European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel will visit Beijing on Dec. 7 for in-person meetings with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Qiang. The two sides want to show a commitment to dialog at a time when their relations are coming under mounting strain, as underscored by the recent opening of an EU probe into unfair Chinese competition in the electric vehicle sector.
Similar to last month’s meeting between Xi and US President Joe Biden, this week’s EU-China summit is not expected to produce any major breakthroughs. To find out more, we spoke with Emre Peker, a director for Eurasia Group’s Europe practice, and Anna Ashton, a director for the China practice.
Why is this meeting happening now?
Emre Peker: The last time Xi and the EU’s top two officials met in person was in 2019 in Beijing, before the pandemic struck. They have met virtually a couple of times since. This week’s in-person gathering is meant to showcase Brussels and Beijing’s willingness to maintain a healthy dialog despite their growing differences.
Anna Ashton: Both sides have sought increased engagement since Beijing began lifting its strict COVID policies toward the end of 2022. The EU-China trade and investment relationship is crucial for both. Other issues of common concern include climate change, global health, and the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
What does the EU want to achieve at the summit?
Peker: Among other issues, the EU wants to address growing imbalances in its economic relations with China as well as the war in Ukraine. A key priority is to highlight the EU’s willingness to take measures to protect itself against Chinese industrial subsidies and overcapacity, which are contributing to a record-high trade deficit with China. Brussels will also seek greater Chinese collaboration on enforcing sanctions against Russia by presenting a list of Chinese companies that will be targeted for penalties unless Beijing helps halt the trans-shipment of dual-use goods. Lastly, the EU will seek to convince Beijing that Europe’s stance on China is distinct from that of the US, particularly on economic matters, to obtain more cooperation and avert escalating tensions.
What does China want?
Ashton: Protecting trade and investment ties with the EU has grown more important for Beijing given the economic headwinds it faces at home. Moreover, Chinese authorities worry about the EU’s drift toward China policies resembling those of the US and want to hammer out a distinct and more cooperative path for China-EU relations. But progress is likely to be limited given their differences on a range of issues. These include the flood of Chinese EVs entering the EU; EU steps to bolster export controls on dual-use goods — particularly tech products — and consider outbound investment screening; the obstacles faced by European companies to doing business in China; and European accusations of Chinese circumvention of sanctions on Russia.
What are the best-case outcomes we can expect?
Peker: On the economic front, a best-case outcome would be an agreement from Beijing to immediately remove trade barriers for certain EU products (such as medical devices and infant formula) and take steps that would facilitate greater market access and investment opportunities for European companies generally. On the diplomatic front, China would proactively collaborate in enforcing sanctions on Russia and commit to more diplomatic engagement on Ukraine’s 10-point peace plan.
Ashton: China’s ties with the EU are strained, but not as fraught as those with the US, so theoretically there is potential for deliverables that equal or surpass those of the Biden-Xi summit, where the two sides agreed to cooperate on bilateral irritants such as fentanyl precursors and military-to-military dialogue. China could offer narrow concessions on market access, but given the limited receptiveness shown to EU trade and investment concerns, does not appear likely to offer broad concessions. Though China and the EU continue to harbor sharply different views about the causes of the war in Ukraine and essential terms for its resolution, Beijing could signal a willingness to participate in future rounds of talks.
How do you expect EU-China relations to evolve over the medium term?
Peker: Given the expectation that the summit will not deliver any major breakthroughs, the EU will likely continue to harden its stance against China, raising the risk of Chinese commercial retaliation. The EU will not likely be able to convince Beijing of its autonomy from the US on China policies, hurting EU ambitions to establish more constructive engagement with China. Therefore, the EU is likely to seek open communication channels and stable commercial ties in the medium term, while trying to reduce dependencies on China in the long run.
Ashton: Beijing is unlikely to shift the EU away from its assessment that China has become an economic competitor. Therefore, China will continue its efforts to drive a wedge between the EU’s and the US’s approaches to relations with China, but its success in this regard will largely be determined by the politics of EU member states and the policies of the next administration in Washington.
Edited by Jonathan House, senior editor at Eurasia Group.
What are data flows and why are they important?
