The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Iran’s regime at an impasse as protest movement defies crackdown

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The uprising in Iran, well into its third month, continues to defy expectations, persisting even amid an increasingly violent crackdown and opponents of clerical rule uniting across class and ethnic lines.

The movement, born out of long-seething anger over decades of repression, cascaded after police arrested 22-year-old Mahsa Amini — also known by her Kurdish name, Jina — in a Tehran metro station for violating Iran’s conservative dress code for women, then allegedly beat her to death and tried to cover it up. What began in Amini’s hometown in a Kurdish-dominated province has grown into a sustained, nationwide challenge to the regime — and one not easily defeated.

As weeks passed, the government escalated its deadly crackdown, especially in Kurdish areas, but the demonstrations persisted. They have left Iran’s leadership in what appears to be at an impasse, unsure of how far to go to regain control. The regime could fully unleash the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to crush the movement, but it would risk drawing even more ire from opponents at home and inviting further international condemnation.

What Iran’s protest slogans tell us about the uprising

“I feel it is not too late to save myself and others in my generation,” Nazanin, a university student in the city of Azad, told The Washington Post. Out of concern for her safety, she gave only her first name. She had seen no future for herself in Iran, she said, until the protests changed her, “like they changed many people.”

Day after day, demonstrators chant “woman, life, freedom” and “death to the dictator,” and burn images of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Women cast off headscarves, standing side by side with demonstrators who choose to wear them.

Major social upheaval is afoot — but Iran’s clerical leadership and the security forces backing it remain strong. At the first sign of unrest, authorities followed a familiar playbook. They cut off internet and cellular access, violently disrupted protests and launched mass arrest and intimidation campaigns, even targeting doctors and schools. More than 400 people have been killed, among them more than 60 minors, and more than 18,000 arrested, human rights group Hrana estimates. On-the-ground reporting is extremely difficult under the circumstances, so exact numbers are impossible to determine.

Each death, arrest and raid add to the public outrage. But Iran’s security state was built to withstand popular unrest. The Shiite revolutionaries who rose to power in 1979 created a parallel security force, the Revolutionary Guard, and a separate legal system, the Revolutionary Courts, to protect the Islamic Republic and its supreme leader.

Rights groups say Iran is escalating crackdown in Kurdish areas

Part of what’s changed is that many Iranians have given up on reform. Even if Tehran were to crush the protests or offer concessions — the latter which it rarely does — many Iranians have come to reject core values of the Islamic Republic. “Even if it’s repressed, there is a new discourse, new sense of defiance,” said Mohammad Ali Kadivar, a sociologist at Boston College who studies protest movements in Iran.

For decades, people have borne the daily injustices of an authoritarian theocracy structured around gender segregation. Young Iranians in particular “have seen declining living standards, every effort of reform closed off” and have “grown up with very little if any ideological attachment to the Islamic Republic,” said Manijeh Moradian, an assistant professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College who studies the Iranian diaspora.

The uprising is fueled by women and young people, but it’s leaderless in part because the state has arrested, exiled or sidelined most opposition figures. In 2009, millions of Iranians protested electoral fraud. The demonstrations were violently suppressed. In 2017 and 2019, thousands revolted against economic grievances and government mismanagement, and authorities killed hundreds in the resulting crackdown. Iranians know a worse crackdown could come, as when thousands of people were killed in purges in the decade after the revolution.

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The United States and Europe have left themselves few good options for a response. Before the uprising, Iran was already under extensive sanctions, among the most of any country. Decades of economic isolation — coupled with internal corruption and mismanagement — have devastated the economy.

In recent weeks, Washington and Brussels have reacted by designating more individuals and institutions involved in the violence. Ali Vaez, of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said while “morally justified, in practice they amount to feel-good policies” for the West, with little effect on Iran’s leadership. Broader sanctions, meanwhile, serve to punish Iranians collectively, intentionally or not, and have “empowered” the Revolutionary Guard, which controls much of Iran’s formal and black-market economy, he said.

In recent years, Western diplomatic engagement with Iran has centered around securing (and now resecuring) a nuclear deal, which would include sanctions relief. But as a result, there has been a “reluctance” to address other issues, such as Iran’s human rights violations, said Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a German-Iranian political scientist.

Iran has blamed the protests on “foreign instigators,” particularly Iran’s foes — such as America, Israel and Saudi Arabia — though it also remains sensitive to its international image. Pressure is growing at the United Nations, whose human rights body last week voted to create an independent fact-finding mission on the crackdown. Iran’s Foreign Ministry has vowed not to participate.

But many Iranians these days are very connected to the wider world online and crave an end to international isolation. In recent weeks, Iranian athletes have displayed small signs of solidarity with the uprising at international sporting events, much to the state’s chagrin. The unrest spilled over to the World Cup, where regime opponents and supporters clashed, and Iran’s national team has struggled to balance signals for tacit support for protesters and the need to ensure their own safety.

Back in Iran, people continue to be killed, arrested and scared into silence. Khamenei on Saturday praised the Basij, a volunteer militia connected to the Revolutionary Guard, in another sign that the violence could continue to worsen.

The movement does not seem set to fade on its own. Iran’s clerical leaders, and the security state behind them, will have to decide how far they are willing to go. Many supporters of the movement in Iran see international attention as one of their few, albeit limited, defenses.

“We will be on the streets until the day we find some peace from this constant injustice and oppression,” a 30-year-old woman from Sanandaj in Kurdistan province told The Post last month. Despite a near-total communication outage, she spoke anonymously out of concern for her safety — with the hope of one day speaking freely.