The protests in Iran represent a new test of clergy leadership

Women setting fire to their headscarves and chanting anti-regime slogans. Pictures of the tour defaced and burned. Security forces vehicles set on fire.

Images of the protests in Iran show the taboo-breaking nature of a movement that erupted after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after her arrest by the notorious vice squad.

Iran, a country where street dissidents are tightly controlled, has seen numerous eruptions of protests in recent years, most notably the 2009 “Green Movement” which followed disputed elections, protests in November 2019 over rising fuel prices and rallies this year over the cost of living.

But analysts say these protests pose a new challenge to the Islamic system under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 83, as they are now nationwide, have support across social classes and ethnic groups, and have been instigated by women.

Amini, also known by her Kurdish first name Jhina, was visiting Tehran with her family last week when she was arrested for allegedly violating Iran’s strict dress codes for women, in place shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Hours after her arrest, she fell into a coma and died in hospital on September 16.

Activists claim she was mistreated in detention and could have suffered a blow to the head. Although not confirmed by authorities, anger fueled protests, which began with her funeral last Saturday.

“These are the largest protests since November 2019,” said Ali Fathollah-Nejad, Iran expert at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

“Whereas the last two nationwide uprisings were led by the lower classes and triggered by socio-economic deterioration, this time the trigger was socio-cultural and political, comparable to the Green movement of 2009,” he told AFP.

– “Shared Outrage” –

The 2009 movement was driven by middle-class demands for fair elections and the 2019 protests by lower-class anger, he said.

“Current conditions in Iran suggest that there may be a tendency for the two groups to unite. The outrage over Amini’s death is shared by the middle and lower classes,” Fathollah-Nejad said.

The protests also come at a particularly sensitive time for the leadership as Iran’s economy remains mired in a crisis, largely caused by international sanctions over its nuclear program.

Despite repeated warnings from Europe that time is running out, there is also no sign that the sides are close to agreeing on a deal to revive the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) that would include easing sanctions.

The protests included chants such as “Death to the Dictator” as well as other anti-regime slogans and the emergence of a new rallying cry “Zan, zendegi, azadi” (“Woman, Life, Freedom”).

Unprecedented images have shown protesters defacing or burning images of Khamenei or, on one occasion, setting fire to a giant image of Revolutionary Guards commander Qassem Soleimani, portrayed by authorities as a near-mythical figure after his assassination by the United States in 2020 becomes Iraq.

Demonstrators were also seen directly opposing the security forces, with women refusing to put their headscarves back on in front of police and security forces’ vehicles being set on fire.

At least 11 people have been killed in the protests, and activists fear the authorities will resort to the crackdown that saw 321 people killed by security forces in November 2019, according to Amnesty International.

Saeid Golkar, senior fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, called the protests a “watershed moment” and predicted that the moral police – “an ideological cornerstone of the Islamic Republic” – would weaken going forward.

“This cannot be resolved until the regime implements a series of reforms. Since the Islamic Republic is both an ideological regime and inefficient and corrupt, it cannot solve the problems it has created,” he told AFP.

“Even if the regime can successfully suppress these protests with brute force, the situation will be very different from the past.”

– “Even higher level of violence” –

Authorities appear to have resorted to a well-known tactic of restricting internet access to prevent images from being shared, activists say.

The Netblocks monitor said access to Instagram – the only major social network not blocked in Iran – was heavily restricted from Wednesday.

The Iranian authorities’ reactions “reflect the deepening crisis of impunity in the country and the state’s policy of resorting to even higher levels of violence to quell criticism and protests,” said Saloua Ghazouani of the Article 19 Freedom of Speech Group.

The protests have spread well beyond the province of Kurdistan, where Amimi came from, and has grown into a nationwide movement – as far away as Tehran, the Caspian provinces in the north, the historic cities of Isfahan and Shiraz and even the tourist hub of the island of Kish in the Gulf .

“I think there will be regime hardening and it will also push them not to show flexibility at the JCPOA,” said a European diplomatic source, who asked not to be named.

“These demonstrations are likely to jeopardize the regime’s survival. In November 2019 they did not hesitate to shoot. I don’t see why they would hesitate this year,” the source added.