In 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, besieged by corrupt Tunisian officials who harassed and humiliated him as he tried to sell fruit from a street stand, set himself on fire in protest. His death shocked the conscience of not just Tunisia, but much of the broader Mideast, spurring the Arab Spring protest movements.
It is too soon to know to what degree the death of Mahsa Amini will impact Iran. After all, the Persian, Shiite nation is distinct from the Arab, mostly Sunni, Mideast. And Amini’s death on Sept. 16 wasn’t self-inflicted but came at the hands of the so-called “morality police,” who had detained her for an alleged violation of Iran’s strict law on wearing a head scarf.
But just as Tunisians reacted with rage, Iranians are responding. Protests have broken out in more than 80 cities, including one where demonstrators briefly took over. So far, at least 54 people have been killed, according to estimates from human rights groups.
The pushback has been particularly fierce in Kurdish regions, partly because Amini was of Kurdish heritage. But the protests are much broader, more defiant and more consequential than an issue of heritage. In fact, they are the most significant protests against the theocracy since the so-called Green Movement that the government crushed in 2009.
Tehran is returning to familiar tactics of violence and silencing internet communication to smother the current protests. But Iran’s underlying problems remain, and Iranians desperate under the destitution and restrictions imposed by corrupt, incompetent and brutal rulers appear near a breaking point.
Accordingly, what began as a protest against Amini’s death and religious laws governing dress and other fundamental aspects of everyday living has become a much more comprehensive rejection of the regime, including its ailing supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his son and possible successor, Mojtaba.
Even though the country is convulsing, it doesn’t mean an end to the religious regime that took hold after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Barbara Slavin, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Project, told an editorial writer. “I don’t think that this is the beginning of the counterrevolution, or another revolution, in Iran,” Slavin said. It is, however, “more widespread than we’ve seen” and “the most serious threat to the regime” since 2009.
Beyond decrying the religious restrictions, Iranians are protesting economic misery brought on in part by U.S. sanctions over Tehran’s potential nuclear weapons program.
Slavin said that the Biden administration has reacted more strongly than the Obama administration did during the Green Movement. The administration should be as firm, clear and principled as it continues negotiating a possible re-entry into the Iranian nuclear deal.
As for the unrest on the streets, the U.S. should continue to be firmly on the side of protesters, who are right to defy a theocracy that through its heinous human rights record has defiled the religion it’s based on.
Tragically, most of the democratic aspirations of the Arab Spring were never realized. But what’s certain is that every society has a breaking point, and the death of Mahsa Amini just may have brought Iranians to theirs.