Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | With Iran protests intensifying, why is India opting to s...

Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | With Iran protests intensifying, why is India opting to stay quiet?

In this episode of Worldview, we look at how the world has reacted to the anti-hijab protests in Iran, and why India has made no comments

Two months after the death of Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, protests against the regime continue, and grow in other parts of the world- are the anti-Hijab protests at a tipping point, or will they peter out as others have?

First- lets just take a look at what happened:

– In July this year, the government led by Ebrahim Raisi announced it would mark the National Day of Hijab, or the head covering, and Chastity with special programmes like this one, and a crackdown by the guidance police on women not covering their head as per Iranian law

– Several women’s rights groups both inside Iran and the large diaspora outside, announced they would hold protests where they would remove their headscarves. Many filmed videos of women without the hijab as part of a campaign called #MyStealthyFreedom started by journalist and activist in exile Masih Alinejad.

– On July 23rd, Iran’s Headquarters For Enjoining Right And Forbidding Evil announced that posting such videos, or sending them to Alinejad would attract a 10 year prison term. Even so, the protests grew, and more videos flooded the internet- with the slogan- Women, Life, Freedom- Zan Zendagi Azadi

– On September 13, the guidance patrol arrested a 22 year old women Mahsa Amini in Tehran, who was travelling with her brother, claiming she had not worn the hijab appropriately, and said she would be made to watch a re-education video. Mahsa never returned- police said she died of a heart attack in the station, but her family denied that, instead, saying she had been beaten to death. Protests, particularly those marking Mahsa’s funeral grew larger- and continue to be seen. While the regime denies anyone has been killed, activist monitors have said that more than 300 people have been killed in the protests over the past few months.

– In the last few weeks, many prominent Iranians have joined cause with the protests- with sportsmen like this Indian Super league Iranian football star who wore a t-shirt, the Iranian water polo team in Dubai refused to sing the national anthem before their match, rockclimber elnaz rakabi who completed a championship without her hijab in south korea returned home to big protests, and famousfilm actor Taraneh Alidoosti became the latest to release a photograph without the hijab.

This is not the first time since the 1979 revolution, that protesters demanding more freedoms

– In 2009 there was the Green Movement, borne out of an election which many reformist opposition supporters said had been rigged in favour of hardline conservative Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

– In 2011-2012, the ‘day of rage’ protests against the Islamic Regime were revived as a part of the Arab Spring protests

– In 2017, after a sudden increase in food prices, another round of protests rocked the country on economic issues

– In 2019, it was fuel prices that set off another series of protests, known as Bloody November because of the tough crackdown by the regime in which hundreds were believed to have been killed

In 2022, protests against the compulsory hijab are significant, because they come at a particular time in Geopolitics

– Ties between Iran and the western countries have been spiralling over nuclear issues, after Iran refused to follow IAEA recommendations, claiming it was the US that had broken the JCPOA nuclear agreements- those negotiations are ongoing

– US claims that Iran has supplied drones to Russia to support the war in Ukraine have added to tensions. Iran denies the claim, but in many capitals, pro Ukraine protestors and Iranian anti-hijab protests have found common cause

– The protests in Iran come as its arch rival Saudi Arabia, another repressive regime when it comes to women’s covering, has begun to liberalise and loosen the rules around purdah. Iran now blame Saudi owned media for fomenting the violence and protests in Iran- with a minister warning that Tehran’s “strategic patience could run out”. Iran and KSA have for years run a proxy Shia-Sunni war across west asia

– This month the Human Rights Council is in session, with many countries like US and EU imposing sanctions on Iranian officials over the protests, and Germany demanding a special session on Iran, which could lead to another international showdown

India’s response has been to give no response to what it calls “developments inside Iran”- and this year New Delhi has welcomed Iranian FM Amir Abdollahian, while PM Modi met Iranian President Raisi in Samarkand in September

What explains the government’s policy?

1. India and Iran have traditional ties, and each government including the Modi government has improved on them- in trade, transport, transit, energy and strategic issues- India’s ties with Iran are part of its commitment to non-alignment, and balance India’s strong relations with Iran’s enemies US, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

2. At present India’s most important project in Iran is connectivity- through India-developed Chabahar port, as well as over the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) to Russia. Iran is an important partner when it comes to India’s desire to circumvent Pakistan, to connect to Afghanistan and Central Asia

3. At a time the Modi government is facing international criticism over the treatment of minorities in India, including at the Human Rights Council this week, New Delhi would not like to open flanks with Iran, which doesnt criticise India on the international stage. The government has been particularly sensitive over criticism for the hijab ban in colleges in certain states like Karnataka, and therefore is particularly wary of saying anything about the mandatory hijab in Iran.

4. With the price of oil rising, and US and EU placing more restrictions on Russia, India has been exploring the possibility of reviving oil imports from Iran. Iranian oil is sweeter, cheaper, and was one of India’s major suppliers, until the Trump administration threatened sanctions against India for buying, and the government decided to end Iranian oil imports. While India has refused to stop oil from Russia, which is as of this month India’s biggest supplier with a 21 fold increase in imports, given the nature of the conflict, India will need a backup plan for energy.

At the end of the day, for India, the protests in Iran will be seen as an internal matter for Iran, and although many women’s groups have expressed solidarity with Iranian women, it is unlikely that the government will say much, while bilateral ties remain strong. For the west, that has a penchant for advocating regime change in countries where it doesn’t have good relations, the diplomatic signalling and support for the protests will continue, although given Iran’s nuclear and military resources and its ability to resist sanctions, will not turn to external intervention. Eventually, any change will have to come from within Iran.

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