The latest round of anti-regime protests in Iran is different than other in the 40 years of the Islamic Republic: for its universality and boldness, the level of public fury and grief, and the role of women and social media. The target is not some policy or the economy, but the regime itself.
The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Tehran on Sept. 16, after a possible beating at a police station, has sparked outrage and mass protests in Iran and abroad. There have been demonstrations and a violent attempt to suppress them in more than 100 districts in every province of Iran.
These protests may look like others since 2017, and back even to 1999 — yet we may be facing an unprecedented turning point in Iranians' opposition to the Islamic Republic. Indeed newly installed conservative President Ibrahim Raisi could not have expected such momentum when he set off for a quick trip to New York and back for a meeting of the UN General Assembly.
For one of the mistakes of a regime that takes pride in dismissing the national traditions of Iran is to have overlooked the power of grief among our people.
While it expects them to ritually weep each year as Shias for Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, slain in the 7th century, it did not imagine they could be so moved by the death of an anonymous innocent woman today. Obviously this was not the first time regime agents had pummeled a citizen to death, expecting impunity.
A clear message to go
In contrast with several bouts of protests seen in Iran dating back to 1999, these demonstrations are unrelated to the state of the economy and the abject poverty engulfing a great many Iranians. They differ also from more recent protests over water shortages seen in places like Isfahan.
They are also not restricted to a particular region or area of interests. They are demonstrations against injustice, which has manifested itself on this occasion in the brutal treatment meted out over a loose headscarf or the refusal to respect the regime's puritanical dress codes.
Even the 1999 protests by Tehran University students and demonstrations over the 2009 general election results were limited in comparison, as they mostly concerned the interests of reformists within the political class.
These protests oppose the regime itself: the whole deal. As people have been chanting at gatherings, they are done with the phony war between reformists and hardliners, or moderates and radicals!
People appear to have similar goals now to those of the so-called New Pact (Peyman-e novin), proposed by the country's exiled crown prince, Reza Pahlavi, and are giving regime forces a clear choice: to side with the people, or with the Islamic Republic.
Anti-government protests protests in Tehran in 2009
Women lead the fight against clerico-fascism
Another startling characteristic is the presence of women, seen burning their headscarves and doing so with the support of men!
The role of women is important, because they are an ideological target of the Islamic Republic. Veiled or heavily dressed women are a sign that it has successfully forged its cherished, moral society.
This round has prompted clearer expressions of support from Western politicians.
Since the regime's coming to power in 1979, women have been second-class citizens who must deal with our own specific problems in addition to those faced by all Iranians. It's a revolt against an added layer of oppression. In the 1980s and 1990s, the student movement in Iran was broadly affiliated with the reformists, before moving in recent years toward "the street." In recent days, students of 10 universities have been protesting, with female students also publicly ditching headscarves.The slogans heard on campus sites have been very similar to those on the streets.
Other signs of an unusual level of unity are the different social and age profiles of protesters, and the enormous following the protests have had on social media. In contrast with previous protests, this round has prompted clearer expressions of support from Western politicians and diplomats.
Factions searching for an explanation
The political factions in the regime have hastily sought an explanation for this outpouring of hate against them. Initially "separatists" were blamed as Amini was a Kurdish Iranian and her funeral at home sparked the first protests. But this stopped making sense when people in the Azeri districts of Tabriz and Orumieh chanted out their support for Iranian Kurds.
Some reformists sought to pin the blame on the morality police alone — suggesting the public outrage was restricted to their conduct. They included the prominent journalist Abbas Abdi or the former mayor of Tehran Ghulamhussein Karbaschi, both of whom have had run-ins with the regime.
Conservatives have approved their sensible declarations! Yet Iranians on the streets have said nothing about the morality police. Women are not burning their headscarves to protest the excesses of agents. Burning the headscarf is akin to burning state emblems and pictures of the country's leaders.
Indeed, there have been images online of individuals burning the Islamic Republic's flag - though it remains to be seen if they were protesters or provocateurs. The factions immediately began lamenting the destruction of "Iran's flag," oblivious to the fact that this flag was imposed in 1979.
The regime is faced today with the specter of a nation's hatred, and no amount of suppression can change that. There are even signs that desertions have begun in its ranks.