Iran’s Protest Movement and Its Future

For a month and a half, Iran has been rocked by protests. The sustained demonstration, which were kicked off after a young woman was killed by the notorious morality police, are the most serious challenge to the ruling regime in at least a dozen years — maybe since its inception. This week on Intercepted: Murtaza Hussain, a reporter at The Intercept, is joined by Neda Toloui-Semnani, a journalist and the author of “They Said They Wanted a Revolution: A Memoir of My Parents.” Toloui-Semnani discusses the recent trajectory of the protests in Iran and its parallels with the 1979 revolution. Then, Hussain is joined by Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, a longtime activist, an expert working on issues of women in conflicts, and the founder of the International Civil Society Action Network. Naraghi-Anderlini and Hussain discuss the West’s approach to the demonstrations and the future of the movement.

[Intercepted theme music.]

Murtaza Hussain: This is Intercepted. 

[Theme music continues.]

MH: I’m Murtaza Hussain, a reporter with The Intercept. 

A month and a half ago, protests erupted in Iran after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in the custody of Iran’s morality police. The morality police regulate Iran’s strict dress code for women. And as a result of Mahsa Amini’s killing, protesters began pouring into the streets without the mandated head coverings.

ABC News, Martha Raddatz: [Sounds of protests in the background.] Tonight, protests are raging across Iran over the suspicious death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody. 

Al Jazeera, Sara Khairat: [Sounds of protests.] In the capital of Iran, protesters have called for an end to discrimination against women.

BBC News, Caroline Hawley: [Sounds of Iranians chanting protest lines.] These are scenes that have stunned Iranians and inspired people around the world. Here, school girls take off their headscarves. For 40 years women have been made to wear them, whether they like it or not.

MH: As they became more bold, women began burning their headscarves in public. Soon enough, following the lead of women young and old, a full-fledged anti-government protest movement erupted. Then came the crackdown.

Al Jazeera, Sara Khairat: [Yells, a lone honking of their horn.] Demonstrators in Iran push back against authorities in Mashhad, protesting the death of Mahsa Amini. Angry crowds confronted security forces in several cities.

MH: Despite 15,000 reported arrests and scores of demonstrators being killed, the movement has surprised many observers by continuing. Today, we’re going to be talking to two Iranian women about what’s happening inside the country, as well as the responses from the international community, particularly the U.S., but also the Iranian diaspora. 

In a moment, we’ll hear from Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, a longtime activist and expert working on issues of women in conflict. But first, we’re joined by Neda Toloui-Semnani, a journalist and the author of “They Said They Wanted a Revolution: A Memoir of My Parents.”

In her book, Neda reports out the remarkable story of her parents, leftist revolutionaries who traveled from California to Iran to join the incipient revolution against the last shah. The Revolution ended up being successful, but quickly took a turn in a repressive direction; Neda’s dad was executed. She and her mom escaped by land over the border. 

Some 40 years later, the protests we’re seeing today reflect backlash to the continued repression that Iranians face. 

[Pensive music plays, then fades out.]

MH: Welcome to Intercepted, Neda.

NTS: Thank you for having me.

MH: So Neda, for those unfamiliar with recent developments in Iran, can you describe the significance of these protests and why this movement is different from other past instances Iranians have taken to the streets?

NTS: Yeah, I’m happy to. 

So if we go back to mid-September, September 16, a young woman named Mahsa Amini, was killed, reportedly by the morality police while she was in custody for not wearing, in quotes, her “hijab appropriately.” She had been arrested a few days earlier, and had been taken in. 

Now, people had been watching this over social media for a couple of days, so when she actually died, there was this outrage and people poured into the streets. It was a real moment of sort of collective grief — and rage. 

But I think it would be inaccurate to say that people have been protesting now. And we’re in the third month of what is, in my opinion, a revolution. And I say “in my opinion,” and we can talk about that later, but there have been ongoing protests, sort of rolling protests in Iran for the last — certainly since 2017, but you could argue going back for decades. So people were angry, and they were frustrated. 

So there were these social reasons, right? This ongoing, decades-long suppression of more than half of the population — women — but there were also religious minorities, ethnic racial minorities had been suppressed as well over the last few decades. 

Then there are economic reasons: The poverty in Iran is excruciating at this point. So people had been protesting lack of water, not being able to get eggs; in 2019, there were protests about gas. And at the same time, they were seeing people, clerics, getting wealthy; clerics’ families getting wealthy. And so there’s this real sense of injustice. And then there’s a sense that Iran is getting … into a period that is hopeless, as in the resources of the country had been plundered. 

So all of these sorts of mass things were pushing together around the time Mahsa Amini was killed. 

So that’s sort of the broad background of what happened. And since then, it was mostly women and young people, specifically girls, who started getting out on the streets. And then they were joined by men, young men; and then, what was really fascinating and extraordinary to watch, was how many different people from different walks of life had joined, especially in those early weeks. And the protests, what were then protests, had spread across the country. And it’s changed over the last few months. It’s deepened. But it doesn’t really show any signs of ending.

