Iranians are angry with the regime as they watch the world weigh on the response
Iranians are angry with the regime as they watch the world weigh on the response

Iranians are angry with the regime as they watch the world weigh on the response

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They were some of the most dramatic anti-government protests in the 43-year history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, with riots in major cities, towns and cities, across the social spectrum, and from ethnic Kurds to Persians to Azeris.

Street protests have led to the deaths of at least 17 people over the past week, according to Iranian state television.

But despite this, and as protesters and police began a seventh day of street clashes on Thursday, analysts and diplomats doubt that the outbreak of disorganized and leaderless political unrest could lead to the overthrow of the regime, or even meaningful change within a rigid Iran. , multi-layered coercive control system.

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“We have to put aside all illusions that the Islamic Republic will collapse,” said Hamidreza Azizi, an Iran expert at the German Institute for International Affairs and Security, a think tank in Berlin. “The political system has a lot of capacity in terms of tools of repression that have not been used.

“But for quite a long time we have misfocused on the right political entities that may or may not get out of this or that process.

“For now the protests themselves and the fate of society are more important than the nature of the future political system.”

Nonetheless, analysts have detected a different dimension to the latest wave of political unrest that could shape Iran over the years and may change the calculations of Western leaders who, despite their hatred of the Iranian regime, are seeking to restore the nuclear deal with Tehran and possibly capitalize on it. . Iran’s huge energy resources to ease global oil and gas prices.

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Even skeptics warn that anything can happen in Iran. Some 45 years ago, few would have thought that a street protest over a newspaper article that angered seminary students in the holy city of Qom would lead months later to the collapse of Iran’s monarchy and the establishment of a theocratic regime.

This month’s protests were sparked by the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini, 22, who was detained in Tehran by a notorious paramilitary unit that imposed an Islamic dress code on September 13 and fell into a coma while in detention under unclear circumstances. .

An overturned police car catches fire in Bojnurd, Iran


Unlike previous protests rooted in specific economic or political grievances, this wave was sparked by a highly emotional public reaction to the death of Amini, an ethnic Kurd whose family accuses her of being physically abused by her captors.

The fiery and violent protests have drawn people across gender, political, economic and ethnic dividing lines into the streets. They united in an unprecedented show of unity and collective anger targeting security forces and symbols of state power, including police stations, paramilitary group headquarters and public propaganda shows.

“This is different from previous protests,” said Mahdi Ghodsi, an Iran specialist at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies. “There is no leader for now, but a leader will emerge. This is a process that will take longer.”

Iran has been here before.

In 2009, following the disputed re-election of hardline populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest, sparking months of unrest and political repression. Since 2018, numerous political protests over economic frustration have rocked Iran.

The two rounds of protests changed the count abroad. Officials in Washington under both presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump and elsewhere in the West saw them as an opportunity to replace the Islamic regime that took over Iran after the 1979 revolution.

But both cases failed to produce political change, and in fact preceded the regime’s efforts to increase repression and remove moderates from its ranks. Iranian authorities appear to be preparing for a crackdown, comparing the protesters to the jihadist group Isis.

“In its conspiracy, the enemy unites, mobilizes and organizes all its capacities and equips them with weapons of violence,” the Revolutionary Guards said in a statement on Thursday.

Political scientists have long questioned the ability of protests to bring about change in places like Iran. In recent years, protests in Russia and Hong Kong have prompted autocratic leaders to step up repression. The proliferation of sophisticated electronic surveillance tools has made cracking down on dissent easier for determined autocrats.

Iranian soldiers march during the annual military parade marking the anniversary of the outbreak of the devastating 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, in the capital Tehran on Thursday


In theory, street protests and the ensuing wave of repression could divide the ruling elite and produce political breakthroughs. But the Iranian regime has systematically marginalized any would-be reformer from its hierarchy, heavily empowering the military, security services and religious hardliners who are fanatically loyal to supreme leader Ali Khamenei.

Questions about the efficacy of protests are more than academic. Western policymakers are struggling to decide how much rhetorical or material support they should give protesters.

So far both the White House and the US State Department have made relatively strong statements of support. “Today, we stand with the brave citizens and brave women of Iran who are currently demonstrating to secure their basic rights,” President Joe Biden said in a speech to the United Nations this week.

The UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has offered a warmer press release calling for the regime to exercise restraint in its efforts to quell the protests. Media outlets in Saudi Arabia and Israel, which are hostile to Iran, have played down the protests, while those in more friendly Iraq and Qatar have played down them.

In fact, many countries are at a loss as to whether to adjust their Iran policies to account for the tide of anti-regime protests.

“We can amplify Iran’s voice, for sure,” one Western official said. “But how to capture the moment and turn it into real change?”

Raising the voice of Iranians can influence regime functionaries, claw at their consciences and get them to speak up or at least stop the machine of repression, even covertly.

“They stopped showing up for work,” the official said. “They stopped arresting people. The machine is inoperable and the army retreats. But how did that turn into political change with a new leader and a new system?”

Many wonder what if there was anything outsiders could do to help the protesters. On Thursday, Iranian authorities appeared to have blocked internet connections in most countries, reducing protesters’ ability to communicate with each other and much of the world.

Iranian protesters take to the streets in Tehran

(AFP via Getty Images)

Some backers have followed a proposal by tech billionaire Elon Musk to smuggle the Starlink satellite internet console into Iran. But such a project would pose a high risk to those transporting and hiding such a device and would have no impact for weeks.

Mr Ghodsi suggested raising the status of Masih Alinejad, an outspoken Iranian journalist in exile and host of a popular show American Voice a program calling on Iranian women to take off their headscarves and launch a movement.

“Still Alinejad can be a great leader,” he said. “This movement is indebted to Masih. He’s brave. He’s charismatic. Never before in the world have we seen a woman lead a revolution.”

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