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New Atlanticist September 13, 2023

Twenty questions (and expert answers) about Iran one year after Mahsa Amini’s death

By Atlantic Council

For three days before she died, Mahsa Jina Amini was in a coma, suspended between life and death. On September 13, 2022, the twenty-two-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman was exiting a metro station in Tehran with her brother when the so-called morality police detained her for allegedly violating the regime’s mandatory hijab law. Two hours after her arrest, she fell into a coma and was hospitalized. She passed away on September 16. By then a viral photo of her in a coma and rumors of her abuse by authorities were spreading on social media with the Persian hashtag #MahsaAmini.

For the last year, Iran, too, has been suspended between a new life and a death-like state. Mobilized by Amini’s story, protesters took to the streets in all thirty-one of Iran’s provinces to voice opposition to the clerical establishment led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement grew that drew on years of Iranians’ frustrations—hardened by systemic corruption and mismanagement—and the repressive nature of the Islamic Republic. While the numbers are smaller today, protesters continue to call for its demise. In the face of these ongoing protests, however, the clerical establishment has dug in, intent on retaining its grim hold on power by ruling through fear. It has arrested protesters and taken lives, and it continues to deny Iranians their freedom.

Below, experts answer twenty questions about how Iran has changed—and is still changing—a year after Amini’s death.

1. How would you assess the overall impact of the protests in Iran?

The protests in Iran over the last year following Amini’s death will not be relegated to the annals of forgotten history as the Islamic Republic of Iran would certainly prefer. But the reality is that twelve months after extraordinarily brave Iranian women and men took to the streets, there are no meaningful, permanent reforms instituted, nor is the regime’s power reduced; indeed, the opposite may be true. There’s been a lot written over the years on the trajectories of revolutions and what would be required for one to succeed in Iran specifically. Many of the historically recognized signposts, unfortunately, are still missing in Iran—for example, defections of some of the security establishment to the protesters. Moreover, the lack of clear leadership has probably also stymied the protests from having greater success thus far. But while the hope embodied in the now-global slogan of “Woman, Life, Freedom,” may still be years—perhaps decades—away from being fulfilled, that doesn’t mean the protests haven’t had an impact. Indeed, the protests have shined a light on the regime’s brutal tactics that continues to penetrate the world’s conscience, while highlighting the heroism of so many young Iranians determined to live in a freer Iran.

Jonathan Panikoff is the director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Program. A former career US intelligence officer, Panikoff served as the deputy national intelligence officer for the Near East at the National Intelligence Council from 2015 to 2020.

While some maintain skepticism by pointing to the small numbers in the streets, the vigor of protests shouldn’t be based solely on how many individuals gather in a public space. Every day, Iranian women protest by not abiding by mandatory hijab despite the threat of arrest, having their vehicle confiscated, losing their jobs, and even the possibility of being forced to wash corpses in a morgue as a punishment. The Iranian Gen Z participates in civil disobedience by expressing themselves in the most ordinary ways. Anti-regime graffiti, such as “Iran is drowning in revolution,” is scrawled on the walls of various cities and towns, and chants of “Khamenei is a murderer, his guardianship is invalid” are heard from rooftops and windows. In parts of the country dominated by neglected ethnic minorities, such as Sistan and Baluchistan province, protests continue every Friday after prayer.

Historian Ali Ansari told me that the ongoing protests are in a “pre-revolutionary phase,” meaning “within a phase when revolution becomes possible.” This does not discount the fact that protesters already see this as their revolution. Additionally, what separates these protests from previous ones is their continuity since Amini’s death. Never have protests taken place day in and day out.

While the embers of this uprising burn below the surface, it’s only a matter of time before another major event prompted by the incompetence or repressive nature of the Islamic Republic pushes large numbers of people into the streets. It is inevitable.

Holly Dagres is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs. She is also the editor of the Council’s IranSource and MENASource sections and curator for the weekly newsletter, The Iranist. A version of this answer appeared earlier on IranSource.

