Iran on the Brink
On September 13, 2022, The Iranian Morality Police arrested 22-year-old Mahsa Amini as she exited the subway with her brother in Tehran, where she and her family were on vacation from their hometown in Kurdistan. Amini was detained for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly and taken to an education camp, where she was brutally beaten. Later that day, Amini collapsed and was taken to the hospital. After being in a coma for two days, she died on September 16. While Iranian authorities deny all allegations–claiming Amini died of heart failure–her family and protestors around the county have accused the government of covering up her murder.
Amini’s death has catalyzed one of the most persistent and widespread protests and anti-government movements in Iran in recent history. Spearheaded by women and Gen Z, the protests have inundated the country in the weeks since Amini’s death. Women are leading the charge in the streets of nearly twenty cities around the country, cutting their hair and burning their hijabs and chanting “Women, Life, Freedom.” One woman told the BBC that “The society is very angry. We had enough of them [Iranian leadership].” The hijab law went into effect in April 1983, after the Iranian Revolution overthrew Mohammad Reza Shah’s government. Since then, intermittent protests have recurred against the mandatory hijab law, but none have lasted. But Amini’s death has united Iranians against their government. The protests have particularly been fueled by Amini’s own Kurdish people, who have long been mistreated in Iran. Anti-government strikes by oil workers have crippled the industry, the most critical sector of the Iranian economy.
Despite the severity and magnitude of protests around Iran, the regime has refused to budge. Crackdowns on protests by cutting off internet access, censoring any media, conducting mass arrests, and performing unrestrained violence, as well as Morality Police and plain-clothed police killing up to 230 people during the five weeks of protests, have clamped down on the protests. In a deadlock, neither side is willing to give in for fear of the consequences. If the regime loses, it will likely be destroyed or at least thoroughly reformed. If the protestors give in, they fear ever greater restrictions and stagnation on issues of inequality.
Many protests have erupted in Iran in the 21st century. Most notably, mass protests surrounding 2009 were sparked when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei manipulated the election in favor of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The past five years have seen annual protests for economic equality. Each protest was brutally repressed by authorities. This time, the protests are different. Despite the extreme crackdown by the government, the protests have lasted longer than most believed possible. Fueled by desperation, not hope, some protestors feel they have no alternative but a total regime change.
The unrest in Iran has further strained relationships with the West. American-Iranian relations have been rocky since 1979, following American sanctions on Iran after the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. In 2015, the Obama administration helped negotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, which lifted certain economic sanctions on the nation in exchange for Iran halting the development of a nuclear weapon and limiting uranium levels. Former President Trump pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal in 2018, fueling distrust and skyrocketing tensions.
Now the Biden administration is trying to put another deal on the negotiating table, but with the current atmosphere, the odds of a new deal do not look promising. Iranian authorities have stated a desire to return to negotiations but have expressed reservations about the United States’ ability to commit to a deal, alluding to Trump pulling out. Since 2018, Iran has blatantly ignored most JCPOA measures and now has enough uranium for up to ten nuclear bombs. The Iranian government has also escalated hostilities by actively supporting Russia in the Russia-Ukraine war. In addition to sending kamikaze drones to Russia, Iran sent military officials to occupied land in Ukraine to aid the Russian war effort.
In response to the growing friendship between Iran and Russia, the White House stated in a briefing on October 26, 2022, “We are concerned that Moscow may be advising Tehran on best practices, drawing on Russia’s extensive experience of suppressing open demonstrations.” With peaking tensions in the relationship, the nuclear deal negotiations have stalled. The United States doubts that the Iranian regime is willing to make the necessary concessions to negotiate a deal and has instead alienated the Iranian government by backing the protestors. The United States has sanctioned key government and intelligence officials involved in the ongoing repression of human rights and violence against the demonstrators in Iran, with President Biden stating, “The United States stands with Iranian women and all the citizens of Iran who are inspiring the world with their bravery.”
International developments this year have widened the rift between the United States and Iran to an almost unbridgeable gap. The current Iranian regime is doubling down on an anti-Western approach, and the United States is doing little to meet Iran halfway. However, none of this rules out the possibility of future reconciliation between the United States and Iran. For the United States, hope exists that these protests will lead to a regime change and a fresh opportunity for peace.