Could this be the straw that breaks the Islamic Republic?
By Zyad Osman, Staff Writer
On September 12th, a young woman fell unconscious while in police custody during a visit to family and friends in Tehran, the Iranian capital. Three days later, she would be pronounced dead. Police and Iranian authorities would dispute the circumstances of her death as an increasing body of evidence mounted suggesting she had been brutally beaten to death by police and the Iranian Guidance Patrol, commonly colloquialized by the Iranians as the ‘morality police’. Mahsa Amini would be buried by her family in her hometown of Saqqez, which would quickly become the site of anti-government demonstrations.
Anger over her death rapidly spilled into neighboring regions before engulfing the most major population centers, including the capital, Tehran, by the 19th of September. What started as the grief and anger of one family has ignited into the largest popular rebellion in Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which brought the current Ayatollah regime into power.
Amini’s death does not mark the first time a woman has died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody for violating Iran’s stringent morality laws. In 2007, Iranian urologist Zahra Bani Yaghoub was arrested by Guidance Patrol officers after being seen in public with her fiancé on the grounds that they were not yet married. She died just a day later, with the given explanation being that she committed suicide, an excuse her family did not accept after discovering blood in her nose and ears. This raises the question — Why did Mahsa Amini’s death spark a national rebellion and an outpouring of international support, while that of Bani Yaghoub garnered little attention beyond an investigation from a human rights NGO?
First, it is important to understand the history of civil movements and protests in Iran since 1979. Despite being one of the most brutal totalitarian regimes in the Middle East, the Islamic Republic is anything but stable. While reliable data is difficult to extract from Iran’s highly opaque institutions, many analysts tend to agree that the country has been in a near constant state of rebellion since the ‘Day of Rage’, a series of protests that took place in 2011 following the first Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, with a major set of protests taking place almost every year since then, 2022 being no exception. In late May of this year, a series of protests broke out in the cities of Dezful and Mahshahr in the southwestern province of Khuzestan over the increased price of bread. These protests then evolved, as chants of bread and work were substituted for anti-government slogans such as: “Death to [President] Ebrahim Raisi” “Death to [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei”.
At the time of Amini’s death, these protests were ongoing and while there is no evidence suggesting that the two movements were coordinated, the Iranian police forces began to buckle under the increasing pressure of civil disobedience, evident from the inconsistencies in government reactions. For example, during the early stages of the protests, government officials were uncharacteristically restrained in their reactions. Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi issued only a meek warning when asked about the protests during a UN conference in late September, stating “There is freedom of expression in Iran … but acts of chaos are unacceptable.” This tone changed, however, as the protests grew in scale. According to the Oslo-based NGO Iran Human Rights, “the number of protesters killed by security forces has risen to at least 201 people. Of those, 23 were under 18 years of age.”
There is evidence that suggests the change in approach on the Iranian government’s part is due to a realization that this movement may spiral into a revolution that could unseat those currently in power. After all, there is precedent for this in Iran’s previous revolution. This point of view was reinforced after the last week of September, where increasingly harsher restrictions were placed on internet access across the country—a strategy used three years ago in an attempt to quell another set of mass protests.
Every other civil movement in Iran in the past decade has seen the underlying lynchpin of the regime, the Ayatollah, emerge unscathed, so experts have cautioned against excess optimism. In an interview with the CBC, Janice Stein, a founding member of the Munk School of Global Affairs, said “Are the police and the army willing to fire on their own people? […] In some countries they are not, and that’s where revolutions succeed. In other countries, they are.” Here she outlined what she believed to be an essential requirement for the success of a revolution: there must of course be pressure on the regime from enough segments and classes within the population, but there also must be internal division within the ruling class. Whether the latter is true would be exceptionally difficult to determine from the perspective of an observer.
What stands true in any case is that if the current protests in Iran are to lead to any substantial reform of the current political system, or the ousting of the ruling class and supreme leader, it would have to take a high level of level of public will in the face of a government that has repeatedly proven its disregard for basic human rights. Additionally, the movement would also have to act cohesively to come up with a replacement or interim government should the Ayatollah regime collapse or step down, something that seems unlikely given the decentralized and grass-roots nature of the protests.