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  • Dr. Richard Quinlan

Protests in Iran: A New Arab Spring?

An analysis by Dr. Richard Quinlan

November 16, 2022

Students in Iran solemnly protest the death of Mahsa Amini. [Photo: Richard Vogel/AP. Source: Euronews]

What began as peaceful protests in Iran have tragically descended into shocking acts of violence on the streets. The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini released a torrent of protests across the country. Amini died while in detention following an arrest by the “morality police”. Her charge was simply wearing her hijab improperly. Iran is a nation familiar with protests, but there is a different aura about what the world is currently witnessing, with women of all ages, including Iranian schoolgirls and celebrated actors, have raised their voices in unified rejection of these harsh laws. The larger question about this current outpouring of individuality is whether these protests will fade from the news or potentially launch a female-led revival of an Arab Spring.

Beginning September 16, Iranians poured into the streets to demand accountability of the security forces who were accused of beating Amini to death, including striking her head numerous times.[1] While the government claims that an “underlying disease” was the cause of Amini’s death, this paltry excuse was rejected by women of all ages.[2] The Iranian government has responded to these demonstrations with unprecedented violence, using live ammunition, including weapons of war, to kill hundreds.[3] According to CNN, 43 children are among the dead along with 25 women.[4] The Iranian military has used these events to target traditionally marginalized ethnic minorities, including Kurds.[5] To the credit of the Iranian people, particularly women, the government crackdown has not frightened people into their homes but has rather emboldened a movement that now has both men and women chanting and walking together. It is this solidarity that should worry the Iranian hardliners.

Iran is a nation that desires to be treated as a nation of note and one that believes in its potential hegemony within the Middle East. as many of its neighbors exist in states of chaos. From the political instability of Iraq to the ongoing genocidal actions of Syria, Iran has an opportunity to become more progressive and work towards greater cooperation with the West. These seemed like goals for former presidents Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Khatami. However, the Iranian economy teetered on the edge of utter collapse, exacerbated by the sanctions placed upon Iran following the U.S. departure from the fragile Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly referred to as the Iranian nuclear deal. The ingredients for revolution exist within contemporary Iran– namely, a young population seeking in vain for jobs, a future, and the technology to understand how other areas in the world live. The BBC labeled Iran a “tech-savvy” country nearly ten years ago, and the use of VPNs and other methods of evading internet censorship has only improved.[6] With the ability to disseminate information more readily, the government is fighting a losing battle against the protestors. Bullets may kill those who are daring to express their disgust with the government of Ebrahim Raisi, but seemingly no amount of vehement authoritarianism will break the spirit of those demanding human rights.

In 2009, following the controversial re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a young female protestor, Neda Agha-Soltan, was murdered in the streets of Tehran. Her death inspired a wave of protests, and the government responded with a level of violence reminiscent of the current assault upon protestors, along with linking the unrest with foreign influence. The Iranian government has turned to blaming foreign influencers, particularly the United States, as the primary cause for Iran’s suffering. This refrain will not work in 2022, as young Iranians are far more aware of the weaknesses and missteps of their government. However, as the Iranian people exhibit remarkable courage, the world cannot simply sit idly and cheer them on from global sidelines. All nations must speak with one unified voice to condemn the Iranian government for their human rights abuses, but there is a challenge faced by western countries: increased sanctions will not bring down the regime but will only continue to hurt those most in need of aid. Rather, international pressure must be exercised along with vocal international support for the demands of the reformers.

The crisis in Iran should not be ignored or allowed to fade from international attention. Iran continues to provide reasons for intensified pressure to be applied by countries that preserve and protect human rights. The Iranian courts have begun issuing penalties to those arrested during the protests and on November 14, the first death sentence was issued. Accused of “enmity against God”, the nameless protester was condemned to death with human rights groups concerned about sham trials leading to more executions, often conducted in public.[7] The Iranian Human Rights Group, an NGO based in Norway issued a statement through its president Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, to “strongly warn” the Iranian government of significant global repercussions if such death sentences continue.[8] The group also noted that at least 20 other protesters stand at risk of being sentenced to death by the Revolutionary and Criminal courts.[9]

There are numerous global challenges that may supersede the events in Iran, from the ongoing unlawful invasion of Ukraine to the frightening saber-rattling of North Korea’s Kim Jung Un. However, Iran is a pivotal nation in a region that continues to exist on the brink. The decision to begin executing protesters is clearly an attempt to intimidate those on the street to return to their schools, jobs, and homes, and it is the responsibility of the international community to condemn these actions and do so without hesitation or moderation. If the blood of these protestors is spilled without creating meaningful change, the world will bear the guilt of their unwillingness to significantly act.


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