Analysis: Latest protests in Iran likely won’t last for Tehran

Only previews of videos posted online show the protests rocking Iran following the death of a 22-year-old woman who had been detained by the national vice police.

But these flashes show that public anger across the country, which was once simmering, is now boiling.

The protests surrounding the death of Mahsa Amini — and the government crackdown emerging to quell them — represent just the latest round of unrest to grip Iran since its 1979 Islamic Revolution.

It will probably not be the last as the Islamic Republic oscillates between internal and external crises. The window through which the whole world can only see them will grow darker as authorities restrict internet access, detain journalists and tightly control all levers of government power.

Protests over Amini’s death have spread to at least 46 Iranian cities and towns. State television has suggested that at least 41 protesters and police have been killed since protests began on September 17. A tally of official statements by authorities from the Associated Press puts at least 13 dead, with more than 1,200 protesters arrested.

But the tightening of the crackdown comes as no surprise given Iran’s modern history.

Iran’s theocracy has considered itself under threat since the return of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to Tehran in 1979.

The 1981 bombings blamed on dissidents killed dozens of senior officials. One of them even paralyzed the right arm of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein launched a bloody eight-year war against Iran in which 1 million people were killed.

In Tehran, the enmity towards the United States began with the 1953 US-backed coup that cemented the shah’s rule. For Washington, the 1979 US embassy hostage crisis fueled hostility towards Iran.

And the mutual distrust continues today. After a failed 2015 deal meant to limit Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, Iran amassed enough highly enriched uranium to produce an atomic bomb if it wanted to..

Iran’s government has dismissed the latest protests as a foreign plot, rather than an expression of public outrage over the death of a woman detained solely because her compulsory headscarf, or hijab, was not to the liking of police mores.

Pro-government marches in Tehran and other cities echoed the official line, with some marchers chanting “American mercenaries fight religion.”

The government’s decision to restrict Instagram, LinkedIn and WhatsApp – three of the last western social media apps operating in the country – has limited protesters’ ability to organize and share their videos with the outside world.

Instead, only short snippets find their way, including those of security forces shooting protesters and women defiantly cutting their hair and burning their hijabs. Security forces, including motorcycle volunteers from Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards, attacked peaceful protesters.

There were also images of apparent protesters setting fires, overturning police cars and returning fire to riot police.

These scenes are similar to those that occurred in 2019 after the government scrapped fuel subsidies, prompting protesters to burn down gas stations and loot banks.. Rights groups say the unrest in more than 100 cities and towns – and the government crackdown that followed – has killed more than 300 people and led to thousands of arrests.

Due to internet restrictions, it remains unclear whether the latest protests have eclipsed those of 2019. Exile opposition groups and Iranian extremists have both used the short clips online to paint their own images of the unrest as the government remains largely silent.

Independent observers such as human rights activists are threatened, intimidated and arrested in Iran. Government text messages to the public warn of criminal charges for participating in protests. At least 18 journalists have reportedly been arrested so far in the crackdown, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Like other rounds of unrest since 2009, when millions took to the streets as part of the so-called Green Movement to protest a disputed presidential election, the latest protests appear spontaneous and leaderless.

Even if a government crackdown ends up stifling the protests, it is unlikely to eradicate the deep-seated rage.

Iran’s economy collapsed and Western sanctions destroyed the economies of a generation. The value of the currency has fallen from 32,000 rials to the dollar in 2015 to 315,000 rials to the dollar in 2022. Iranian youth are increasingly trying to find new livelihoods abroad at all costs . Those who remain struggle to make ends meet.

Iranian politics have become insular and intransigent. In the 2021 presidential election, all serious candidates were disqualified to allow Ebrahim Raisi, a Khamenei protege, to take over the presidency at the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history..

Economic challenges and tough political positions will only solidify. Even if Iran agrees to a roadmap to restore the nuclear deal, it will likely face new US sanctions for selling so-called suicide drones to Russia for use in its ongoing war in Ukraine. ..

A battle for leadership could further divert Iran’s attention inward. There is no designated successor for the 83-year-old Khamenei, although some analysts suggest his son, Mojtaba Khamenei, could be seen by clerics as the next supreme leader.

Meanwhile, the Revolutionary Guards, answerable only to the Supreme Leader, have grown increasingly powerful, both militarily and economically, during recent tensions with the West. The US Treasury said the Guard smuggled “hundreds of millions of dollars” of sanctioned oil into the international market.

The Theocracy and the Guard have financial and political incentives to maintain the status quo. And in the absence of other outlets, mass protests by the Iranian public seem likely to continue.

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EDITOR’S NOTE – Jon Gambrell, Gulf and Iran news director for The Associated Press, reported from each of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Iran and other locations across the world since joining the AP in 2006. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.