If the U.S. and Iran can avoid violent conflict in the weeks ahead, it will mean the voices of peace have become stronger than the voices for confrontation. In the U.S., such voices are obvious. They start with President Donald Trump’s political base. It wants a focus on domestic issues, not foreign wars.
But in Iran, where open debate and political freedom are highly restricted, where are the voices for peace?
One clue lies in a government decision this month to set up special courts to fast-track the trials of women who have publicly defied the Islamic dress code by not wearing a hijab. Starting nearly two years ago, countless women have taken off the veil in purposeful displays of defiance. Their message: Telling women what to wear on their heads is like telling them what to think in their heads. The crackdown on this latest type of protest hints at a regime more worried about its survival at home than its survival in a war with the U.S.
Since 2017, as Iran’s economy has nose-dived from drought, mismanagement, and U.S. sanctions, its people have agitated for a greater focus on internal reforms and less spending on Iran’s military proxies in Arab countries. Teacher strikes have risen. Workers and merchants have taken to the streets to protest economic hardship. An estimated 1 in 3 young Iranians is unemployed.
But it may be the Islamic Republic’s bans on social freedoms that are driving the most intense discontent, especially among young people who are tied to the world through the internet. In a recent anti-hijab protest at Tehran University, one popular video on Instagram showed demonstrators chanting “Students will die, but never accept humiliation.”
Iran needs peace with its people, not only with the U.S. Last month, Mr. Trump’s special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, told Congress, “Much of the energy that you see in Iran today is through the women’s movement and protesting the mandatory compulsory wearing of the hijab.”
Under Iran’s hybrid democracy, in which candidates are vetted by Islamic clerics, young people have become frustrated with the regime’s priorities. “For the first time in our society, a large percentage of the people have come to the conclusion that nothing will change whether they vote or not,” says activist Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister. “When the people realized that the ballot boxes were ineffective, they decided that the only way to speak to the ruling establishment was from the streets.”
Protests still can drive changes in Iran. In 2015, Iran agreed to suspend the country’s nuclear program, in large part to appease a restless population. He called his decision “heroic flexibility.” Now women are on the frontlines of protests. They may be the voices of peace that help prevent a war with the U.S.