It has been two weeks since protests erupted in Iran. They began after police in Tehran detained a woman named Mahsa Amini for not covering her hair to the standards the regime demands.
She was beaten and allegedly tortured, fell into a coma and died. Her family, from the Kurdistan region of western Iran, was outraged. The communities in the Kurdistan region rose up in protest and the regime quickly tried to come up with a story about how the incident had unfolded.
The regime has been worried from the beginning because it knows that killing an innocent woman is different than the regime’s usual abuses. Shooting men for being “terrorists” or kidnapping and hanging dissidents; and killing those accused of drug abuse or even gunning down smugglers are routine events in Iran.
But the regime wants a veneer of legitimacy; and theocratic regimes that are obsessed with covering up women for “modesty” generally refrain from then killing the same women they claim to be “protecting.”
Similarly, regimes like Iran’s rely on a careful balance of persecuting minorities and the majority, but not wanting to alienate all the people at the same time. Kurds in western Iran are an important minority group, and Iran would prefer to keep the region from slipping into open rebellion.
The regime knows that Kurdish opposition groups refer to Tehran as an “occupier” and they would prefer not to have too many people rising up at the same time.
Now, two weeks into the protests, we can see that the protesters are still in the streets. At the same time, the regime is lashing out, bombing Kurds in Iraq and trying to target opposition groups abroad.
What is different this time than in past protests?
For one thing, the US and the West has been more openly supportive of the rights of the Iranians to protest.
This would seem an obvious cause. Here you have a regime whose police killed a woman. Westerners who preach about women’s rights and diversity would seem hypocrites if they didn’t back Iranian women’s rights to protest.
However, The New York Times pointed out that “the last time waves of protests swept Iran, after the killing of a young woman who was standing on the sidelines of an anti-government rally in 2009, Barack Obama hesitated to back the anti-government movement publicly for fear that Tehran would claim the CIA was secretly sparking the unrest.”
It’s not clear if this assessment is accurate. The Obama administration in 2009 was already setting sights on a shift in relations with Tehran, wanting to talk to the regime and work on nuclear issues.
The same administration was seeking a reset with Russia, to be able to work with Russia and Iran; both of whom are US adversaries. For supporters of working with the Iranian regime, the argument was that the regime could help “stabilize” the Middle East.
This theory was one that was held by other experts. The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, a book slamming pro-Israel voices in the US, had been published in 2007. One of its authors was quoted in 2012 as arguing that “a nuclear-armed Iran would bring stability to the region.”
It’s worth recalling that the paradigm at the time asserted that the US could work with Tehran. To work with them, you can’t be undermining the regime too. That means US interests at the time were to keep the regime in power and not let protesters undermine it. The stronger the regime, the more it could be relied on.
By contrast, a weaker regime might not adhere to a “deal” and it might change hands from what the US termed “moderates” to “hardliners” or even be overthrown.
TODAY, THINGS are different. The regime is flailing and it is attacking Iraq; it is arming Hezbollah, attacking US forces in Syria and threatening Israel and the Gulf. Iran is also supplying Russia with drones. The latter fact clearly is one that would anger Washington, given the fact that the US is leading the opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
It seems, after a decade of pretending Iran can be relied on for a “deal” and that it’s best to ignore human rights issues in favor of finding “moderates” in Tehran, that many policymakers are coming around to the view that Iran’s regime is what it appears to be: an adversarial, hostile regime that threatens the world and suppresses its own people.
The recent article in the Times noted that “now the race is on to get the communications equipment into the hands of the protesters – no small task in a country where the government is determined to shut down any view the outside world may have into the depth of its crackdown.”
Indeed, Iran’s regime has shown that it is willing to massacre protesters. This time it appears to be a bit more careful, concerned that it might provoke a larger uprising. For instance, the regime keeps promising to investigate the death of Amini and pretends to have sympathy for the family. This shows the depth of concern in Tehran.
For the region, Iran’s crackdown may have wider consequences. Iran’s widespread attacks on Iraq on September 28 show that the country is willing to try to distract from its failures at home, but lashing out at others. This could mean that Iran would lash out at US forces in Syria or even target Israel in the coming weeks.
The regime prefers conspiracies to reality, and as such it may seek to blame outside forces for the problems it is facing at home. What that means is that Iran could encourage Hezbollah to begin provocations relating to gas fields off the coast; or it could stoke more tensions in Iraq. All of this means the region has to be on edge as the protests continue.
What is clear is that Iran now faces several trends that will continue into the foreseeable future. It has faced protests often in the last years. Every time the regime is perceived as failing there are local protests. These have happened after a building collapses and after floods and they happen for other reasons such as economic problems.
The people are growing tired and it is clear that this generation knows that protests are a normal way to express themselves. The regime, even though the leadership is more extreme today than in the past, is also more sensitive and careful not to provoke more unrest.
At the same time Iran is putting all its eggs in one basket through drone supplies to Russia and its work with China. It has gambled that the West is declining and it is working with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This means Iran will soon be in a position to not “need” the West and certainly not need a new Iran deal.
As such it is beginning to isolate itself so that it doesn’t need to worry about Western critique. That means that even as it now faces calls from the UN for a real investigation into the killing of Amini, and even though the Biden administration is being tough on Iran and sanctioning its brutal police and sanctioning drone sales, the regime hopes it can weather this storm and keep going in a new direction hand-in-hand with Moscow and Beijing.•