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Protests in Iran and their possible repercussions

The current demonstrations have marked a turning point in the country. Analysts suggest a possible tightening of laws or, on the contrary, the beginning of reforms
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Mass protests over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini are shaking the foundations of the Iranian regime. Ten days after the young woman's murder at the hands of the morality police, Iranian women and men continue to demand justice and political change despite the authorities' violent response. According to state media, at least 41 protesters have been killed, although other sources indicate that the actual figure is much higher.

Iran Human Rights (IHR), an organisation based in Norway, estimated the death toll at 57, although it noted that ongoing internet outages make it difficult to confirm the data. The government has restricted internet access, blocking social networks such as Instagram and WhatsApp. The monitoring portal NetBlocks also reports restrictions on LinkedIn and Skype. In terms of arrests, AP reports that more than 1,200 protesters have been detained by security forces

The protests have spilled across the country's borders. From Toronto to Istanbul to the United Nations headquarters in New York, Iranians in the diaspora are also expressing their rejection of Amini's murder and blatant violations of women's rights.

In Paris and London there have been tense moments between demonstrators and police.  In the French capital, security forces used tear gas against hundreds of people to prevent them from getting too close to the Iranian embassy, reports AFP.

The French authorities' response has been condemned by Iranian activists. On his Twitter account, Masih Alinejad denounced the use of tear gas in Paris "while Emmanuel Macron was shaking hands with the murderous president of Iran", referring to the meeting between the French leader and Ebrahim Raisi at the UN General Assembly.

Something similar happened in London. Protests resulted in 12 arrests and five officers injured after protesters - carrying the pre-revolutionary national flag and chanting 'death to the Islamic Republic' - tried to break through the barriers protecting the Iranian diplomatic mission in the UK.  The mayor of the British capital, Sadiq Khan, called the riots "completely unacceptable". "The selfish minority who tried to take over a peaceful demonstration must be brought to justice," he said, according to the BBC

In addition to demonstrating outside embassies or consulates, Iranians abroad are calling for stronger action against Tehran. "We don't want them to save us, we want them to stop saving the regime," Alinejad said during a protest outside the UN. The US has already taken action and has decided to sanction the morality police, the brigade responsible for Amini's death, as well as seven heads of security forces.

Tehran, for its part, in addition to responding with violence against protesters, has accused the West of "interfering" in internal affairs. For this reason, it has summoned the British and Norwegian ambassadors, while blaming the US for supporting the "rioters"

The Foreign Ministry, headed by Hossein Amirabdollahian, has summoned the head of the British diplomatic mission in the country over the "hostile nature" of the London-based Farsi media. The UK has responded to the move by condemning Iran's "crackdown on protesters, journalists and internet freedom", reports The Guardian. Meanwhile, the Norwegian ambassador was summoned to explain the "interventionist stance" of the speaker of his parliament, Masud Gharahkhani, who is of Iranian origin and has expressed his support for the protests.

"Turning point"

Not since 2019 has Iran gone through such a strong wave of protests. Back then, Iranian society took to the streets to protest against rising petrol prices. The authorities responded in a similar way to the current one: cutting off the internet and using violence against citizens.  

"The response of the authorities is similar to those of 2009 or 2019. However, now, people are demonstrating in the neighbourhoods, intermittently, and in the evenings. Before, they were concentrated in the cities. This is wearing down the armed forces," Iranian analyst Daniel Bashandeh tells Atalayar.

A number of analysts and experts underline the important effects and consequences of the protests. "It is a turning point. It is a popular response to the three crises that the population is experiencing: institutional, economic and, above all, social crises," Bashandeh notes.

At the think tank Council on Foreign Relations, analyst Ray Tekeyh underlines the current role of women in the protests. "Iranian women have been involved in previous protests, but these stand out for their vehemence in opposing the regime's policies," he notes. However, Tekeyh points out that the current protests should be seen as "part of a wide range of concerns", such as the economic situation of teachers, pensioners or farmers.

Manuel Férez, professor of Middle East and Caucasus studies at the Alberto Hurtado University in Chile, agrees, pointing out that the protests "are social expressions at the national level against the regime's structural social injustices and inequalities". "Youth unemployment, daily repression and the corruption of the political elite only worsen this already bad situation", he adds. 

In this regard, Bashandeh argues that "the impact of sanctions on Iran's population by the West must also be made clear". "Generally speaking, with the sanctions, the quality of life has worsened, inflation has increased and the currency has been devalued. These are part of the reasons why Iran is in its current situation," he says.

Regarding a possible change regarding women's rights, Bashandeh suggests two possible scenarios. "Either a tightening of social measures in line with Raisi's statements to deal with the protests. Or the initiation of gradual reforms that will have an immediate impact on citizens". On the latter point, the possibility of "relaxing the demands of the veil and putting moral politics on the back burner" is being considered. 

Last August, President Raisi tightened the dress code for women in a new decree. A move that, according to Tekeyh, was supported by most of the conservative clerics who currently control the institutions. Also, amid international protests and criticism, the Iranian president refused an interview in New York with CNN journalist Christiane Amanpou after she refused to cover her hair. As Amanpou said on Twitter, "no previous president has demanded this when I have interviewed them outside Iran".

However, Bashandeh believes that "a pragmatic balance could be struck". "Because of the situation, renouncing your principles would be a very high cost as it would result in people wanting more reforms. But, with 'quiet' measures, he would buy time, as in the Rohani or Khatami era, when the veil was not so tightly controlled". However, the Iranian analyst points out that "there would still be the underlying problem: a post-revolutionary generation that does not identify with the current regime"

Férez believes that "this cycle of protests, repression and promises of reform will be permanent until the regime falls". Férez asserts that there are certain "issues and injustices" that they are "incapable of reforming", such as gender (women and homosexuality), ethnic minorities and political dissidence.

Férez also highlights the role of women and their struggle. "I have said on other occasions that what the Iranian regime fears most is a feminist revolution", he points out. For this reason, he insists on "rethinking our view of the Middle East in order to adjust it to this cultural revolution in which women are a central, modernising and democratising element".