governing religion. In a corrupt system this can be used as a money-making ruse.

What is special about the current case involving Mahsi Amini?

For women, this paternalism is particularly humiliating. Iran is one of only five countries in the world that have not ratified the international convention on women’s rights. Parliament wanted to accede to the convention, but the 12-strong Guardian Council vetoed it. In the same way as it can veto anything and everything, namely by merely referring to “Islamic principles”. And now the death of this young woman after being detained in police custody has obviously ignited a wildfire. It is not the first time. Massive protests are not uncommon in Iran. There have been several waves of protests in the past, most recently in 2019. The regime has responded time and time again with a brutal crackdown, sending in troops to quell the protests. According to eyewitness reports these interventions have even involved troops hitting out at protesters with iron chains. When frustration overflows, you can never be sure whether it will trigger an avalanche.

Is revolution a possibility?

I would hesitate to go so far. However, there is no telling what will happen in an authoritarian system once the dam breaks. That is why the regime is so desperate to smother protests from the outset, resorting to censoring, spying, indoctrination and intimidation. Organized opposition has its hands tied under these circumstances. Nevertheless, that is exactly what makes the whole situation so unpredictable and so volatile. The situation in a democracy is fundamentally different, there you can monitor emerging trends. You can follow the results of surveys, you can see protests on the streets, you can read about them in the media. In an autocratic system, it is impossible to monitor developments like this. In Iran we are faced with a brutal dictatorship and a thoroughly corrupt judicial system. There have been rumblings of discontent in society for a while now, but people have not had the means of organizing protests. That is why the outcome is entirely open.

With this hardliner system, is Iran rather isolated or would you say it is part of an anti-West phalanx?

The regime in which the hardliners set the tone would certainly like to see itself as part of a phalanx. However, that does not work on the level of either domestic politics or foreign policy. The system is certainly not generally accepted across the population as a whole. Iranian society and the Iranian regime are two quite different things. Large parts of Iranian society are characterized by a high level of education; illiteracy rates are close to zero. The Iranians see themselves as a people of thinkers and poets, they see themselves as belonging to a civilized world. They do not want to be indiscriminately classed as “barbarians”. I would say that Iran has the highest potential for democracy of all countries in the region, particularly in view of the well-educated classes in urban areas. It is an extremely open-minded and interested society, in which many people look to the West and Europe. This makes the repressive regime seem all the more absurd.

The phalanx is just as ineffective from a foreign policy perspective. The Shia theocracy is in conflict with a number of Sunni-leaning neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, who for example supported quite different movements in the Syrian war, while Iran remains on the side of the Assad regime until today. In view of the messy tangle of different traditions and political aspirations to power, there can be no question of a common front against the West.

Does this not mean that the global community would be able to exert an influence, for example using sanctions? Germany is one of the most important economic partners for Iran.

To be perfectly honest, I would actually recommend quite the opposite for Iran. Hard sanctions play predominantly into the hands of hardliners. In the context of Iran, I believe a cultural campaign would be far more effective. Dialog supporting the people living there, supporting society in the country. Sanctions would be more counterproductive.

But is dialog also possible at the level of the state?

Possibly not directly at the level of the state, but certainly via official channels. In the 1980s, for example, the Goethe Institute played an important role in Tehran, also as a meeting place for members of the opposition. Caution is of course of the essence here as well. When the entertainer Rudi Carrell broadcast a fictional scene in his “Tagesshow” showing bras being thrown at Ajatollah Khomeini, supporters of the Iranian regime were so irate that the Goethe Institute was closed down. That was a major setback.  Please don’t get me wrong: I am not against boycotts in general. However, I don’t believe that they are the right approach when it comes to Iran. We need to use our imagination to find effective ways of encouraging ties. Iranian society welcomes all options for becoming more open.

Is the West doing enough?

Definitely not.

What would you advise?

Universities in particular ought to do more to encourage dialog. We often have students from Iran on our Master’s degree program in Human Rights, and many of them stay in touch closely with their home country even when they are living in Germany. These people have the potential to act as ambassadors. There are a lot of different options. There is also a feminist movement within Iran. The daughter of former President Rafsanjani definitely sees herself as a woman rights activist. Universities should actively seek out collaborations involving extensive contact. There are definitely opportunities, people in Iran are keen to reach out.

Further information:

Prof. Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt

Chair of Human Rights and Human Rights Policy

Phone: +49 9131 85 23273