Iranian regime under unprecedented pressure

The now-familiar chant of ‘death to the dictator’ can be heard in every major Iranian city and in every district of the capital Tehran.

Protests have repeatedly erupted in Iran in the last few years over several issues, including the economy, the regime’s foreign policy — such as its priority of supporting militia and terror groups — and Tehran’s political and social suppression. It is practically inevitable that protests over any given issue in the Islamic Republic of Iran will turn into expressions of popular desire for regime change if they continue for long enough, achieve sufficiently broad geographic reach or are otherwise emboldened.

We have seen this several times since the end of 2017 when a protest in the city of Mashhad began with a focus on worsening economic conditions but quickly spread to more than 100 other localities and assumed the provocative anti-government message that is expressed in slogans like “death to the dictator.” Those slogans have been repeated in as many as 10 nationwide uprisings over the past five years, as well as in countless smaller-scale protests.

Economic distress again became the key driving factor in November 2019, when a sudden increase in government-set gasoline prices sparked spontaneous demonstrations in nearly 200 cities and towns. The authorities cracked down with particular ferocity on that movement, killing 1,500 participants in a matter of days.

But new protests emerged in more than a dozen provinces only two months later, with participants not only repeating calls for regime change but also taking direct aim at the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which was the main perpetrator of the killings.

Last month, the latest uprising emerged not out of economic protests but rather from the funeral of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman who had been killed at the hands of Tehran’s so-called morality police.

Mahsa Amini fell into a coma on Sept. 13 after being taken away for “re-education” because she was deemed to be showing too much hair. She died three days later and, although the regime claimed she had merely suffered a heart attack, her body showed signs of abuse and her family insisted that she had previously been in perfect health. The ensuing protests naturally demanded accountability for Amini’s death, while also condemning the underlying enforcement of mandatory hijab laws, which has intensified in the past year under the leadership of ultrahard-line President Ebrahim Raisi.
It did not take long before the now-familiar chant of “death to the dictator” could be heard in every major Iranian city and in every district of the capital Tehran, including those that had once been considered strongholds of support for the clerical leadership. The demonstrations have now lasted more than a month and the message of support for regime change has only become more apparent throughout that time.

Teenage girls in high school classrooms have filmed themselves defacing images of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. Chants of “death to the dictator” have been accompanied by similar slogans, like “we do not want the Islamic Republic” and “death to oppressors, whether the shah or (Khamenei).” And these have been endorsed by a broad range of demographic and social groups.

In addition, strikes have been organized within Iran’s oil industry with the express purpose of expressing solidarity with the uprising and pressuring security forces to halt their violent repression. So far, that repression has killed more than 400 people, according to the intelligence network maintained by the National Council of Resistance of Iran. That organization has been instrumental in keeping the international community informed about the goings-on inside the Islamic Republic, especially in light of Tehran’s attempts to cut off internet access and isolate Iranian activists from one another and the world.

During the first of the uprisings of recent years, the supreme leader himself was compelled to acknowledge that the opposition had played a leading role in organizing the constituent demonstrations. The regime’s fear of the NCRI has clearly persisted through the ensuing five years and that fear has proven to be plainly justified in the context of the current uprising, which has seen ordinary civilians meeting well-armed suppressive forces head-on while wielding only bare hands and stones. There are growing reports that some of those security forces are now defying direct orders to fire upon their fellow Iranians and to avoid “unnecessary sympathy,” in the words of the regime’s judiciary chief. And this comes in the wake of much speculation that the authorities have been spread too thin to mount an effective counteroffensive against the protesters.

The presence of vast numbers of female activists has no doubt contributed to that situation and, with oil workers now threatening an already fragile economy, it should be increasingly difficult for foreign observers to deny that this uprising could lead to a new revolution and the long-sought-after transition away from the clerical rule and toward the true democracy that most Iranians support.

• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh

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