Defying reports that he is seriously ill, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared in public twice last week and delivered speeches to condemn the “enemies of the Islamic Republic,” which is facing multiple challenges in managing domestic and external crises.
Iran’s success in “safeguarding the country is realised through resistance not yielding,” Khamenei declared in his address to the nation marking the 42nd anniversary of the beginning of the eight-year Iraq-Iran War.
“It was resistance that built Iran’s self-confidence and taught its enemies to include Iran’s domestic power and resistance in their calculations,” Khamenei said, surfacing a day after the New York Times reported he was recovering from surgery for a bowel obstruction a few days earlier.
Khamenei might not be seriously ill, but Iran is certainly suffering under his creaky regime. His remarks came as the Islamic Republic faced a new wave of popular protests that are being widely seen as the worst unrest in more than a decade.
Thousands of people flooded the streets of the capital Tehran and several other Iranian cities to protest against the death of a young woman while in police custody. The 22-year-old Kurdish woman was reported dead hours after the country’s morality police held her for allegedly breaking its headscarf rules.
In his speech, Khamenei ignored the tragic death that had led to the protests, a display that was nothing short of remarkable in a country whose iron-fisted regime has brutally smashed all forms of dissent.
The protesters said the woman, Mahsa Amini, had been brutally murdered while in the custody of the dreaded religious morality police who enforce the clerical state’s dress code on women. She apparently received fatal brain injuries while she was investigated for her insufficient hijab or headscarf.
The police have maintained that Amini died of natural causes after falling into a coma, but her family suspect that she was subjected to beating and torture. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said the death needed to be investigated, though he accused the Western powers of hypocrisy for raising their concerns.
The protests soon struck a national nerve, and the upheaval spread to dozens of cities amid mounting anger over religious rules and a rock-bottom economy. The protesters torched police stations and vehicles in several cities, and the security forces opened fire on them, triggering violent clashes.
As the authorities imposed harsh censorship on reporting from inside Iran, the demonstrations soon spilled over into cyberspace, with videos of Iranian women burning their hijabs soon going viral. Other women have been posting emotional videos in which they have cut their hair or burned their hijabs in protest.
In some videos, the protesters can be heard chanting various slogans including “death to the dictator,” a reference to Khamenei. Other videos show demonstrators setting fire to portraits of regime figures including that of Qassem Suleimani, the Revolutionary Guards commander who was killed in a 2020 US strike in Iraq.
A version of Italy’s famous resistance anthem Bella Ciao has also appeared in Farsi to be sung in online versions. It was last sung by Ukrainians after their country’s invasion by Russia in February.
The authorities soon resorted to the familiar tactic of shutting down the Internet in Iran in a bid to prevent images of the protests from being shared. Networks monitoring the Internet in the country have reported that the mobile Internet was disrupted and online platforms have remained restricted for many users.
The government also deployed the security forces in many cities, and these violently quashed the protests using birdshot and other metal pellets, teargas, water cannons, and beatings with batons to disperse the protesters. Videos posted on social media showed fierce clashes between the protesters and the security forces, with sounds of live gunfire.
Iran’s military, which is under the command of Khamenei, vowed to step in to “confront the enemies’ plots in order to ensure security and peace for the people.” Pro-government rallies were staged in Tehran and elsewhere in a show of support for the authorities.
The latter said that at least 40 people, including two security officers, had been killed since the unrest began last weekend. Rights groups say the toll is likely to be higher. Thousands are believed to have been arrested since the protests started.
The Iranian dress codes imposed after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 require all Iranian women, visitors and tourists alike, to wear the hijab, or scarf, in public areas. They are also obliged to cover their legs down to the ankles and wear loose tunics or coats that cover their lower waist.
In recent months, hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has imposed new measures designed to tighten up controls by issuing a “hijab and chastity” decree that has emboldened the country’s morality squads. Among the measures they apply is to put women who violate the code in morality centres for “re-education”.
The sudden and unprecedented unrest has raised questions about why people in Iran are putting their lives on the line to protest against religious strictures that have fallen most heavily on women.
While the protests were aimed at the morality police cracking down on women wearing a loose hijab, the larger issue seems to be grievances and discontents that have been building up over four decades of economic hardship and political repression.
The protests have been building on more than a decade of dissent and recall the large-scale demonstrations that erupted following the presidential elections in 2009 when supporters of the defeated candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, accused the hardline incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, of stealing the vote.
Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protests on a scale unknown since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In addition to installing the reformist Mousavi as president, the protesters demanded greater social freedoms and an end to the security forces’ tight repression.
In 2018, massive crowds marched through the streets of Iran’s capital and other cities sparked by anger over a faltering economy, unemployment, and corruption. The protests were triggered by a rise in food and fuel prices and later turned to demands for regime change.
But there have been cautions too.
While the protests are the biggest challenge to the Islamic regime for years, there are increasing fears that the anti-government demonstrations will lose momentum due to the lack of enough public support for a general uprising and the higher risk of a crackdown.
Though the government has pledged to probe the cause of Amini’s death with “urgency and special attention,” it has showed no sign of backing down. On Saturday, Raisi vowed to “deal decisively” with the protests, which by then had spread to most of Iran’s 31 provinces.
The authorities have already moved to contain the protests by resorting to the heavy-handed tactics it has used in the past. There are mounting signs that a harsher crackdown is coming.
But even if the demonstrations come to an end as a result of the brutal actions, they are another major episode that could shake the rule of the hardline clerics that have been ruling over Iran since 1979.
Though they are largely spontaneous and in response to the killing of the Kurdish woman, the protests are rooted in anger over the poor economy, mismanagement, and endemic corruption of the Islamic Republic itself.
Putting them into a historical framework, that of the regime’s legitimacy coming to a close, they are not just a call for reform, but also an open and outright rejection of the ruling system in Iran. Their main catalyst will remain to bring down the system itself.
Iran’s new wave of protests, like many of the recent uprisings that have captured the world’s imagination, may be characterised by its decentralised nature, but its future will be decided by how much the regime can succeed in bringing economic reform and political moderation in its wake.
The protests were not expected to loosen the regime’s authoritarian grip over the country in a short space of time. But they have illustrated how tight and cruel that grip can be.
The events of the last few days have left the Islamic Republic exposed to the political forces that have been buffeting other failing regimes whose corruption has drawn them into deepening dysfunction.
They have not only exposed the regime’s weakness, but have also shredded the image of power and prestige that the regime has built for itself and broken down the wall of fear that it has built to safeguard itself from the wrath of its people.
The regime may finally be able to put down the uprising, but this new version of protests in Iran has showed that the problem is not one woman’s hijab but rather the right to choose for all Iranians.
The regime is mired not only in the battle over the forced wearing of the hijab, but also by political stagnation, economic dysfunction, and communal divisions. Unless it makes needed changes, the protesters will remain on the moral high ground and may make a more powerful comeback in the future.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.