Are the protests in Iran just doomed to flare and then be crushed?

Regime is again using violence in crackdown, but leaderless movement of young women has left it unsure about how to respond

“This is not a protest anymore. This is the start of a revolution,” chanted a group of students outside the science department of Mashhad University, as the unprecedented protests in Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini continued into their 18th day on Monday.

That assessment, at least until recently, was not shared by Washington or European capitals. Expressions of support have been issued by the White House, some sanctions imposed and vague promises to loosen the Iranian regime’s blockade of the internet made. But overall the Biden administration has assessed this uprising as doomed to flare and then be crushed under the boots of the Revolutionary Guards. That after all is the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The baton, censorship and the police cell has a long and successful track record of violently quelling dissent.

Overseen by the 83-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Middle East’s longest serving ruler, it seems implausible that Iran’s deeply entrenched conservative leadership would abandon its normal instinct for a security response. It has worked in the past.

In July 1999, demonstrations by University of Tehran students sparked by the closure of a reformist newspaper linked to the then president, Mohammad Khatami, turned the capital into a battlefield. The security services went through the dormitories picking up ringleaders, and after six days, the protests were crushed. Many of the students remained in jail for up to six years and their demands for a free press and less screening of parliamentary candidates were ignored.

The women’s rights protests of 2005 and 2006, including the One Million Signatures campaign in support of legal equality, eventually foundered after more than 50 of its members were arrested and many left for exile, worn down by state harassment.

Again, in 2009, after the apparent rigging of a presidential election result, the Green movement spontaneously took to the streets, three-million strong, under the slogan “where is my vote?”. The confrontation was symbolised by the death of 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan, an aspiring musician, who was shot by a sniper as she stood at the edge of a protest. A mobile phone video that captured her dying on the pavement circulated the world in much the same way as the picture of Amini on a hospital bed. It took the state six months, but the protests became more sporadic as they were crushed through mass arrests, show trials and the killing of scores of middle-class demonstrators. In forced confessions on TV, the protesters had to admit they had been in league with the US.

In 2019, the security services shot dead as many as 1,500 people when downtrodden working-class Iranians protested after the sudden tripling in petrol prices.

So if the past is a tutor, it is easy to write the obituary of this round of protests.

The arrests have already started, including of influential journalists such as the comment editor of Shargh newspaper and the reporter that first broke the story of Amini’s custody. The scale of the crackdown is disputed, but it is reported that in Zahedan in Sistan and Baluchestan province as many as 57 have died after protests over the police rape of a girl while in northern Iraq camps Tehran said hosted Kurdish opposition groups were indisputably strafed by its drones. The fact that official sources say 400 students in the Greater Tehran area alone have been released after questioning shows the scale of the round-up.

Khamenei used the old playbook to claim the riots were being created by familiar villains, the US and Israel. The UK ambassador to Tehran was also summoned, accused of fomenting the protest. Every effort is being made in the media to separate the protesters from a legitimate concern about the death of Amini, portraying them as either western agents or intoxicated by the internet. The interior minister has criticised the protest slogan “woman, life and freedom”, derived from Kurdish liberation movements, saying those chanting it seem to see freedom in the nakedness and shamelessness of women.

Yet Iran has this capacity to surprise. Any reading of The Pride and the Fall, Anthony Parson’s self-reproachful account of his failure as British ambassador to Tehran to predict the toppling of the Shah of Iran in 1979, knows Iran can leave the closest observer dumbfounded.

Few would have expected these demonstrations to have lasted as long as three weeks, even if their scale, hard to judge from the west, waxes and wanes. And it appears as if the Iranian leadership is caught off balance and nervous about the way its legitimacy is being challenged by this new phenomenon of a leaderless unarmed revolution, which is even drawing in schoolchildren.

There are many explanations for this. Reformist voices have warned the regime to tread carefully. During a discussion among 100 university professors at the University of Tehran on Sunday, the former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said: “It is wrong to think that people can be ignored. You cannot rule with violence.” Prof Sadegh Zibakalam, who has challenged the regime’s line on a number of topics, has demanded to know who gave the order to send “militiamen in plain clothes” to attack and beat students at the elite Sharif University of Technology in the heart of Tehran.

Many parents rushed to the university when the security services threatened to run amok on Sunday and 65 professors said in a statement that Iran’s yyoung people had a right to be angry about the oppression inflicted on them. A galaxy of artists, football stars and Olympic wrestlers have found ways to show their sympathy with this new generation.

The protesters are tech-savvy, and despitethe regime’s best efforts to shut down the internet in Iran, videos of pop-up protests and police brutality pour on to social media and the Farsi language networks that broadcast into the country, including Iran International and the BBC. The revolution, if that is what it is, will be televised.