Technology firms gather a lot of information on our daily online activities such as whether we like a Facebook post, someone else likes our Facebook post, or how much time we spend browsing websites for a new pair of shoes. They use that information to improve their services, to give us recommended posts or websites based on our preferences.
The internet is designed as a seamless web, so your data can flow around the world. So a US or Chinese internet company with operations in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand might choose to have a single data center for Southeast Asia in one of those countries that collects data from all three. That is the most cost-effective and secure set-up.
However, there has been a trend, especially among developing countries, to establish so-called data localization requirements that prohibit the transfer of their citizens’ data to another country.
Why is that?
There are multiple arguments given, but I think the main driver is economic. Countries increasingly see data as a new resource to exploit. They believe that a data center set up within their borders will be a source of new jobs and investment.
But they often dress up the requirements as being about law enforcement or national security, saying that if law enforcement needs access to their citizens’ data, it needs to be close by for easy access, which technically is not really the case.
How do restrictions on data flows affect companies and consumers?
Data localization rules can function as a type of trade barrier. Smaller companies might not be able to afford the investment of building a data center in a new market. Even larger companies might decide it doesn’t make economic sense to do so and decide to steer clear of a market with that requirement.
Ultimately, the consumer and digital inclusiveness will suffer. The classic example is the consumer in Africa, where people have come to rely on phone-based payment services. So if a small country in Africa imposes a data localization requirement, Apple Pay and other providers might opt to suspend operations there, depriving users of their services.
Why did the USTR reverse its position on this issue?
It's purely political. Lawmakers such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) who have been advocating tougher regulation on big technology firms have been pressing USTR to abandon attempts to enshrine protections for e-commerce in international trade agreements. They argue that making binding commitments to foreign governments limits the space for domestic policy debate on big tech.
Similarly, labor groups and associations of domestically focused manufacturers such as the Coalition for a Prosperous America have opposed US attempts to push for free data flows because they fear that whatever foreign governments ask for in return may hurt workers and companies in the US.
What has been the reaction to this move by USTR?
Anti-trade US lawmakers and advocates are obviously very happy. Warren responded by saying that USTR had rejected the efforts by big tech lobbyists to use trade deals to thwart regulation.
But the reversal of a longstanding US position came as a shock to other members of Congress, the US business community, and several countries that have been key US partners on digital trade priorities. A long list of tech and non-tech business groups issued statements and sent letters condemning the action.
So, what happens next?
The e-commerce discussions track at the WTO will continue but is not likely to achieve much, at least in the near term. The US reversal on data flows will probably affect the positions of other countries, including some that had moved away from data localization requirements. India, for example, recently significantly revised its policies to allow most data to freely transfer across borders. In the aftermath of the US reversal, reports in Indian media suggested India might follow suit.
Meanwhile, US protests over the USTR move prompted the White House to convene an interagency process with the National Security Council, State Department, and Commerce Department to discuss the issue. USTR is coming under some pressure to change its position on data flows at the WTO, or at least moderate it, but it’s not clear whether that’s really possible. Consultations may continue for some time and fail to reach any conclusion.
Edited by Jonathan House, senior editor at Eurasia Group.
Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping are preparing for talks next week to stabilize relations between their two countries and prevent a dangerous flare-up of hostilities over Taiwan. The meeting represents the culmination of months of preparatory work by lower-level officials and is expected to take place on Nov. 14 or Nov. 15 on the sidelines of the APEC leaders’ summit in San Francisco.
At a time when wars are raging in Europe and the Middle East, any step toward reducing tensions between the world’s two leading military and economic powers will be welcomed. But given the fundamental differences between the US and China, how much can we really expect from next week’s meeting? We asked Anna Ashton, a director for Eurasia Group’s China practice, and Clayton Allen, a director for the United States practice.
Why is this meeting happening now?
Anna Ashton: When the two presidents met on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali last November, it was clear they intended to take further steps to stabilize ties. The next one was meant to be a visit to China by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in February to prepare the way for another meeting between the two heads of state. But the discovery of a Chinese surveillance balloon over the US unexpectedly disrupted those plans. For Xi, the APEC summit – a gathering of the heads of state of 21 Asia-Pacific countries – represents a good opportunity to resume the dialog with his US counterpart. It will allow him (and also Biden) to demonstrate to other Asia-Pacific nations that they are managing bilateral relations responsibly. However, if diplomacy had not picked up in recent months, Xi might have opted to send another senior official in his stead.
