The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why the fabric of Iranian repression has begun to unravel

Participants hold a banner in Berlin on Oct. 29 during a demonstration intended to show solidarity with protesters in Iran. (Christophe Gateau/AP)

The Iranian uprising, now in its seventh week, has a simple slogan: “Women, life, freedom.” But its basic demand, that women no longer be forced to wear headscarves, challenges the primacy of the old men who run Iran’s theocracy. As the protesters pull off their scarves, the fabric of Iranian repression has begun to unravel.

We saw this week how hard the movement will be to stop. On Monday, the regime announced that it would prosecute about 1,000 of the protesters who mobilized after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. The government message was: Give up; we’re cracking down. The protesters’ defiant answer was a call for sit-down strikes. Activists on Tuesday posted videos of strikes at universities in Tehran and at least three other cities.

“It seems inevitable that some change in the system will be required if the regime is to survive,” said Norman T. Roule, a 34-year CIA veteran who managed the intelligence community’s Iran activities from 2008 to 2017, in an interview this week with the Cipher Brief. Roule has watched the regime crush past protests, but he said of this campaign: “The world is seeing crowds successfully taking on small groups of security personnel … .The regime’s tactics to neutralize unrest have proven unsuccessful.”

A sign of Iran’s anxiety about the demonstrations is its reported threat to attack Saudi Arabia, which it claims is supporting the protesters, in part through a London-based satellite broadcasting channel called Iran International. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Saudi Arabia had told the United States it feared an Iranian attack on the kingdom, in part to distract from the uprising.

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This movement’s momentum was conveyed in a tweet Monday by Hayder al-Khoei, a a member of one of Iraq’s most prominent Shiite clerical families. “Just landed in Tehran,” he wrote. “It doesn’t feel or look like a revolution is underway but there has clearly been massive sociopolitical changes: women now casually walking in public with no headscarves. Morality police likely to be defanged, at least temporarily, and maybe gone for good.”

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For a theocratic regime that claims divine authority, reform on the headscarf issue won’t be an easy option. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s 83-year-old supreme leader, believes that once he starts making concessions — even on something as seemingly small as women covering their hair — the broader authority of the regime will begin to erode.

Khamenei in the past has argued against compromise by citing the political demise of communism under the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who imagined that he could reform his system and still preserve its authority. The West is plotting to subvert Iran through “an imitation of the plan that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Khamenei said in a 2000 address quoted by a leading Iran expert, Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Cracking down on this movement will be difficult, in part because the protests are led by women and girls. Iran’s security forces include many conscripts who have mothers, sisters and daughters of their own. “Few ordinary security forces will be comfortable attacking women,” Roule argued. The regime must “detain protesters long enough to inject fear, but not so long as to bring their parents onto the streets,” he explained.

The Post's View: In Iran, they reported on Mahsa’s death. Now they are in jail.

Videos this week from Iran show security forces firing tear gas and other projectiles at crowds, but so far that has not stopped the unrest. The authorities haven’t been able to identify and suppress the organizers of a movement that is largely leaderless. And they struggle with a movement that now has deep roots, not only in cosmopolitan Tehran but in the Kurdish regions of the northwest and the Baluchi areas of the southeast. The dilemma for the regime is that a violent crackdown similar to China’s Tiananmen Square assault in 1989 might only deepen protests.

For a glimpse of what’s happening in cities across Iran, take a look at an Instagram account called 1500tasvir, which has collected cellphone videos of the uprising. Monday’s footage included shots of blood-red splatters on a mural in Qom of Khamenei and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the 1979 revolution, and scenes of demonstrations Monday at universities in 11 cities across Iran. “Do not call this a protest. It’s a revolution,” asserted a TikTok commentary reposted by 1500tasvir.

What can the Biden administration do to support this brave movement? Certainly, hardware to download Starlink satellite internet signals would help, to keep those videos circulating. And the United States shouldn’t throw this dreadful regime a hasty diplomatic lifeline by reopening nuclear talks while there is blood in the streets.

This movement, in the words of its anthem, a song called “Baraye,” seeks “a change in the minds of the fanatics.” That’s America’s cause, and the world’s, too. The protesters want a normal country. Maybe, just possibly, their time has come.