The regime’s response to the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement was a massive crackdown, which aimed at halting demonstrations and reclaiming public space from the protesters. More than five hundred demonstrators were killed and thousands arrested. Authorities have resorted to punishments, such as layoffs, university expulsions, imprisonment, flogging, and especially the death penalty. To date, twenty-five protesters have been sentenced to death following mock trials, with seven of them already hanged. In response, the movement has changed from street protests to widespread civil disobedience. Women are still refusing to wear the hijab, and their visibility in the public space has compelled the regime to devise new and costly repressive policies. The deadlock between state and society in Iran is insurmountable. As it claims to embody God, the Iranian theocracy has never been able to engage in a real dialogue with the society it dominates. The movement’s greatest achievement was to shed light on the cultural, social, and political estrangement between state and society in Iran; it changed the world’s perception of the Islamic regime’s might and stability, and has, it seems, moderated the regime’s aggressive élan in its foreign policy. Hence the irony, for if there have been any concessions from the Islamic Republic, they were not made to the Iranian people but to the international community.

Ladan Boroumand is the co-founder of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for the Promotion of Human Rights and Democracy in Iran, a nongovernmental organization that promotes human rights awareness through education and information dissemination.

3. Have the protests changed the trajectory of women’s rights in Iran?

Iran has a decades-long history of movements promoting women’s rights. When I protested against mandatory hijab, the number of people who joined me was small. Although many sympathized with us, we were alone and a collective movement did not form. However, since last year, a collective movement has emerged. The general attitude of society and the world toward women’s rights in Iran has changed since then. 

In my opinion, women in Iran have become braver, and their voices have become louder than before. They are no longer afraid and even fight to the death to get their rights. The most important issue is Iranian men’s support for women, and that women are not alone in their struggle. We are currently witnessing the struggle of women and men alongside each other to achieve women’s rights.

—Azam Jangravi is an information security analyst, researcher, and women’s rights advocate. She is one of the “Revolution Street” women arrested for protesting against the Islamic Republic’s mandatory hijab laws.

4. How has the international community responded to the protests, and what more could outside powers do?

It’s frustrating to all of us that our governments don’t have more levers to pull that will support the legitimate protests in Iran without being counterproductive. Over the last four decades, our traction on the terrible human rights situation in the Islamic Republic has been limited. But there are three important things that outside powers can and must do. Sanctions against human rights abusers are meaningful even where their practical effect is limited—the international community should continue to put resources and creativity into this. Using our international voices to support the Iranian people’s rights matters too: We need to keep demonstrating that we stand for universal values and avoid playing into the regime’s narratives. And most importantly, we must continue to enable and protect the independent and courageous journalism that covers what is happening inside the country. The Iranian regime has directly threatened media outlets based in the West. Defending that space is a weighty responsibility. 

—Rob Macaire is a British diplomat who served as the UK ambassador to Iran from 2018 to 2021. He is part of the advisory committee for the Atlantic Council’s Iran Strategy Project.

5. How has the regime responded to calls for its overthrow?

The Islamic Republic suppressed the movement with sheer brutality, shooting unarmed protesters in Tehran, Zahedan, and many other cities early on in the movement. While there were signs of potential discord and dissent among the security forces, the protest movement never gained a political leadership that could cultivate such sentiments and seriously divide the security forces, which have considerable manpower and experience. 

Most importantly, Khamenei and the regime leadership maintained a united front and decided to give zero concessions to protesters, knowing full well that significant concessions might have further encouraged the movement. This is mostly in line with Khamenei’s approach; he has never responded to mass protests with concessions. Even when he has given some concessions, they have been in moments when he felt more secure in his own power (such as in 2013) and not when he felt threatened. 

At the same time, with the movement’s street phase receding, many of the regime’s more farsighted strategists are aware that deep discontent continues, and something must be done to respond to it. Yet, attempts to further enforce the compulsory hijab continue (with a new bill making it even more strict) and there seems to be no plan to even slightly open up the political space ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections in March 2024. 

—Arash Azizi is a senior lecturer in political science and history at Clemson University and a fellow at the Center for Middle East and Global Order. He is the author of The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US and Iran’s Global Ambitions and the upcoming What Iranians Want: Women, Life, Freedom.

6. How has social media and technology impacted the organization and mobilization of protests?

The viral photo of a bruised Amini hooked up to an intensive care unit, and the later photo of her parents’ painful embrace outside her hospital room, prompted the hashtag #MahsaAmini in Persian to go viral on social media. That anger expressed online then moved to the streets and transferred into the ongoing protest movement now seen today. 

