What do attacks on seminaries indicate for Iran?

Amal Abdulaziz Al–Hazani
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On August 7, the re-imposed US economic sanctions on Iran came into effect. The move ended a three-month period given by the Trump administration to foreign companies to cut their business ties with Iran, which they developed after signing the nuclear deal in the summer of 2015. From the US point of view, the three month period was sufficient for foreign companies, especially European ones, to wind up their businesses and leave Iran.

Economy nosedives

At present, sanctions have been imposed on cars, coal, gold, metal and banking transactions, and they will be followed in November with sanctions on energy trade. The Europeans tried “to hold the stick from the middle”, soothe Iranian fear on one hand and forge an understanding with the Americans on another in order to protect their companies which sealed major deals inside Iran - just as they had in the 1990s when sanctions were imposed on Libya after the bombing of Pan Am Flight and on Iran after the American hostage situation. In the end, the Europeans will not risk losing the US market to Iran, and they will eventually have to deal with the situation, and this has practically began by freezing their companies’ businesses and then exiting Iran.


The Iranian currency has declined as the riyal plunged to reach 102,000 riyals against the dollar, and there are expectations of a further precipitous fall in the days ahead. Meanwhile, popular protests in Iranian cities have again taken center-stage. In December 2017, popular protests had become so bold that they started targeting the person of the Supreme Leader of Iran, his position and integrity with hateful insults. He was accused of corruption by the people, who for the first time became openly critical of the policies he dragged the country into since he’s the head of the regime.

In protests before 2017 and after the Khomeinist revolution, the Supreme Leader was never targeted by protesters for a variety of reasons. The Supreme Leader’s post was generally kept away from political squabbles and out of all protests or anger manifestations, but this "taboo" was overcome and accusations of dictatorship have now been made via graffiti and echoed by protestors in different cities in Iran for several months. At the beginning of the demonstrations, a Hawza (seminary for training clerics) was attacked and burned in the city of Turkestan in the province of Qazvin in northwestern Iran.

Attacking a seminary does not indicate opposition to religion, but an expression of anger against the theocratic regime and all its tools.

Amal Abdulaziz Al-Hazani

Attack on seminaries

The incident was then seen as an unintentional act of anger, but the same thing happened few days later when hundreds of protesters tried to enter and burn a Hawza in the Karaj area near the capital Tehran. It would be understandable if people attack state institutions which they complain of their policies considering they are a direct party in the crisis. However, attacking the person of the Supreme Leader and religious schools is a return to the root of the problem which Iranian youths understand well, and which is that the revolution had created an aura of righteousness around the person of the Supreme Leader and had placed him above any accountability or reproach and allowed clergymen to seize power.

Attacking Hawzas (seminaries) does not indicate opposition to religion, but it is an expression of anger against the theocratic regime and all its tools, whether figures or institutions. Anyone who understands the system of governance in Iran knows that challenging the status of the Supreme Leader or the religious policy is a watershed in Iranian society.

Those who do not fear jumping over the fences of social prohibitions are people who have acquired bravery and lost patience and are thus pushed to achieve their goals without any fear or hesitations. Even among the general public, this new phenomena can shake the status of religious symbols and diminish the respect they have for them as they realize that these symbols which they have known to be strong for decades, can be scratched and now face the threat of breaking more than any time ever.

Religion has a high status in Iranian society with its different races but they believe that the ruling class has long exploited religion to preserve its social and financial gains, and that this class has transformed this strong country that’s rich with resources into a weak one that has a bad reputation and that is punished by economic boycott.

Unsettling portents

It is therefore not true to claim that US sanctions will strengthen the position of the conservatives and their institutions, especially the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, against President Hassan Rouhani, since conservatives were against the nuclear deal. Although the conservatives and even the Supreme Leader expressed their discontent with the nuclear agreement, they were in fact very happy about it and they celebrated signing it and they even paved the way for this deal by inaugurating a moderate figure who can be welcomed by the West as a negotiator.

On another hand, these calculations no longer weigh anything in the street as the Iranians are no longer preoccupied with political currents. They are living in the center of events which repercussions directly affect their lives on a daily basis. Their fears are growing amid news that the president has dismissed the head of the central bank and that the parliament will hold a special session to question Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on the failure of the nuclear agreement. Zarif had celebrated this nuclear deal from the balcony of his residence in Geneva in front of journalists by waving a copy of the agreement signed at the time.

All these factors will restrict the regime and inflame the internal situation which is already very critical, and with re-imposition of sanctions in the near future, the regime will have few options left and it will face one of the most severe crises since the revolution.

This article is also available in Arabic.


Amal Abdulaziz Al–Hazani is a professor at King Saudi University and a writer for al-Sharq al-Awsat. She tweets @Alhazzani_Amal.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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