MH: So, Neda, in the face of these very widespread protests, what type of response has the Iranian government offered? We know that the Iranian government has, in the past, not been conciliatory demands, and has used force and other forms of coercion to suppress protests. 

It seems to be trying that today. Is it possible to suppress protests which are so widespread across every walk that you have described?

NTS: I mean, I don’t want to dare anyone into suppressing people more than they already have but, yeah, I mean, I think for most of us who have even a passing familiarity with the Iranian regime, their playbook is sort of the same that it’s always been. They stalk their dissenters; there are mass arrests; people are disappeared; people’s friends and families are threatened, lies are told about them; there are these mass crackdowns, like we’ve seen with the hijab crackdowns, but also what’s happening on the streets with the people who are out demonstrating and protesting. 

And then there’s this sense of taking away people’s safety. So you know, I’m sure people have heard stories of hospitals and ambulances being used to round up people who are out on the street; there are stories of rape and sexual assault as tools of oppression and war. And then the other thing that the regime does, and I think does it very sophisticatedly and does it very thoughtfully, is exploiting divisions within the country and without because they are absolutely aware that keeping people apart will weaken them. 

But — and I’m saying this is actually a really big but — they are now, and they have in the past, decided that they are going to give up sort of love and fealty of their people, like the hearts and minds, and they are going to opt for oppression and leading by terror, which has worked up until a point. But I think what is really interesting of what’s happening over the last few years is that sort of rule — that rule by fear, by oppression, as I was saying, the oppressive use of the state to push down people — isn’t working. They are losing. It doesn’t seem to be pushing people back inside the house or pushing people from using the internet in a way that feels important, or social media, or figuring out how to use VPNs, or Tor, or whatever it is, whatever the tools are. It’s not pushing people back inside and pushing people to sort of bend their heads and go on about their life. People are pushing back and I suspect at least part of that is because I think terror, I think oppression only can go so far; people historically get exhausted and need to feel something like hope, at least in their future, their personal future, if not a collective future. And I don’t think that that’s something that is felt in Iran right now.

MH: You wrote very eloquently in your memoir and also in a recent piece in The Cut, about the role of women in Iranian Revolutionary history, and also your family’s own particular stake in the struggle. Can you tell us a bit about your own sentiments and feelings watching what’s taking place in Iran today? And tell us a bit about your own family background as it relates to Iranian political history.

NTS: Yeah, my family came over, left Iran, and sort of went back and forth between Iran and the U.S. throughout the 20th century, from the mid-1950s when my grandmother went to California to finish her degree, she brought over her kids one by one; my mom was quite young at the time, she was 10. And then my dad came over to the States in the early 1960s, and he went straight to Missouri. So my mom was in California, my dad was in Missouri, and it was quite a time to be growing up in the 1960s. 

And so on that level, they became political quite young. They met at Berkeley at the end of the ’60s. And they really came together as part of the anti-Shah movement that was pushing for the Shah to leave Iran. And at the time, in the late ’60s, early ’70s, that was sort of unheard of. 

On the other side of that my aunt, Mahnaz Afkhami, who just published her own beautiful memoir about the women’s movement in Iran and the global South, called “The Other Side of Silence: A Memoir of Exile, Iran, and the Global Women’s Movement,” she was, by the mid-’70s, a leader of the women’s movement in Iran, and then eventually became the first minister of women’s affairs in Iran. 

So you had two sides of different movements. You had my parents who were against the Shah, and they were leftists. And then you had Mahnaz and her husband, who worked within the Shah’s cabinet, within the Shah’s government. And so there was that sort of that division I was talking about. We see them still today, at least in my family, some of that was mended along the way. But yeah, so that was the two different sides. 

And then when my aunt went into exile, at the start of the revolution, so in 1978, my mom and dad went into the country and that’s where I was born. I was born in Iran in ’79, sort of a child of the revolution, one of that generation. And then my parents stayed political, my dad for a while, until his arrest. And my mother sort of left political life after I was born, although tangentially remained within the same circles. And my dad’s organization, again, [was] leftist, and they were pushing against the new Islamic regime. 

And there was a failed insurrection in 1981, and though my dad didn’t have anything to do with the planning of it, he was still arrested when the government started doing sweeps. So the playbook has been the same for decades. 

In my book, I actually have trial transcripts, but also in my reporting around it — and this didn’t necessarily apply to the book, so I didn’t include it — but the government kept records of how it’s stalked and followed people that they thought were working against them. And I was able to get those documents to the point where people, you know, people were crossing the street, and you had somebody who was working for the government keeping tabs on them, and people were very aware of it. The people who are working against the regime are very aware of being followed, being monitored. And that’s still true today. 

