How to turn Iran’s moment into a movement


September 27, 2022 • 9:10 am ET

How to turn Iran’s moment into a movement

Borzou Daragahi

They have been pouring onto the streets for almost two weeks, determined to bring about fundamental change. But when asked about the plans and emerging leadership of the nationwide movement that has sprung up after the “morality police” killing of Mahsa Amina, one protester shrugged angrily.

“Most of them are children,” said the Tehran, in his 30s, who took part in some protests and even boasted about helping to set a police vehicle on fire. “Most are sixteen to twenty years old.”

The protests, which began on September 16, are among the largest and most widespread since the 2019 protests over hikes in food and fuel prices. In many ways, they are more demographically diverse than the 2009 protests that followed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial re-election, or the student-led uprisings that followed the closure of reformist newspapers in 1999.

The often very young demonstrators who form the front lines of the mostly informal movement sparked by the still-unexplained death of the 20-year-old Kurdish woman are acting out of passion rather than political calculation. That motivates them to face security forces and take to the streets night after night, regardless of whether videos of the protests leak to the outside world due to internet throttling and near-total shutdowns.

“The situation in the city hasn’t changed,” said an Iranian women’s rights activist who protested against the regime in Tehran on September 25. “The streets were crowded, very crowded, with many people.”

But zeal alone can seldom drive political change, especially against a determined and consistently violent regime like the Islamic Republic. Just look at how spontaneous mass protests in Iraq and Lebanon in 2019 failed to oust entrenched elites. A sustained political movement requires discipline, leadership, and perhaps even hierarchy—if not a chain of command, then at least a definition of duties. Building a movement takes time and resources. But the recent uprising has perhaps provided a clearer outline of some of the major challenges that lie ahead.

There is intense and valuable debate on social media and online chat rooms, which attracts Iranians from home and abroad, on how to turn righteous anger into a real political movement that will bring about some level of political change or even the Destruction of Iran brings about the Islamic Republic. They speak of seizing and controlling neighborhoods and cities and organizing community efforts to gather food and supplies, strengthen security, provide first aid to the injured and raise funds to support those detained in the protests.

Building a mechanism to support such detainees is a key and often neglected issue, and a more effective way for Iranians abroad to contribute than clashing with the police in London or Milan. Washington can relax financial restrictions to allow international financial assistance for prisoners and their lawyers who are also being arrested. For the past 11 days, many activists have lived on the run and slept in different houses, fearing that the regime’s enforcers might break down their door.

“They’re arresting everyone right now – especially photographers, journalists, documentarians,” said an Iranian women’s rights activist, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. “They storm people’s houses and make a lot of noise. This is how they provoke fear and terror. How much can people bear?”

On social media, the hashtag is “nationwide strikes‘ was trending this week, with calls to get shopkeepers and private businesses to close after some university students and educators announced the closure. So far, the results in Iran’s cities have been ambiguous at best, and there have appeared few, if any, moves by workers in key industries such as oil and petrochemicals to take industrial action. But that could change, and at least the discussion is focused on the right topic.

In addition to the Basij militias and the black-clad riot police, the regime has many non-violent instruments of repression at its disposal. Cutting off the internet obscures events in Iran from the outside world, but perhaps more importantly, it blocks communications within Iran, preventing those in the capital’s Haft-e-Tir Square from engaging with those in Tajrish or Baluchi activists above in the south-east to coordinate liaison with their Kurdish compatriots in the north-west of the country.

The Iranian women’s rights activist said she spent much of her day switching between about fifteen virtual private networks (VPNs) to access news sites and information.

“The internet is so bad it’s already on the edge of nothing,” she said. “Sending even short videos is almost impossible – it can take hours.”

Business tycoon Elon Musk has previously announced that his company has turned on the Starlink satellite internet network over Iran; now supporters of the protest movement have to smuggle thousands of units into the country. Each unit costs $600 and monthly subscriptions $110, fees that can be waived or picked up by Iranian opposition friends abroad.

But perhaps it would be valuable for the Iranians to develop other means of communication. Already, protesters too frightened to march through the streets are shouting slogans from their rooftops or patrolling the streets in their cars to provide cover for the protesters and slow down regime attack squads on motorcycles and vans. Perhaps such individuals could be tasked with communicating messages and information across cities or neighborhoods.

Some Iranians famously, and perhaps tragically, cling to a kind of regional speciality, believing themselves immune to the rhythms and dynamics of the wider Middle East. But the demonstrators would do well to heed the lessons of the recent revolts against autocracy in the Arab world. Uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011 and Algeria in 2019 ousted leaders as the military turned against the longtime ruler. The uprisings against longtime autocrats in Libya in 2011 and Sudan in 2019 succeeded after the protesters’ political allies visited foreign capitals and convinced regional powers that the opposition could lead their nations responsibly.

As the results of all these uprisings in the Middle East have shown, there is a long way to go between overthrowing a regime and the democratic, inclusive outcome they seek. Many dangers stand in the way and it can always get much worse than before, like in Syria and Yemen. Iranians would do well to recognize that they are playing a long game and that removing or transforming a dictatorship as entrenched as the Islamic Republic is a chess game far more than arm wrestling.

In Iran, the momentum is there. It just needs direction and a helping hand.

“I think the protests will continue,” said the women’s rights activist. “People will continue to take to the streets. It is not important to them whether they live or die or are arrested. And it shouldn’t matter. I went every day I think everyone should go. Because if we retreat, they will all get rid of us.”

Borzou Daragahi is international correspondent for The Independent. Since 2002 he has been covering the Middle East and North Africa. He is also a Nonresident Fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Security Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @borzo.

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Image: An Iranian woman takes part in a demonstration against the political regime in Iran in front of the US consulate in Frankfurt. She holds a placard with the picture of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in Iran last week after being arrested by vice squads.

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