Since the 2009 post-election protests known as the Green Movement, the Islamic Republic has viewed the Internet and social media as a national security threat, and it has dealt with them as such. Thirty-five percent of the world’s most popular websites are blocked and Iranians must use circumvention tools like virtual private networks to get past this great cyber wall of censorship. At times of unrest, authorities have slowed the Internet to a snail-like pace. In November 2019, the government deliberately shut down the Internet, using it as a cover to kill 1,500 protesters in November 2019. 

Social media is the only way for Iranian voices to be heard by the international community and has been an integral tool in amplifying those voices—it allows Iranians to show the world what they’re seeing, express how they’re feeling, and put faces to the names of slain and arrested protesters. Social media also gives credence to those very demonstrations. Human rights violations committed by security forces and uploaded online have been documented by rights organizations, but it’s also the brutal crackdowns found in those very videos and images uploaded from cell phones that mobilize the masses. It’s for that reason that many Iranians want the Islamic Republic gone and why they are so willing to remain defiant day in and day out knowing full well they risk arrest, death, imprisonment, and even sexual assault. 

—Holly Dagres

7. How has Iran’s economy been affected by the protests?

Iran’s economy is fraught with longstanding challenges, including unprecedented inflation, high unemployment, a weakening currency, rising poverty, and routine water and electricity outages. Economic data are so discouraging that a parliamentarian suggested they be kept secret. 

How much of the worsening circumstances are due to the unrest caused by Amini’s death is difficult to quantify. The protests have certainly swelled the ranks of disaffected Iranians and shaken the regime, despite its brutal heavy-handedness. Prolonged and widespread protests in any country disrupt normal business activities, lower consumer spending, and erode investor confidence. Iran is no exception. The protests have overshadowed everything and paralyzed the regime’s ability to consider meaningful economic policies. The protests have also absorbed the regime’s attention and financial resources to quell dissent. Moreover, the administration of President Ebrahim Raisi is seen as the least competent since the 1979 revolution.  

The regime’s immediate Achilles’ heel is the cost of petrol subsidies, which is three times the country’s development budget. Removing them will further fuel inflation and increase discontent even faster. Keeping them as they are will simply bankrupt the regime. The “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement has certainly made economic policymaking much harder.  

Nadereh Chamlou is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s empowerME initiative and an international development advisor.

8. Are there any signs of divisions within the political elite or security forces?

Achieving substantial political change in the Islamic Republic hinges on undermining elite cohesion, fostering top-level divisions, and eroding security forces’ loyalty. Currently, identifying such divisions is not possible. This doesn’t imply complete uniformity within the Iranian elite. Institutional complexity and disagreements among power centers are notable and enduring traits within the Iranian system. Yet, current disputes among political and security elites don’t seem to weaken their determination or ability to counter internal threats to the regime’s stability.

Even amid differing opinions within the conservative camp, the ruling political elite maintains internal cohesion. Unlike the shah’s elite, which held strong connections with the West and had the option to seek political and economic refuge outside Iran, the current ruling elite of the Islamic Republic has no alternative but to contend for power domestically. Furthermore, the regime retains security and repression support, primarily from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG), whose survival and capacity to pursue their political and economic interests primarily rely on the regime’s survival. The potential transition that could follow from Khamenei’s passing could expedite the IRGC’s empowerment and facilitate an alternative governing model. Yet the IRGC remains subordinate to the supreme leader and reliant on him.

—Raz Zimmt is a research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies and the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University.

9. What has been the role of marginalized groups in the uprising, and how were they affected by it?

When it was difficult to project that Kurds in Iran could challenge the four decades of rule by the Islamic regime following their withdrawal from military confrontation in 1996, the catalyst for change emerged from the Kurdistan region, marking a pivotal shift in the country’s political landscape. This marked the first time in modern Iranian history that a revolutionary movement originated from marginalized groups in the periphery and subsequently spread to central cities.

A remarkable turn of events unfolded as protests erupted in Tehran and other central cities, showing solidarity with Kurdistan and Balochistan. The regime’s divide-and-rule strategy and disinformation campaigns began to crumble. The slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom,” which originated in Kurdistan, resonated across Iran, breaking down the four-decade-old barriers the regime had erected between central and peripheral regions.

However, the regime has perpetuated a divisive narrative, portraying Kurds and other national minority groups such as Baluches and Arabs as traitors and secessionists to justify its oppressive actions under the pretext of safeguarding national security and territorial integrity. This oppressive policy of the regime against these groups only fueled their determination to demand regime change. These groups have emerged as strongholds for organizing and empowering opposition forces against the regime, creating new opportunities for unity and change.

