Protests in Iran: a barrier of fear has been broken. The regime may be at the point of no return


A woman dressed in black holds up a framed portrait of her son Siavash Mahmoudi in the air as she walks past on the sidewalk in the Iranian capital, Tehran. “I am not afraid of anyone. I was told to be quiet. I won’t be,” shouts the woman seen in a viral video on social media, her voice filled with emotion.

“I will carry my son’s picture everywhere. They killed him.”

Mahmoudi’s mother is among many Iranians who say the regime tried to silence them as they mourn their loved ones killed in ongoing demonstrations across the nation.

But the Iranian protesters, and their supporters, are defiant. For weeks, a nationwide protest movement has steadily gained momentum and appears to have bucked the government’s decades-long intimidation tactics. Slogans against the clerical leadership reverberate across the city. Videos of students waving their headscarves in the air while singing protest songs in classrooms have gone viral, as have images of protesters fighting members of the dreaded Basij paramilitary group.

These are scenes that were previously unthinkable in Iran, where Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei rules with an iron fist. But experts say these protests cut across Iran’s many social and ethnic divisions, breaking a decade of fear and posing an unprecedented threat to the regime.

Across Iran, protesters aim to expose the weaknesses of a clerical establishment that is widely accused of corruption and has suppressed dissent with arbitrary arrests and even mass executions.

The capital Tehran has been engulfed in protests since the death of Mahsa (also known as Zhina) Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, in mid-September after she was arrested by the country’s moral police for her dress code. .

Now, protests arise from time to time in various parts of Tehran each day. At night, the chant that has become a staple of the protests – “death to the dictator” – is heard from the roofs of the buildings. Khamenei is a reference that was once considered objectionable because of his high clerical status.

Anti-regime demonstrations have also spread to the Islamic Republic’s power bases, including the Shiite holy cities of Mashhad and Qom. Ethnic minorities – the Kurds in the north and northwest of the country and the Baluches in the southeast – have also protested, suffering what appear to be the most violent repressions, with several deaths.

Secondary schools and universities across the country are in a frenzy, and women and girls are ditching the compulsory headscarf, known as the hijab.

“These terrorists think our generation is the previous generation. We are not Let me assure you,” a protester at Tehran’s prestigious Sharif University of Technology told CNN, referring to Iranian police who have brutally attacked campus protesters and arrested scores of young people.

Videos on social media showed streets filling up shortly after news of the crackdown on students broke Sunday, with horns blaring in solidarity with protesters at the university, known for educating Iran’s best and brightest students.

“If the dust settles and we stop protesting, they will kill us even more. They will arrest even more people and send us to North Korea,” said the passionate protester. “This is not the end. I promise you that.’

CNN could not independently verify the number of dead and injured, but state media say 40 people have been killed since the demonstrations began in mid-September. Rights group Amnesty International says at least 52 have been killed. More than 1,000 people are believed to have been arrested, including journalists and artists.

Demonstrators chant slogans during a protest against the death of Mahsa Amini in downtown Tehran, Iran, on September 21, 2022.

Last week, Amnesty International said it had obtained a leaked document which ordered the commanders of the armed forces in all provinces to “combat mercilessly” the demonstrations, deploying riot police and some members of the army’s Revolutionary elite, the Basij paramilitary force and the military. plainclothes security officers.

CNN has not seen the leaked documents obtained by Amnesty International and cannot verify the report. CNN has reached out to Amnesty International about how it obtained the leaked documents, but has not heard back.

CNN has also reached out to Iranian government officials for comment on Amnesty International’s report, but has not heard back.

In addition, Amnesty International said it had seen evidence of sexual assaults against female protesters – CNN was unable to verify this. Video on social media also showed women being dragged by the hair through the streets by Iranian security forces.

The threat posed by these protests, according to analysts, is existential for the regime, and is one of the biggest challenges the Islamic Republic has faced in years.

“These are primarily very, very young people, a young generation that seems to have completely lost faith that this Islamic Republic can be reformed,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute in Washington, DC.

“They are breaking away from the previous generation who wanted to reform the system from within,” Parsi added. “It seems that this new generation has no faith in that.”

The 83-year-old Khamenei, who commented on the protests for the first time on Monday, blamed – without evidence – the US and Israel for instigating the protests. He has also made it clear that the regime will block the protesters’ desire for change.

A protester holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in support of Mahsa Amini in front of the Iranian embassy in Brussels on September 23, 2022.

“I make it clear that these riots and insecurity were perpetrated by the US and the false occupying Zionist regime (Israel), as well as their paid agents, with the help of some Iranian traitors abroad,” Khamenei said in his speech.

The current protests may eventually be quashed or simply lose momentum, but analysts say Iran can expect a nationwide cycle of demonstrations in the coming months. The latest demonstrations follow similar but less widespread anti-government protests in 2019, 2017 and 2009.

“The protests cut across sectarian social lines, bringing together much broader strata of Iranian society than we have seen in years,” said Ali Vaez, director of the International Crisis Group’s Iran Project. “But the previous movements in Iran also suffer from the same shortcomings. Mainly, lack of leadership.

“It is very difficult to sustain and be able to sustain a movement that will bring the regime to its knees without coordination and leadership in the long term,” said Vaez.

Still, the protesters seem emboldened more than ever, sensing a window of opportunity in Iran’s seemingly imminent development of a nuclear weapon, which would strengthen the regime’s power and further isolate it.

This is the scenario that anti-regime Iranians are desperately trying to avoid, Vaez said.

“Worse than a regime that kills and represses its own people is a regime that has a nuclear weapon and kills and represses its own people,” he said.