‘Nothing to lose’: Iran’s protesters step up their defiance as a potential showdown looms

Twice before, the mass protests rocking Iran have reached even its deeply conservative neighborhood. Shahrzad, a 36-year-old teacher who lives with her parents and acts as their carer, has so far kept her promise not to take part, even though she wants to.

She had taken part in demonstrations that erupted in 2009 following a disputed presidential election that many claimed was fraudulent. These lasted a year and came to nothing – just like the big economic protests in early 2018 and late 2019.

But this time everything feels different.

“You just can’t compare the anger to 2009. At that time, it was mainly the middle class who protested. Now it’s hard to find anyone who supports the government line or agrees with the state of affairs,” said Shahrzad, who asked that her full name not be used for fear of reprisals.

Even in the conservative part of Tehran where she lives, teenage schoolgirls were shedding their headscarves in the streets – something unthinkable a few weeks ago, before the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iranian moral police sparked anger, who arrested her for allegedly violating laws mandating hijabs and modest dress for women.

“It will be very difficult to stop this,” said Shahrzad.

Two and a half weeks into the nationwide demonstrations that drew the attention of both the Iranian government and the world, protesters show little sign of giving up. If anything, they’ve stepped it up: In recent days, students have taken the initiative, using the start of the academic year to vent their anger at universities and high schools across the country.

Videos shared widely on social media on Monday – despite attempted government internet blackouts – show teenagers in school uniforms booing officers, their hijab tossed aside. Others chronicle students at top universities engaged in tense standoffs with security forces. Unions will join the unrest and have called strikes that promise to further fuel the most intense round of unrest Iran has seen in more than a decade.

This is despite a government that seems more interested in cracking down on protesters — by deadly force if necessary — than dealing with complaints about government control of people’s lives, the poor state of the sanctions-strapped economy and ongoing international isolation of Iran to deal with. But there is a growing sense that the violent playbook the theocratic regime has used in the past to quash dissent will not work this time.

Protesters in Pershing Square in downtown LA

Thousands of protesters demonstrated Saturday in downtown Los Angeles against the death of Mahsa Amini.

(Laura Nelson / Los Angeles Times)

This is especially true for hyper-connected young people who have never known anything but what a hit song calls “the obligatory heaven” of living under the dictates of the Islamic Republic.

“It’s not going to end anytime soon. Our generation is too educated to be fooled with old tactics and we don’t want our lives to be ruled by the ideologies of old people,” said Mahbod, a student at Sharif University, one of Tehran’s top universities Shahrzad and other interviewees only gave his first name.

“And it’s a complete social revolution. The students have the support of brothers, fathers, uncles, grandfathers – every walk of life is involved.”

Even more ominous for political leaders is that even if the state is inclined to compromise, analysts say it may be too late.

“The train has already left the station. Whatever that government gives, it probably won’t be enough at this point to ease protesters’ grievances,” said Dina Esfandiary, senior adviser for the Middle East and North Africa region at think tank International Crisis Group.

Iranian leaders, she said, likely view the situation in a similar way to the predicament of the late Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader whose reforms led to greater freedom for Russians but also to the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union.

“If they give in now, it will be a Gorbachev moment – the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic. That’s how they see it,” Esfandiary said.

This stark view suggests a showdown between a government poised to use escalating violence and protesters increasingly turning to slogans like “Death to the dictator!” as a measure of how far they are willing to push things. With rising acts of resistance across the country, especially among women, it’s becoming more difficult to restore control, said Azadeh Akbari, an Iran expert at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

“If every woman decides to take off the hijab, how many police officers will it take to control it?” she said. “This is the real revolution.”

A look at Shahrzad’s life gives an idea of ​​the level of dissatisfaction the Iranian leadership is struggling with. She herself has never agreed with the hijab law, but finds it more of a nuisance than anything else, especially in the country’s hot summer when she has to wear a headscarf to work for eight hours.

Even angrier is life in a country plagued by chronic mismanagement, a spate of international sanctions over its nuclear program and the COVID-19 epidemic that have all shrunk Shahrzad’s world.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has blamed the US and Israel for the mass protests in his country.

(Office of the Supreme Leader of Iran)

The university graduate with a degree in biochemistry has little to show other than a job as a teacher and administrator at various schools in southern Tehran. She makes $350 a month, not nearly enough to rent a small apartment, let alone buy one. Notions of marriage, children, and the basic touchstones of a stable middle-class existence seem far-fetched.

“Ten years ago I was able to travel both inside and outside the country. I can’t do this anymore,” she said. “I can’t afford to buy a cheap car. I should have had my own little apartment by now, with some basic furniture. Instead I live with my parents. If my phone breaks, I have to wait a few months before I can buy one.”

Government supporters also acknowledge that the situation is difficult. In an address earlier this week, Parliament Speaker Mohammad Qalibaf called at a rally in support of the police and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but also admitted that people have every right to complain about grim economic conditions.

Those concerns aren’t new, Esfandiary said, but this time people are angrier than before.

“They are more aggressive and violent, and that is spurred on by the sense of hopelessness that people in Iran are feeling right now,” she said.

But Khamenei and other leaders resort to their usual explanation for social unrest, exonerating themselves and blaming outside forces instead. On Monday, Khamenei broke his silence after 17 days of protests to dismiss them as “unrest and insecurity” planned by Tehran’s usual adversaries, the US and Israel. The country’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, police and pro-government militiamen have used rubber bullets, live rounds, beatings and campaigns of arrests to quell what they describe as foreign-induced chaos.

Shahrzad can see the despair and despair in her own family. Even her brother-in-law, a mild-mannered man who never hit anyone, was on his way home on the fifth day of protests and fought off a militiaman who was trying to force a girl into a car.

“If someone like him did it, it would definitely be more violent,” she said.

Another reason for the protests’ persistence was strong opposition to the hijab law, which began dictating women’s dress and behavior in Iran a few years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution brought religious clerics to power.

“We’ve had middle-class riots for economic reasons, but this time half of society, from schoolgirls to grannies, is tired of saying enough is enough,” Akbari said.

The current turmoil may not mean the change in government many hoped for, said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, who founded Bourse & Bazaar, a news and research agency focused on Iranian politics and business. But it has spurred a shift in political discourse in a way previous riots have not, forcing a reassessment of Iran’s social contract.

“Women’s rights are the most visible form of what people are protesting against. But what they are now demanding is a real change in the way state and society interact,” Batmanghelidj said.

Shahrzad vacillates as to whether the protests will be successful. But she is certain that even if the government manages to stop the protests, they will inevitably flare up again.

“There’s just too many people who have nothing to lose right now,” she said.

“It can’t go on like this anymore. People are fed up.”

Special correspondent Khazani reported from Tehran and permanent author Bulos from Beirut.

https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2022-10-04/iran-protesters-step-up-defiance-potential-showdown-looms ‘Nothing to lose’: Iran’s protesters step up their defiance as a potential showdown looms

Alley Einstein

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