This uprising also underscored the deep-rooted challenges facing these populations. Overcoming historical distrust, fostering dialogue among different opposition groups, and achieving inclusivity in the struggle for a democratic Iran remain pivotal. The path ahead involves constructing intricate alliances, accommodating diverse ethnic and national minorities’ demands, and establishing a collective vision for a just and free Iran.

—Shukriya Bradost is an Iranian-Kurdish Middle Eastern security analyst.

All people suffer under the Islamic Republic’s rule, but my people struggle every day to avoid death and destruction. We are struggling for our children to have schools, food, water, medicine. 

Baluchistan is often described as impoverished. But we live on a land that is rife with wealth, a land where poverty is man-made.

On top of plundering our land, the regime has also systematically demonized my people, portraying us as thugs and terrorists, creating a chasm between us and the rest of the nation.

But despite local and international outlets ignoring our fight and our suffering, my people, peacefully protesting, with blood and tears, have preserved the flame of this revolution and preserved the spark of hope. With their courage and bodies, they have bridged that chasm.

With their perseverance, my people have proved to all that their heart beats for Iran. And despite years of marginalization and oppression, despite accounting for the highest casualty rate among protesters during the recent uprising and the regime committing atrocities like the Bloody Friday of Zahedan, Baluchistan has remained the beating heart of this revolution. 

My people are putting their lives on the line for the love of their motherland and for liberty because they have nothing to lose but their chains.

And the voice of a people who have nothing to lose shakes the foundations of every despot’s throne. The Islamic Republic has been no exception. That is why the regime fears Baluchistan. We have nothing to lose. We will keep fighting until the certain day of victory, the certain day of liberation.

—Fariba Balouch is a human rights defender from Iran’s Baluch ethnic minority.

Life free of all shackles has been the seed crystal of the Woman, Life, Freedom uprising in Iran. The uprising has spanned all aspects of life and has not been exclusively limited to political liberation, but also includes demands for women’s emancipation, economic and environmental justice, recognition and realization of the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, as well as queer liberation.

Despite endemic queerphobia and the fact that queer lives and identities are criminalized and even punishable by death in Iran, as always, the LGBTQI+ community has been at the forefront of the uprising.

However, unlike in past cycles of protests, this time, the queer community has demanded recognition and visibility with young LGBTQI+ people taking to the streets with placards in colors of the pride and trans flags reading “Queer, Life, Freedom.”

The visible involvement of the queer community in the struggle for freedom has translated into heightened targeting of the community by both the regime and retrogressive circles among the opposition.

Despite brutal oppression, like a force of nature, a river carving its way through boulders, people in Iran are unrelenting in their fight for a brighter future, for liberty and justice for all. And the LGBTQI+ community will continue to be part of the vanguard of the march toward that future. 

—Khosro Sayeh Isfahani is a journalist focused on human rights and politics in Iran. He left Iran in 2021 after years of work on human rights issues from inside the country. He currently serves as the Oak human rights fellow for 2023 at Colby College.

10. What lessons do the Iranian protests offer to others living under repressive regimes?

The key lesson is that the outcome of protests is not foreseeable. Sometimes, as in Egypt in 2011, the regime crumbles to a degree that is wholly unexpected even by the protesters. At other times, the regime proves resilient and fiercely represses the protests. So change requires bravery—you never know when a protest will be merely a prelude to later change, or an immediate success, but unless you start to protest, you never find out. Moreover, each protest, even if unsuccessful, can serve as a rehearsal for still larger protests in the future. 

That said, there are some clear lessons:

  • If the military stands firmly by the regime, protests will not lead to regime change. Only when the military starts to waver in its loyalty is the regime vulnerable.
  • The protesters need to broadly represent the population, not just a particular portion of it. The “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests were successful in mobilizing youth and especially women. However, the largest age cohorts in Iran’s population are now those in their thirties and forties. However enthusiastic Iranians in their twenties may be for change, the protests have to draw in more of those aged thirty and above to broadly represent the Iranian public.
  • While Amini was a sympathetic figure whose death outraged hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Iranians, those who were outraged did not have a clear leader to follow. Would it be the son of the former shah, now in exile? Or someone in Iran today? Would it be someone from the streets or from inside the regime? The shifting claims to leadership of the protests made it difficult to sustain momentum in the face of determined regime repression. For resistance to be more sustained and successful, consensus around an effective leader is vital.

