By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
In the past few weeks, there have been mass demonstrations in Iran to show support for 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, who died under mysterious circumstances after being in Iranian police custody. The protests started in the Kurdish areas in Iran and have spread all over Iran and to other cities around the world.
These demonstrations against the Iranian regime have turned violent, and there are reports of dozens of deaths. The fatalities have mostly involved demonstrators, but some of Iranian’s security forces have also died.
While the Amini protests are far from being the first time that violent mass demonstrations have occurred in Iran, this one feels different. Nobody knows how this situation will turn out, but the demonstrations are a clear example of public criticism of Iran’s ruling clerics.
Why Did Amini’s Death Prompt Mass Demonstrations?
Why did Amini’s death provoke all of these demonstrations? It started with the legal requirement for women in public to cover their hair with a hijab, a law established during the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
This law is enforced by Iran’s morality police, who enforce sharia requirements in public and whose efforts focus mainly on women. In recent years, the enforcement about properly wearing the hijab has been more lax, specifically in the more modern parts of Iran like Tehran.
According to news reports, Amini came to Tehran with her relatives to visit her brother and wore a hijab. However, much of her hair was showing. This practice is not unusual in Tehran, however, and many women walk around Tehran in this manner.
Because Amini’s hair was not properly covered, she was arrested by the morality police and detained at a police station. What happened after her detention is debatable.
Amini’s family says she was beaten in the arrest and went into a coma; she later died in the intensive care unit of a hospital. The regime claims Amini had a preexisting health issue that caused her death, but her family and the public in Iran and other countries are not convinced, saying that the Iranian government is guilty of a cover-up.
The Death Toll and the Internet Ban
Demonstrators in Iran and elsewhere initially called for the end of women’s subjugation in Iran. Now, they have turned to call to end the regime of the ruling clerics and of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The demonstrations have brought about the death of many young people. According to The Independent, as many as 133 people have died during the protests.
These demonstrations in support of Amini have been organized using social media and short videos captured on cell phones are trending in various social media sites. The videos show violent arrests, chants against Khamenei and women taking off their hijab in public. To retaliate, access to social media sites and the internet has been cut off by the government.
The escalation of public demonstrations in Iran has not been ignored by its rulers. After blaming the U.S., U.K and Israel of organizing the demonstrations, Khamenei acknowledged that he is pained by the death of Amini, according to a Sky News article.
But at the same time, Khamenei defended the regime’s actions in the same article, saying, “The duty of our security forces, including police, is to ensure the safety of the Iranian nation…The ones who attack the police are leaving Iranian citizens defenceless against thugs, robbers and extortionists.”
Is the Iranian Regime in Danger?
Could Amini’s death lead to the downfall of the current regime? It is hard to say. The public is clearly unhappy with the actions of Iran’s clerics, who have left the Iranian economy in shambles and alienated many of the ethnic minorities in Iran.
One leading scholar of Iran, Dr. Tamar Eilam Gindin, aptly said in an Israel Hayom article: “Make no mistake! The current protests are not about the hijab. It was never about that. The current protests started because of an event related to the head covering, many of which have since been removed and burned in protest, but the hijab has always been a symbol….Even if the protests are suppressed this time, the leaders of the regime will no longer be able to claim that legitimate issues were ‘hijacked’ and turned political by foreign entities. The protesters aren’t just demanding freedom to dress as they wish. They are demanding complete liberation from the oppressive yoke of the Islamic Republic.”
In Washington D.C., the latest events in Iran need to resonate with the policy makers concerning the nuclear talks involving Iran. The Iran regime is made up of people who do not hesitate to kill dozens of their fellow Iranians, and the ultimate survival of the regime is a religious duty greater than the personal well-being of Iranian citizens.
However, it is also worthwhile to remember that Ayatollah Khamenei is over 80 years old, and his health is frail. Rumors of his demise occasionally go viral in social media, which means that sooner rather than later there will be a change in the regime with a new supreme leader named the leading cleric.
A nuclear weapon in the hands of rulers who have clearly demonstrated their lack of concern with the lives of their own citizens will be a highly dangerous situation. With more nuclear threats coming from Moscow, American policymakers must resolve the nuclear situation with Iran as soon as possible.