And then also in my book is a trial transcript where you get a sense of how a trial against dissidents will play out: that is to say the prosecutor and the judge are working together and the people don’t actually have any real sense of defense. And as I’m watching the protests right now, I’m seeing a lot of the same — I’m seeing reflections of the early 1980s to the late 1980s when the regime was really trying to solidify power. And they were doing that by cracking down on dissent, and protests.

I feel about where we are right now: It’s really hard to watch what’s happening in Iran from a distance. I think being Iranian or having any sort of connection with the country, because you’re both aware of how vicious the regime can be and you’re also aware of what it takes for a country that really did not — it wasn’t a smooth transition to revolution or into the years after revolution. The country and its people have really suffered a great amount of trauma. There was the Iran-Iraq War directly after the revolution, there was a lot that people were suffering, and that most of the people of my generation, and some of us younger, and many older, wouldn’t necessarily want to go back to that. 

And watching what’s happening in Iran is really — I mean, we can’t get in there. There’s no real information. There’s some great pieces that are coming out. There’s some exceptional journalism that people are doing both outside of Iran and, for a while, inside of Iran. But there is no real continuous flood of information that is robust coming out of the country. And that is terrifying.

But I’m hopeful. It’s hard to say it, because I’m hopeful for the future, but what that means in the immediate future is something different.

MH: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. 

So the U.S. and the West generally, obviously, has a very troubled relationship with Iran, or has for the last few decades. What do you think that the West or the U.S. could do to support Iranians today that could be constructive?

NTS: Yeah, two things that I think that I mentioned are important to sort of think about. There’s that glut of information going into the country, but I think especially coming out of the country. And so there’s a coordinated effort on the part of people outside the country to keep VPNs open and to make sure that people are able to get information out. 

But I think that what I had said before about this being a hearts and minds — I think there is a lot that can be done with pressure and signs of solidarity outside: putting pressure on Iran’s government to let people in, to let in people from international organizations, people who aren’t political, to be able to get eyes on the ground, get information out of the country that isn’t being filtered through state propagandists, or isn’t fractured because people are on the streets or people who are in various regions are fighting their own battles right now. And so we do need people who can give us information from inside the country, if possible. And if not, then at least try to figure out how to ensure that lines of communication stay open. 

There’s also real signs of support that people can give — and I’m not just talking about hashtags or whatever. But I do think that the American government, and the EU, and other governments can really find ways to support the Iranian people. The Iranian people inside who are fighting are watching any way they can to figure out how they’re being supported outside. 

And, I think in the U.S. we tend to think of everything as a zero-sum game. So you either do sanctions or nothing, or you do invasion or nothing. And generally speaking, that’s not how things work. We want to make sure that Iranians inside of the country, to the extent that it’s possible, are leading this revolt, that they are pushing for the change that feels important to them. And I think finding ways for people to come together, whether it’s online or in person, finding ways to make sure that people are safe in their organizing and in their assembly is really important, and to be creative about how we support protest abroad, and then through official channels.

The U.S. has had a lot of time to think about how it protects, and how it supports protesters abroad. And I think one of the ways that we fail democracy movements is by not having thought creatively about how we can do that in a way that doesn’t just go to a hawk-or-dove conversation. There are so many different ways to support people who are struggling for independence right now. 

And the way I know that is if you just look at what’s happening with the protests and movement in China right now, and how they are finding connections between what is happening in Iran, people are able to support each other over time and space. And one of the things that protesters and demonstrators and movements know is that first of all, ideas are contagious. Hope is contagious, and democratic ideals are alluring. And people really respond when they are seen, when their struggles are noticed, when their efforts are applauded. And when their voices are amplified.

MH: So, Neda, you’ve lived your life split, in some sense, between the United States and Iran, and you’ve seen intimately how daily life is different for people, particularly women, in both countries. Can you talk a bit about, to Americans, what they need to understand why Iranians are reaching this breaking point in terms of their relationship with the government? And what are the forms of subtle oppression or not-so-subtle oppression that people experience in Iran on a day-to-day basis that they’re free of if they grew up in the United States?

NTS: Yeah. When I lived in Iran, very briefly, in the early 2000s, one of the things that as an American citizen was really hard for me was I would take a bus to work in central Tehran. So I’d take this bus to work in a central part of the city. And I would pay in the front of the bus, and then I would have to go to the back of the bus, and the women’s section and the men’s section of the public transportation was cut off by a metal pole. So you couldn’t just walk to the back of the bus from inside. And the women’s section was always incredibly small, so even if there was nobody else on the bus, [in] the women’s section, you were always squished together. And as an American, who had grown up, knowing maybe not everything about the civil rights movement, or the real struggles that Black Americans and people of color have suffered over centuries, I at least knew enough to know what it means, psychologically, to be told that you have to go to the back of the bus. 

