Iran: The imminent fall of a dictatorship 43 years later

Harsh repression by Iranian forces fails to stop protests and regime change begins to loom on the horizon

AFP/ ATTA KENARE  -   An Iranian woman walks past a poster of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the capital Tehran.

Demonstrations on the streets of Iran threaten the grip of the dictatorship and have the public dreaming of. 

Mahsa Amini. The name that has prompted Iranian society to take to the streets to demonstrate that the days of the dictatorship that came to Iran in 1979 under Ruhollah Khomeini are numbered. The death of the 22-year-old woman while in police custody has opened the floodgates of a fed-up population that, sooner or later, was bound to break the last thread holding the Ayatollahs' regime in check. One month later, Iran sees, for the first time in 43 years under the shadow of dictatorship, a small ray of light that invites optimism, an opportunity to end more than four decades of suffering and lethargy.

PHOTO/MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA via REUTERS - A newspaper with a cover photo of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's "morality police", is seen in Tehran, Iran, September 18, 2022.

What is really complicated is to know how far Iranian society can go, to know if it will be able to overthrow the regime or, on the contrary, if its forces will fail it before putting an end to the dictatorship. One thing is undeniable, and that is that this is the moment when the most doubts have arisen in Tehran in recent years. On recent occasions, swift - and violent - police action has put down any hint of protest, but this time, nothing could be further from the truth. Deaths are accepted as losses in a war, one whose prize is freedom and whose cost could be too high if help does not come from outside Iran's borders.

AP FILE/MOHAMMAD SAYAD - Demonstrators shout anti-US slogans outside the US embassy in Tehran on November 27, 1979. In 1979 the deathly ill shah flees Iran amid growing popular protests against him.
The struggle of the Iranian people

204 people have lost their lives in the protests, according to the NGO Iran Human Rights (IHR), 23 of them children. 140 cities have witnessed protests since 10 September when Amini was killed after she failed to wear her veil correctly. These are the figures of a struggle that began more than a month ago but which has led the Iranian government to consider a dialogue table, something completely unthinkable in previous attempts at protest by the Iranian people which, as now, have been met with violence by state forces in response.
Zahedan is the city that has suffered most from this repression. Located in the province of Sistan and Baluchestan, in this town alone, 90 people were killed in a march held on 30 September to protest the rape of a 15-year-old Baluchi girl by the head of the Chabaha police. The IHR report lists an extensive list of cities and the victims who died in these cities during the protests. It highlights the 27 deaths in Mazandaran, 12 in Gilan, 12 in West Azerbaijan, and eight in Tehran.

AFP/AFP - Map of Iran with the main locations of recent protests

But among all the victims, the information provided by Iran Human Rights highlights one above the rest, the murder of a 16-year-old girl. Sarina Esmailzadeh, a native of Karaj, capital of Elburz province, was brutally murdered by the police when she was demonstrating with her friends near the language school they were attending together. The version first given by the authorities was that Esmailzadeh had taken her own life by jumping from a high point, something that has been denied by IHR: "After reviewing the evidence and speaking with witnesses and close sources, Iran Human Rights confirms that Sarina was the victim of an assassination carried out by state security forces".

PHOTO/Twitter / @EdalateAli1400 via AFP - This image taken from a video posted on Twitter by the Edalat-e Ali (Ali's Justice) group on October 9, 2022, shows part of a video in which crosses and flames are superimposed over the face of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over portraits of Mahsa Amini and three other slain women, which interrupted state television's live news broadcast.
Students against dictatorship

Young Iranians, like Sarina and Mahsa, are the best representation of the Iranian population's struggle against dictatorship. And proof of this is that Iran's security forces have targeted educational facilities. The Guardian reported last week on the arrest of several schoolchildren who were inside their schools. IranWire interviewed some of the students at the school: "We were sitting in our classroom when the principal opened the door, accompanied by four policemen".
"They started to search us and took our phones. Then they asked us to take off our headscarves. It seemed like they were looking for some specific girls," one of the young men told the Iranian media. He added that they were warned "not to take part in the protests, or they would not let us go back to school". These statements are a true reflection of what observers believe has taken hold of the Iranian government: fear.

AFP - SOURCE: UGC - This image from a UGC video posted on Twitter on 9 October 2022 shows Iranian students from the Faculty of Arts at Tehran's Azad University taking part in a protest with their palms covered in red paint to symbolise blood

Tehran fears that it will not be able to cope with the will of its people. They are not confident that the violence and brutality of their security forces can put an end to a wave of protests that for more than a month has been shaking a country that no longer intends to be tied to the yoke of dictatorship. In the past, they were able to put an end to the demonstrations using the force of their police, but now Iranian society has embarked on a single-minded path that, led from the classrooms of schools and universities, must put an end to 43 years of dictatorship.

AFP/ED JONES - Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a press conference in New York on September 22, 2022.

