Iran’s hardline government faces growing unrest over women’s rights

A movement initially led by young people who focused on the country’s strict Islamic dress code for women appeared to expand into a mass outpouring of pent-up discontent among middle-class workers and even religious Iranians over the regime’s treatment of its own citizens.

The nightly street clashes between security forces and protesters that have erupted in dozens of cities since the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on September 16 for allegedly not wearing her headscarf or hijab properly have shown no signs of abating, on despite intensified repression and a rising death toll.

As the unrest grew, Iranian security forces cracked down on the protesters, using tear gas and live rounds to disperse the crowds. Some protesters have clashed violently with security forces. Authorities have cut off access to the internet in an attempt to block the social media networks that protesters have relied on to express dissent and rally support.

At least 41 people have been killed so far, most of them protesters, as police escalated the use of live ammunition. In Tehran neighborhoods on Sunday night, cries of “death to the dictator,” referring to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, could be heard even from residents who did not actively participate in the demonstrations.

Iranian security forces have cracked down, using tear gas and live rounds to disperse the crowds.


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-/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

On Sunday, one of the country’s major teachers’ unions asked teachers and their students not to attend school on Monday and Wednesday. The other days are already public holidays. It complained that some educational institutions had been turned into temporary garrisons for the security forces and many students had been arrested.

Other trade groups have also sided with the move, potentially affecting Iran’s economy as it struggles with crippling economic sanctions. The main organization representing bus drivers in Tehran and its suburbs also said it backed the protesters. Unions had already previously called on employees to take part in the demonstrations at oil, petrochemical and steel plants and car factories, the country’s biggest sources of income.

“This has become a widespread civil liberties protest, and it’s something every Iranian — male and female — can relate to,” said Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, a professor who studies Iranian politics at Texas A&M University.

U.S. officials familiar with intelligence assessments of Iran said there are few indications yet that the regime’s survival is in doubt.

“The indications are that this is something they will have to suffer through, but they will weather the storm,” one of the officials said.

President Ebrahim Raisi addressed the UN General Assembly in New York last week.


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timothy a. clary/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

There have been no visible cracks in support for Iranian leadership from security forces, particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has close ties to Mr Khamenei. The crackdown on protesters has also not reached the same intensity as has been seen in recent times. In 2019, the IRGC opened fire on unarmed protesters following sharp gas price increases, killing over 400 people in several cities over several days, according to estimates by international human rights organizations.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Sunday expressed the US government’s support for Iranian protesters, saying Washington was helping them maintain internet communications in the face of the Iranian regime’s efforts to restrict communications.

It was not immediately clear how the United States was helping protesters access the Internet. The Treasury Department had on Friday issued a license authorizing American companies to offer Iranian citizens secure internet platforms and services. A license is required as this technology is otherwise banned under an economy-wide sanctions program.

Sullivan said the Biden administration’s outspoken support for the protests was informed by the Obama administration’s handling of the 2009 political movement in Iran to oust then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Some feared at the time that American support would hurt rather than help protesters, Mr. Sullivan on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He said the United States learned that it is preferable to be “firm and clear and principled in response to citizens of any country demanding their rights and dignity.”

Mr. However, Sullivan was cautious about predicting what outcome might come from the protests. “The United States has not necessarily had a good track record over many decades of perfectly predicting when protests will turn into political change,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”

A portrait of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is carried by a woman marching in a pro-hijab rally in Tehran.


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str/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The protests, he added, “reflect a deep-seated and widespread belief among the people of Iran, the citizens of Iran, the women of Iran, that they deserve their dignity and their rights.”

The administration’s continued efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Tehran did not diminish its support for the protesters, he added. “The fact that we are in nuclear negotiations in no way slows us down from speaking out and acting on behalf of the Iranian people,” he said on ABC. “We will not slow down an inch in our defense and advocacy for the rights of women and citizens of Iran.”

The protests broke out more than a week ago in the city of Saqqez, Ms Amini’s hometown, in Iran’s Kurdistan province, but quickly spread to Tehran and many other cities.

“The protests will definitely continue,” said a 30-year-old Kurdish woman who took part in protests in Kamyaran, a city of nearly 60,000 in Iran’s Kurdistan province, after feeling “the utmost fury” over Ms Amini’s death. “Almost the whole society is dissatisfied or rather fed up with the current circumstances – women and men and all the ethnic groups in the country are disappointed with the status quo.”

Protests have continued across Iran over the death of a young woman who was taken into custody for allegedly violating the country’s strict Islamic dress code. Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, said Thursday that the incident is under investigation. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

The demonstrations pose another challenge to the government of President Ebrahim Raisi, a cleric elected last year in a low-turnout election after most moderate candidates were disqualified. Crushing US sanctions have hampered Mr. Raisi’s economic plans and the country’s finances remain in tatters, with inflation running above 50% and the currency hitting a record low against the dollar this year.

The protests over Ms Amini’s death are the latest demonstrations in Iran this year. Teachers, farmers and middle-class professionals have also taken to the streets to denounce the country’s economy and call for a change of government.

Returning from the UN General Assembly, President Raisi said Iran must “resolutely deal with those who oppose the country’s security and tranquility,” according to a statement on his website. Mr. Raisi spoke by phone with the family of a member of the security forces who was killed during protests in the northeastern city of Mashhad.

The president “underscored the need to distinguish between protest and disruption of public order and security,” and called the protest “a riot,” according to the statement.

In the capital, government supporters also joined the funeral of a member of the Basij, a militia tasked with protecting the Islamic Republic, who the state news agency IRNA said died of injuries during the protests.

In a statement on Sunday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell condemned the “widespread and disproportionate use of force” against protesters and hinted that sanctions would be forthcoming, possibly at a meeting of EU foreign ministers next month.

“The European Union will continue to consider all the options available to it ahead of the next Foreign Affairs Council to address the killing of Mahsa Amini and the way Iranian security forces have responded to the subsequent demonstrations,” he said in a declaration on behalf of the EU.

On Sunday, counter-protesters gathered in Tehran and 15 other Iranian cities to condemn the demonstrations and express support for security forces and the country’s strict Islamic dress code, the IRNA news agency said.

The government has blamed foreign interference for the unrest. At the counter-protests, participants shouted slogans attacking Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States: “The architect of the riots is America,” some of them said, according to IRNA.

WHO IS MAHSA AMINI AND WHY IS HER DEATH CAUSING PROTESTS IN IRAN?

Write to David S. Cloud at david.cloud@wsj.com and Benoit Faucon at benoit.faucon@wsj.com

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