Clayton Allen: The US push for diplomacy over the summer – which involved the visits of several cabinet officials to China and the creation of working groups to coordinate policies on various issues – was always intended to lead to higher-level engagement. The APEC summit offered a relatively low-stakes option for a meeting to move forward if sufficient diplomatic progress had been made. Put simply, both leaders already wanted to attend the summit, meaning a sideline meeting could be arranged more easily than a meeting in Washington or Beijing. More broadly, this meeting is happening because both sides see benefit in using a high-level meeting to confirm at least some of the progress made this summer in stabilizing the relationship.
What does Xi want from meeting?
Ashton: Xi is hoping to reassure China's neighbors that China is a responsible stakeholder in the region, a responsible power. His willingness to meet face-to-face with Biden in a US venue is an important signal. But the bilateral relationship remains fundamentally one between peer competitors – even adversaries. The room for tangible cooperation remains limited. Xi's expectations are likely modest.
What does Biden want?
Allen: Biden wants some reciprocal diplomatic effort from China, specifically the resumption of military-to-military communication, which China suspended in protest over Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last August when she was speaker of the US House of Representatives. (China considers such visits to what it views as a breakaway territory an affront to its sovereignty.) This, alongside the multiple working group and staff-level engagement frameworks announced since early August, would bring US-China relations back to roughly the same level they were at before Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. It would also create enough goodwill to avert a potential collapse in relations ahead of Taiwan’s January presidential election.
What are the best-case outcomes?
Ashton: Events on the calendar in 2024 could prove enormously disruptive to any progress made this year. Xi will likely use this opportunity to underscore China's top concerns with US policies. He will remind Biden of the importance Beijing attaches to Taiwan's eventual reunification with the mainland, stressing the damage that would be done to bilateral ties if the US moved away from its longstanding One China policy. He will also likely reiterate China's objections to the breadth of US tech restrictions. It is also possible that China will agree to take steps in support of US efforts to end the fentanyl epidemic. The best-case scenario is that the meeting helps to mitigate the potential for volatility in 2024.
Allen: The resumption of military-to-military communication, formalization of the working groups announced since August, and commitments to additional high-level meetings. Additional commitments from China to leverage its influence with the Global South in talks about the Ukraine crisis and efforts to contain the hostilities in the Middle East would be significant positive outcomes.
What are the next watchpoints for the bilateral relationship after this meeting?
Ashton: Taiwan's presidential election on Jan. 13. The candidate most likely to win based on current polling is Lai Ching-te, a member of the Democratic Progressive Party who draws support from Taiwan's most dedicated independence activists. That brings us to a second watchpoint in May, when Taiwan’s next president will be inaugurated. During the interim, between January and May, China will likely seek to dissuade the incoming president from adopting a more assertive independence agenda by conducting military maneuvers in the region. The final major watchpoint is the US presidential election in November. The lead-up to the vote is likely to feature heated rhetoric on China from both Republicans and Democrats.
Allen: Additional staff-level meetings. Leader-level meetings are essential to advancing efforts at stabilizing the relationship, but staff-level meetings are where the detailed work will happen. Historically, the US-China relationship has improved in the lead-up to leader-level meetings but declined soon after they have finished; staff-level engagement may mitigate some of this (potential) decline.
Edited by Jonathan House, senior editor at Eurasia Group.
Amid primary debates, early swing-state polls, and campaign events, it’s safe to say that much of the political focus in the US is already on the 2024 elections, which appear likely to feature a rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. This anticipation will heighten the scrutiny of a slew of state and local elections and ballot measures on Nov. 7 – the last chance to gauge voter sentiment on key issues ahead of the main event next year.
Eurasia Group expert Kylie Milliken will be following the Kentucky gubernatorial race, Virginia’s state legislative elections, and an Ohio ballot referendum closely. We asked her to explain.
What’s at stake in a Democratic governor’s reelection bid in Kentucky?
