Images from inside Iran of the spreading protests have gone viral on the Internet, including sometimes gruesome pictures of those killed in the streets. Amnesty International counts more than 140 dead since the unrest began Nov. 15 because of public anger over a hike in gas prices. Sources in Iran told the New York Times that more than 200 have been killed, 1,900 injured and 7,000 arrested.
“As the existential threats to the regime grow, it will employ every manner of violence to eliminate their perceived enemies. It is the one skill Iran has successfully mastered,” says Roya Hakakian, whose book “Assassins of the Turquoise Palace” documented Iranian murder of dissidents abroad.
The uprising is sustained partly by Iranians outside the country, who are exchanging videos of the protests and violent suppression. Masih Alinejad, the U.S.-based activist who in 2014 started a women’s protest movement called “My Stealthy Freedom,” said this week that she had received and reposted more than 2,000 videos from inside the country.
The recent wave of demonstrations against the Iranian regime has been powerful partly because it gathers so many streams of dissent — from Iran and the diaspora; from women’s rights activists and working-class Iranians angry about living standards; and from the diverse ethnic groups in Iran.
Iran’s economic troubles, which catalyzed protests, stem partly from harsh U.S. economic sanctions imposed by President Trump last year as the United States withdrew from the 2015 nuclear agreement. The United States has promoted the recent signs of unrest. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last Tuesday that U.S. agencies have collected more than 20,000 videos and other protest messages from inside Iran, despite the regime’s attempts to block the Internet.
In recent interviews, dissident Iranians in the United States described intimidation by Tehran’s operatives, including death threats. Where Saudi Arabia’s suppression of dissent, including the brutal murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, has rightly been condemned, Iran’s assaults have received less attention.
Alinejad, whose #WhiteWednesdays campaign urged women to remove their head covering and wear white scarves in defiance of the clerical leaders, said she had been harassed since she launched this movement. She said Iranian state television initially broadcast a false report that she had been raped by three men to intimidate her, and that a commentator later threatened to cut off her breasts and tongue.
When Alinejad persisted in her social media protests, she received death threats, harassing phone calls and a warning that she would be arrested if she ever entered an Iranian embassy. Alinejad first reported these threats to the FBI five years ago.
“For the regime, my life is not as important as my hair,” Alinejad said in an interview. “They’re scared of me. This gives me power.”
Last year, Iranian security officers interrogated Alinejad’s mother in her small village near the Caspian Sea, hoping to force her to denounce her daughter on television. The mother refused. In September, the authorities arrested Alinejad’s brother, Alireza; he was prevented from seeing his family after his sister began publicizing the recent protests. Undaunted, Alinejad filed a lawsuit in federal court in Washington this week accusing the regime of “terrorism, torture, hostage taking” and other crimes.
Saeed Ghasseminejad, an activist jailed in Evin prison in 2003 before escaping Iran, said he has received repeated death threats and harassment since joining the Foundation for Defense of Democracies as an analyst in 2014. Like Alinejad, he has told the FBI that some threats appeared to come from people inside the United States. An FBI spokesman wouldn’t discuss Iranian activities in the United States.
Iranian dissidents abroad face greater danger. Last month, an activist named Massoud Molavi, who ran a website called Black Box, publishing details about corruption in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was murdered in Istanbul. In October, Ruhollah Zam, a dissenter who ran a news network called Amadnews with 1.4 million followers, was lured from his exile home in Paris and kidnapped to Iran, in what the IRGC boasted was a “complicated intelligence operation.” In 2017, Saeed Karimian, the chief executive of an independent news channel called Gem TV, was murdered in Istanbul.
These brave Iranian dissidents all convey the same story: Iran is brutally suppressing popular dissent, and the world is watching.