Veteran Iran experts have highlighted one crystal-clear difference between the current nationwide uprising against the clerical regime and previous protests: The revolt over the murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on September 16 after she was arrested by the infamous morality police has sustainable momentum.
The morality police seized the young Iranian-Kurd Amini in Tehran because she was not in compliance with the Islamic dress code that mandates she cover her hair with a hijab. The protests started as an act of potent defiance against the regime’s hardcore misogyny and morphed into calls for the abolition of the theocratic state.
Over three months of protests have blanketed Iran’s 31 provinces and resulted in not calls for soggy political reformism (see the Green Movement example of 2009) but rather the dissolution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Iranians are demanding, with a single-minded ferocity, “Death to the dictator.” The dictator is the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who has ruled over the oil-rich country since 1989.
Jason Brodsky, an Iran expert and policy director of the US-based United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), told me, “The revolutionary sentiment among significant segments of Iran’s population still continues. The Iranian people are finding creative ways to express their disgust – with not only more demonstrations planned on January 19-20 but also the burning of government banners featuring Khamenei and [Qasem] Soleimani and the hanging of their own banners above major highways in the country. There is a fearlessness which is unprecedented, and it will be difficult for the security forces to put that genie back in the bottle.”
“The revolutionary sentiment among significant segments of Iran’s population still continues. The Iranian people are finding creative ways to express their disgust – with not only more demonstrations planned on January 19-20 but also the burning of government banners featuring Khamenei and [Qasem] Soleimani and the hanging of their own banners above major highways in the country. There is a fearlessness which is unprecedented, and it will be difficult for the security forces to put that genie back in the bottle.”Jason Brodsky
The US government assassinated the former Iranian regime general Soleimani in 2020 due to his terrorism, including his overseeing the killing of over 600 American military personnel in the Middle East.
The rage over Soleimani’s death continues to fuel the jingoism of Tehran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, who declared in early January, “We have not and will not forget the blood of martyr Soleimani. The Americans must know that revenge is certain, and the murderers will have no easy sleep.”
“We have not and will not forget the blood of martyr Soleimani. The Americans must know that revenge is certain, and the murderers will have no easy sleep.”Ebrahim Raisi
Raisi was sanctioned by the US government for his role in the massacre of 5,000 political prisoners in 1988, as well as for the slaughter of roughly 1,500 demonstrators in 2019.
All of this helps to explain that Iran’s clerical regime is a high-intensity state-sponsor of international terrorism and imposes violent repression on its citizens.
The US government under both Republican and Democratic administrations has classified Iran’s regime as the worst international state-sponsor of terrorism.
Hamid Charkhkar, a professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, who was born in Iran, told me, “With the cold weather this winter and extreme suppression by the regime, we currently see fewer protests on the streets in major cities of Iran. However, people’s anger against the mullahs grows stronger by the day; soon, it will burst again and create a much bigger and hopefully final blow to Ali Khamenei’s throne. Iranians witness directly that Raisi’s government is utterly dysfunctional and incompetent.”
Charkhkar, who is a member of the Alliance Against Islamic Regime of Iran Apologists, added that “Iran’s economy has worsened over last six months with the high inflation and the currency losing its value. Recently, the government was also faced with severe challenges in distributing natural gas to households as the extreme cold weather hit most of the country.”
Will the Iran protests topple the regime?
Will the political movement, coupled with worsening economic conditions, lead to an inevitable toppling of the Iranian regime? Daniel Pipes, a prominent Mideast historian, who is the president of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, told me, “The protests in Iran suffer from not having a leadership that can mold and direct the widespread discontent into a political campaign; there’s no equivalent of [Ruhollah] Khomeini, 1978-79. For that reason, I am skeptical of its chances to achieve a counter-revolution.”
Pipes added, however, that “the protests have excellent timing. For one, Khamenei’s poor health means he could be gone any day. For another, Iranian military support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has unprecedentedly turned Western opinion against Tehran. These two wild cards give the protests an unpredictable opportunity.”
A movement without infrastructure, a solid organization, and tough leaders is a kind of one-hit wonder that fizzles out. Hence, Pipes’s focus on leadership and an organized political campaign that can dislodge Khamenei’s apparatus.
As Brodsky noted, there is a growing sense among many protesters who want to topple the regime and are prepared to fill the spirit of the slogan of the Spanish Civil War with meaning and content: “Better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” The pressing question is: Can this type of fire in the belly among Iranian protesters crystallize into an organizational movement coupled with genuine leaders?
International public pressure, especially from the West, can at times influence a change in Iranian regime policies. Brodsky said, “What also helps is that the Iranian diaspora is more united than ever before. They amplify their compatriots’ voices and are moving the needle in Western capitals against the regime. We are seeing this with the protest planned on January 16 in Strasbourg.”
Massive Iranian regime violence targeting the demonstrators might very well be on the horizon. Kiumars Heydari, the commander of the regime’s ground forces, announced on November 9 that Khamenei only needs to give the green light, and opponents of the regime, which Heydari called “flies,” will be wiped out. He said the demonstrators “will have no place in the country.” In 2019, Khamenei approved the use of spectacular levels of violence to crush peaceful protests against the corruption of the regime.
