The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At U.N. assembly, Iran’s leader ignores an uprising at home

6 min

You’re reading an excerpt from the Today’s WorldView newsletter. Sign up to get the rest free, including news from around the globe and interesting ideas and opinions to know, sent to your inbox every weekday.

At the dais of the U.N. General Assembly, Iran’s hard-line president bemoaned the “oppression” and “militarism” unleashed by the United States. “We are the defenders of a fight against injustice,” said President Ebrahim Raisi, who also styled himself as someone who championed “the rights of the Iranian people.” But absent within the parade of tired slogans often spouted by the functionaries of Iran’s Islamic Republic was any recognition of what was transpiring in Iran as Raisi spoke.

On Wednesday, Iran was in the grips of a fifth consecutive day of unrest, as angry protests rocked cities in various corners of the country. Authorities appeared to restrict access to social media apps such as WhatsApp and Instagram after videos proliferated showing demonstrators clamoring for the downfall of the regime and clashing with police. In other instances, security forces were depicted indiscriminately attacking civilians on the streets. At least seven people have been killed while hundreds have been injured and arrested, according to rights groups monitoring the situation.

The catalyst was the death last week of Mahsa Amini, 22, in the custody of Iran’s so-called “morality police.” Iranian state media claimed Amini — a Kurdish woman from western Iran who had been visiting the capital Tehran — was detained after exiting a metro station, suffered a heart attack, and slipped into a coma. But her family has rejected this version of events, saying she was physically assaulted and brutalized by authorities even though she was observing the regime’s strict dress codes for women. The regulations have been compulsory since Iran’s 1979 revolution.

Images of the young Amini lying stricken in a hospital bed inflamed social media in Iran. Her death compelled some women to go to public areas and remove their headscarves; in some instances, the traditional garb was set on fire by protesters.

The ferocity of the protests is fueled by outrage over many things at once,” my colleagues detailed. “The allegations Amini was beaten in custody before she collapsed and fell into a coma; the priorities of Iran’s government, led by ultraconservative Raisi, who has strictly enforced dress codes and empowered the hated morality police at a time of widespread economic suffering; and the anguish of Amini’s family, ethnic Kurds from a rural area of Iran, whose expressions of pain and shock have resonated across the country.”

Speaking a few slots after Raisi at the General Assembly, President Biden hailed “the brave citizens and brave women of Iran, who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights.” French President Emmanuel Macron told the BBC’s Persian news service that “the credibility of Iran is now at stake regarding the fact that they have to address this issue.”

An aide to the regime’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made overtures to Amini’s family and promised that the state’s institutions “will take action” to make amends. Raisi earlier promised investigations, casting Amini as his “own daughter.” But public trust in and goodwill toward Iran’s authorities are in short supply. Raisi, after all, is still infamous for his role in the 1980s as part of a regime committee that ordered the execution of thousands of political prisoners.

“These protests are a response to the status quo of severe political and social repression by a government that refuses to even acknowledge its people’s demands,” Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, which is based in New York City, told me. “The anger and fury we’re witnessing on the streets is palpable. The disconnect between the people of Iran and the state’s rulers could not be more apparent.”

Ghaemi added that what is notable about this round of protests — compared with, say, 2019, when mass demonstrations over the economy shook the country — is “the overwhelming presence of women who are risking their lives to be front and center at these protests.”

That bravery is all the more striking given the existing precedents. In 2019, 2017 and 2009, following elections critics believed were rigged, authorities deployed severe and repressive tactics to subdue protests. “The survival of the Iranian regime is based on its brutality not its popularity,” Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me. “I think many Iranians understand this system is not sustainable, but they also realize this regime has repeatedly shown itself willing to kill en masse to stay in power.”

Yet there’s also a sense that something may have to give. “Some conservative and hardline members of parliament even believe that apprehending women in the street should end for good,” wrote Najmeh Bozorgmehr in the Financial Times. “Increasingly, women are drawing support from men and religious factions who are now sympathetic to their campaign.”

For whatever their domestic travails, Iran’s leadership remains defiant on the world stage. Talks over restoring the nuclear deal forged between Tehran and world powers in 2015 appear stalled; Raisi and Iran’s hard-liners are intent on securing a better deal than the one that was broken by the Trump administration in 2018, and Biden and his allies are loath to make further concessions to Iran — not least before the midterm elections.

Some analysts contend that the protests show the importance of Washington engaging with Iran on terms well beyond its regime’s nuclear portfolio. “U.S. policy should be designed to not only counter the destructive ambitions of the Iranian regime, but also to champion the constructive ambitions of the Iranian people,” Sadjadpour said.

Such a vision has yet to be articulated by the current U.S. administration. On Wednesday, Biden reiterated his belief in the importance of diplomacy to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. At the same time, some Republican lawmakers in Congress are contemplating legislation that would make it more difficult for Biden to lift sanctions on Iran in return for some constraints on Tehran’s uranium enrichment capabilities.

“Even if there is a deal, neither the United States nor Iran really has a strategy for the other,” Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank, told me. He gestured to the political divisions in Washington that could see a future Republican administration reverse whatever Biden manages with Tehran. “You’ll have a deal that will be weak and very likely will … collapse under the weight of all the other issues,” he added.

At the same time, Raisi and the figure looming above him, Khamenei, see Iran’s future in tightening alliances with countries outside the West, including Russia, China and India. It’s a solidarity that is transactional at best and still won’t significantly offset the economic damage wrought by U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil exports.

“There’s a kind of parallel universe where some leaders in Tehran want to live, but reality keeps catching up with them,” Vatanka said.