Jack A. Goldstone is a professor of public policy at George Mason University. He is also a senior fellow of the Mercatus Center and a global fellow at the Wilson Center.

11. Have the protests had an impact on Iran’s neighbors?

Iran is unlike Las Vegas—what happens there does not stay there. This was true back in 1979, when its revolution upended the region’s geopolitics, and it remains true today, one year after the demonstrations that followed Amini’s death. This “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement is fundamentally different from previous protests that have been sparked by the regime stealing elections or its failed economic policies. These protests directly targeted the strict social and religious constraints that serve as the foundational basis for the regime’s rule—and thus challenged the very legitimacy of the regime itself.  

That reality is not lost on the other side of the Gulf. Back in 1979, as Tehran’s new religious leaders were turning back the clock on women’s rights, leaders in Riyadh, shaken by the recent seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by religious zealots, also decided to reinforce strict religious edicts. Today, the younger generations in both countries—especially young women—are calling for social modernization. But while Iranian women demanding personal freedoms continue to be imprisoned and killed by their government, Saudi women are benefiting from an increasingly liberated social environment, driven by top-down reforms. The dichotomy could not be starker: while the Iranian regime has long denounced the “destructive” social consequences of Barbie dolls, today Barbie is a hit in Saudi Arabia.

William F. Wechsler is the senior director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council and a former US deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism.

Iran’s women-led uprising sent a galvanizing message that the brutal murder of one woman could incur earth-shattering consequences for the regime. 

However, this message arguably has yet to be digested throughout a region where women’s rights are notoriously weak. This is particularly the case in Afghanistan, with daily tidings of anti-women abuses and new gender apartheid legislation. 

Likewise, Iraq has a long way to go before women are accorded their due respect and opportunities. This includes the need for laws which adequately protect women from domestic violence, rape, and workplace discrimination. Female activists have been subjected to violent backlashes and even assassination.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, however, lie in a region where women’s voices have been heeded. During my regular visits there, the pace of social change has been dizzying. Between 2018 and 2022, the labor force participation rate of Saudi women nearly doubled to 36 percent, with GCC women among the best-educated on the planet. This demonstrated that the battle for women’s rights doesn’t have to be incremental over generations, but can be almost instantaneous when the political will and social readiness exists.

The inspiring defiance and awareness demonstrated by Iranian schoolgirls offers hope for region-wide revolutionary transformation. Girls who have asserted their dignity and freedoms once won’t allow themselves to be meekly pushed around in the future.

In gender-repressive states like Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, and Syria, women ultimately find themselves in a situation where they have nothing further to lose. 

From there, we sooner or later witness a fearlessness arising from the realization that if their daughters and granddaughters are to enjoy a brighter future, they must take an implacable stand against tyranny, oppression, and state-sponsored violence.

—Baria Alamuddin is a journalist, columnist, and commentator on Middle East affairs. She is also the author of Militia State: The Rise of Al-Hashd Al- Shaabi and the Eclipse of the Iraqi Nation State.

12.  How has the Iranian diaspora engaged in supporting or influencing the protests?

Once news of Amini’s death started to go viral, the Iranian diaspora leapt into action. Many leveraged their social media pages to post protest videos, pictures, and up-to-date information coming out of Iran. They organized rallies in solidarity with the people of Iran and began contacting their local politicians, as well as global leaders, and encouraged them to make public statements in support of the Iranian people as well as to support legislation that would weaken the regime. 

The unity of the diaspora in amplifying the voices of the people in Iran was electric, almost palpable, in those first few months of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement. They took cues from the people, prominent activists, human rights attorneys, and artists within Iran to push for legislation in their respective countries aimed at hurting Khamenei and his despotic cronies, and called upon the United Nations (UN) to take various actions against the Islamic regime. Many of these efforts were a success. 

While the majority of the diaspora remain united on the goal of replacing Iran’s current dictatorial theocracy with a secular democracy, many have disagreed on how to get there. This, in tandem with trauma fatigue, a mostly disinterested global audience, and a “my way is the right way” mentality, has set the diaspora back. 

The only way the diaspora can help push the needle of meaningful change forward is to set aside their squabbles and differences, recenter the people of Iran, and remain focused on their one common goal: the downfall of the Islamic Republic.