Although Kentucky is a red state, the party that has won the governor’s mansion there has gone on to win the White House the following year in every political cycle for the last 20 years. The off-year gubernatorial race generally gives a sense of the set of issues that matters most to independent and moderate voters, including issues that drive turnout. This year, popular Democratic incumbent Andy Beshear is expected to beat his challenger, the Trump-endorsed, highly conservative Attorney General Daniel Cameron. Although it will likely be a close race, Beshear is favored to win a second term, given his high approval ratings (even among Republicans) and his position on the issues.
If Beshear does win, what would that signal?
A few things, I think. The first would be that a focus on jobs can help mitigate criticism of Biden on inflation. Voters hold Biden responsible for high prices, and inflation will almost certainly be an issue that hurts Biden politically in 2024. However, running on the strong labor market, as Beshear is doing, could help Biden on the margins. The second is that abortion will turn out Democratic voters and attract independents and moderates to Democratic campaigns. Beshear is campaigning on the issue and criticizing Cameron’s extremely conservative stance, including his support for a proposed anti-abortion amendment, which Kentucky voters rejected by 4.7 percentage points in 2022. Lastly, a Beshear victory would signal that culture war issues won’t necessarily drive turnout or convince independents to back Republicans. Cameron is running on a conservative education and LGBTQ+ platform that many Kentucky voters would likely support, but a Beshear win would indicate that other issues are more important.
What’s the relevance of a new referendum on abortion in Ohio?
Ohio, once considered a key swing state, is now decisively red – the Republican Party controls the state legislature and governor’s mansion, and Trump won the state by 8.1 points in both 2016 and 2020. The Ohio ballot measure is the only abortion referendum taking place this year, and anti-abortion activists have argued that they have a better chance of success both because of the state’s conservative bent and their ability to focus all their resources on Ohio.
However, past referenda on abortion have all gone the pro-choice way, regardless of the political tendencies of the state, and the Ohio referendum is likely to do the same. The first poll shows strong support for abortion access, with 58% in favor of passing the ballot measure. Some think that the salience of abortion will decrease over time, minimizing the extent to which Democrats can win on the issue. However, the longer there are bans in place, the more people are affected and the more unpopular the bans have become. If abortion passes in Ohio by a wide margin and with a high turnout, as is expected, it will demonstrate that the issue is still galvanizing voters, which will likely benefit Democrats.
What are the key issues shaping Virginia’s legislative elections?
Abortion is also shaping up to be a major issue in the Virginia legislative elections – but in a different way. While the Ohio referendum will gauge voters’ support for abortion in general, the Virginia legislative races will test voters’ preferences for a 15-week ban.
Republicans have consistently struggled with their messaging on abortion since the Dobbs decision, as they must attempt to find a balance between being pro-life enough to win primaries and pro-choice enough to appeal to a wider audience in general elections.
Virginia’s Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, is attempting to walk this fine line by advocating for a 15-week ban if Republicans keep the state House and flip the state Senate in the Nov. 7 elections. State-level Republican legislative candidates have taken up his message, increasing the salience of the issue in the campaign. If the GOP performs well in Virginia, it will give Republicans across the US a new strategy on abortion messaging that may prove to be more electorally successful than advocating for strict bans.
The Israel-Palestine crisis is often described in biblical terms: “war in the holy land;” “Muslim v Jew;” or “the new Crusades.”
But while it has always had religious overtones, the ongoing conflict was originally about land: who had a right to it and who didn’t. It pitted Palestinian claims to the right of incumbency against Israeli assertions to the right of settlement and sovereignty.
Sadly, that distinction – land over faith – may no longer be valid.
Nearly 30 years ago, the Oslo Accords laid the foundations for a two-state peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. The agreement was signed by leaders of the Israeli Labor party and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, led by Yasser Arafat.
To be sure, neither of these groups was shy about espousing maximalist ideas. The PLO had long refused to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist and had used violence to advance its aims. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir famously asserted that there was “no such thing” as the Palestinians.
But in the end, Labor Zionists and Palestinian Liberation fighters were driven chiefly by worldly, nationalist ideas. This left them ideological room to make concessions. That room for compromise underpinned the Oslo Accords.
Sadly, since then conflict has evolved into a clash between religious zealots on both sides, backed by secular right-wing extremists.
