Anti-government demonstrations continue across Iran following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody last month. She had been arrested by Iran’s morality police for unsuitable attire. Where might the protests lead, and how should the West respond?
Wall of fear
“This moment is the result of the mistakes of the Islamic Republic,” said Iran analyst Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group. “In fact, the Islamic Republic and its leadership are the leaders of this movement simply because they pushed the society to its limits. Not only the Iranian people have been suffering an economic downturn as a result of mismanagement, corruption and sanctions over the past decade, but their quality of life was shrinking by the day,” Vaez told the Associated Press.
Many of the protests are led by women. Videos posted on social media show them discarding their headscarves and insulting the country’s leaders in open defiance.
“It's really impressive that for them the wall of fear has been completely destroyed and they have increasingly nothing to lose and therefore they are willing to persist,” Vaez said.
People power has failed to topple the Islamic Republic, despite sporadic protests stretching back several decades. Past demonstrations, such as the 2009 Green Movement, were centered on certain political factions, but resentment now transcends political divides amid economic crisis and domestic repression, says analyst Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Rather than being advocating for one element of the regime, this is the population saying they're done with the regime in its entirety,” Taleblu told VOA.
Dozens of people were killed in recent days when riot police opened fire on protesters. “It has not yet deployed the Revolutionary Guards. And so, it still has a lot of repressive tools up its sleeve that it can use against the movement,” Vaez said.
How should the West respond to the demonstrations?
Britain last week followed the United States and Canada in imposing sanctions on senior figures in Iran’s morality police.
“That needs to be expanded across the European Union, as well as with countries that have autonomous sanctions capabilities, be it Five Eyes members like New Zealand and Australia or other partners of the United States,” Taleblu said.
Five Eyes is an intelligence-sharing alliance among Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The demonstrations come as the U.S. and European powers negotiate with Tehran over a possible U.S. return to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal, which would see a lifting of some economic sanctions on Iran in return for limits on its atomic program. The JCPOA is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Then-U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement in 2018, arguing it had failed to curb Iran’s ballistic missile program and alleged support for terrorist proxies in the region. Proponents of the deal say it is solely aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and other concerns should be dealt with separately.
Tehran maintains its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
French President Emmanuel Macron has condemned Iran’s crackdown but said France is fighting to prevent nuclear proliferation.
“France condemns today's repressions led by the Iranian regime and we stand alongside these women. It's a sovereign people fighting for their freedom,” Macron told France 2 television Wednesday.
“We are fighting, first of all, to defend our principles, defend these women and men, also to defend the French and dual nationals who are hostages in Iran. And also to protect the region because Iran has led a lot of destabilization, and to fight against nuclear proliferation,” Macron said.
Critics say the nuclear talks have failed and should be abandoned.
“That money, that deal, would enrich the regime's security apparatus,” analyst Taleblu told VOA. “And that security apparatus is the same apparatus engaging in foreign aggression and in the domestic repression we've been seeing now for about four weeks.”