—Nazanin Nour is an actor, writer, and human rights activist. She is also starring in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “English” for the second time.

For the first time in forty-four years, there is some semblance of unity among the Iranian diaspora and a level of activism and participation in politics that did not exist prior. Now, the unity has ebbed and flowed, but the activism remains steady. We have seen a push for legislation in the United States around the uprising, Iranians coming together to provide funding and legal aid to injured protesters trying to escape Iran, and Iran being removed from a UN body. These are all unprecedented and successful campaigns. The Iranian diaspora, just like the people in Iran, have come to understand the power they wield and are no longer living in the shadows. For the first time, we are privy to the traumas and history of the diaspora; Iranians in exile are telling their stories, and this is a necessary cultural shift. They know they have a crucial role to play in removing the Islamic Republic that goes beyond simply being a soundboard for people in Iran. Iranians in the diaspora are a massive voting bloc and must now move into the phase of holding to account representatives of their respective countries who continue to appease the regime in Iran.

Samira Mohyeddin is a multi-award-winning journalist, documentary maker, and producer at CBC Radio One’s The Current.

13. How do you foresee the situation in Iran evolving in the coming months?

Amini’s tragic death has set in motion a profound transformation within Iranian society. This is characterized by a genuine desire for change, a force that seems resilient in the face of suppression. In the months and years ahead, Iran is poised to experience a persistent rejection of the existing Islamic Republic establishment. This rejection is epitomized by the enduring defiance against the ruling clerical leadership and its policies.

For example, the deeply divisive mandatory hijab, enforced by the regime, has intensified societal rifts. Such policies have sparked both violent clashes and vocal opposition, simultaneously eroding the reverence for long-standing religious convictions. Even segments of society that have traditionally been devout are now questioning the legitimacy of the theocratic regime. This underscores the widening gap between the elderly clerical leaders and the predominantly young Iranian population.

With a population of more than eighty-eight million, a majority of whom are under thirty years old, Iran’s trajectory is guided by its youth, yearning for better economic prospects, expanded political and civil freedoms, government accountability, and access to social services. This populace is disenchanted with the existing order, which is the only one they’ve ever known. Furthermore, the well-educated populace has an absence of a single rallying figure, highlighting the shift in societal mindset and emphasizing the importance of a more collective leadership approach.

Nevertheless, the endeavor toward change will be far from smooth. The Iranian government’s persistent attempts to enforce strict dress codes, suppress dissent, and control both public and digital spaces reveal their desperate struggle to retain authority. Numerous challenges lie ahead, no less the multidimensional nature of Iranian society, as it would be foolish to view the ever-evolving Iranian society through an all-encompassing lens. But Iranians’ unwavering desire for change, coupled with an evolving narrative on leadership, strongly indicates an ongoing process of transformation.

Masoud Mostajabi is a deputy director at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.

14. What can the UN do to hold the regime accountable?

Last fall after the start of nationwide protests across Iran, quick mobilization at the UN by civil society and allied states resulted in two big achievements: First, the calling of a special session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, resulting in the establishment of a UN Fact Finding Mission on Iran (FFMI)—a UN body tasked with documentation of violations, including for accountability purposes. And second, the removal of the Islamic Republic of Iran from the UN Commission on the Status of Women—which describes itself as the top global body dedicated to women’s rights and empowerment. The removal vote was unprecedented—since there was no formal procedure for removal of rogue states and no state had ever been removed from the body before. And the establishment of the FFMI was the biggest move toward human rights and accountability in Iran that the UN had taken in more than a decade—since the creation of the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran in 2011.

But following those wins in the fall, and the quieting of visible street protests in Iran in the months that followed, old patterns resumed. The Islamic Republic was elected or appointed to various leadership positions at the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly, leaving Iranians inside and outside of Iran sour on the prospects of the UN intervening to deter Iranian regime abuses. 

Despite these perceived setbacks, human rights advocates must continue to work with the progress made at the UN to hold the regime accountable. The ongoing investigation of the FFMI is the first international investigation of regime abuses against Iranians for core international crimes committed in the territory of Iran. It could provide the impetus and the evidence for war crimes units across Europe and other countries with universal jurisdiction frameworks to bring prosecutions against alleged perpetrators with roles in the violence against protesters and in enforcing a discriminatory legal framework in the country. Civil society and allied states should insist that the mandate of the FFMI is renewed after it presents its comprehensive report on the violence at the UN Human Rights Council session in March 2024 in Geneva. That report’s findings might then be used to establish that the Islamic Republic has committed crimes against humanity. 

