Amnesty International says at least 208 people have been killed, with the actual death toll potentially much higher.
The events of the past two weeks have driven home an important lesson: The people of Iran have rediscovered their sense of agency — and no amount of state-administered violence will make them forget it.
The government is now restoring Internet service after a week-long shutdown that made it extremely difficult for outside observers to have a full picture of what was going on. What’s clear, though, is that these protests were deadlier than previous waves of unrest — including the one in 2009, which followed a fraudulent presidential election, or those in late 2017 and early 2018, which were sparked by the worsening economic situation.
The recent backlash was the clearest combination of an economic and political uprising we’ve seen to date. More and more Iranians feel as though they have little to lose; we saw that again and again in the grainy images of bravery and desperation that made it to the outside world.
This is a bad sign for the long-term viability of the Islamic republic. The regime can now have few illusions about the degree of popular support it enjoys among the population. It has long tried to compensate through a combination of subsidies and intimidation.
There are plenty of people outside of Iran, including within the U.S. government, salivating over what they see as the imminent demise of the Islamic republic. What they have failed to do so far, though, is offer any credible plans about what comes next.
This is because they are out of touch and disconnected. That’s not their fault. They aren’t there.
Various overseas groups — including the MEK, a reviled exile group that was long on the State Department’s terror list, and some backers of the last shah’s son — have been pushing claims that they’ve helped to establish an organized and representative opposition movement inside Iran that connects diaspora figures with protesters on the ground. Such assertions aren’t just disingenuous, they’re downright dangerous as they encourage people to risk their lives in the streets while having providing nothing as protection or actual support.
The reality is simple: The protests inside Iran were started by ordinary Iranians. They were the ones who put their lives on the line (and correspondingly bore the brunt of the violence). No one led them in this show of discontent — especially no one from the outside.
It’s ironic that members of the Iranian diaspora would choose to make claims to the contrary. In so doing, they are actually mimicking the regime, which likes to insist that protesters are just taking orders from foreign puppeteers.
Nonsense. Iran’s ultimate fate will be decided by the Iranians who live in the country — and a key constituency, for better or worse, will be those who currently hold the guns. The turning point in nearly every revolutionary uprising comes when members of the security forces or the military finally decide they’re no longer willing to kill their own compatriots for the sake of the regime that employs them.
Unfortunately, we are not seeing that yet. While there is always some anecdotal evidence of defections from the Revolutionary Guard Corps, so far we see few signs that significant numbers of the regime’s armed defenders are taking the side of the protesters. In fact, the opposite is true: Security forces did as they were told and gunned down hundreds of unarmed people.
Organization is the advantage that the authorities in Iran have always held over their opponents. That’s been the case in every previous round of protest in the Islamic republic’s 40-year history thus far.
Not only did they have a plan for putting down protests, they had one for shutting up the families of their victims as well. We’re hearing from many sources that officials are forcing the families of those killed to pay for recovering the bodies for burial. The government is also forcing survivors to say that the victims were regime loyalists killed by protesters. All this tells you everything you need to know about the brutality of the regime. But it also tells you that the government is far from willing to give up.
The intricacy of such plans, though, ignores a simple truth of 21st century life: Facts can’t be as easily wiped from the historical record as they may have been in the past. They can be obscured, and they can be manipulated, but they can’t be hidden for good.
It won’t be long before we see another round of protests, perhaps even bloodier than this one. Whether you’re on its side or fighting against it, the current Iranian regime has never valued human life.
That’s because the rulers of the Islamic republic think of “the people” as property. Once again, over the past few weeks the Iranian people have shown they are anything but. Standing up against that old and failed proposition is valiant and should be supported. But in a moment where there is no clear alternative, it’s also incredibly dangerous.
Ultimately, whether to take those risks or not is up to the people of Iran. So, too, is deciding on how to govern themselves in the future.