On the Israeli side, the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, one of the architects of Oslo, by a Jewish religious extremist in November 1995 may have marked the death knell for compromise.
Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s subsequent rise to power, and the Israeli government’s drift to the political and religious right ever since, ensured the territorial compromise envisaged in the Oslo deal could never be implemented as originally intended. The government that Netanyahu formed late last year was the most right-wing in Israel’s history, with senior cabinet figures who openly espoused – and worked toward – a territorially expansionist “Land of Israel” agenda.
Meanwhile, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority proved corrupt and impotent in the face of Israeli intransigence, and the lack of progress elevated more radical Islamist groups like Hamas, which Israel had once viewed as a convenient counterweight to Arafat’s long-dominant PLO.
This inexorable shift rightward and into religious territory has not only driven us toward the current stage of the conflict, it also makes it harder to see a way to peace even when the dust from the latest violence settles.
Hamas’ slaughter of Israelis on Oct. 7, and the rising number of Palestinian civilians killed in Israel’s response since then, will fuel fresh resentment, anger, and extremism on both sides. Voices arguing for uncompromising and maximalist solutions will find succor and support as never before.
For the Israelis, Hamas’ killing spree will take Israel's security mentality back decades, to a time when it saw itself encircled by existential threats it was determined to subdue. And while the Israeli electorate may yet hold Netanyahu and his right-wing allies to account for policy failures that allowed Oct. 7 to happen, the damage to Israel’s psyche will run deep. Calls for peace with the Palestinians on equitable territorial terms will not be something most Israelis will want to consider for a long time.
For the Palestinians, meanwhile, the rising civilian death toll in Gaza, and the specter of a possible mass refugee crisis, will stoke extremism, giving more credence to radical voices that claim that an equitable peace deal with Israeli is a pipedream.
On both sides, then, there will be little room for voices of compromise.
But this trend won’t be limited only to Israel and the Palestinian territories. Israel’s retribution in Gaza is already stoking popular anger across the Arab world – belying the notion, which had become popular in recent years among Arab and Western governments, that the Palestinian issue was no longer an important one for the so-called “Arab Street.”
As a result, Arab governments are now looking to placate popular anger by allowing avenues for protest in support of the Palestinian cause. It is no accident that in Saudi Arabia the Grand Mufti of Mecca was allowed – almost certainly with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed’s explicit permission -- to take a strikingly pro-Palestinian line in his first sermon following the Oct. 7 violence.
But that approach could easily spiral out of control in ways that pose threats to political stability, creating more fertile ground for precisely the kinds of Islamist and extremist ideas that governments across the region – particularly in Egypt, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia – have tried to crack down upon in recent years.
Theocratic Iran and its regional allies may stoke these fires as well, even if they still seem reluctant to be sucked into the current fighting for now. And their message will resonate with regional Islamist groups that have already shown their political potency.
All of this is something of a shock. Just a couple of weeks ago, it seemed that the Middle East, for all its problems, was moving toward greater stability and predictability. The desperate plight of the Palestinians was hardly improving, but the issue seemed contained, almost dismissed. A once unthinkable normalization deal was coming into focus between the Jewish State and Saudi Arabia.
The latest round of Israeli-Palestinian violence shattered those illusions. And with the nature of the conflict steeped more deeply than ever in maximalist, religious notions, the prospects for a lasting peace in the region look dim. There is always a chance that tragic war will lead to a fundamental recalculation on both sides, and that moderates will eventually win the day given the destruction that radicals have wrought. But don’t bet on it.
Raad Alkadiri is the managing director of Energy, Climate & Resources for Eurasia Group. He served as assistant private secretary to the UK Special Representative in Iraq from 2003-2004.
In less than two weeks, Poland’s United Right alliance will face the biggest challenge to its grip on power since gaining control of parliament in 2015. The national-conservative party’s strident rhetoric and generous welfare policies have lost some of their appeal, but voters don’t appear ready to decisively embrace the alternative path offered by the liberal opposition either. Among other uncertainties, it’s unclear how the tricky politics of the war next door in Ukraine will play out when polls open on Oct. 15.
Months of difficult government-formation talks and maybe even new elections could follow. We sat down with Eurasia Group expert Anna-Carina Hamker to talk about what to expect.
Why have voters soured on the United Right?
The alliance has been losing support since a constitutional court packed with its appointees instituted an abortion ban in 2020. An overall sense of fatigue with the government and a lack of new (young) faces is another factor that has contributed to its gradual decline.
Over the past 12 months, a deteriorating economic situation has also contributed. The well-targeted social benefits that the United Right has used to shore up its support in the past – such as the 500 zloty per child payments to families the government has promised to expand – have become less effective in a context of high inflation.
Despite these developments, the United Right maintains a strong base of mainly rural voters (more than 30% of the electorate) and will likely win the largest vote share in the elections.
What are the main issues for voters?
According to recent surveys, the main issues are inflation, access to and the quality of healthcare, security (particularly in light of the war raging in Ukraine), and the independence of the judiciary. Under the guise of fighting the remnants of communism, the government has adopted multiple laws bringing the judiciary under political control, causing a long-running confrontation with the EU.
Security has been a key topic in the United Right’s campaign, but recent surveys suggest that Poles trust the leading opposition party – the Civic Coalition – slightly more to keep them safe. This is likely the result of recent mishaps, such as a series of conflicting communications issued in response to an incursion into Polish airspace by Belarusian helicopters. De-politicizing the judiciary and the media is a key priority for the liberal opposition. On the economy, the far-right Confederation party has gained a lot of support with its proposals for radical tax and benefits cuts.
What role has Ukraine played?
A big one!
The United Right is at risk of losing some (potential) supporters to the far-right Confederation over the generous support offered to Ukraine, both in terms of military and humanitarian aid.
Polish farmers – a key United Right constituency – have suffered from falling grain prices they attribute to the large amounts of Ukrainian grain exported to Poland and other EU countries. The Confederation party has wooed these farmers with its anti-Ukrainian rhetoric. Fearing a loss of support, the United Right enacted a unilateral grain import ban before the summer that provoked tensions with Brussels and Kyiv. The government fired back by announcing a reduction in financial support for Ukrainian refugees from next year.
What is the likelihood of a contested election? Difficult government formation process?
I think the election will likely produce a hung parliament – that is, no parliamentary majority for the United Right or the combined liberal opposition. In that case, Confederation will be the kingmaker. Both the United Right and the liberal opposition will probably try to enlist its support, either for a minority government or by convincing individual lawmakers to switch sides.
Though there is more ideological alignment between Confederation and the United Right, Confederation would be wary of being co-opted by the ruling alliance, which could prompt it to join forces with the liberal opposition instead.
In the event of a hung parliament, we expect a lengthy government formation process that could drag out into the new year. There is also a substantial risk that the parties fail to form a government, forcing snap elections early next year.
What would another United Right government mean?
This will depend on whether the United Right commands a parliamentary majority or relies on cooperation with Confederation. In the former case, I’d expect mostly continuity on foreign policy, but the rather aggressive rhetoric directed at Brussels would ebb a bit, as would the assertiveness toward Ukraine. Domestically, the ruling alliance would likely try to tighten its grip on power even more by undermining the powers of democratic institutions.
In the case of cooperation with Confederation, I think relations with the EU could get even worse. Both parties are critical of the European Commission’s powers, and, considering that they are competing for the same national-conservative electorate, there could be a battle between the two parties about who is best at protecting Polish sovereignty from Brussels’s influence. Warsaw’s growing assertiveness toward Kyiv would likely also remain a problem as the parties continue to compete.
What would a liberal opposition-led government mean?
Its immediate priorities would be to de-politicize democratic institutions, reform the judiciary, and improve relations with Brussels. It would likely also take significant steps to accelerate Poland’s green transition. However, considering that the ruling coalition would consist of at least three parties, I think that once immediate priorities have been addressed, there will be a lot of potential for tensions and, thus, slow policy progress and maybe even the government’s collapse. We have seen these problems in other European countries with three-party governments, such as Germany.
Edited by Jonathan House, senior editor at Eurasia Group.
