Looking at the mass protests against gender oppression that have broken out across Iran in recent weeks should help us appreciate the life we have in a country with a much luckier trajectory.
The young Iranian woman Mahsa Amini’s tragic death in police custody will be iconised for some time to come.
The street protests that erupted in the aftermath are being taken by some as proof of Iran’s appetite for social reform.
Then again, many in the West also believed the Arab Spring signalled the coming of “freedom”. That was more than a decade ago.
Almost all of the fallen Arab regimes were replaced by even worse ones.
This column presents a more realistic assessment.
Reform – as we imagine it – is unlikely in Iran.
This is because the radical clerics who run the place have the support of most Iranians inside Iran who bother turning up to vote.
Iran held a presidential election in June of last year.
There was a credible reformist alternative in Abdolnaser Hemmati from the Hizb-e-Kargozaran-e-Sazandegi-e-Iran party.
This is a party that supports reform and a free market economy.
Yet Mr Hemmati attracted less than 10 per cent of the primary vote.
The conservative regime headed by current President Ebrahim Raisi attracted a resounding 72 per cent majority.
In 2020, 285 of the Iranian parliament’s 290 seats went to the polls over two rounds of legislative elections.
The remaining five seats are reserved for community representatives from Jewish, Zoroastrian, Armenian, Assyrian and Chaldean Christian minorities.
The reformist coalition won just 20 seats.
Again, the conservative coalition won a resounding 221 seats.
It’s these consistent election results — not the street protests — that reflect the will of most Iranians.
Protests look big on camera but their participants represent a negligible percentage of the population.
At the ballot box, conservatives keep winning because they campaign on three priorities that resonate with voters.
One, to keep Iran’s oil and gas industry safe from foreign hands.
Two, to remain aligned to global allies (eg Russia and China) that oppose economic sanctions on Iran and would trade with it.
Three, to preserve the country’s unique sectarian identity and traditions as the world’s only Shi’a state.
For Iranians inside Iran, prioritising these over reform is a no brainer.
For Iranians living overseas, there is a tendency to romanticise over photos of women in Iran wearing bras and bikinis in public during the 1960s as proof of bygone freedoms.
The question is, how did Iran go from that version to one where 98 per cent of its public voted yes to becoming an “Islamic Republic” in the March 1979 referendum?
The answer starts in 1908.
That year, crude oil was discovered in the Iranian province of Khuzestan.
The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) – now British Petroleum (BP) – initially got away with exercising a quasi-monopoly over Iran’s lucrative oil fields for decades.
This period saw growing concerns about AIOC’s transparency and accountability.
There was a general feeling that Iran’s oil revenue should benefit locals ahead of foreign investors.
Fast forward 45 years.
Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh won a landslide election with the democratic mandate to address the fate of Iran’s oil.
He believed the money from Iranian oil sales should be used to fund hospitals, universities and schools for the Iranian people.
Mosaddegh called for an audit of AIOC’s records to see if the foreign company had been paying Iran its contracted share of royalties.
AIOC refused to cooperate.
Iran’s parliament responded by voting to nationalise the Iranian oil industry.
AIOC lobbied the American and British governments to step in.
In turn, Mosaddegh was ousted by America’s CIA and Britain’s MI6 in a jointly sponsored coup d’état in 1953 codenamed Operation Ajax.
The Pahlavi dynasty had ruled Iran as constitutional monarchs since 1925.
US President Dwight Eisenhower and UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided to prop up King Mohammad Reza Pahlavi also known as “the Shah” as an absolute monarch.
They feared that if another democratically elected Prime Minister was to have greater authority than the monarch, this could lead to a repeat of 1953.
The 1960s saw American society go through its own social reform that challenged traditional norms.
Attitudes became more relaxed towards recreational drugs, late night parties, strip clubs, brothels, nude beaches and pornography.
Through exposure to American film and television, it didn’t take long for the new norms to rub off on other traditional societies – including Iran.
Those romanticised photos featuring bras and bikinis in Iran represent this period.
By the 1970s, regular Iranians felt their oil and traditions had been besieged by foreign hands.
It is this backdrop that created the requisite conditions for the rise of the exiled conservative cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the saviour.
Khomeini argued that the Shah had let a proudly traditional Iran turn into a weak client-state subservient to American and British interests.
He argued that Iran should control its own oil and re-think its global alliances.
He promised to purge drugs, strip clubs, brothels, nudity and pornography from Iranian society.
The Shah responded to the shifting tide with brutal crackdowns and mass arrests through his secret police known as Sazeman-e-Etelaat va Amniyat-e-Keshvar (SAVAK).
This ultimately worked against the Shah and swung public opinion even more heavily in favour of a Khomeini-led revolution.
In March 1979, in a nation-wide referendum asking if Iranians supported Iran becoming an “Islamic Republic”, a resounding 98 per cent voted yes.
Iran had been rebooted back to its pre-1908 default settings.
Except, with a stronger firewall this time.
Oil was kept local. Traditions restored. New global alliances formed.
The West responded by imposing economic sanctions which hit working class Iranians – not the wealthy conservative clerics who run the place.
In fact, the clerics routinely point to sanctions as proof of how “heartless” the West is for letting Iran’s civilian population choke, just because Iran won’t let America and Britain control its oil anymore.
Mahsa Amini’s death is tragic. It just won’t be the catalyst for reform.
The protests will come to a halt.
As long as Iranian voters remain convinced that Iran is vulnerable to repeats of AIOC and Operation Ajax, they’ll keep electing conservatives over reformists.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s successors have consistently dominated Iranian politics since 1979 because public opinion is on their side.
And now – we know why.
Looking at Iran’s misfortunes helps us appreciate even more the life we have in Australia – a country with a much luckier trajectory.