And maybe, for other people, it wouldn’t have hit so hard. But for me, it was devastating. Because I kept thinking: In the U.S., people fought so hard to be able to sit wherever they wanted on transportation. And here I am in Iran. And I have to make my way to the back of the bus. I mean, even thinking about it now, I don’t know if it hit other people the same way, but it just felt devastating. 

And so that’s a very subtle way of keeping people down and telling people that not only are they not worth anything, but that they are cattle being pushed to the back of a vehicle. So that was a really hard moment for me. And it wasn’t because, I should say, that Iran wasn’t wonderful or the people weren’t great. It’s just strictly down to policy. 

And then, you know, the contradiction of that is women in Iran have never, not since the regime came into power, they have never stopped making incredible strides. They are in every part of society. They’re extraordinarily well educated, as a bloc, writ large. And they have done this not because of the Iranian regime but in spite of. And so I think in the U.S. we talk about — and rightly, we should talk about — what are the systemic issues that go into gender inequality in the workplace or in society at large, and we need to be talking about that every day, and we are fighting in many ways in the U.S. right now for things like bodily autonomy. But in Iran, they are doing that, while also having to live within strict strictures of not just how they dress, but places that they can be in, and yet — and still — they manage to be creative, to excel in every sort of part of life. And I think that it is exhausting to have to be exceptional every day.

MH: So Neda, you have said that the current situation in Iran is effectively a revolutionary situation, in the sense that the Iranian people are clearly fed up with the Islamic Republic now, but also the Islamic Republic seems to not be ready to back down in terms of transitioning out of power. What may we expect in the coming months ahead as this relationship develops? And how do you think the Iranian people are going to view the Islamic Republic and their relationship with it going forward?

NTS: I mean, I think the reason why I call it a revolution is because nobody that I’ve seen, or that I’ve heard, has asked for reform. What they’re asking for is a full-scale regime change. What they’re asking for is to give them the opportunity to rebuild a country in their own image. So the Iranian people are saying: We want a chance to build our own country, our own systems, and we are not taking anything less. 

And I think it’s worth noting, they have made some strides — small strides, but strides nonetheless. From what I understand, people are not wearing hijabs everywhere. And that is huge. That is unthinkable. A year ago, that would have been crazy to even say out loud, and watching people protest online under their own names, which is an extraordinary measure to do. So what is and should be celebrated and acknowledged, are the strides that people are making with very few resources. And with a lot of sacrifice. I mean, hundreds of people — I mean, the exact numbers are sketchy — but something between 300 and 500 people are dead, many of whom, 20 percent-ish of those are children, many more have been arrested, many more have been injured. And yet, and still, they are still showing up. I personally think that the regime — listen, regimes don’t last forever, they just don’t; empire’s fall; that’s the way of the world. There are very few things that I am as certain of as oppression having a short lifespan. And I think that about it as people have better things to do with their lives than to be oppressed. And I think that people know that. 

So I don’t know what will happen next. My heart says something is gonna get worse before it gets better. But I do think that the regime’s days are numbered. And part of the reason I know that is because they’re cracking down so hard, and that they’re attacking their people; regimes that are confident in their power and in their systems don’t attack their people, don’t attack half the population, don’t kill children, don’t rape and sexually assault teenagers. They just don’t do that — or not on this mass scale. So for me, I think that the government is scared, and they are losing their grip on society.

MH: Neda, Iran’s last revolution took place in 1979, do you see parallels with that situation today in the sense of how Iranian society is organized? What’s different and what’s similar to Iran’s last revolution?

NTS: Yeah, I mean, I do think there’s similarities. Part of it is in the long build-up to it. Again, I think both in ’79 and now, outsiders have this way of looking at it and being like: Whoa, we never would have thought! We thought everything was like, so solid. 

And then when you take a step back, and you realize how long people were protesting, and pushing, and agitating, and trying very hard to get their voices heard and weren’t being heard, I think then you realize, yeah, that those are very similar things.

I also think that another interesting thing is watching how protesters are organizing to the extent that they are. I talk a little bit in the book about how the anti-Shah movement had organized abroad. And they were very clearly a transnational movement. And the part that was interesting for me on that is how they shared information over time and space. And it was really interesting how they were able to do it. And now you’re watching protesters inside the country really harness tools of communication and information-sharing to do that. But you saw some echoes of that, especially in the 1970s in Iran — and outside of Iran, which is a little different.

I do think a difference that I want to also be cognizant of is this is Iran’s fight! And we, I think, as a diaspora should really respect that! We shouldn’t necessarily be fighting old battles. And we have to, I guess, the one thing I would want to add is I think the diaspora has an obligation and a responsibility to the people in Iran by not making our own issues theirs.

MH: Neda, thank you for joining us on Intercepted.

NTS: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it

MH: That was Neda Toloui-Semnani, a journalist and the author of “They Said They Wanted a Revolution: A Memoir of My Parents.”

