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Iran: The Protesters are Not Cowed, and the Regime Has Been Shaken to Its Core



On September 13, in Tehran, Iran, the Morality Police took Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, into custody for incorrectly tying her hijab. Eyewitnesses said they saw her being beaten with a baton as she was shoved into a van. Three days later, she was dead. The police announced that she had died of a heart attack; her family was quick to say that Amini was in perfect health. At once protests prompted by her death began in Tehran and in the Kurdish cities, led by women who pulled off, and then ripped up or burned, their hated hijabs, and symbolically cut off their hair. And the protests that began with fury over the Morality Police have spread, and new grievances have been added.

Those protests quickly spread to more than two dozen other cities, including Mashhad and Isfahan, in twenty provinces across the country. The police have tried to quell them, deploying at first tear gas and water cannon, and then birdshot and metal pellets, but for several days now they have been using live fire. Nearly 80 people, among the protesters, have now been killed by the police. And there are reports that dozens of police, too, have been killed or wounded. The protesters have become increasingly violent, burning cars, busses, and fire engines, and destroying billboards showing the Supreme Leader. They have set fire to a base of the feared Basij militia on Ferdowsi Street in downtown Tehran. A police commander has been killed by the protesters, and dozens of other police wounded by them.

The government has ended Internet service in parts in Tehran, and ended access to WhatsApp and Telegram. Despite this, the protesters still manage somehow to meet up and come out in force, and in ever larger numbers, across the country.

On Friday, September 23, groups of government-sponsored counter-protesters turned out in several cities, shouting “Death to Israel” and “Death to Israel and America,” as if somehow “foreign enemies” were behind these entire home-grown protests. The counter-protesters, following the script the government supplied, chillingly called for the execution of protesters. If this was intended to scare the protesters into silence, it hasn’t worked, but appears only to have energized them. In fact, soon after those government-sponsored counter-protests, full of women in black chadors, ended, late on Friday the protesters appeared again on the streets to chant their slogans.

As of Saturday, September 24, there have been reports of close to 60 dead, and many wounded, among the protesters. No one can know for certain, as the government now controls the flow of information. There is reason to believe the actual figure is many times more, but it is being kept secret by the government. And hundreds are believed to have been wounded.

Much attention has been given in the Western media to the Iranian women who, by the thousands and tens of thousands, have been pulling off their hijabs and ripping them up, or setting fire to them, and also cutting their hair short. Women were at the forefront of the protests initially, but now men, better able to use and withstand violence, have dominated the protests. And while what prompted the protests initially was the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Morality Police, and by extension, the very existence of the widely despised Morality Police, now the demonstrators are expressing resentment and rage over the widespread poverty they have had to endure, and fury at the corruption and mismanagement by the clerics who rule the country. The phrases being chanted include “woman, life, freedom” and “Death to the Dictator,” in video footage shared widely online during the biggest wave of demonstrations to rock the country in three years. “Death to the Dictator,” meaning death to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is the most ominous threat yet made to the government: a demand for the overthrow of rule by the clerics.

“Iran state TV indicates at least 26 killed in unrest over death of detained woman,” Times of Israel, September 23, 2022:

Security forces have fired at crowds with birdshot and metal pellets, and deployed tear gas and water cannons, said Amnesty International and other human rights groups. Demonstrators have hurled stones at them, set fire to police cars and chanted anti-government slogans, the official IRNA news agency said….

Iran’s state-run media this week reported demonstrations of hundreds of people in at least 13 cities, including the capital, Tehran.

In fact, there have been tens of thousands, not hundreds, of people, in these demonstrations across the country , and they have been out in force not in 13 cities, but in more than 90 cities and towns. The state-run media are determined to minimize the size of the opposition.

The government has been trying to crack down on news and photographs of the protests from getting to the outside world. On Sept. 22, authorities arrested two female photographers, Niloufar Hamedi, of the reformist newspaper Shargh, and Yalda Moayeri, who works for the local press, as well as activist Mohammad-Reza Jalaipour.

Iran International, a London-based television channel, said prominent freedom of expression campaigner Hossein Ronaghi was arrested as he was giving an interview to them.

The US Treasury placed the so-called Iranian “morality police” on its sanctions blacklist, holding it responsible for Amini’s death and citing the “abuse and violence against Iranian women and the violation of the rights of peaceful Iranian protesters.”

Iranian authorities imposed some restrictions on the internet and blocked access to WhatsApp and Instagram.

“People in Iran are being cut off from online apps and services,” Instagram chief Adam Mosseri tweeted, adding that “we hope their right to be online will be reinstated quickly.”