Gissou Nia is the director of the Strategic Litigation Project at the Atlantic Council.

15. How is Iranian Gen Z reshaping societal norms and values in Iran?

It was the murder of twenty-two-year-old Amini—a Kurdish-Iranian member of Iran’s Gen Z—that prompted anti-establishment protests across thirty-one provinces and became the biggest threat to the Islamic Republic in four decades. Iran’s Gen Z also led those very protests and continue to do so with their social media posts, gatherings in the streets, graffiti, acts of civil disobedience—dancing, not abiding by mandatory hijab, and expressing physical displays of affection—and chants from windows and rooftops. 

The clerical establishment cannot and will not be able to control much of this generation even as it tries to rein them in by force, indoctrination, and threats of violence. Iranian Gen Z does not identify with the geriatric leadership at the top and wants to be a part of the global community thanks to satellite dishes and the Internet. 

In this current climate, repression will continue to rise and as the economy continues to slump due to systemic corruption and mismanagement and in part due to sanctions, these youth will remain defiant by also seeking out their basic needs and wants by migrating to the West. But this does not mean that this generation of Iranian youth should be met with skepticism in their ability to bring about change. They are part of the globalized Gen Z that won’t tolerate the status quo. In the words of sixteen-year-old vlogger Sarina Esmailzadeh, who was beaten to death by security forces, “What do people expect from their country? Prosperity, prosperity, prosperity!”

—Holly Dagres

16. Do the protests have an impact on the ongoing talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal?

The unreasonableness of Iranian negotiating demands was the primary reason why the talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal failed. But the protests in Iran calling for an end to the Islamic Republic after the death of Amini were certainly a contributing factor. In October 2022, US officials suggested that the Iran nuclear deal was not their focus right now. Supporting the Iranian people demonstrating against the regime was the priority.

For a period, the regime turned inward and hardened as it tried to suppress its own people, fearful of appearing weak abroad amid domestic turmoil. This is a pattern. In 2009, after the Green Movement protests over the disputed reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, the Iranian establishment was unable to commit to a deal to ship out a majority of its low-enriched uranium stockpile in exchange for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor.

Today, the Islamic Republic feels more confident that it has the situation under control, which is motivating it to show more openness to de-escalate tensions with the West. However, the drivers leading the Iranian people to rebel against the regime remain. Protests will inevitably resurface again. The US government and its allies must ensure that any nuclear strategy they implement does not empower, legitimize, and resource a regime that is fundamentally illegitimate in the eyes of the Iranian people.

Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute’s Iran Program.

17. Have climate change and food insecurity had an impact on political unrest in Iran?

Since 1988, the leaders of the Islamic Republic have been aware of the threats of climate change, but have chosen a path of unsustainable development that has led to a long-lasting man-made drought, intensified by global warming. The anthropogenic drought is the result of decades of poor governance and bad water management for the sake of food self-sufficiency. These policies under a changing climate have caused the depletion of aquifers and the desertification of vast plains, forcing millions of farmers to migrate to city margins and shantytowns.

This situation has impoverished millions of Iranians and caused instability. In many cases where the regime has built dams like Karun-3 near Izeh, it has not only displaced the indigenous residents of these areas without providing them equivalent lands, but has also deprived them of their constitutional “right to adequate housing.”

Since 2017, major demonstrations have taken place in regions hit by water scarcity and unemployment. Cities like Izeh in Khuzestan that have hosted thousands of migrants from deserted areas have experienced deadly clashes.

I believe that when the regime loses its ability to supply water for the cities, many in the middle class who cannot tolerate hardship will join other protesters.

—Nikahang Kowsar is an Iranian-Canadian journalist and analyst who works on environmental and water issues.

18. What has been the impact of sanctions on Iran in the last year?

The sanctions landscape in Iran continues to revolve almost exclusively around Iran’s nuclear program and its “resistance economy.” Amini’s death was a human rights tragedy that spurred individual sanctions focused on strategic messaging that were of limited practical impact. The most notable sanctions development for Iran has been Russia’s willingness to more openly engage Iran as it seeks alternatives to Western markets from which it, too, is shut out. This Russian engagement provides Iran with limited, though important, pressure release valves to counterbalance Western sanctions. Reinforcing Iran’s resistance economy, even if only by limited degrees, makes it likely that Tehran will demand more concessions in strategic negotiations with the West, concessions the West is unlikely to find palatable. 