[Musical interlude.]

MH: Now we’re joined by Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, a longtime activist and expert working on issues of women in conflict. She’s the founder and head of the International Civil Society Action Network, or ICAN, a group focused on peacebuilding that works both on the ground across the world and in high-level international bodies to address the gendered impact of conflict and the critical role of women peacebuilders. 

Thanks for joining us, Sanam.

SNA: Thank you. Good to be with you.

MH: So Sanam, can you tell us a bit about how this movement in Iran has evolved since the outbreak of the first protest this fall?

SNA: So the movement itself, if we think about the trigger, of course, it was the killing of Mahsa Amini. But, I think, to understand the depths of it, we need to go back, if not 100 years, at least 43 years, to the beginnings of the revolution, and how, in the process of mobilizing the public against the Shah and in support of what became the Islamist state,  women were actually mobilized — women from traditional families and more religious sectors of society — were mobilized with the promise that when we have a revolution, the public space would be moral and ethical, and they would have their rights. 

But, in fact, the opposite happened. In 1979, one of the first laws to be suspended was the legislation that had been passed during the Shah’s time that gave women basic personal status rights, things like the right to divorce and the right to child custody and so forth. The clerics had used that law to suggest that Iran was becoming Western and immoral. And then, as I said, in the aftermath of the revolution, it was going to be a moral space and ethical space for women to have rights, but they actually suspended women’s rights. 

So the resistance starts from there. The imposition of the hijab was one of the first things that they did, and it was a very sort of visible symbol of a state that has gender discrimination embedded in its very essence, from the Constitution all the way to everyday life. And from the beginning, as I said, generations of women have been resisting what we’re seeing now as a culmination of those generations coming to the fore.

MH: So as you mentioned, the issue of mandatory hijab was basically a flashpoint in these recent protests. The killing of Mahsa Amini, after being detained by the morality police, ostensibly for quote-unquote improper hijab was in many ways the trigger of its anger. But it seems that the grievances or demands of people in the streets have expanded from it since that time. Can you tell us a bit about what people in Iran are asking for, or demanding, or mobilizing in opposition to, beyond what maybe is commonly appreciated? 

SNA: Well, I think that you can’t underestimate the importance of what the “women, life, freedom” movement means. As I said, precisely because you have a regime that has been characterized so strongly by how it treats women, basically. If that treatment has changed, then the essence of the regime has also changed. And what’s extraordinary about what’s happening is that this is the first time in history, actually, that we see a feminist call being the clarion call to unify people across class, and religion, and gender divisions, we’re seeing men stand with women. It’s not the first women-led revolution in the world — we saw that with Sudan, we saw it in Yemen and elsewhere — but this idea that the simple demand of “women, life, freedom” is so basic and so obvious, and yet it is so transformative and radical, that it really touches on every aspect of the nature of the state.

MH: Hmm. And so this issue of mistreatment of women embedded in the Islamic Republic has been, in many ways, an ideological rallying point for people who are opponents of the regime. Can you tell us a bit also about how women and girls have played an active role in the uprising in terms of organizing the streets, what we’ve witnessed or seen in the past few months?

SNA: Oh, for sure. 

I mean, again, women have historically been part of all sorts of public protests and so forth, and active in daily life in terms of their resistance to the restrictions that were being put on them. So for example, when I was a teenager, the girls of my generation were faced with very limited choices in terms of university courses; they pushed back against that, and they insisted to get access to college in all of the subject areas. And for years now, they’ve dominated; they’ve been the majority of university students across the country. 

So women have always been pushing back. And it’s a little bit like the analogy of a river. And we have a poem in Persian that we learn in elementary school. And it’s a story of a mountain stream that comes down the mountain, and it comes across a big black boulder, and it says to the boulder: Would you mind moving aside so that I can carry on going down my path? And the boulder says: Who are you? I’m not going to move aside. And so the water slowly, slowly erodes the boulder and it becomes a river. And this is a little bit — that’s the analogy when I see what’s happening in Iran, that women have been resisting and pushing back and demanding space in the political arena, in the legal arena, in the social space, in their domestic arena. And it’s now like a crescendo that’s come out into the public that we’re seeing. 

And it’s notable, if you see how, for example, Khamenei’s niece has issued a statement, and now she’s in prison. So it’s embedded within the family of the ruling class as well.

MH: You raise a very interesting point that this issue of gender discrimination is an ideologically important pillar of the regime. It’s interesting to outside observers, because it seems that the logical thing for the regime to do would be to compromise on the issue that people are demanding for, and yet they haven’t done that. Is it impossible for the regime to compromise without compromising its own integrity? Or what do we know about its thought process or its behavior, which seems to many outside observers to be almost irrational?

SNA: That’s a very, very good question. So you would think that if there was a rational state of mind and a rational system in place, that, first of all, they would have acknowledged and prosecuted those who killed Mahsa Amini and, you know, apologized for it, right? Like there should have been some contrition around that issue. Instead, they doubled down. 

