Sixth months after it began, Iran's uprising persists

March 21, the first day of spring, also marks Nowruz, or the beginning of a new year on the Iranian calendar.

As the Iranian people begin their year 1402, the promise of change is still in the air, but so is the threat of greater reprisals by Iran’s repressive theocracy. It remains to be seen which of those two trends will come out on top, and whether the nation will ultimately realize the promise inherent in the holiday’s name, which translates to “new day.”

The answer to that question may depend in large part on the actions that Western powers take in the coming days. Appropriate action depends upon an accurate understanding of the situation as it exists today, and unfortunately, both Western lawmakers and the international media have inconsistent track records when it comes to recognizing what the Iranian people and the clerical regime are each capable of.

There has been a resurgence in popular unrest in recent weeks, as activists marked 40 days since the execution of two protesters, and public attention then moved squarely towards the mass poisoning of schoolgirls throughout the country.

That latter phenomenon began on November 30 but has grown considerably worse since then, with dozens of schools across ten provinces apparently being attacked last Saturday alone. The incidents are widely assumed to be punishment, either by regime authorities or their supporters, for women and girls playing such a prominent role in the protests that broke out in September after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was killed by “morality police” for wearing her mandatory hijab too loosely.

Some Western NGOs, as well as institutions like the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, have voiced agreement that Iranian authorities are, at a minimum, tolerating the gas attacks that are evidently intended to shut down girls’ schools and discourage future on-campus activism. But these statements are at odds with prior reporting which gave the Iranian regime entirely too much credit in terms of its willingness to adopt reforms and compromise with protesters.

The uprising’s initial focus on Amini’s killing prompted countless women throughout the country to remove and often burn their hijabs, leading to much speculation that the regime would not be able to restore the status quo even after protests died down. After a few months, that speculation gave way to reports that the morality police had been disbanded and that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had expressed openness to changes in the forced veiling law. Both reports proved to be false.

The claim about an end to morality patrols was credited to Iran’s attorney general, but it was never in his authority to disband the institution, and his remarks most likely referred to pending changes to its name, leadership, or operations.

Claims about Khamenei’s openness to such compromise were even harder to substantiate, because they emerged in the wake of a speech wherein he explicitly stated that the hijab remains an “inviolable necessity”. In fact, the supreme leader was urging his followers not to stoke further public backlash by punishing women as apostates, but to focus on bringing them back into the fold, whether by persuasion or conversion. It is a directive that is surely consistent with the idea of poisoning schoolgirls in an effort to terrorize them into compliance.

The misreporting on Khamenei’s December speech is reminiscent of a longstanding Western trend of assuming that Tehran is capable of internal reform.

Traditionally, the most optimistic Western policymakers have espoused the view that Tehran could be compelled to reform through engagement with its so-called moderate political faction. It is especially ridiculous to suggest that Khamenei himself could be the agent of that change, but this seems to be the view that some people have adopted by default since the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards consolidated power and pushed virtually all the supposed reformist out of government during the past two election cycles.

In 2021, Ebrahim Raisi was appointed president of the Islamic Republic, amidst massive popular outcry which condemned him as the “butcher of Tehran” on account of his role in the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in 1988, as well as the mass murder of 1,500 protesters in November 2019. Amnesty International condemned the election as a “grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran”, yet Western policy still did not change to reflect the reality that Iran’s theocratic system is fundamentally incapable of reform.

This reality was articulated last week by the Resistance leader Maryam Rajavi, who has been designated by the National Council of Resistance of Iran to serve as transitional president following the regime’s overthrow. Speaking before a congressional hearing that presented a bipartisan resolution in support of the ongoing uprising, Rajavi said: “

“The world has witnessed that, despite killing and imprisonment the Iranian regime has neither the intent nor the capability to offer any solutions. Instead, the mullahs only know one path, which is more torture, execution, and repression. The increased repression, coupled with the regime's disastrous economic policies and corruption, has only deepened the divide between the Iranian people and the ruling theocracy.”

This means that there is still time for the U.S. government, along with the United Kingdom, the European Union, and its member states, to adopt policies that align with the recent congressional resolution, and to provide genuine support for Iranian protesters, beyond the mere verbal condemnation of human rights abuses which has been predominant so far.

Under the previous administration, the U.S. took a crucial first step by designating the Revolutionary Guards – the entity most responsible for crackdowns on dissent inside Iran – as a terrorist organization. Now, the current administration should urge all U.S. allies to follow suit and to join in multilateral efforts to weaken Iran’s repressive institutions while empowering its civilian population. If Western powers take prudent steps in that direction, it is all but certain that the forthcoming Iranian calendar year will truly mark a “new day” for that nation.

Image: Twitter video screen shot

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