But above all, it is the leadership role taken by young women and girls, some chanting death to Khomenei, that has confused Iran’s deep state and made it unsure how to respond.

In the past, the regime has had no compunction punishing feminism as a western corruption. Figures such as Shahla Sherkat, the editorial director of Zanan for 16 years, has been repeatedly harassed for publishing articles about Islam and women’s rights, as well as the mandatory hijab. The women’s wing in Evin prison is a living monument to the repression of women’s rights.

The hijab has become a central symbol of revolutionary morals for the regime. Ayatollah Khomeni, Iran’s first supreme leader, once said: “If the Islamic revolution is to have no other result than the veiling of women, then that is enough for the revolution per se.”

The current administration has taken that message to heart. In August, Iran’s Headquarters for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Setad-PV) even published a 119-paged paper detailing the Islamic Republic’s hijab policy. The way that policy has been enforced has been the spark.

Women say they resent the clerical establishment deciding women are not just in need of protection, but also a threat to male honour. “From a young age, girls internalise the concept that there is something fundamentally sinful and shameful about their bodies,” wrote Ava Homa, an Iranian Kurd and the author of Daughters of Smoke and Fire. “The veil I had to wear was a symbol of alienation from others as well as from myself.”

But now there is a cultural counter-revolution, and sometimes they are harder to stop than political revolutions with leaders. Speaking to the reformist newspaper Etemaad this week, the academic Shahindokht Kharazmi argued that 80% of Iranians were born after the revolution and had an internet-era mentality in which defeat was not an option.

She said modern Iranian women wanted “to choose what to wear and what not to wear, to decide what to do and what not to do”.

Kharazmi added: “For 40 years, people have been facing restrictions on having a party, being together, celebrating and being happy, and these restrictions have been piled on top of each other and have manifested in the form of protests. In fact, these protests are not only the protest of this generation, but a symbol of all the limitations that have been created in the political and social context over many decades.”

The Iranian poet and scholar Fatemeh Shams tried to pin down what Khamenei is confronting. It is a much more radical citizen-based politics that links it to transnational projects across the world, such as Black Lives Matter, she told CNN and unlike the Green Movement, it is not yet about cheated votes.

“This generation is very different from the 1980s. Their imagination and aspirations are very different,” Shams said. “My generation could never imagine going to the streets to make a bonfire of our veils. This is an act of political suicide that the Islamic Republic is committing by targeting this generation.”


Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Iran to investigate death of schoolgirl in early days of protests
Authorities respond to growing outrage over death of Nika Shakrami, but continue violent crackdown

Emma Graham-Harrison

05, Oct, 2022 @7:21 PM

Article image
Iran sends police to end Mahsa Amini protests as reports say seven killed
Internet blackouts and Instagram blocks also reported amid anger after 22-year-old woman’s death in custody

Patrick Wintour in New York

21, Sep, 2022 @2:16 PM

Article image
Iran protests: family of boy, 9, killed in night of violence blame attack on security forces
Kian Pirfalak was one of several people killed on Wednesday as anger over Mahsa Amini transforms into wider protest against the regime

Patrick Wintour, diplomatic editor

17, Nov, 2022 @6:59 PM

Article image
Almost 12,500 people arrested in Iran protest crackdown, says rights group
Families struggle to contact relatives as opposition calls for movement to focus on plight of thousands in jail

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

21, Oct, 2022 @2:50 PM

Article image
Iran: deaths reported as security forces open fire on protesters in Zahedan
Crowds in Mahabad also fired on during rally held after funeral of protester Ismail Mauludi

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

28, Oct, 2022 @4:48 PM

Article image
Iran protests: deaths in custody spark human rights concerns
At least three demonstrators believed to have been killed in custody amid violent crackdown on anti-government protests

Saeed Kamali Dehghan Iran correspondent

09, Jan, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Iran blocks capital’s internet access as Amini protests grow
Social media platforms have also been cut off in areas of Tehran and Kurdistan as videos of dissent go viral

Weronika Strzyżyńska and agencies

22, Sep, 2022 @12:08 PM

Article image
Iran carries out first known execution over anti-government protests
Uncle of Mohsen Shekari, who was convicted of ‘waging war against God’, says family have not been told location of body

Patrick Wintour and Maryam Foumani

08, Dec, 2022 @5:19 PM

Article image
Iran state TV says ‘rioters’ shot and killed in last month's protests
Report is fullest admission authorities have given of violence used to stem unrest

Michael Safi in Amman

03, Dec, 2019 @9:12 AM

Article image
Iran enters ‘critical’ phase as it tries to quash anti-regime protests
Activists accuse state forces of deploying heavy weaponry, as attacks on Kurdish areas intensify

Oliver Holmes

22, Nov, 2022 @4:02 PM