On the question of the hijab, and whether it can be removed or not, or what can be done in terms of chipping away at the essence of the regime to bring about these rights, I was in Iran in 2004 researching how women were transforming the sociopolitical space non-violently, and I met some political figures, and they said the mandatory hijab is not working; it should be removed. And we’ve thought about it. And we thought about just letting people walk down the street, without the hijab and not bothering them. 

But clearly, there were elements in the regime, within the ecosystem of the regime, that have always held on to this notion of social control and the notion that the Islamic identity of the state — or the Islamist, I should say, identity of the state — is tied very much to the treatment of its women, basically. And so if you allow women to have the rights, if you allow women to give up on the hijab, then that is challenging the state. 

What’s interesting is, again, that women over the years, were pushing back the hijab anyway. So it had gone from what used to be something that was very overwhelming and black, like a shroud — your face could show but the rest of you was felt like being covered in a black shroud — to being almost symbolic in the style of a scarf that people had around their head. But with Raisi coming into power, he reimposed the more harsh restrictions that existed in the 1980s. So that essence, that part of the regime that has wanted to essentially be more dictatorial has come to power, and this is how they’re demonstrating themselves. And their rigidity is extraordinary to observe. And their violence is extraordinary to observe in such a raw and public way. 

We’ve always known it existed — it has always been there. But, I think, at various points, depending on who was president and within, again, their own systems, who was in charge, things were tempered, but this is a return to the type of violence that existed in the 1980s in Iran — and young people of my generation, what they went through. And so it’s now our children’s generation experiencing it.

MH: That kind of leads me to my next question as well, too. Can you tell us a bit about what is known about the scale and nature of human rights abuses and the government’s response to the protests over the past three months?

SNA: So the official, I think, figures from Amnesty and so forth, talk about 14,000 people that have been arrested. I’ve heard that more have been from other sources; I’ve heard that more people are missing. There seems to be some information about people [that] have been arrested, but then some have been released. So I’m not sure about the exact numbers on any given day. 

We’re also hearing news about forms of torture, and rape, and sexual assault in the prisons, which again, there’s a history to it. It happened in 2009 as well, both against men and women. And the cases are coming out again now. This type of information often comes out much later. And we never get an understanding of the actual scale because victims of sexual violence in dictatorships generally, or in places and contexts where the state perpetrates this kind of violence, are an added risk if they actually report it. And their families are at added risk. So this is kind of a hidden crime that often has more depth and breadth than we hear about. And it’s only later, many years later, that we understand the scale of it. 

In the case of Iran, this time around, as CNN has had some reports and human rights organizations are beginning to document cases, to be fully sober and make sure that everything is verified, this is one of the things that is very important in terms of documentation — it’s very important to make sure that the information is verified and it’s not overblown or exaggerated on the one hand — and yet we also have, as I said, this question that these types of crimes are often very hidden because of the risk associated with people actually saying what happened to them, and then the threats to their families.

MH: So one thing that seems to be clear is that the regime’s base of support is diminishing with every new round of protests that takes place every few years, and even on shorter cycles in recent years, as well, too. And you mentioned, even, that Khamenei’s niece had also issued a statement, seemingly in opposition to the regime. 

One thing I was very curious [about], Sanam, if is there a threshold beyond which the government can no longer continue to govern if an overwhelming majority of the population seems to be against them or non-supportive of them, and who today makes up the regime’s base if they’ve alienated even many people who are close to them ideologically in past years?

SNA: These are very big questions, and I’m not sure who actually, these days, has all the answers. But there are different factors here. 

So if you take, for example, the government of Myanmar, just as a comparison: When you have a dictatorship that is willing to wield and use all forms of repression and violence, they can be a tiny minority, with very limited support, and still rule, still have control. And this is just something that we have to be conscious of. Whether it’s the case of Iran, or Myanmar, or elsewhere, there has always been, in history, places where a tiny minority are in complete control because of their willingness to use violence and repression.

In the case of Iran right now, if you go back to the election cycles that we’ve had, typically, the hardline candidates would get between 25 to 30 percent of the vote. There was a period up to the Raisi elections, the actual participation in the election process was down to 30 percent. But before that, over 70 percent of the public would come to vote, because there was a period where people were hoping that the change could evolve. And there would be, whether you called it reform or transformation, they were sort of hoping that things could gradually become more moderate. But that baseline of 25 percent, 30 percent was there.

Now, it’s harder to know, because we’re seeing these protests happening in so many provincial areas and in also poorer areas of the major cities where typically, you would think, that there would be regime supporters; we see news of, say, the Iran-Iraq War veteran families being involved and often they’ve been the ones that have received support from the state, so to see them coming out in this way and speaking out is also quite new. 

