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Protests bordering on revolution in Iran

The current uprising against the Islamic Republic is different from those of the past


Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, center, reviews a group of armed forces cadets in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3. Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via Associated Press

Protests bordering on revolution in Iran
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The most important protests in over a decade are raging in the streets of Iran right now, and President Biden has a fleeting opportunity to affect the outcome. It’s not our job to topple all repressive foreign regimes, but it’s necessary at some point to recognize the citizens of a country who rise up to redefine their political system—especially a system as corrupt and violent as the Islamic Republic. With the Iranian protests now bordering on outright revolution, the time for that recognition is now.

Recent events began to snowball after the brutal murder of a 22-year old woman by the state morality police for her failure to wear proper Islamic headgear. In days since then, the outrage over Mahsa Amini’s death has spread to every corner of the country, and the outrage has opened an outlet for discontent that has been building for years. While these are not the first protests to sweep the country, these protests are different for three reasons.

First, the level of unity among the people is unprecedented. Typically, the regime has responded to civil disobedience by driving a wedge between Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, Azeris, Sunnis, and Shia. But this time that strategy has failed as Iranians of all backgrounds have come out to protest. Many celebrities, athletes, actors, and professors have also bravely lent their name to the cause, putting their reputation and livelihood on the line.

Second, the regime’s other strategy—the deployment of overwhelming force, usually through its crack Basij squads—has also failed. If anything, the use of these forces appears to be only helping the protests to grow. If the unrest continues to expand in the coming days and weeks, the situation will eventually move beyond the regime’s control. The ayatollahs know this, which is why in several cases they’ve held security forces back.

Third, at this point the protestors are not marching to protest the killing of Mahsa Amini or any other single grievance. They are marching against more than 40 years of religiously motivated violence and oppression, against the siphoning of the country’s wealth to fund terrorism around the region, and against the regime’s alienation of the entire world. They are rising up not to reform the regime, but to topple it.

It's hard to assess what will happen next. An all-out campaign of repression is expected as the regime makes another big push to regain control—just as it did, successfully, during the Green Revolution of 2009.

If the unrest continues to expand in the coming days and weeks, the situation will eventually move beyond the regime’s control.

One of the biggest uncertainties is how the Biden administration will respond to such a crackdown, especially since Biden has so far been reticent in his statements about the protests—not unlike Obama in 2009. It seems unlikely that he’ll give up his desire to strike a deal with the regime on its nuclear program, and there are rumors that his State Department is even now sending out feelers in hopes of resuming direct talks.

If Biden stays on his course and reaches such a deal now, the people’s nascent revolution will likely die immediately. If he comes out in favor of the revolution, however, there’s a chance he could give the people extra momentum.

These are perilous moments for any statesman, but the good news is that Biden needn’t do much to help. The easiest and best response is to publicly commend Iranians for defending human rights and cancel negotiations with the regime until its leaders cease their violence and respond to the will of the people. Until then the regime is illegitimate, and no deal with an illegitimate regime is worth the paper it is printed on.

A true revolution in Iran can succeed only if the Iranian people are able to maintain their nerve in the face of harsh crackdowns, organize their efforts, and produce a leader with a clear plan. There is very little we can do from here to ensure their success. But a simple show of solidarity from the American president will provide the morale support that could be the difference between life and literal death.

The rest of us need to keep watching. We are witnessing an astounding display of bravery by people who want only to be free and to rejoin the family of nations. Their success is our success, and we owe them our attention.


Robert Nicholson

Robert Nicholson is president and executive director of The Philos Project.


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