Iran is in a state of disruption unprecedented in the 43 years since the Islamic revolution, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, substituted a religious oligarchy for the 2,500 year-old Persian monarchy. The nation has erupted in anti-regime protests more than once in the past 43 years, but there is a fundamental difference between previous waves of demonstrations and what is happening today.
According to the ultra-conservative Javan Daily, a paper affiliated to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), “93% of the protesters” are no older than 25 which, it observes, marks the rise of a “new generation of rioters in the country.” Another difference is that women have played a leading role this time.
On September 13, 2022 Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman from a Kurdish family, was with her brother in Tehran when she was arrested by Iran’s infamous morality police. Her nominal offense was that she was wearing her hijab “improperly”. Mahsa, who also went by the Kurdish name Jhina, was taken to the Vozara Detention Centre, where she collapsed. Three days later she died. According to media reports, her head had been banged against a vehicle and she had been beaten on the head with a baton. The authorities stated that she died of natural causes.
Inspired by their young women, the Iranian nation erupted in protest. Thousands took to the streets in cities across the country. Very soon the demonstrations had spread to all 31 of the country’s provinces. At first they were directed against the severe dress code imposed on women and enforced by the morality police. But soon the protesters began targeting the regime itself and the Supreme Leader, and posters with the slogan “Death to the Dictator” began appearing. Security forces responded with pellet guns and tear gas, and finally live ammunition.
Soon it became impossible to conceal the fact that people were being shot dead on the streets. On December 3 the state security council of the Iranian interior ministry issued a statement, giving the total number of people killed as 200. It described those shot as members of the security forces, people involved in terrorist acts, those killed by foreign-affiliated groups but falsely described as having been killed by the state, rioters and “armed anti-revolutionary elements who were members of secessionist groups”.
Iran’s establishment, hitherto watertight on state security issues, started to fracture. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, a top general in the IRGC, went public to say that more than 300 people had been “martyred and killed” during the unrest. A number of foreign-based rights organizations declared that his figure was an under-estimate, and put the death toll at more than 400. On December 8 the BBC quoted a Human Rights Activists’ News Agency (HRANA) assessment of those so far killed by the security forces as 475.
December 8 was also the day of Iran’s first execution of a citizen for participating in the current unrest. Mohsen Shekari was hanged, after being found guilty by a Revolutionary Court of fighting and drawing a weapon. Death sentences have been handed down to at least 10 other people, arrested during the protests.
“I’m absolutely horrified, shocked, and outraged at Mohsen Shekari’s execution,” said Javaid Rehman, UN Special Rapporteur in a radio broadcast, adding that there was evidence that Shekari had been tortured, and that he had been denied access to a lawyer. “A show trial without any due process,” was how one activist put it.
The extent of the frustration experienced by huge swaths of the Iranian people has been brought home to Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a particularly personal way.
His niece, Farideh Moradkhani, a well-known rights activist opposed to the Iranian regime, was arrested on November 23. Two days later, in a video statement shared by her brother, she called on people around the world to urge their governments to cut ties with the Iranian regime.
“Be with us,” she urged, “and tell your governments to stop supporting this murderous and child-killing regime…Now, in this critical moment in history, all humanity is observing that the Iranian people, with empty hands, with exemplary courage and bravery are fighting the evil forces.”
Then on December 6, Badri Hosseini Khamenei, the Supreme Leader’s sister, published an open letter castigating her brother’s actions.
“The regime of the Islamic Republic,” she wrote, “…has brought nothing but suffering and oppression to Iran and Iranians. I hope to see the victory of the people and the overthrow of this tyranny ruling Iran soon…I oppose my brother’s actions,” she continued, “and I express my sympathy with all mothers mourning the crimes of the regime, from the time of Khomeini to the current era of the despotic caliphate of Ali Khamenei.”
Badri Khamenei included criticism of the way her daughter had been arrested. If this was the way Khamenei’s police treated his own niece, “it is clear that they will inflict thousands of times more violence on the oppressed sons and daughters of others.”
With members of his own family denouncing his leadership and his regime, Khamenei must be feeling both anger and humiliation. There was widespread speculation last week that the regime was offering the public the considerable concession of disbanding the notorious morality police. The Iranian attorney general, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, appeared to imply that the country’s morality police might be a thing of the past. He said enigmatically: “The morality police had nothing to do with the judiciary and have been shut down from where they were set up.” Iran watchers are still scratching their heads about his exact meaning.
Meanwhile Iran remains a seething cauldron of opposition to the regime, which is being met by increasing levels of suppression. Will the anger and resentment eventually boil over into outright revolution? Many believe the regime is sufficiently grounded to contain and outlive the current wave of protest. Others hope that this is the beginning of the end for Iran’s Islamic republic.