On Wednesday, Iran was gripped by a fifth consecutive day of unrest as angry protests shook cities in various corners of the country. Authorities appeared to restrict access to social media apps such as WhatsApp and Instagram after videos circulated showing protesters begging for the regime’s fall and clashing with police. In other cases, security forces were depicted indiscriminately attacking civilians in the street. At least seven people have been killed, while hundreds have been injured and arrested, according to human rights groups monitoring the situation.
The catalyst was the death last week of Mahsa Amini, 22, in the custody of Iran’s so-called ‘morality police’. Iranian state media claimed that Amini – a Kurdish woman from western Iran who had visited the capital Tehran – was detained after she left a metro station, suffered a heart attack and slipped into a coma. But her family has rejected this version of events, saying she was physically assaulted and mistreated by the authorities, even though she adhered to the regime’s strict dress code for women. The rules have been mandatory since the 1979 revolution in Iran.
Footage of young Amini lying injured in a hospital bed ignited social media in Iran. Her death forced some women to go to public areas and take off their headscarves; in some cases, the traditional clothing was set on fire by protesters.
Scenes unprecedented in Iran: Woman sits atop an electrical box and cuts her hair in Kerman’s main square to protest the death of Mahsa Amini after her arrest by vice squad. People clap their hands and sing ‘Death to the dictator’. #مهسا_امینی pic.twitter.com/2oyuKV80Ac
— Golnaz Esfandiari (@GEsfandiari) September 20, 2022
“The brutality of the protests is fueled by outrage over many things at once‘ my colleagues told me. “The allegations that Amini was beaten in custody before collapsing and falling into a coma; the priorities of the Iranian government, led by the ultra-conservative Raisi, who has strictly adhered to dress codes and empowered the hated morality police at a time of widespread economic suffering; and the fear of Amini’s family, ethnic Kurds from a rural area of Iran, whose displays of pain and shock have resonated across the country.”
Speaking a few slots after Raisi at the General Assembly, President Biden praised “the brave citizens and brave women of Iran, who are now demonstrating to secure their basic rights.” French President Emmanuel Macron told the BBC’s Persian news service that “Iran’s credibility is now at stake in terms of having to tackle this issue.”
An aide to the supreme leader of the regime, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reached out to Amini’s family and promised that the state institutions “will take action” to make amends. Raisi promised to investigate earlier, casting Amini as his “own daughter.” But public trust and goodwill towards the Iranian authorities is scarce. After all, Raisi is still notorious for his role in the 1980s as part of a regime committee that ordered the execution of thousands of political prisoners.
“These protests are a response to the status quo of severe political and social repression by a government that refuses to recognize even the demands of its people,” Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of Iran’s Center for Human Rights, which is based in New York City, told me. “The anger and anger we see on the streets is palpable. The division between the people of Iran and the rulers of the state could not be clearer.”
Ghaemi added that what is striking about this round of protests — compared to 2019, for example, when mass demonstrations over the economy shook the country — is the overwhelming presence of women risking their lives to be at the forefront of these protests. ”
So many touching and inspiring videos coming out of Iran in the wake of #Mahsa_Aminihis murder.
An Iranian woman took off her headscarf and stood in a square in Siraj, a town in southern Kerman province. By her side are her two little girls. pic.twitter.com/lnSpKRioGs
— Holly Dagres (@hdagres) September 21, 2022
That courage is all the more striking given the existing precedents. In 2019, 2017 and 2009, following elections that critics believed had been rigged, authorities used severe and repressive tactics to quell protests. “The survival of the Iranian regime is based on its brutality, not its popularity,” Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me. “I think many Iranians understand that this system is not sustainable, but they also realize that this regime is repeatedly willing to kill in large numbers to stay in power.”
Yet there is also a feeling that something has to give. “Some conservative and hard-line members of parliament even believe that the arrest of women on the street should end for good,” Najmeh Bozorgmehr wrote in the Financial Times. “Women are increasingly supported by men and religious factions who are now sympathetic to their campaign.”
Whatever their domestic trials, Iran’s leadership remains challenging on the global stage. Talks about restoring the nuclear deal signed in 2015 between Tehran and the world powers appear to have stalled; Raisi and Iran’s hardliners plan to strike a better deal than the one cut by the Trump administration in 2018, and Biden and his allies are unwilling to make any further concessions to Iran — not least before the interim elections.
Some analysts argue that the protests demonstrate the importance of Washington dealing with Iran on terms far beyond the regime’s nuclear portfolio. “US policy must be designed not only to counter the destructive ambitions of the Iranian regime, but also to defend the constructive ambitions of the Iranian people,” Sadjadpour said.
Such a vision has yet to be formulated by the current US administration. On Wednesday, Biden reiterated his belief in the importance of diplomacy to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. At the same time, some Republican lawmakers in Congress are considering legislation that would make it more difficult for Biden to lift sanctions against Iran in exchange for some restrictions on Tehran’s uranium enrichment capabilities.
“Even if there is a deal, neither the United States nor Iran really has a strategy for the other,” said Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank. He gestured to the political divisions in Washington that a future Republican administration could see to reverse everything Biden is doing to Tehran. “You will have a deal that will be weak and very likely … will collapse under the weight of all the other problems,” he added.
At the same time, Raisi and the figure looming above him, Khamenei, see Iran’s future in strengthening alliances with countries outside the West, including Russia, China and India. It is a solidarity that is transactional at best and still will not significantly offset the economic damage caused by US sanctions on Iran’s oil exports.
“There is a kind of parallel universe that some leaders in Tehran want to live in, but reality keeps catching up with them,” Vatanka said.