“Judging by the fact that they killed those protesters, I don’t think it’s going to stop. But I want to say, no matter what the outcome of these protests, the people of Iran have already won, because no longer does this regime have any legitimacy. Zero legitimacy. Because over and over again, people have said they don’t want an Islamic republic.”
The Iranian uprising that began last Thursday in Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city, was initially reported as an isolated protest over food prices and unemployment. By Sunday, the entire country was heaving in convulsions. Tens of thousands of people had poured into the streets of at least two dozen Iranian cities and towns, upturning police vehicles and setting government offices ablaze. The Khomeinist regime has been shaken to its foundations. Hundreds of people have been arrested. At least 12 people are dead.
By Monday morning, state broadcasters were reporting that security forces had prevented armed protesters from seizing military bases and police stations. President Hassan Rouhani was threatening a crackdown, but the rebellion continues. Nothing quite like it has happened since the Khomeinists seized power from the decrepit Mohammad Reza Shah, the last ruler of the Pahlavi dynasty, in 1979.
Unlike the massive protests that erupted after Mahmoud Ahmedinejad came out on top in the sham presidential elections of 2009, the unrest this time around is not largely confined to Tehran, Iran’s capital. It’s coming from everywhere. And unlike the 1999 uprising, the tumult of the past four days is not a student revolt. It’s an eruption that has arisen from the Khomeinist heartlands. Even in Qom, the Shia holy city, throngs of protesters last Friday were shouting ‘Khamenei, leave the country.” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is Iran’s doddering Supreme Leader. In Iran’s criminal code, disparaging Khamenei in that way is a crime punishable by death.
“I think you’re beginning to see the initial kernel of a revolution forming right now. If this thing is sustained over a period of time and the government tries to clamp down, but the numbers of protesters grow, I think at that point you’ve got a revolution on your hands,” Kaveh Sharooz, a Toronto lawyer, human rights activist and former senior policy adviser to Global Affairs Canada, told me over the weekend.
Sharooz served as prosecutor in the “Iran Tribunal,” an ad hoc initiative that assembled jurists and international law specialists at the Hague five years ago to assemble a case against senior Khomeinist officials on charges of crimes against humanity for the murder of roughly 20,000 Iranian leftists, intellectuals and minority leaders during the 1980s.
“You’ve got all the elements of a revolution now,” Shahrooz said. “You’ve got an oppressed population rising up and demanding justice—the wholesale discarding of a government—and that government is clamping down. That’s what a revolution looks like. There’s no magic to it. That’s what it is, and I think we’re beginning to see the early forms of it.”
Another thing that makes the current revolt different from 2009 is that the mass protests back then articulated aims that were solely reformist. Brutally crushed by Khamenei’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its Basij militia, the 2009 protests revolved around charges of vote-rigging within a pantomime election process. The protesters took the lead from their failed “Green Movement” presidential candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both of whom are still under house arrest.
This time around, the uprising is leaderless, and freelance journalist Samira Mohyeddin, a prominent figure in Toronto’s Iranian diaspora, says that’s a good thing. “There isn’t a single person they can go after and put under house arrest. The regime is scared, and that’s what’s really interesting. You can tell they’re afraid the red lines are gone,” she told me. “People are saying ‘Death to the regime.’ They’re saying ‘Death to Hezbollah.’ They’re saying ‘No to Syria, No to Gaza, No to Yemen.’ Iran’s imperialist behaviour is being called into question. The chants are ‘We don’t want an Islamic Republic.’ Posters of Khamenei are being burned.
“It’s totally unprecedented. And most of this movement is not in Tehran. It’s in the slums and in the small towns. That’s where people are feeling the disparity. This is where the movement is really happening. These are people who have nothing to lose anymore.”
An Iranian woman raises her fist amid the smoke of tear gas at the University of Tehran during a protest on Dec. 30, 2017.(STR/AFP/Getty Images)
But the most surprising thing of all, Mohyeddin said, is that so many people seem to be surprised by the sudden ruptures. “It blows my mind that people will sit here and say, ‘Where is this coming from?’ How long do you think people will take this? How long do you expect people to take this kind of repression? It’s going to blow.”