The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Iran’s streets are ablaze as it foments more trouble abroad

Protesters in New York call on the United Nations to take action against the treatment of women in Iran, during a demonstration near U.N. headquarters on Saturday. (Yuki Iwamura/AFP/Getty Images)

The protest movement sweeping Iran is shaking the legitimacy of the Islamic theocracy, which has responded with deadly force. At the same time, Iran’s provision to Russia of drones and manufacturing capability for building them, for use against Ukraine, poses a stiff new challenge for the United States and its allies. The combination of events is clouding prospects for negotiations to put a brake on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

In 2009, Iran was rocked by protests in support of opposition candidates after incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared victory. Thousands were arrested and, by some estimates, 72 were killed in what would become known as the Green Movement — named for the color of the reformist campaign and seen as a symbol of hope. Another bloody protest erupted over fuel prices in 2019, during which an estimated 1,500 people were killed.

But the current protests — sparked by the September death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman detained by “morality police” for not wearing her hijab properly — are far different than what’s gone before. The mass demonstrations, fueled by years of pent-up anger, have been nonreligious and feature demands for regime change. They are led by women and young people but have attracted sympathy across Iran’s population and regions. The protesters seem more fearless than previous ones; videos have shown young people rushing up to clerics and knocking off their turbans.

Iran’s rulers, finding themselves on the back foot, have unleashed a violent crackdown. Four hundred nineteen protesters have been killed, including 60 children, as well as 54 members of security forces, and 17,451 people have been arrested. On Saturday and Sunday, security forces used armored vehicles to fire live ammunition at protesters in and around the Kurdish region. Four people have been given death sentences for alleged participation in street marches — a reprehensible penalty for political protest. Nonetheless, the protests show no signs of weakening. For three days during the week of Nov. 14, hundreds of businesses were shuttered, students rallied and some industrial workers went on strike to mark the 2019 crackdown. Iran International, a Britain-based news outlet, reported that strikes have hit steel factories, signaling that the unrest is spreading to broader sectors.

Meanwhile, in brazen defiance of the West, Iran also has provided hundreds of Shahed-136 drones to Russia for use against Ukraine, and The Post reports that Iran and Russia have made a deal to begin manufacturing hundreds of drones on Russian soil. The flying, unmanned bombs have been launched at electric and water infrastructure. Moreover, the head of Britain’s security service disclosed on Nov. 16 that Iran has tried to kill or kidnap at least 10 critics based in Britain since the start of the year, and described Iran as the state actor that “most frequently crosses into terrorism” and is willing to use violence to silence its opponents.

This coalescence of domestic upheaval and aggressiveness abroad has seriously clouded prospects for reviving the Iran nuclear deal, signed during Barack Obama’s administration in 2015 but which President Donald Trump walked away from in 2018. Since then, Iran has ratcheted up its stockpile of enriched uranium close to what would be needed for a bomb. We have long felt that the agreement to restrain Iran’s nuclear effort was too important to be derailed because of other conflicts with Tehran. But it is now becoming quite clear that resumption of the talks cannot proceed with an Iranian leadership that is crushing its own people at home and helping Russia destroy Ukraine. The turmoil created by these other events is making the prospects for negotiation that could stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions ever more remote.

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