This Saturday marks one year since Mahsa Amini’s death at the hands of Iran’s morality police sparked months of protests, and the authorities are taking steps to prevent another massive outbreak of unrest. They have preemptively arrested women’s rights activists, closed public spaces, and bolstered security forces in major cities. Yet public discontent continues to simmer in the Islamic Republic as ordinary people perceive a widening gulf between their hopes and concerns and the interests of the country’s clerical regime.
We asked Eurasia Group expert Gregory Brew if he thinks the authorities will be able to keep a lid on tensions in the coming days.
Do you expect Iranians to take to the streets this weekend?
Anniversaries are important in Iran, particularly those marking the passing of major political figures. The death of the 22-year-old Amini became hugely important for millions of Iranians, both in Iran and among the Iranian global diaspora, so there are bound to be demonstrations to mark the anniversary. They’re unlikely to be very large, however. The regime has been taking steps to deter new protests. Ordinary Iranians are reluctant to take to the streets since the crackdown last year, which saw security forces killing hundreds of protestors while wounding and arresting thousands more. Several high-profile trials and executions of arrested protestors hammered home the repressive message. The legacy of that crackdown will deter people from coming out in large numbers. But there’s sure to be some fireworks, both on 16 September and in subsequent days.
Did last year's protests achieve anything?
It’s true the protests were unsuccessful in forcing political change. Hardliners, led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi, still dominate the system. But it would be wrong to say the protests didn’t have an impact. They revealed the depths of dissatisfaction with the regime and galvanized opposition to hijab rules that require women to wear headscarves in public. So, while they may not have changed the system, the protests made it abundantly clear that ordinary Iranians are fed up with the status quo and are more willing to defy the government.
What is the status of the hijab issue today?
Hijab rules represent the government’s commitment to enforcing a strict form of Islamic law that many Iranians do not subscribe to. So, they’ve always been a source of controversy. Since the protests, the issue has been one of the most salient in Iran’s domestic politics. The government initially eased off enforcing these rules and adopted a carrot-and-stick approach: As the security forces cracked down on demonstrators, they looked the other way when it came to hijab infractions. Though this helped the government avoid more unrest, it left Iran’s hardliner leadership with a huge problem. Millions of Iranian women now see the hijab as a matter of personal choice, rather than state mandate. Non-compliance is commonplace.
Yet the government cannot permanently retreat on the hijab, a key pillar of its ideology. So, in the last few months, there has been a gradual crackdown: The morality police have returned, women are monitored for infractions, and a sweeping new hijab law is set to take effect next year. But ordinary Iranians are likely to resist this enforcement. There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.
How will these developments affect next year’s elections?
While Iran’s political system is authoritarian, Iranian elections have historically featured high turnout and vigorous participation. That changed in 2020-2021, however, as authorities barred reformists and moderates from participating, clearing the way for hardliner dominance. The result has been a decline in participation. Most Iranians now regard the country’s elections as a sham.
Iran’s leaders want higher participation in elections, since they provide a basis for the government’s claim to legitimacy. But the authorities won’t risk allowing reformists to compete, since doing so could threaten their own position. So, the odds of a more open, permissive election are pretty low. Iranians are unlikely to return to the polls if their only options are more hardliners.
Given broad dissatisfaction and frequent bouts of unrest, is the status quo sustainable?
It’s clear that a majority of Iranians are dissatisfied – corruption, inflation, the effects of climate change, and general oppression all feed into this sentiment. The leadership isn’t capable of solving these problems. That means that it will have to rely on suppressing dissent to remain in power. That’s not sustainable.
The Islamic Republic has a vast capacity for oppression. It has proven, time and again, that it is comfortable killing its own people in large numbers. That explains why there’s been little appetite to return to the streets: Why risk injury, arrest, and possible death if the chances of political change are so small?
That said, it’s important not to lose perspective. Changes to Iran’s political system are possible, particularly in the event of a shift in leadership at the top. Khamenei’s death, which could happen at any time, will lead to a succession crisis that could create space for changes, and possibly reforms, within the system. The Islamic Republic appears resilient, but there are numerous cracks in the façade. And just as the regime has shown its resilience, so too have the Iranian people illustrated a tenacious interest in securing greater freedoms. That’s a struggle that will persist long after the anniversary of Amini’s death.
Edited by Jonathan House, Senior Editor at Eurasia Group.