Brian O’Toole is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center. He is a former senior adviser to the director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the US Department of the Treasury.

19. Are the regime’s crackdowns on the protesters different from what it has done in the past?

There are both similarities and differences in the regime’s repression of the 2022 Mahsa Amini protests compared with previous protests. While the regime’s primary strategy has always been victory through terror, the Islamic Republic has become more repressive in the last two decades. Learning from previous waves of protests, it has expanded its coercive apparatus and used more lethal and brutal tactics. During the 2009 Green Movement, at least 100 people were killed, and 4,000 were arrested. In 2019, during the Aban protests, at least 304 people were killed, and 7,000 were detained. The Mahsa Amini Protests in 2022 resulted in the deaths of more than 662 people and the arrest of more than 22,000.

As before, the regime utilized all its security forces, such as the police, the Basij militia, and the IRGC, throughout the country. However, in 2022, the regime used more lethal and brutal tactics, including shooting protesters at close range and targeting the body’s vital organs, such as the head and chest. The Islamic Republic systematically targeted protesters’ eyes, leading to at least six hundred people being blinded. The security forces also frequently used snipers to target protesters from high-rise buildings in 2022.

The security forces repeatedly hit protesters on the head with batons, which caused skull fractures and bleeding in the brain. Security forces have been using social media and mobile phones to track down and arrest protesters for over a decade. However, they recently escalated their tactics by using drones to identify and terrorize protesters on the streets.

The regime crackdown of 2022 was more brutal than in the past, mainly because of the scope and scale of protests, as well as the regime’s fear of being overthrown. The international community’s silence will allow the regime’s brutality to continue.

—Saeid Golkar is a senior fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. He is also a UC Foundation associate professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Service at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

20. What impact have regime disinformation campaigns have on the uprising?

One of the regime’s tactics to curb protests is a form of disinformation called flooding. This is of course in addition to inducing fear for online and offline dissidence through arrests or creating friction through internet shutdowns, disruptions, and censorship. In the context of the Amini anniversary, these are the efforts to ensure mobilization and unity by protesters and opposition to the regime are distracted, disunited, and chaotic. We have seen over a year of successful efforts by the regime to flood the information space for this very pursuit, and sometimes successfully. 

While attribution is often hard, there have been some efforts that have been hallmarks of the regime’s “cyberi campaigns” (cyberi being the term used within Persian social media for regime accounts pretending to be opposition). The Jupyter Rad account on Twitter appears to be one such effort. This was an anonymous account that alleged to be an opposition activist. It had more than a hundred thousand followers (at the time) and some level of trust among opposition social media. It quickly became clear it might be a cyberi account when it tried to distract from the protest uprisings outside of the Karaj prisons in anticipation of the executions of Mohammad Mehdi Karami and Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini in January 2023 with a disinformation campaign. The momentum of those prison protests died as soon as this anonymous account flooded the information space with the disinformation that Judge Abolqasem Salavati, known as the “hanging judge,” had been assassinated by opposition activists. The protest momentum and attention on the protests to stop the executions came to a standstill as the news cycle and social media became consumed by this news. Tragically, within twenty-four hours, the regime quietly executed Karami and Hosseini. 

Iranians on social media have become well-versed in the existence of cyberis. The regime’s efforts to infect the information space in this way continue in various shapes and forms. Combined with more direct efforts through their official media and propaganda, cyberis are meant to stoke divisions and tensions within the opposition and diaspora. This is of course the new digital dimension of the regime’s four-decade project of destabilizing opposition protests and ensuring civil society is weak-to-nonexistent within the country.

—Mahsa Alimardani is a senior researcher at ARTICLE19, an international human rights organization that works to defend and promote freedom of expression and freedom of information worldwide.

Further reading

Related Experts: Jonathan Panikoff, Holly Dagres, William F. Wechsler, Gissou Nia, Brian O’Toole, and Nadereh Chamlou

Image: Newspapers, with a cover picture of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's "morality police" are seen in Tehran, Iran September 18, 2022. Majid Asgaripour/WANA