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‘Nothing to lose’: Iran’s protesters step up their defiance as a potential showdown looms

Iranian demonstrators taking to the streets of the capital Tehran during a protest for Mahsa Amini, days after she died in police custody. (AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Twice now, the mass protests roiling Iran have reached even her deeply conservative neighborhood. Shahrzad, a 36-year-old teacher who lives with her parents and acts as their caregiver, has so far heeded her promise to them not to join, although she wants to.

She had participated in demonstrations that erupted in 2009 after a disputed presidential election many alleged was fraudulent. Those lasted a year and came to nothing — as did the huge economic protests of early 2018 and late 2019.

But this time things feel different.

“You just can’t compare the anger to how it was in 2009. Back then it was mostly the middle class protesting. Now you barely find anyone who supports the government line or agrees with how things are,” said Shahrzad, who asked that her full name not be used for fear of reprisal.

Even in the conservative part of Tehran where she lives, teenage schoolgirls were taking off their headscarves in the street — something unthinkable a few weeks ago, before the fury sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s morality police, who arrested her because she allegedly violated laws mandating hijabs and modest dress for women.

“It’s going to be very hard to stop this,” Shahrzad said.

Two and a half weeks into the nationwide demonstrations that have grabbed the attention of both the Iranian government and the world, protesters show little sign of giving up. If anything, they’ve stepped it up: In recent days, students seized the initiative, using the start of the academic year to vent their rage at university campuses and high schools across the country.

Videos widely shared Monday on social media — despite attempted internet blackouts by the government — show teenagers in school uniforms booing officials, with their hijabs cast to the side. Others record students at top-ranking universities engaging in tense standoffs with security forces. Trade unions are set to join the unrest and have called for strikes that promise to further fuel the most intense round of unrest Iran has witnessed in more than a decade.

That’s despite a government that seems more interested in subduing the protesters — through lethal force, if necessary — than addressing grievances over state control of people’s lives, the parlous state of the sanctions-throttled economy and Iran’s continued international isolation. But there’s a growing sense that the violent playbook the theocratic regime has used to crush dissent in the past won’t work this time.

That’s especially true against hyper-connected young people who have never known anything other than what one hit song calls “the mandatory heaven” of life under the dictates of the Islamic Republic.

“This won’t end anytime soon. Our generation is too educated to be cheated with old tactics, and we don’t want our lives ruled by the ideologies of old people,” said Mahbod, a student at Sharif University, one of Tehran’s top higher-learning institutions, who, like Shahrzad and others interviewed, gave only his first name.

“And it’s a full social revolution. Students have the support of brothers, fathers, uncles, grandfathers — every layer society is involved.”

More ominous for political leaders is that even if the state were inclined to compromise, analysts say, it may be too late.

“The train has already left the station. No matter what this government gives, it probably won’t be enough to assuage protesters’ grievances at this point,” said Dina Esfandiary, senior advisor for the Middle East and North Africa region at the International Crisis Group think tank.

Iran’s leaders, she said, likely view the situation as akin to the predicament facing the late Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader whose reforms brought about greater freedom for Russians but also the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union.

“If they give in now, it’ll be a Gorbachev moment — the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic. That’s how they see it,” Esfandiary said.

That stark view augurs a showdown between a government willing to use escalating force and protesters who have increasingly turned to slogans like “Death to the dictator!” as a measure of how far they are willing to push matters. With acts of resistance ramping up across the country, especially among women, reestablishing control will get harder, said Azadeh Akbari, an Iran expert at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

“If every woman decides to take off the hijab, then how many police officers will be needed to control that?” she said. “That’s the real revolution.”

A glance at Shahrzad’s life hints at the depth of the discontent with which Iran’s leaders must contend. She herself never agreed with the hijab law but views it more as a nuisance than anything else, especially during the country’s broiling summer, when she has to wear her scarf to work for eight hours.

More enraging is life in a country racked by chronic mismanagement, a raft of international sanctions because of its nuclear program and the COVID-19 epidemic, all of which have shrunk Shahrzad’s world.

A university graduate with a degree in biochemistry, she has little to show for it other than a job as a teacher and administrator in various schools around southern Tehran. She makes $350 a month, nowhere near enough to rent a small apartment, let alone buy one. Notions of marriage, kids and the basic touchstones of a stable middle-class existence seem far-fetched.

“Ten years ago I could take trips inside and outside the country. I can’t do that anymore,” she said. “I can’t afford to buy a cheap car. I should’ve had my own small apartment by now, with some simple furniture. Instead, I live with my parents. If my cellphone breaks, I’ll have to wait a few months before I can buy one.”

Even the government’s supporters acknowledge that the situation is difficult. In an address earlier this week, parliament Speaker Mohammad Qalibaf chanted in support of the police and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at a rally, but he also admitted that people were entitled to complain about dismal economic conditions.

Those concerns aren’t new, Esfandiary said, but this time people are angrier than before.

“They’re more aggressive and violent, and that’s spurred by the sense of hopelessness that people in Iran feel right now,” she said.

Yet Khamenei and other leaders have fallen back on their wonted explanation for social strife, exonerating themselves and blaming outside forces instead. On Monday, Khamenei broke his silence after 17 days of protests to dismiss them as “riots and insecurities” planned by Tehran’s usual adversaries, the U.S. and Israel. The country’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, police and pro-government militiamen have employed rubber bullets, live rounds, beatings and arrest campaigns to quell what they insist is foreign-driven chaos.

Shahrzad can see the despair and desperation in her own family. Even her brother-in-law, a mild-mannered man who never hit anyone, she said, was headed home on the fifth day of the protests and fought off a militiaman trying to force a girl into a car.

“If someone like him would do it, then for sure it will turn more violent,” she said.

Another reason for the persistence of the protests has been the deep well of opposition against the hijab law, which began dictating women’s dress and behavior in Iran a few years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution brought religious clerics to power.

“We’ve had uprisings from the middle class for economic reasons, but this time half of society, schoolgirls to grandmas, are sick of it, saying enough is enough,” Akbari said.

The current turmoil might not spell the change in governance that many hope for, said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, who founded Bourse & Bazaar, a news and research agency focusing on Iranian politics and economics. But it has spurred a shift in the political discourse in ways previous bouts of unrest didn’t by forcing a re-evaluation of Iran’s social contract.

“Women’s rights are the most visible form of what people are protesting against. But what they are asking for now is a real change to the way in which the state and society relate to one another,” Batmanghelidj said.

Shahrzad goes back and forth as to whether the protests will succeed. But she’s certain of one thing: Even if the government does manage to stop the protests, they’ll inevitably flare up again.

“There’s just too many people with nothing to lose now,” she said.

“It just can’t go on like this anymore. People are fed up.”


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