And then it’s layered with the economic issues and what happened during the Covid period, in terms of the economic pressures that people face. And it’s also tied very much to the sense that the levels of corruption, and injustice, and misgovernment — but just theft, just the depth of corruption has become so extraordinary that it seems that a deeper swath of the public is engaged, either in an overt way, or implicitly supporting the those who are out on the streets in the evenings and stuff.

MH: I want to pivot and ask a bit about Western policy towards Iran but before, very quickly, in Iran today, there are protests taking place in many different provinces, including areas where ethnic minority groups are more prevalent, including Kurdish regions and Baloch regions of the country. Can you tell us a little bit about the government response to protests in those areas, and how it may differ from major urban centers?

SNA: So again, from what we’re seeing and hearing from the social media posts, and so forth, the levels of violence there are tremendously high. I came across one statistic that said that while Balochs are 3 percent of the population, they represent 33 percent of the people that have been killed so far. So they are being far harsher in those areas. 

And in some ways, for me, it’s a little bit reminiscent of the way of Assad’s tactics in the context of Syria, because he also tried to make it as sort of sectarian and create divisions, and polarization, and essentially trying to, in the case of Iran, for example, it’s trying to say: Oh, there’s a threat that the country is going to fall apart or that there are going to be separatist movements. So they’re trying to pit the public against ethnic minorities, while at the same time being extremely harsh on the ethnic minorities. And they are bearing the brunt of the cost of the violence, for sure.

MH: What should the U.S.’s and the West’s role generally be during this crisis, and particularly in the context of the U.S., what should this crisis portend for a possible return or not to the JCPOA or the Iran nuclear deal?

SNA: So number one, the fact that the U.S. has not had a diplomatic presence on the ground makes it much harder because you have far less leverage or even understanding of who’s who and what’s what. One of the questions that I think is really important to be asking is: How deep do the regime’s roots go? How many people are bound by and have a sense of loyalty to the regime, or a sense of fear that if they step back, whether the regime will come after them or whether they’re going to be somehow indicted by the opposition movements and so forth? So these are questions that are important to ask. And when you have such little direct contact, it’s very hard to understand the nuances of society and culture and its intersections with the political security situation on the ground. 

In terms of the JCPOA, we saw this before with Ahmadinejad in 2009 during the Green Movement, when there was a de facto coup by him, he was trying to come into negotiations with the West as a way of demonstrating legitimacy and normalcy. And certainly, I and others were saying: This is not the time to engage with the government, because they want to get external legitimacy. 

I would say the same thing right now, that this is not the time for negotiations around the JCPOA or anything like that, because it would give the regime this idea or enable them to project an image of legitimacy and normalcy at a time when, obviously, things are not normal. 

That said, I think a really hard question that needs to be posed to everybody is that: If we hear in the next month that Iran has a nuclear breakout capacity, what will the Western world do? What will their priorities be? And how will they make sure that they don’t do harm to this movement, this grassroots movement that has emerged and is really at heart and soul of what’s happening in Iran. 

These are questions that we need to be asking, because they’re very difficult questions, and it’s easy to be rhetorically in support of the “women, life, freedom” movement right now. But will we stand with them? Or what will the U.S. and others, the Europeans and others, do if the situation on the nuclear file changes? Similarly, what will they do if there’s a real need for Iran’s oil and gas? We’ve just seen that a deal has been made with Venezuela, because of their resources. 

So these are not very hopeful questions that I’m posing. But I think these are very important questions that those who are involved in these issues at the forefront of them need to be anticipating and thinking about.

MH: So the last few months have seen a major mobilization of many Iranians in the diaspora as well, too, including Western countries in support of the movement inside Iran. Can you tell us a bit about this movement outside the country, and also some of the differences in strategy and approach which have opened up in the diaspora, as they’ve debated what they can do to support Iranians?

SNA: I think, overwhelmingly, again, the diaspora movement or the diaspora support for what’s happening in Iran has been very moving and very united, fundamentally. Day in and day out, we’re seeing images of the kids, and the girls, and the boys, and again in the Balochi and Kurdish areas, people putting their lives at risk for something that they know is bigger than themselves and we all understand in terms of the sacrifices that they’re making. So on the one hand, it’s been remarkable. And so has the international response to it, whether it’s from the musicians and artists and politicians and so forth, we’ve never seen this kind of support and empathy for Iranians. 

That said, I think the differences that we see are, for example, between those who have advocated for the expulsion of Iranian diplomats and the closure of Iranian embassies, and the full isolation of the state, or parts of the state that we deal with in the international diplomatic sphere. Some people are saying: Close all the embassies and kick out all the diplomats; others are saying, don’t do that, downgrade the diplomatic interaction, withdraw your ambassadors. Those are the kinds of nuances that I think are important to think about. 