By the weekend, the protests had spread. A report on the latest developments in Iran is here: “Iran hints at deeper crackdown after woman’s death in police custody triggers violent protests,” by Ali Arouzi, Hyder Abbasi and Rhoda Kwan, NBC News, September 23, 2022:

…For almost a week, there have been running battles between demonstrators and security forces in almost 90 cities and towns. The military said it would “confront the enemies’ various plots in order to ensure security and peace for the people who are being unjustly assaulted,” the government-aligned Tasnim News Agency reported, according to Reuters.

Protesters can be heard chanting various slogans in videos posted on social media. In one video uploaded on Twitter, a group of demonstrators in the city of Pakdasht shout, “Death to the dictator.” Another video shows demonstrators chanting, “Women, life, freedom,” and, “I will kill, I will, whoever killed my sister.”

Anger over the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, presents the government with its worst crisis in decades, according to Roham Alvandi, an associate professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

“These protests have rocked the very foundations of the Islamic Republic,” he said.

The message that a younger generation of Iranians is sending to their rulers and to the world is that the Islamic Republic is illegitimate in their eyes and they demand a secular democratic state that doesn’t interfere in their private lives,” he said.

The ayatollahs must be running scared. They’ve been unable to suppress the protests, which have only grown in size and in violence. They can’t possibly allow the Morality Police to again police women’s dress or behavior, as they have done for 42 years, and especially the wearing of the hijab; the response will be too violent. Indeed, one of the demands of the protesters has been the disbanding of the Morality Police altogether.

The theocratic despotism of the clerics in Iran has done more damage to Islam, in the eyes of a great many Iranians, than anything the West could have done to undermine it. The regime will likely weather this storm – it has the firepower, after all, and during the 2019 riots over fuel prices, it did not hesitate to kill 1,500 Iranians — but the Iranian young, who make up most of the protesters, have all across Iran demonstrated their widespread fury at the way they are being ruled. They can be killed, but not cowed. They are still enraged at those who have made their lives so miserable. They will not reconcile themselves to clerical rule. 

The government organized counter-protesters to come out after Friday Prayers on Sept. 23; judging by the videos released, those crowds were much smaller than the crowds of protesters, and consisted almost entirely of women dressed in black chadors. Instead of defending the government, they merely condemned the anti-government protesters as “Israel’s soldiers,” live state television coverage showed.

“Iranian state-organised marchers call for execution of protesters,” Reuters, September 23, 2022:

…”Offenders of the Koran must be executed,” they chanted.

The Twitter account 1500tasvir, which has 117,000 followers, reported heavy clashes in the central city of Isfahan between anti-government protesters and security forces.

It also showed anti-government street protests in several parts of the capital and in Shahin Shahr in central Iran.

State TV said 35 people had been killed in the unrest so far based on its own count and an official figure would be announced.

The anti-government protests are not expected to pose an immediate threat to Iran’s clerical rulers, who have security forces which have put down one protest after another in recent years, analysts say.

But the protests have clearly made the authorities nervous. Women, who have played a prominent role, have challenged the country’s Islamic dress code, waving and burning their veils….

Human rights group Hengaw said a general strike was held on Friday in Oshnavieh, Javanroud, Sardasht and other towns in the northwest where many of Iran’s up to 10 million Kurds live.

Internet blockage watchdog NetBlocks said mobile internet had been disrupted in Iran for a third time.

In fact, the general strike all over Iranian Kurdistan shows that the strike has also taken on, for the Kurds, a separatist aspect. The Kurds are demonstrating not just against the Morality Police, nor just against the economic corruption and mismanagement; they also want greater autonomy, as the Kurdish people, for themselves.

Twitter accounts linked to Anonymous “hacktivists” voiced support for the protests and said they had attacked 100 Iranian websites, including several belonging to the government.

Websites of the central bank, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and several state-affiliated news agencies have been disrupted in recent days.

On the Internet, the anti-regime hackers appear to have the upper hand. On the streets, the protesters keep on showing up, in ever greater numbers, and in more and more cities and towns. It will now require a crackdown by the army to suppress them, as it did in 2019, when 1,500 protesters were killed. And such a crackdown will only increase the widespread disaffection.

The government in Tehran has been shaken to its core, and no longer knows where to put its feet and hands. That’s a good thing. Now the Bidenites should not agree to a very bad deal that would provide this drowning regime with the lifeline of sanctions relief. Iran must be allowed to remain impoverished, in order that enough of its immiserated subjects rise up, yet again, to cry “Death to the Dictator” and this time, to make that wish a reality.