A year after Mahsa Amini’s death, has anything changed in Iran?

IRANIAN AFFAIRS: Despite the Iranian regime clamping down with modesty laws, the Iranian people are pushing for freedom.

 A PHOTO OF Mahsa Amini is pictured at a vigil of students and activists from Delhi University in New Delhi, India, last September following her death.  (photo credit: REUTERS/ANUSHREE FADNAVIS)
A PHOTO OF Mahsa Amini is pictured at a vigil of students and activists from Delhi University in New Delhi, India, last September following her death.

On Saturday, Iranians opposed to the Islamic regime will mark the anniversary of the killing of Mahsa Amini, an Iranian Kurd beaten to death by Tehran “morality police” for allegedly wearing a hijab not in compliance with their standards.

Amini’s death sparked intensive nationwide protests, commonly referred to as the “Woman, Life, Liberty” (“Jin, Jiyan, Azadî” in Kurdish) protests, last September, which continued in full strength for months on end.

The protests drew the world’s attention, with videos showing demonstrators openly clashing with Iranian security forces in an unprecedented way. In a number of videos shared online, armed security forces could be seen fleeing as masses of protesters confronted their attempts to suppress the demonstrations.

The head of the Mossad, David Barnea, claimed recently that the protests “almost led to the collapse of the regime.”“This week, they’ll mark the one-year anniversary,” said Barnea. “I can only imagine the trepidation of the Iranian leadership when they think of the 16th of this month.”

Iranian officials have stressed the significance of last year’s protests as well. In August, the commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Hossein Salami, called the protests “the strongest, most dangerous, and most serious” such demonstrations in the regime’s history.

 A police motorcycle burns during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini in Tehran on September 19, 2022.  (credit: WANA/REUTERS)
A police motorcycle burns during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini in Tehran on September 19, 2022. (credit: WANA/REUTERS)

But a year after such intense protests, is the situation in Iran any different?

Dr. Raz Zimmt, an expert on Iran who serves as a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), stressed that on the ground today, not much has changed.

“If it seemed in the first months after the protests that maybe the regime intended to be a little flexible on the matter of hijab, I think today we’re in a situation in which we understand that the regime does not intend to let up on this issue,” explained Zimmt to The Jerusalem Post. The researcher noted the return of the “morality police” and the recent promotion of a new law to enforce hijab rules.

“From the side of the regime, I think their assessment at the moment - it could be a mistaken assessment - is that they managed to suppress the protests and therefore there isn’t really a reason to compromise on an issue which is seen as a central symbol of the Islamic Republic. In the end, what was is what will be and we’re not expecting any dramatic changes from the side of the regime.”

CONCERNING THE Iranian public, Zimmt noted that the main change since the protests ended appears to be that more and more women are going out in public without the hijab. 

“This isn’t necessarily something widespread, it isn’t like we see hundreds of thousands of women without coverings, but it is something we see quite a bit. This is an expression of the unwillingness of part of the Iranian public to be strict on this matter.”

Zimmt stressed, however, that not much else appears to have changed.

“Even though the gap that we’ve seen for years between the public – especially among the second and third generation since the revolution – and the regime, is continuing to grow, altogether, since this protest was suppressed at the end of 2022, we haven’t seen another really significant protest.”

However, “there are protests all the time, even before last September, mostly economic ones. But, at the moment at least, I don’t see this protest succeeding to really become a significant challenge to the stability of the regime. I think even at the peak of the protest it didn’t really threaten the stability of the regime, but of course, as soon as it was suppressed then there was no significant challenge.”

Despite the apparent success in suppressing the demonstrations, it appears that the Iranian regime isn’t taking any chances ahead of the upcoming anniversary.

“It’s clear that [the regime] is preparing for any possible scenario,” said Zimmt.

In the weeks leading up to the anniversary, dozens of activists, artists, and relatives of arrested and killed protesters have reportedly been arrested and threatened by Iranian authorities, especially in Kurdish areas.

Footage of a large presence of armed forces has been published from a number of Kurdish cities as well.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei met with a selection of people from the Sistan and Baluchestan provinces in southeastern Iran as well, recently. The province was one of the main hotspots during the protests last year after a massacre by Iranian forces during Friday prayers in the city of Zahedan – an incident commonly referred to as “Bloody Friday.”

Demonstrations have continued in Zahedan on an almost weekly basis since, with Iranian authorities recorded to be restricting Internet access almost every Friday.

IN TEHRAN, the Jewish community has issued repeated warnings to members not to gather in any way on Saturday and Sunday, when Jews around the world will be observing Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.“The cultured society of Jews will not allow any kind of abuse by the sworn enemies of proud Iran.”

