By Arab News
By Dr. Majid Rafizadeh *
Widespread protests in Iran, which are primarily due to people’s dissatisfaction with the regime’s political repression, restrictive religious laws, human rights violations and economic hardships, have shaken the core of the theocratic establishment.
The latest protests have a distinct character and are not just limited to the regime’s repressive restrictions on women’s rights. Mohsen Mahdian, a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, admitted: “The events that happened in these two days are unprecedented. These protests were unprecedented in the last 40 years. Why unprecedented, because there has never been a period of protests in such a way that you can see violence and disturbance from the first hour. The real story is not the hijab, the story is not about the morality police or the death of Mahsa (Amini), they are targeting the system. And this is obvious in their slogans if you analyze them logically over the past two days. You will understand that the slogans are clearly saying that our problem is not the issues that have been said, it is the principle of the rule.”
The Iranian regime has resorted to its modus operandi of employing brutal force to crack down on the demonstrators, vilifying the protesters and crushing the opposition. Amnesty International stated that it has recorded “the deaths of dozens of men, women and children killed by the security forces. The organization believes the real death toll is higher and is continuing its efforts to identify victims.” It has also documented “sexual assaults and other gender-based violence by security forces, including violently pulling women by the hair because they removed their headscarves.”
Besides killing protesters, the regime has arrested hundreds of people, including human rights defenders, political activists and lawyers, as well as journalists.
Four institutions appear to be playing a crucial role in the crackdown: The judiciary, the intelligence community, the security forces and the IRGC. To enforce the law, these branches of the government also utilize voluntary and paid paramilitaries and militias, such as the Basij.
More importantly, the authorities have cut off internet access in order to isolate the Iranian people from the rest of the world and prevent the news and horrific videos of the regime’s brutality from spreading beyond its borders. UN Human Rights Office spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani told journalists in Geneva: “We are concerned that the disruption to communications services has serious effects on people’s ability to exchange information, to carry out economic activities and to access public services. This undermines numerous human rights, notably the right to freedom of expression. We call on the authorities to fully restore internet access.”
When it comes to cracking down on internet users, the IRGC’s cyber unit is most likely involved. The Supreme Council of Cyberspace was set up in 2012 in order to centralize and more efficiently monitor internet users. The Iranian government was previously labeled an “enemy of the internet” by Reporters Without Borders. The same group and the Committee to Protect Journalists have also labeled Tehran one of the worst enemies of press freedom.
It is worth noting that the people of Iran have become fearless and are quite capable of confronting the regime’s forces of suppression on their own. The US and Europe do not need to intervene directly or attempt to actively shape the protest movement. However, Western governments should recognize they have a responsibility to level the playing field in areas that are out of reach for the opposition’s resistance units.
Iran’s protest movement is threatened by suppressive measures that are already being dramatically escalated by the regime. The US and Europe have the tools to provide large segments of the Iranian population with reliable internet access. This would help them to go on organizing their demonstrations and countering the IRGC’s efforts to shut down all activism, while also allowing citizen journalists and the general public to reveal the true extent of the protests.
In addition, the international community must act to hold the regime’s authorities accountable and end the impunity they have long enjoyed. As Amnesty International pointed out: “We ask all the people of the world to sign our global petition and demand decisive action from their leaders. An independent investigative and accountability mechanism must be established by the UN Human Rights Council for the most serious crimes under international law committed by the Iranian authorities. People in Iran deserve more than empty words. The crisis of systemic impunity that has long prevailed in the country must end, and it must end now.”
If the West acts, not only can it save thousands of lives in Iran, but it also stands to gain a great deal from such a move.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist.