Iran remains in the headlines. And the theocratic regime is taking a beating. But instead of criticism focused on the politically divisive nuclear deal — which has generated fits and starts of possible agreement, only to fall victim to Iran’s intransigence and unreasonable demands — the focus has been upon the mass outpouring of rage over the murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the regime’s morality police.
Amini was arrested for allegedly violating Iran’s strict rules on how to wear a hijab. She died while in police custody, reportedly suffering multiple blows to the head. The mass protests have spread to at least 50 Iranian cities. For the conservative Islamic theocracy, these spontaneous acts of rebellion are a significant challenge to the state. Iranian law forbids any dissent and imposes fearsome punishments for those deemed a threat to the state. But the protests are growing nonetheless and are a clear reminder that Iranian citizens don’t all see eye to eye with their insular Islamic thought police and government.
While Iran watchers warn not to misread the hijab protests as opposition to the scarf itself, there is no mistaking the message conveyed in the videos that show women burning their headscarves and crowds chanting “death to the dictator,” unfazed by security forces using tear gas, clubs and, in some instances, live ammunition.
Revolutionary Iran, now 43 years old, has proved as implacable as the old Soviet Union. And we are left to ponder how to restrain this international outlaw whose goal of staying in power means turning its back to the world and arresting, imprisoning and killing the opposition. But there are some things Iran can’t control — like the complication that the unrest coincides with reports of the ailing health of Iran’s top authority, 83-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. There are reportedly deep divisions in Iran’s “ruling elite” over Khamenei’s eventual successor — including high-level negotiations and jockeying for influence within the country’s Assembly of Experts, the 86-member body that is supposed to decide succession. All of that is reportedly distracting regime leaders from unifying around security issues and the best way to deal with the growing protest movement.
Among the things Iran has done in reaction to the protests is to cut off the internet and block social media. The hope is that by restricting communication about the protests, they will die down. In response, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the U.S. will ease restrictions on technology exports to help counter Iranian state censorship activities. Which then prompted tech billionaire Elon Musk to announce that he was “activating Starlink” in order to save the Iranian people.
Starlink is Musk’s satellite internet company, and his announcement implied that his non-government service could solve Iranians’ tech problems. But it can’t. Among other things, Starlink customers need a special dish to send and receive internet data. Those dishes are not available in Iran, and the regime won’t let them in. Indeed, Iran has already blocked Starlink.
While Iran may be able to block Musk, it hasn’t yet figured out how to explain Amini’s violent death or how to deal with the mounting outrage it has engendered.