Concerning whether or not the protests last year or the upcoming anniversary will have any effect on Israel, Zimmt explained that as long as there is no significant political change in Iran, no direct effect should be expected.“In the end, the regime doesn’t need a reason to continue all the problematic things it’s doing, especially in the nuclear and regional fields. This is unrelated to [Iran’s] internal situation.”

Zimmt added that the fact that the regime managed to suppress the protests is one of the reasons the Iranian government has been acting with more self-confidence.

“At the end of the day, when the Iranian government looks at its current situation and compares it to how things were half a year or a year ago, in almost every field – internally, regionally, globally, and in the nuclear field – they’ve achieved quite a bit,” said Zimmt.

“It isn’t that the fundamental issues have been solved, there’s still an economic crisis, there’s still internal protests, Iran still has quite a bit of issues in the region, but in the end, when Khamenei wakes up every day he can assess his situation today as altogether not bad and this for sure affects Iran’s willingness to continue its operations which bother us, in terms of nuclear and regional issues.”

He said that this isn’t directly related to the internal situation. “The internal situation is not a central factor influencing decision-making in Iran concerning the matters which are more relevant to us, especially the nuclear issue which is more tied to what the Iranians want to achieve and their conflict with the US as well.”

Zimmt stressed: “We need to look at the situation today in Iran as it is, with much less ‘wishful thinking.”

“The distance between protests and political change in Iran is very big and I’m not convinced – then too I didn’t think – that we can count on regime change in Iran as a solution that we’re headed for.”

“It could be that in the end, it will occur in another year, two years, 10 years, but this isn’t something to count on and therefore I think we need to look at the situation in Iran as a very problematic situation, especially in the nuclear field, and to see how we can deal with this situation without getting our hopes up for some political change in Iran – which is first and foremost not dependent on us, but instead dependent on the Iranian people, mostly the Iranian public in Iran, and less so the exiles.”

While it remains unclear what will happen on Saturday, Iranian and Kurdish activists have been working to organize events to mark the anniversary.

Six central Kurdish factions have issued a joint statement calling for a general strike on the day of the anniversary. The groups additionally called for the rest of Iran to express solidarity.

As Zimmt noted, it’s hard to know what will spark the next big wave of protests.
“There are groups among the Iranian public, like in Kurdish areas, who will of course try to at least organize some kind of events around the anniversary, but I’m not sure that the Iranian public at large has the energy today to renew the protests like they were last year,” stressed the researcher. “This is the type of thing where it’s hard to know, it could be some isolated incident that suddenly ignites the fire anew.”

He said that it wasn’t easy, “especially in a country like Iran with its suppression measures, to renew widespread popular protests, so it’s not certain that we’re headed for another wave of protests.”

THE BOTTOM line for Zimmt “is that there are two processes taking place all the time in parallel: On the one hand, Iranian society is becoming less and less identified with the regime and becoming more and more critical of the regime, not among everyone, but wide parts of the Iranian public in which some have economic demands, others have civil liberty demands,” and on the other hand, “the regime is not really adapting itself to these demands and is not really providing solutions to the economic distress or the demands for civil liberties. These two processes, in the end, every few years, erupt into a wave of protest.”

He said more protests were inevitable: “It’s not a question of if, but rather when, the next wave of protests will come and what will spark it and we’ll need to see how well the regime can deal with this over time,” but said that “at least at the moment,” he did not see “any significant threat to the regime’s ability to successfully handle waves of protest like this, but this, of course, is not becoming more simple, but rather more challenging.”Academics in Iran have reached similar conclusions as well.

In a 2022 paper titled “Analysis of Social Guild Protests in Iran from the Perspective of Street Politics Theory,” Khalilollah Sardarnia, a political science professor at Shiraz University, and Hengameh Alborzi, a PhD student at the university, noted that Iran has been in an almost constant state of protests in recent years, whether about economic or social conditions.

A sign of things to come

In their paper, published just months before the Woman, Life, Liberty protests, the two researchers warned that officials should consider the interests and demands of the protesters because “a spark is enough for all the protestors with their many and diverse attitudes and goals to pour into the streets and these movements will turn into small and big riots.”

Sardarnia and Alborzi noted that the various large protests that have swept Iran since 2017 have shown the “lack of trust of the people” in the “government officials and elites,” leading them to pursue their demands through spontaneous street protests and strikes.

“The street tells us with the most concrete, tangible, and clear statement that the masses of people, unlike the past, are not condemned to remain on the sidelines of politics, passive, indifferent, and mere spectators, but are active actors in the social and political arena and challenge governments by continuously expressing their economic, union, and class demands,” wrote the two. 

“The street tells us where these decision-makers have gone unilaterally and out of touch with the citizens and the poor urban masses, where they have taken a step in a dead-end road, where they have stood too far, where they have stood too close, where they are forbidden to enter, where they have gone astray.”•