They are some of the most dramatic anti-government protests in the 43-year history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, with riots in big cities, small towns, across the social spectrum and from ethnic Kurds to Persians and Azerbaijanis.
Street protests led to the deaths of at least 17 people last week, according to Iranian state television.
But despite that, and as protesters and police began a seventh day of street clashes on Thursday, analysts and diplomats doubt that the outbreak of disorganized and leaderless political unrest could lead to the overthrow of the regime, or even significant change. within the rigid Iranian government. multilayer coercive control systems.
“We must cast aside all illusions that the Islamic Republic is about to collapse,” said Hamidreza Azizi, an Iran expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, a think tank in Berlin. “The political system has a lot of capacity in terms of means of repression that it has not yet resorted to.
“But for too long we have been wrongly focused on the exact political entity that may or may not come out of this or that process.
“For now, the protest itself and the fate of society are more important than the nature of the future political system.”
Analysts, however, have detected different dimensions about the latest wave of political unrest that could shape Iran for years and perhaps change the calculations of Western leaders who, despite their distaste for the Iranian regime, are seeking to restore a nuclear deal with Tehran and possibly exploit Iran’s vast energy resources to ease global oil and gas prices.
Even skeptics warn that anything can happen in Iran. Some 45 years ago, few thought that street protests against a newspaper article that angered seminary students in the sanctuary city of Qom would lead months later to the collapse of the Iranian monarchy and the establishment of a theocratic regime.
This month’s protests were sparked by the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini, 22, who was detained in Tehran by a notorious paramilitary unit that enforces Islamic dress codes on September 13 and fell into a coma while in custody under circumstances. not yet clear. .
Unlike previous protests rooted in specific economic or political grievances, this wave was triggered by a deeply emotional public reaction to the death of Amini, an ethnic Kurd whose family claimed she was physically abused by her captors.
The violent and violent protests have drawn people across Iran’s gender, political, economic and ethnic lines into the streets. They came together in an unprecedented display of unity and collective anger against security forces and symbols of state power, including police stations, paramilitary group headquarters and public propaganda displays.
“This is different from previous protests,” said Mahdi Ghodsi, an Iran expert at the Institute for International Economic Studies in Vienna. “There is no leader for now, but leaders will emerge. This is a process that will take longer.”
Iran has been here before.
In 2009, following the disputed re-election of hard-line populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest, sparking months of political unrest and repression. Since 2018, several outbreaks of political protests over economic frustrations have rocked Iran.
The two rounds of protest altered the calculations abroad. Officials in Washington under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump and elsewhere in the West saw them as a chance to supplant the Islamic regime that took control of Iran after the 1979 revolution.
But both cases did not result in political change and, in fact, preceded the regime’s efforts to increase repression and purge moderates from its ranks. Iranian authorities already appear to be gearing up for a harsh crackdown, comparing the protesters to the jihadist group Isis.
“In its conspiracy, the enemy gathered, mobilized and organized all its capabilities and equipped them with the weapon of violence,” the Revolutionary Guards declared in a statement on Thursday.
Political scientists have long questioned the protests’ ability to bring about change in places like Iran. In recent years, protests in Russia and Hong Kong have encouraged autocratic leaders to step up the crackdown. The proliferation of sophisticated electronic surveillance tools has made it easier to crack down on dissent for certain autocrats.
In theory, the street protests and ensuing waves of repression could fragment the ruling elite and spark a political breakthrough. But the Iranian regime has systematically sidelined any potential reformers from its hierarchy, overwhelmingly empowering the military, security services and religious radicals fanatically loyal to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The question of the effectiveness of the protests is more than academic. Western policymakers are struggling to decide how much rhetorical or material support to offer protesters.
So far, both the White House and the US State Department have offered relatively strong statements of support. “Today, we stand with the brave citizens and brave women of Iran who are now speaking out to secure their basic rights,” President Joe Biden said during his address to the UN this week.
The UK Office of Foreign Affairs, Commonwealth and Development offered a more lukewarm press release calling that the regime exercise “restraint” in its efforts to quell the protests. Media outlets in Saudi Arabia and Israel, which are hostile to Iran, have ramped up the protests, while the more friendly ones in Iraq and Qatar have played down them.
Indeed, many nations are perplexed as to whether they should adjust their Iran policies to account for the rise in anti-regime protests.
“We can amplify Iranian voices for sure,” said a Western official. “But how to seize the moment and convert it into real change?”
Raising the voices of Iranians could sway regime officials, scratch their consciences and make them speak up or at least stop the machine of repression, even if silently.
“They stop showing up to work,” the employee said. “They stop arresting people. The machinery cannot operate and the soldiers withdraw. But how does that translate into political change with a new leader and a new system?”
Many wonder what can be done from the outside to help the protesters. On Thursday, Iranian authorities appeared to have blocked internet connections in much of the country, reducing the ability of protesters to communicate with each other and across much of the world.
Some supporters have latched onto a proposal by tech billionaire Elon Musk to smuggle Starlink satellite internet consoles into Iran. But such a project would carry high risks for those who carry and hide such devices and would have no impact for weeks.
Ghodsi suggested elevating the status of Masih Alinejad, an outspoken exiled Iranian journalist and host of a popular voice of america program that called on Iranian women to remove their veils and launch a movement.
“Masih Alinejad can be a great leader,” he said. “This movement is indebted to Masih. She is brave. She is charismatic. Never in the world have we seen a woman leading a revolution.”