Mass protests in Iran are the regime’s biggest challenge in years

A protester holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in support of Amini, a young Iranian woman who died after being arrested in Tehran by the Islamic Republic’s moral police, on Istiklal street in Istanbul on September 20, 2022.

Ozan Kose | AFP | Getty Images

The protests that rocked Iran over the death of a 22-year-old woman in police custody have spread to at least 50 cities, even as police arrest and kill demonstrators in a crackdown.

Videos showing women burning their headscarves and crowds chanting “death to the dictator” amid burning cars flooded social media, despite the Iranian government shutting down the country’s internet.

The uprising was sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, an Iranian Kurdish woman who was arrested for allegedly violating Iran’s strict rules on wearing the hijab, an Islamic head covering for women. He died while in police custody, reportedly suffering multiple blows to the head.

Iranian authorities claim no wrongdoing and say Amini died of a heart attack; but his family, and many Iranians, accuse the government of a cover-up. The alleged eyewitnesses said they saw Amini beaten by Iran’s feared moral police.

The country’s authorities now say an investigation is ongoing. The image of Amini being intubated and unconscious in a hospital bed sparked outrage across the country.

For the conservative Islamic theocracy of 86 million people, whose rigid laws prohibit dissent and impose frightening penalties on those deemed a threat to the ruling regime, the act of insurgency is enormous — and the first time a protest movement of this scale has been led. by women. Appearing in public as a woman without a head covering is a criminal offense in Iran and carries a prison sentence.

The Iranian government puts the official death toll of those killed in the unrest at 17; one advocacy group, the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, said government forces had killed 36 people.

CNBC was unable to independently verify these figures.

What this uprising has revealed is the complete illegitimacy of not only the Islamic Republic, but the 1979 Iranian Revolution, in the eyes of this new generation.


Iranian historian at London school of economics

The US responded by condemning the Iranian government’s actions, and has imposed sanctions on Iran’s moral police, which are blamed for Amini’s death.

“Mahsa Amini was a courageous woman whose death in the custody of the Morality Police was another act of brutality by the Iranian regime’s security forces against its own people,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement. The Treasury Department also said it was imposing sanctions on several senior Iranian military commanders.

Foreign Minister Antony Blinken said in a separate statement: “The Iranian government needs to end the systemic persecution of women and allow peaceful protests.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to CNBC’s requests for comment. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline conservative cleric, made no mention of Amini’s death or protests during his address to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday.

‘Our people don’t back down’

For many young Iranians, there is little to lose.

Iran is suffering from massive brain drain, as those who were able to leave the country did, and years of living under Western-imposed sanctions and economic mismanagement by the government have thrown the economy into disarray. Faced with faltering negotiations with the US over Iran nuclear deal talks and escalating unrest, the Iranian rial has fallen 8% against the dollar this month alone. Inflation jumped past 50% in June.

An image obtained by AFP outside Iran on September 21, 2022, shows Iranian demonstrators burning trash cans in the capital Tehran during protests for Mahsa Amini, days after he died in police custody. –

– | application | Getty Images

“They are beating and killing protesters in all cities in Iran, and the police are trying to get help from neighboring countries like Afghanistan,” a woman in the capital Tehran told CNBC, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of government retaliation.

He described some of the police forces facing the protesters as “very young,” saying he and fellow demonstrators would tell them, “why are you against us? Come and protest with us!”

In response, he said, “some of them swore at us, but most said ‘they forced us.'”

Iran not only oppresses the women there but also makes the world hate us.

The situation is getting more dangerous by the day, said the Iranian who spoke to CNBC.

“Since the government cut the internet outside of Iran, things have gotten worse,” an Iranian woman living in Dubai told CNBC, whose family members inside Iran communicate with her using the shaky connection provided by a VPN.

“But our people are not backing down and want to continue fighting to overthrow the government,” he said, also speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of government retaliation.

State aggression against women for failing to wear the hijab properly “has always been this bad for 43 years,” the woman said, referring to how long Iran has been an Islamic Republic, founded after the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

He described how “we were humiliated by the authorities and religious extremists” for showing too much hair and that “they take you to a re-education center where you have to take religious classes by force, and if this isn’t the first time they imprison you.”

“Iran has not only oppressed the women there,” he added, “but it has made the world hate us.”

A challenge to the ‘whole political Islam project’

The protests, while certainly not the first in Iran in recent years, speak volumes about the attitude of the younger generation towards the Islamic Republic and their current desperation, said Roham Alvandi, an Iranian historian and professor at the London School of Economics. The speed with which these insurgencies spread and the international support they gained presented a significant challenge to the regime.

“This is an uprising sparked by Mahsa Amini’s generation, who have lived most of their lives in a highly secure country, a shattered economy and a global pariah, and they blame this right at the feet of the Islamic Republic,” Alvandi wrote on Twitter.

“What this uprising has revealed is the complete illegitimacy of not only the Islamic Republic, but the 1979 Iranian Revolution, in the eyes of this new generation. This has enormous implications not only for Iran, but for the entire project of political Islam. .”

TOPSHOT – Nasibe Samsaei, an Iranian woman living in Turkey, cuts her ponytail during a protest outside the Iranian consulate in Istanbul on September 21, 2022, following the death of an Iranian woman after she was arrested by the state morals police in Tehran.

Yasin Akgul | AFP | Getty Images

The most significant anti-government insurgency in Iran over the past two decades was arguably Iran’s “Green Movement” in 2009, in which hundreds of thousands of Iranians, mostly students, protested against election results widely believed to be rigged.

But this time, “the protesters were much bolder,” said Evan Siegel, an academic who has co-published books on Iran’s history. “Driven by their anger over decades of repression and humiliation, they have held back in street battles with repressive organs, especially the hated para-police.”

“For the first time I remember, the regime’s medieval attitude towards women had become a central issue in the mass resistance to the regime,” he said.

Members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) march during the annual military parade in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz before the attack.

STRINGER | AFP | Getty Images

However, analysts do not see the possibility of the regime being overthrown, mainly because of the strength and size of its security apparatus. Some Iranians say they don’t know whether to have hope.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and its paramilitary force, the Basij, number about 250,000 and law enforcement personnel make up an additional half a million across the country, reinforcing the coercive force. These bodies were instrumental in stopping the 2009 Green Movement and protests since.

The incident also underscores the irony of the Biden administration’s efforts to pursue a deal with Tehran to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, some say, which lifted sanctions against the country in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

“There is no better portrait of the incoherence of Iran’s policies in Washington than the image of Raisi and the UNGA podium as protests rage against the Islamic Republic across Iran,” Behnam ben Taleblu, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told CNBC.

“Iranian women have boldly protested against Iran’s previous discriminatory hijab laws,” she added. “This is not the end of the story.”

Correction: Evan Siegel is an academic who has co-published books on Iranian history. Previous versions misspelled the name.