Iran’s Ferocious Return to the Belligerent Policies of the Revolution’s Early Days

Mahsa Amini, a twenty-two-year-old Kurd who was visiting relatives in Tehran this month, had raven hair that draped over her shoulders and ran long down her back. A music lover who worked in a clothing store, she liked taking pictures blowing the wispy seeds off a dandelion clock. Like so many Iranian women four decades after the Revolution, she was wearing the compulsory hijab, or head scarf, loosely over her head as she emerged from the subway with her younger brother, Kiarash, on September 13th. Some of her hair showed. With no warning, Iran’s morality police nabbed her for wearing “unsuitable attire.” She was bundled off to a reëducation center that instructs women how to comply with the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code. The police told her brother that she would be released later that night. She wasn’t.

The next picture of Amini, released via social media, showed her on a ventilator in a Tehran hospital. She was in a coma; her head was bloodied. Three days after her arrest, she was declared brain-dead. At first, the government claimed that she had died of a heart attack. Then it released a video showing her in the reëducation classroom, walking across the aisle, beginning to faint, then collapsing onto the ground. Her family claimed that she had been healthy; they charged that she suffered head injuries from being beaten by the police. “The cause of the accident is clear as day,” Amini’s uncle told an Iranian media outlet. “What happens when they grab girls and stick them in the car with such ferocity and terror? Do they have the right? They know nothing about Islam, nor humanity.”

News of Amini’s death lit the fuse of long-smoldering dissent in Iran. Protests ignited in Tehran and Saqez, her home town in the Kurdish northwest, then spread across eighty cities during the next week. Women burned their hijabs in public bonfires. Others—in groups and alone—posted videos showing themselves cutting their hair almost to the scalp. In major cities and small towns, thousands of women and men gathered to wave posters with Amini’s photo and to demand change—over more than hijab. “Death to the oppressor!” crowds roared. Some dared to call for the death of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been Iran’s Supreme Leader since 1989. Police tried to contain the crowds with tear gas and pellet guns. Ten days after Amini’s death, at least thirty protesters had been killed—some accounts put the number much higher—in the worst protests in Iran since 2019. One of them was a sixteen-year-old boy, the BBC reported.

Protests spread across the Middle East, then to Europe and North America. A candlelight vigil was held in Los Angeles, and demonstrators demanding the resignation of President Ebrahim Raisi rallied outside the U.N. in New York. Four topless members of Femen—with “Women, Life, Freedom” painted in big black letters across their chests—raised their fists outside the Iranian Embassy in Madrid. Women cut off their hair, in sympathy, in a Berlin protest. Police scuffled with protesters outside the Iranian Embassy in Athens.

Amid the growing international outcry, Raisi arrived at the U.N. General Assembly in New York—his first trip to the United States, and his début at the world body—full of his own fury. During a fiery address to the U.N., he angrily waved a large photograph of General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ notorious Quds Force, who was assassinated in a drone strike ordered by President Donald Trump in 2020. Raisi called for Trump to be tried for the murder as “a service to humanity, so that from now on, cruelty will be silenced, and justice will prevail.” In his speech, at meetings with think-tank experts and with media executives, and at a press conference, he angrily claimed that American police were responsible for far more civilian deaths compared to the one death in Iran. “How many times in the United States, men and women are killed every day at the hands of law-enforcement personnel,” he told me and a small group of journalists on Thursday. His voice rose so loudly and so often that it was frequently hard to hear the English translation through our headsets.

Raisi, ranting, also accused the U.S. of “trampling” on nuclear talks, which have stalled after seventeen months of meetings in Vienna and Doha between the world’s six major powers and Iran. He blamed the U.S. for “choking the life” out of the historic 2015 nuclear deal after Trump withdrew from it in 2018. Iran has since breached the limitations imposed on its controversial nuclear program, most notably by enriching more uranium at levels closer and closer to the amounts needed to produce a bomb. Today, Iran is just a few weeks, or even days, away from the ability to fuel a bomb. In reality, the European Union says that new demands by Iran this month had caused the deadlock.

On multiple fronts, Raisi has ferociously swung the pendulum back to the kind of xenophobic policies and tone-deaf rhetoric witnessed during the Revolution’s early days. The overtures by other Iranian leaders—President Akbar Rafsanjani’s back-channel diplomacy with Washington, President Mohammad Khatami’s overtures to bring down the “wall of mistrust,” President Hassan Rouhani’s willingness to take a cell-phone call from the White House—are long gone. On Saturday, the hard-line paper Kayhan, whose long-standing editor was appointed by the Supreme Leader, boasted that Raisi had “stunned the world” in his U.N. speech. “Time to punish America’s bastards,” it wrote.

On the international stage, Iran has tightened its ties with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping. I asked Raisi about the kamikaze Iranian drones that his government has sold to Russia that have started to make a difference on the Ukrainian battlefield. The delta-wing aircraft—repainted in Russian national colors—have taken out howitzers and other key equipment around Kharkiv.

“I do believe that any help that can be given, that can be constructively used in bringing the war to an end,” Raisi responded. “During the meeting that we had with Mr. Putin in Tehran or the Shanghai meetings, we have expressed as much directly to him that we wish to do everything possible to help bring the war to a close.” He insisted that NATO’s expansion, which began fourteen years ago, had triggered the war and since dragged it out. He declined to say whether Iran would provide any other matériel or intelligence and insisted that Tehran had offered to negotiate an end to the conflict. Meanwhile, China has become the largest importer of Iranian oil, helping Tehran to circumvent U.S. sanctions. Ironically, Iran and Russia, both sanctioned by Washington, are now offering discounts as they compete to sell oil to Beijing.

But Amini’s death drew outrage at Iran from many other nations during the opening of the U.N. General Assembly. In his address on Wednesday, President Joe Biden expressed solidarity with the protesters. “Today we stand with the brave citizens and the brave women of Iran who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights,” he told more than a hundred and fifty world leaders. Last week, the U.S. imposed new sanctions on Iran’s morality police and authorized American companies to bypass sanctions and provide Internet service so Iranians would freely have access to information online. Iran had shut down the Internet as the protests raged. Elon Musk’s SpaceX immediately deployed its Starlink satellite service—as it did for Ukraine after Russia’s invasion—to facilitate access to the Internet. The German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, condemned Iran’s crackdown on the protests as “an attack on humanity,” while Chilean President Gabriel Boric called on the world to “mobilize efforts to stop violence against women whether it be in Iran, in memory of Mahsa Amini, who died at the hands of the police this week, or anywhere in the world.” Amini would almost certainly have been stunned by the global reaction.

As Iran takes a hard turn at home and abroad, the government on Friday orchestrated its own demonstrations—against the protesters—to exert its will. Women wrapped in all-enveloping black chadors took to the streets to demand that the protesters face the death penalty. Kayhan, the state-controlled news outlet, boasted that tens of millions had turned out to support the regime—with scant evidence that the numbers were accurate. “We are the defenders of a fight against injustice,” Raisi claimed at the U.N. His intransigence was frighteningly reminiscent of his role in the first decade of the Revolution. In 1988, Raisi was one of four prosecutors on a “death commission” who sentenced an estimated five thousand political prisoners to execution by hanging. Many were in their teens or early twenties. The danger is that it is beginning to happen all over again. On Saturday, as the protests spread to most of Iran’s thirty-one provinces, Raisi vowed to “deal decisively” with what he called “riots.” ♦

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