While the world is paying homage to the bravery of Ukraine, let’s give a salute, as well, to the women-led protest movement in Iran that is rattling the clerical government there. This uprising is a stunner. It deserves active American and global support.
Yes, I know all the reasons the movement might wither. That’s what happened with mass Iranian protests in 2009, 2017 and 2019. The regime’s machinery of repression eventually cracked the code and dismantled the leadership of the protests. And one by one, those brave movements for change retreated.
But the past is an imperfect guide for today’s events. There are reasons even the most skeptical Iran watchers think this time might be different. The movement involves young people, mostly women, who are outraged at the murder last month of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. Their protests appear spontaneous and leaderless, which means there is no infrastructure for the Iranian goon squads to crack.
For a flavor of this movement, consider the words of a song called “Baraye”, by Iranian pop singer Shervin Hajipour, who was imprisoned soon after its release: “Because of dancing in the streets / Because of every time we were afraid to kiss our lovers / Because of my sister, your sister, our sisters / Because of changing rotten minds / Because of the embarrassment of an empty pocket ... Because of yearning for normal life”.
The movement is broadly dispersed, with protests in 105 cities in all of Iran’s 31 provinces, according to a calculation posted this week by the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA). It’s ethnically diverse — with thousands of Shiite Persians rallying to support the cause of Amini, a Sunni Kurd. Finally, and most important, there are early signs that the movement is jumping from students on the streets into the machinery that runs Iran — petrochemical workers, truck drivers, merchants in the bazaar.
Here’s a sense of that spread: Oil and petrochemical workers in Asalouyeh in Busheir province and Abadan in Khuzestan province have joined protests, according to a report this week by Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran. The HRANA reported this week that since Amini’s death a month ago, more than 200 protesters have been killed and 5,500 arrested at 342 gatherings. The group has collated 698 videos showing demonstrators. The regime is trying to minimize this movement, but the numbers say otherwise.
There is a final reason I would pay attention to this movement with its simple slogan, “Woman, life, freedom”. Change is in the air these days. The laws of gravity are being reversed. Tiny Ukraine is taunting the Russian bear on the battlefield. Israelis and Arabs are racing to do business under the banner of the Abraham Accords, which reflect a deep break with the past. And Saudi Arabia, for all its horrible misdeeds under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is taking surprising steps toward women’s rights and social liberalization.
For the aging clerics who run Iran, change is poison. It’s strange that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would choose to draw the red line on regime survival at the insistence that women (even very young ones) fully cover their hair, but that’s precisely what he has done. You could write a book about this intersection of sexual and political repression, but the simple fact is that in today’s world, it’s a loser.
But the Iranian movement still needs the oxygen of public support from the United States and the world. It has received relatively little media coverage, largely because Iran is inaccessible to independent media and has closed down the internet. Elon Musk has switched on his Starlink satellite internet feed, but Iranians need dish receivers to capture the signals and kits to disseminate them. Thankfully, there is a lot of porous borderland for equipment to move across — from Pakistan, Turkey, Kuwait, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and even the Persian Gulf itself.
The State Department took a step toward open assistance for the Iranian protesters this week, when Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with representatives of more than 20 technology companies to explain new rules that help internet communications devices reach Iran without violating sanctions. She told them it was “a moment of opportunity for technology companies to provide people in Iran with essential tools to communicate with each other and the outside world using the Internet”. Bravo to that.
The one thing the Biden administration shouldn’t do is let its enthusiasm for a renewal of the Iran nuclear deal trump the broader objective of an Iran that doesn’t threaten its own people or its neighbors. As Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has argued, the right Iran policy rests on three pillars: constraining the nuclear program, curbing Iran’s regional meddling and encouraging a transformation of its repressive political system. Relying on just the leg of the nuclear deal would make the strategy wobbly.
Change begins with individual acts of courage. Right now, thousands of Iranian women are risking their lives to defy a regime whose feeble ideology is summed up in the slogan “Death to America” — which these days has become a rationale for barbarous cruelty against Iranians. We can’t make this revolution for them. But we can definitely applaud when it seems to be gathering momentum in the streets.
David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. His latest novel is “The Paladin”.