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Opinion Iran and Russia protests expose their authoritarian regimes’ frailty

A Sept. 21 protest in downtown Tehran over the death of a woman detained by Iran's "morality police." (AP Photo) (AP)

Repressive regimes such as Iran and Russia operate under the premise that if they admit any error, allow any dissent or countenance any protest, their society might crumble. But what we are seeing in Russia and Iran reveals something equally true: Regimes that push their people to the breaking point risk a full-scale rebellion.

Protests in Iran continue more than a week after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died after being taken into custody by the “morality police” for the offense of allegedly violating the country’s strict dress code. The Post reports: “The anti-government protests she inspired are still raging across Iran. Demonstrators, many of them women, are burning hijabs and fighting back against police; they are tearing down posters and setting fire to billboards of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader.” More than 30 people have been killed. The Post has verified video showing the police firing into crowds of protesters.

At the United Nations General Assembly meetings last week, the Biden administration was scathing in its denunciation of Iran. President Biden on Wednesday declared, “Today we stand with the brave citizens and the brave women of Iran who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen all denounced the regime’s brutality, and the Treasury Department announced new sanctions against the morality police. (Iran is under a slew of sanctions already.) On Friday, The Post reported, Treasury “modified U.S. sanctions to let technology companies counter the Iranian government’s internet lockdown and surveillance.”

This is a more robust response than what we saw under President Barack Obama in 2009, when protests broke out in Iran during the so-called Green Revolution. With his remarks, Biden has made clear his concern that the West not appear indifferent to the plight of a repressed people.

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Then there is Russia. In its unprovoked war on Ukraine, Russia’s military continues to suffer grievous losses. The Kremlin has staged what Western leaders have called phony referendums in areas of eastern and southern Ukraine, designed to signal the occupied regions’ supposed desire to join Russia. And Russian President Vladimir Putin has called up as many as 300,000 reservists — which more than anything else has moved Russians to take to the streets to express their ire at the country’s assault on Ukraine.

Putin’s moves have cost the lives of tens of thousands of Russians, triggered crippling sanctions, brought disgrace on the country and failed to achieve Putin’s aim of toppling Ukraine’s government. Now Russians are choosing either to flee or to fight conscription. At one protest, The Post reported, a man yelled: “I have no intention of dying for Putin.”

Putin has increased the punishment for failure to report to 10 years in prison, NPR noted, a sign of the seriousness of the resistance. “Rights advocates say police detained more than 1,300 people in protests that erupted in dozens of Russian cities,” NPR added, “with crowds yelling ‘No to war!’ and ‘Putin to the trenches!’”

No doubt Putin will continue to brutally quash dissent. But he cannot suppress the persistent evidence of discontent within Russia over the conduct of the war. What with Russia’s faltering economy and near total isolation in the international community — when China is said to have expressed “concern and questions” about the conflict, you know Russia is truly the odd one out — Putin is in a much weaker position than he was earlier this year. Now is the time to maintain support for Ukraine’s offensive.

In addition to tightening the screws on sanctions, the United States can make another significant contribution to the world’s antiauthoritarian movements: It can model respect for civil liberties and human rights at home — including rights for reproductive freedom — and conduct transparent, accurate and peaceful elections.

Our Western democracy, unlike the authoritarian regimes in Iran and Russia, is not yet in chaos. We need to ensure it stays that way.

Note to readers: I will be off for Rosh Hashanah, returning on Wednesday. For all those observing the Jewish New Year, I hope 5783 is a sweet, healthy and happy one.