The mass protests in Iran are the biggest challenge to the regime in recent years

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

Ozan Kose | AFP | Getty Images

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

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

The uprisings were sparked by the death of Mahsa Amin, an Iranian Kurd who was arrested for violating Iran’s strict rules on women wearing the hijab, the Islamic head covering. He died while in police custody and allegedly received several blows to the head.

Iranian authorities have denied wrongdoing and say Amini died of a heart attack; but his family and many Iranians accuse the government of a cover-up. Alleged eyewitnesses say they saw Amin being beaten to death by Iran’s morality police. Iranian authorities say an investigation is underway. Images of an intubated and unconscious Amin in a hospital bed sparked outrage across the country.

For the conservative Islamic theocracy of 86 million people, with rigid laws that ban dissent and punish those deemed a threat to the ruling regime with fearsome punishments, the acts of rebellion are massive – and the first time a protest movement of this scale has been organized. by women. Appearing in public as a woman without a head covering is a criminal offense in Iran and can result in prison time.

The Iranian government estimates that the official death toll from the unrest is 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 numbers.

This uprising has exposed the complete illegitimacy of not only the Islamic Republic, but also the 1979 Iranian Revolution in the eyes of this new generation.

Roham Alvandi

Historian of Iran at the London School of Economics

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

“Mahsa Amini was a courageous woman whose death in moral police custody was yet another brutality against her own people by the Iranian regime’s security forces,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement. The Treasury Department also announced that it had imposed sanctions on several senior Iranian military commanders.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a separate statement: “The Iranian government must end its systematic persecution of women and allow peaceful protest.”

Iran’s foreign ministry and mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline conservative cleric, made no mention of Amin’s death or the protests in a speech to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday.

“Our people will not back down”

For many young Iranians, there is very little to lose.

Iran suffers from a massive brain drain as those who can leave the country do so, and years of living under Western sanctions and government mismanagement have left the economy in tatters. Faced with negotiations with the US over the Iran nuclear deal and rising unrest, Iran’s rial has fallen 8% against the dollar this month alone. Inflation rose over 50% in June.

An image obtained by AFP outside Iran on September 21, 2022 shows Iranian protesters burning a trash can during a rally for Mahsa Amin in the capital Tehran. –

– | Afp | Getty Images

“They are beating and killing protesters in every city in Iran, and the police are trying to get help from neighboring countries like Afghanistan,” one woman in the capital, Tehran, told CNBC, speaking anonymously for fear of government retaliation.

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

He said in response, “Some of them curse us, but most say they forced us.”

Not only has Iran oppressed its women, it has made the world hate us.

The situation is becoming more dangerous by the day, Iranians who spoke to CNBC said.

“After the government cut off the Internet outside of Iran, things have only gotten worse,” an Iranian woman living in Dubai, whose family members in Iran communicate with her through shaky connections provided by a VPN, told CNBC.

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

The state’s aggression against women who did not wear the headscarf properly has “always been this bad for 43 years,” she said, referring to how long Iran has been an Islamic republic established after the country’s Islamic revolution in 1979.

She described how “authorities and religious extremists shame us” for showing too much hair and “you’re taken to a re-education center where you’re forced to learn religion and if it’s not the first time, they imprison”. “

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

A Challenge to the “Total Project of Political Islam”

The protests, which are certainly not the first in Iran in recent years, speak volumes about the younger generation’s attitude towards the Islamic Republic and their current despair, says Roham Alvandi, an Iranian historian and professor at the London School of Economics. The speed with which these uprisings spread and international support is a major challenge for the regime.

“This is a rebellion unleashed by Mahsa Amin’s generation, who have lived most of their lives in a highly secured country, a devastated economy and a global pariah, and they lay the blame at the feet of the Islamic Republic,” Alvandi wrote on Twitter.

“This uprising has exposed the complete illegitimacy not only of the Islamic Republic, but also of the 1979 Iranian Revolution in the eyes of this new generation. It 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 off her ponytail during a protest outside the Iranian consulate in Istanbul on September 21, 2022, following the death of an Iranian woman after being arrested by the country’s morality police in Tehran.

Yasin Akgul | AFP | Getty Images

The most significant of Iran’s anti-government uprisings in the past two decades was arguably Iran’s “green movement” in 2009, when hundreds of thousands of Iranians, mostly students, protested election results believed to have been rigged.

But this time, “the protesters are much bolder,” says Evan Siegel, an academic who has co-published books on Iranian history. “Moved by decades of repression and humiliation, they have withstood repressive agencies, especially the hated parapolice, in street battles.”

“For the first time that I can remember, the regime’s medieval attitude towards women has become a central theme of mass resistance to the regime,” he said.

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

STRINGER | AFP | Getty Images

Still, analysts see little chance of toppling the regime, particularly given the strength and size of its security apparatus. Several Iranians have said they simply don’t know if there is hope.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and its Basij paramilitary force number about 250,000, and law enforcement personnel across the country number an additional half a million, bolstering coercive power. These bodies contributed to the suppression of the Green Movement in 2009 and the protests since.

The events also underscore the irony of the Biden administration’s efforts to strike a deal with Tehran to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which lifted sanctions on the country in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

“There’s no better illustration of the incoherence of Washington’s Iran policy than the image of Raisi and the podium at the UN General Assembly while anti-Islamic Republic protests raged across Iran,” Behnam ben Taleblu, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told CNBC.

“Iranian women have bravely protested Iran’s discriminatory hijab laws in the past,” he added. “This is not the end of this story.”

Correction: Evan Siegel is an academic who has co-published books on Iranian history. An earlier version misspelled his name.