The current crackdown since mid-September has resulted in the clerical regime killing at least 522 people, according to a January 15 report by the US-based Human Rights Activist News Agency (HRANA). The report said that among those murdered were 70 minors and 68 members of the regime’s security forces. The security apparatus of the Islamic Republic has arrested roughly 20,000 people, and 110 demonstrators face the death penalty.
Iranian-American human rights activist Lawdan Bazargan told me, “The Islamic regime of Iran is struggling with many crises, including a currency crisis, inflation crisis, energy crisis, sanctions crisis, internal fights, corruption, embezzlement, poor management and, most importantly, a legitimacy crisis. The Islamic regime of Iran is based on Shi’a ideology and demands subjugation and blind obedience.”
Iran’s regime imprisoned Bazargan in the 1980s in Tehran’s notoriously brutal Evin prison for her political dissident activity. The clerical regime executed her brother, Bijan, in 1988 for his Left-wing views. Bazargan is currently leading a campaign to dislodge the pro-Iran regime academic Mohammad Jafar Mahallati from his position at Oberlin College in Ohio.
Amnesty International accused Mahallati of crimes against humanity for his role in covering up the massacre of 5,000 Iranian political prisoners while he served as the regime’s ambassador to the UN in 1988. Unsurprisingly, Mahallati has not joined the demands of Iranians to oust the regime. Bazargan oversees the Alliance Against Islamic Regime of Iran Apologists.
Many Iranian-Americans argue that pro-Iran regime academics such as Mahallati and Princeton University’s Seyed Hossein Mousavian serve as custodians of the status quo for Iran’s regime and stoke Tehran’s ideology within the Western academy.
Mousavian bragged in an Iranian regime-produced documentary to honor the global terrorist Soleimani how Tehran’s threat to retaliate against America scared the wife of Brian Hook, who was Washington’s special envoy for Iran.
“An American told me that Brian Hook’s wife had not slept for several days and that she was shaking and crying. That’s how afraid they were,” Mousavian said in the documentary.
A large percentage of Iran’s restless young population want to sever ties with the old guard represented by Mousavian and Mahallati, stress close observers of Iran’s internal landscape.
Bazargan said, “Sixty percent of the 80 million population of Iran are under 30 years old. They have access to the Internet, social media, and information. These young men and women do not believe the regime’s propaganda and demand change and emancipation. Hence, they are chanting ‘Woman, life, freedom’ in the streets of Iran and are willing to die for these values. The end of this regime is imminent because the people of Iran know that they don’t want this brutal regime and know what they want to replace it with.”
Charkhkar said, “The regime has exhausted all its scare tactics. Young prisoners such as Mohammad Hosseini and Mohammad Mehdi Karami, who were executed recently, have become heroes among people, and their memories are well alive. Additionally, the regime is losing all its legitimacy, even among the majority of its supporters, as more athletes, artists, and public figures speak out against the atrocities committed by Khamenei and his thugs. The regime may kill more innocent, brave Iranians, but Khamenei knows well that the end of his regime is near.”
The notion that the Iranian regime is like a chicken with its head slashed off, running around gasping for life and is moments before passing out of existence, is now a widespread belief among many Iranians in the diaspora. Without doubt, the regime’s legitimacy has vanished.
Europe and the United States have imposed human rights sanctions on Iran’s regime. The sanctions are somewhat of a shot in the arm to help boost the protesters’ morale. Yet the major Western powers remain largely on the sidelines in the epic revolt against the clerical regime.
Brodsky, of UANI, said: “The US government should be leading a global campaign to pressure Iran, but I don’t see it doing much publicly in that regard. There have been significant strides like the ousting of Iran from the UN Commission on the Status of Women and the establishment of a UN Special Investigative Mechanism at the UN Human Rights Council, but the Biden administration needs to do more. I feel strongly that President Biden should give a speech or remarks on Iran, speaking to its people, the diaspora, and the world. He should formally renounce this JCPOA paradigm that transatlantic Iran policy has been consumed by for years – although that has started to change in recent months with more of a focus being placed on the human rights situation and Iran’s provision of drones to Russia.”
He continued: “Second, the US should work to ensure that it and its allies in the G7 impose Magnitsky sanctions on Iran’s supreme leader, his son Mojtaba Khamenei, and President Ebrahim Raisi. Third, the US government should be rallying its allies to follow its example and designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization. Fourth, the president and secretary of state should be encouraging US allies to downgrade their diplomatic relations with Iran’s regime. And fifth, an international task force should be formed to go after the regime elites and their families who are using European and Canadian soil to profit off of illicit wealth.”
The interplay between external pressure and internal protests against the rulers of the Islamic Republic will determine if the sustainable momentum to dislodge Khamenei’s regime continues. The willingness of the Iranian demonstrators to form an organizational movement with leadership is the sine qua non to topple the clerical regime. ■
Benjamin Weinthal is a writing fellow for the Middle East Forum.