And where I sit, I work with women who are rights activists and peace builders and mediators in conflict countries around the world, and in places with closed political space from Afghanistan to Yemen and Syria. And so for me, personally, when I look at these issues, my first thought is that from the diaspora, we must make sure that we don’t do inadvertent harm in what we advocate for. So, at the moment, I don’t believe in expelling diplomats and closing embassies because Iran would reciprocate. And all the Western diplomats that are there would also be then expelled and then it would be a little bit like the situation with the Taliban in Afghanistan, or North Korea, or somewhere; I don’t believe in that kind of isolation. Others may have other ideas and it’s important to have dialogues, I think, to really understand what the implications are and how people are positioning themselves. But I think the overall sentiment is very much in support of people there, and really trying to do the best by it. 

But, again, it is a very, very difficult and complex situation that we’re dealing with, like with any other state. I mean, this is, you know, I’ve just come from a conference where I was talking to people from Sudan and from Myanmar. We are living in an era where authoritarianism is on the rise, and we don’t necessarily have the best tools or the best answers for tackling them. 

Just one thing, one of the things that I think has been incredibly important, and has been a unifying factor is the demand for the U.N. Human Rights Council to establish an investigative mechanism; I hope that there’ll be a fact-finding mission. I would like to see every single U.N. agency stand up, speak out, and take action: UNICEF, with regard to the children that are being killed; U.N. Women with regard to what’s happening with women; UNDP, they’re present on the ground, they deal with justice and governance issues, what’s going on in the prisons, and what’s happening with all of these protesters that have been incarcerated? We just heard that Toomaj Salehi, the rapper, has received a charge that could come with a death sentence; UNESCO, what are they saying about the preservation of culture and heritage, and the protection of artists, and performers, and so forth? 

So we need the international community, and the international system, and the multilateral agencies and entities that we have to actually be the best that they can be and come forward with the strength and teeth, if you want, and show that human rights, which is integral to the identity of the United Nations, actually matters and means something. That’s something that I’d like to see and I think many others would agree.

MH: And Sanam, this is my last question. But many have described these protests in Iran as a turning point in the history of the people’s relationship with the Islamic Republic. What lasting changes can we expect in Iran going forward?

SNA: [Laughs.] That’s also a very big question. 

So it is a profound moment in Iran’s history because it’s a mindset shift. And once you shift a mindset, it’s very hard to go back. And one of the most moving and, as I say, profound aspects of this is that: in my mother’s generation, women protested, but the men didn’t stand with them; in my generation, women were resisting and trying to protest and push back on all the restrictions, and the men understood and sympathized,  but they said: Please be careful, don’t get yourself arrested, put on the scarf and get on with it.

This generation, the men are standing shoulder to shoulder with the women. And they understand how profound the call for “women, life, and freedom” is, the call for equality is. So I don’t think you can go back from that. That’s one thing. The second thing is that we’re seeing children involved: 11-year-olds and 12-year-olds, and high school kids, and they have seen their own friends and other children their own age being killed by the state. So how do you go back from that? 

So I think that the shift, the change has already happened in a way that the regime will either have to contend with — if they’re going to try and hold on to power, it’s a question of how much violence they’re going to use. And, from the public’s side, it’s a question of how much violence they’re willing to withstand. These are horrific, horrific scenarios that I’m putting forward. But that’s where we’re at. 

And then there’s the other side, where you say: Is it possible that the regime understands that there is no turning back and if they care about the country, if anybody within that system cares about the country, it’s time to be looking for a pathway out to have — whether it’s a referendum, whether it’s some kind of engagement — to transform from the state to this to something different, in the way that we saw in South Africa, for example. There was the anti-apartheid, the ANC movement and so forth, they were unified and they had a charter and they had a collective leadership with Nelson Mandela and others, but they also had a “Pik” Botha coming from within the system and understanding that they didn’t want South Africa to become like Zimbabwe — a civil war. 

So, in the case of Iran, these are some of the questions. And I’m sure that others are also asking these questions. They are very hard questions to be thought through. And my hope, and I’m sure the hope of many others is that whoever is in power, and whoever has the means to reduce the levels of violence and envision a future where we have a more democratic system of governance will actually take the steps in that direction and avoid Iran falling into either a civil war or into an even more authoritarian, closed, and effectively failing state. 

But I can’t give you an answer which direction things are going. Right now we’re watching it. And all I can say is that the unity that the public is showing, and the solidarity that we’re seeing, and the strength and resilience and courage from the young people at the moment gives me a lot of hope that we will see a better outcome. 

So I leave you with that. I’m incredibly hopeful that positive change can come out of this. And certainly, as they say, the change has already happened. The ideology is no longer — it lost a long time ago, but I don’t think it has much support, given the events of the last two months.

MH: Sanam, thank you so much for joining us. 

SNA: Thank you.

MH: Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini is a longtime activist and expert working on issues of women in conflict. She’s the founder and head of the International Civil Society Action Network. 

[End credits music.]

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