And the fact is that, beyond the educational centres, it is all young people who are leading the demonstrations that have spread throughout the country. The cry of "death to the dictator" sounds louder than ever in the streets of Tehran, with demonstrations of support in different Iranian cities. Saqez, hometown of the late Mahsa Amini, was one of those that came out to defend its neighbour Sanandaj, where two protesters were shot by Iranian forces. "Sanandaj is not alone, Saqez supports it", and "Woman, life and freedom", were chanted by young people who blocked the streets and made bonfires around which they danced while wishing for the death of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

AFP - SOURCE: ANONYMOUS - This UGC image released on twitter on 7 October 2022 Fatemi Saquare in the Iranian capital Tehran, with the water in its fountains apparently coloured red in protest at the bloody crackdown on three weeks of protests sparked by the death in prison of Mahsa Amini.
Border closures with Pakistan

Zahedan, in the southeast of Iran and close to the border with Pakistan, has been, as mentioned above, one of the cities where the protests have had the worst consequences. In addition to events such as the march in protest at the rape of a 15-year-old girl, the independence conflict in the province of Sistan and Baluchestan has become even more heated. The assassination of Ali Mousavi, provincial intelligence chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, by Jaish Al-Adl, a militant jihadist group based in southern Iran, is proof of this.
They define themselves as a group that defends the independence of Sistan and Baluchistan and the Baluchis, the majority ethnic group in the region. The effects of both Jaish Al-Adl's actions and the anti-government protests have resulted in "no movement out of Pakistan to Iran", according to an official of Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency. Last Sunday "they completely stopped all trade and pedestrian movement", he added. According to local sources, the escalating instability in this particular region has been caused by "brutality towards the people of Zahedan by Iranian forces"

REUTERS/DILARA SENKAYA - Demonstrators attend a protest in support of Iranian women and against the death of Mahsa Amini, near the Iranian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey October 7, 2022

The closure of the border with neighbouring Pakistan could have more negative than positive effects for Tehran. Sardarzada Umair Muhammad Hassani, a former adviser to the prime minister of Balochistan, believes that Iran will suffer greatly from having Islamabad as its main source of food supplies. But the consequences go beyond the purely administrative. Hassani himself says he retracts the idea he expressed weeks ago of a rapprochement between the two countries. He believes that the killings by the security forces make any sign of appeasement impossible in view of the brutality with which they are responding to the protests.

PHOTO/AFP - Iran has been torn apart by the biggest wave of social unrest in nearly three years, which has seen protesters including university students and even young schoolgirls chanting "Woman, Life, Freedom".

Nearly 300 people were injured during a single demonstration in Sistan and Balochistan, according to the Baloch Activists Campaign, most of them injured by the police. In addition, the initial death toll of 19 people rose to 50 when the injured could not be transferred to hospitals for fear of arrest by Iranian security forces. As a result, most of them were cared for at home, resulting in the deaths of many of them due to a lack of resources to care for them.

AFP - SOURCE: UGC - Iranian protesters burning their scarves and setting fire to a rubbish bin in the capital Tehran. - Iran vowed "decisive action without mercy" against the wave of unrest that has rocked the country since the death of young Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police.
Support from the international community: insufficient?

Since the beginning of this wave of protests flooding the streets of Iran, the support of the international community has been absolute. Millions of people have come out in corners of the world to show support for the women who, following the death of Mahsa Amini, have decided to put an end to the imposition of the veil. One of the most repeated acts of solidarity with the Iranian people is that of many women who have decided to cut their hair and show it as a sign of support.
Solmaz Etemadzadeh, an Iranian activist living in the Basque Country, told Glamour that "cutting one's hair is a symbol of mourning and denunciation. It is a way for Iranian women to express their deep pain. It is an age-old tradition". It is precisely for this reason that Iran is grateful for these gestures of support from all over the world. But the question now is: Is this all that can be done? A show of solidarity, yes, but is it enough?

AFP/NIKLAS HALLE'N - A group of people chant slogans and hold pictures of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in central London on October 8, 2022.

It may seem an easy question to answer, but it is not easily solved. Clearly, the West could - and should - do something to help a people who are fighting in the streets against a regime that responds by killing protesters. However, the cost would be no small matter. The risk of taking action on Iranian territory, especially given that this is an internal situation, is highly complex. It is not easy to handle a situation of this calibre with Ebrahim Raisi's government, as has been demonstrated for more than a year every time negotiations to renew the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are resumed.

AFP/ JULIEN DE ROSA - A protester with an Iranian flag and red hands painted on her face attends a rally in support of Iranian protests, in Paris on October 9, 2022, following the death of Iranian Mahsa Amini in Iran.

But the reality is that, even if everyone does their part, it is very difficult to end four decades of Ayatollah theocracy. Lisa Daftary, an expert on Iranian affairs and editor-in-chief of the Foreign Desk Foundation, says that "the way this regime will be overthrown will be through the people, and it is the same way it came to power", i.e. the path taken by Iranian society can be traced back to the dictatorship's own rise to power. But she also warns: "The Iranian people are sending a message to the world that they are capable of bearing the burden of overthrowing the regime, but they need help".
How to get that help to Iran is the more complex issue. There is a tendency to point to the US as the leader of a move to mobilise the West. Others point directly to the JCPOA. They believe that retaking the nuclear deal could be a drawback in terms of strengthening Iran's position because of the millions the regime would receive in the event of a deal. Moreover, instead of sitting down again at the negotiating table with Tehran, there are experts who are in favour of toughening economic sanctions against the country led by Ali Khamenei in order to weaken its economic muscle.

PHOTO/REUTERS - Morality police write down the name of a woman arrested during a campaign against "social corruption" in northern Tehran June 18, 2008. Photo taken on June 18, 2008

If there is one thing that seems clear, it is that the actions taken by the West - if they are taken at all, which remains to be seen - are neither imminent nor definitive. And what is not likely to stop are the protests of the Iranian people. They know that overthrowing the dictatorship means taking to the streets to fight against the regime, even if it costs them thousands of injuries and hundreds of deaths. So far, 204 lives have been lost in a struggle that cries out for help from the international community to put an end to 43 years of dictatorship.