In a world of increasing democratic fatigue, the protests in Iran are a beacon of hope for democracy.
On the 16th of September 2022, protests erupted in Iran after the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian girl, Masha Amini, who died in police custody after not correctly wearing her headscarf under Sharia law. Her death sparked outrage in the form of protests as Iranians took to the streets to display their anger with the Islamic rulers.
At first, the protests were considered a familiar occurrence and similar to the previous protests taking place virtually every decade since the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979. Soon after the protests began, it became clear that this uprising was unlike any other. The slogan of the protest ‘Women, life, freedom’ embodied a new wave of Iranians, a younger and more progressive generation. Iranian youth unlike their predecessors have consumed Western social media despite heavy censorship. They have had access to an outside world where democracy exists. Although the government has put heavy restrictions on internet access, this generation, more hopeful than the last, has lived their whole lives under the regime and understands the gravity of the situation.
In response to the protests, the Iranian regime has used brutal force to harass and detain protestors. As of now, at least 300 protestors have been killed by violent attacks from different branches of the security forces and police. The regime argues that the protestors are extreme rioters who are being encouraged by Israel and the US. It is this rhetoric that alludes to the desperation of the regime to maintain power. The violence has done little to deter protestors.
The Iranian football team protested to the government on the 21st of November 2022, during its first FIFA World Cup match against England. The team’s silence as the Iranian national anthem played was more of a point of contention than anything else. The silence symbolised that the people of Iran no longer felt its government represented them.
This was best summed up by Iran’s Captain, Ehsan Hajsafi, who ended the game by saying “They should know that we are with them (the people of Iran) and we support them and we sympathise with them regarding the conditions”.
In the latest stage of the crackdown, it is reported that the regime has sentenced around 15000 of the detained protestors in prison to the death penalty. The authoritarian leader’s decision to sentence protestors to death is a clear attempt to show this struggle will not be easy and that the regime is willing to put up a fight. It sends a strong message to the Iranian people about the perils of participating in anti-government demonstrations. Additionally, it reveals the establishment elites fear that being soft on the protestors will be a sign of weakness.
In further developments, the international community has become increasingly vocal in attempts to counter the regime’s brutal suppression of protest. On the 24th of November 2022, the UN Human Rights Council ruled to set up a fact-finding mission to investigate the deadly crackdown, the EU has vowed to take an even harder line and the US is also looking at further sanctions. While none of these actions have had any success in discouraging the regime, it has unified international voices.
The UN Human Rights chief, Volker Turk, said, “The old methods and the fortress mentality of those who wield power simply don’t work. In fact, they only aggravate the situation” he then continued, “We are now in a full-fledged human rights crisis.”
These protests demonstrate a yearning for freedom that the people of Iran have not felt in 43 years. It is a signal that the values of democracy are not dead but forming in the changing political, economic and social environment of Iran. It embodies women’s rights, human rights, and revolutionary thinking that can no longer be suppressed.
Abbas Milani, Director of Iranian studies at Stanford University, said “The Iranian regime is sitting on top of a setting volcano”
Uncertainty surrounds the potential eruption of this volcano, but it is clear that Iran’s youth movement is only getting started, and that this could signal the beginning of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s demise.