What’s up with the raging protests in Iran?

What’s up with the raging protests in Iran?


Protesters. Illustrated | Getty Images

Last week a young woman named Mahsa Amini he was killed by Iran’s morality police in Tehran after she was arrested for improperly wearing her headscarf or hijab. Her killing sparked a growing set of protests in the capital Tehran, as well as in cities across the country, including Kerman, Mashhad and Shiraz, led by people sharing videos and photos of the incident, the protests that followed and the predictable repression by security forces as well as heavy civilian clothing known as Basij. How large are the protests and are they likely to threaten the survival of Iran’s authoritarian regime? Here’s everything you need to know:

What are protests?

The killing of Amini, 22, is the clear proximate cause of the protests. In classic autocratic fashion, authorities tried to blame her death on a heart attack, with state media releasing videos purported to show her collapsing during her arrest. However, pictures from the hospital showed the young woman bleeding from her ear, and other officials said she died of severe head trauma. The immediate outbreak of protests, which included women burning their hijabs and crowds chanting “death to the dictator” – an almost unthinkable challenge to authoritarian Iran – led the country’s hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, to apologize directly to Amini’s family . “Your daughter and all Iranian girls are my children and my feeling about this incident is like losing one of my loved ones,” Raisi told the family, promising an investigation into the incident. His words reassured no one.

The sequence of events is reminiscent of the 2010 killing of a young Egyptian named Khaled Said, or the event that sparked the Arab Spring in 2010 — the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia after police stopped him from selling fruit and vegetables without a permit. Rage and revulsion at a single arbitrary exercise of authoritarian violence quickly turned into a broader spasm of disillusionment with the regime itself. Bloated security sectors are notorious for systematically abusing citizens, who have few substantive political rights or civil liberties to use against the state. And Iran’s repressive policies against women have been a long-standing source of tension, particularly in big cities where people tend to be more liberal and less supportive of the Islamic Republic’s ideological foundations.

Unlike the mammoth protest movement that emerged in the wake of the disputed 2009 presidential election, the Green Movement, the protesters are explicitly calling for an end to the regime. Just as Tunisians, Egyptians, Syrians and others weary of oppression across the Arab world were chanting “The people demand the fall of the regime,” the Iranians are suddenly issuing a head-on challenge to the country’s theocracy in the streets. Raisi’s speech at the United Nations on Wednesday made no mention of the protests, and the elderly Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also remained silent on the issue.

How durable is Iranian authoritarianism?

Iran’s dictatorship is now older than most alive in the country, and after more than 43 years, it is clear that the regime will not be ousted bloodlessly. Iran’s system of government, which features an elected legislature and president (albeit with strict restrictions on who can run), successfully co-opts legions of potential dissidents into the system itself while maintaining a darkly intelligent, circular power structure. Essentially, all roads lead back to the Supreme Leader and his hand-picked Guardian Council. Elected officials operate under the illusion of autonomy, which can be withdrawn at any time when politics violates the imperative of the official regime.

However, in recent years this structure has been insufficient to prevent mass protests. Successful authoritarian rule is based on a mixture of threatened repression, prosperity and stability. However, despite strong economic growth this year, Iran’s isolation from the global economy continues to leave young people with diminished life prospects. The World Bank estimates that nearly a third of the country’s youth are not working, in school or in any other form of vocational training. This has led to waves of popular unrest that seem to be arriving more and more frequently. The regime was forced to rely on brute coercion, a tactic that alienates the population as often as it develops. After the 2009 protests, thousands of Green Movement leaders and activists were arrested and dissident leaders were put on show trials. However, the government carefully moderated the violence, as Borzou Daragahi writes, thereby “avoiding excessive international attention and total public outrage.”

What is the point?

If you were a gambling man, you’d bet on the regime overcoming these protests with a combination of repression and concessions. This has happened in every previous street mobilization – the well-funded and massive security forces restore order and the protesters go home with little to show for their efforts. But because the regime has restricted access to the Internet and social networking sites, and because journalists cannot operate freely in Iran, it is difficult to know exactly how large the protests have become. Political scientists have found that for a street uprising to succeed, dissidents must somehow disrupt regime elites, persuade security forces not to use violence to maintain the status quo, and force a process of negotiated transition to reluctant rulers. There is no evidence yet that this is still happening in Iran, where the country’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps wields extraordinary political and economic power.

A final problem for authorities in Tehran: Amini was from Iranian Kurdistan, where protests are fierce. At least 7 protesters have already been killed in the area. The country’s Kurdish minority has long been exterminated in power by Tehran, and this incident could be the trigger for a wider revolt against the regime, one that has not only ideological but also ethno-religious characteristics. And while Khamenei and his enforcers may be able to fight a one-front battle against defenseless protesters, adding a breakaway region could complicate the government’s efforts to quell the insurgency.

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