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Iran demonstrators vow to continue protests despite ongoing crackdowns

Protesters hold placards with messages such as "Do not leave the people of Iran alone" during a demonstration on Dec. 3 in Istanbul.
Onur Dogman/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Protesters hold placards with messages such as "Do not leave the people of Iran alone" during a demonstration on Dec. 3 in Istanbul.

ISTANBUL — The protests that have gripped Iran since September may have diminished to some extent in recent days, but demonstrators reached by NPR insist the protests will not die out or fade away regardless of the government's brutal crackdown. The demonstrators managed to be in touch with NPR despite Tehran's efforts to curtail internet access and other means of communication.

But analysts say Iran's hard-line government that answers to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei can only maintain its grip on power by continuing to arrest — and sometimes kill — protesters. Security forces have arrested thousands and shot people on the streets. Compliant courts have handed down death sentences. Two executions have been carried out, with fears of more to come.

Although authorities released well-known Iranian actress Taraneh Alidoosti from prison this week after she posted bail, she still faces charges stemming from comments she made in support of a protester who had been executed.

The protests, frequently led by women, broke out in northwestern Iran following the death of a young Kurdish woman, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini — known by her Kurdish name, Jina, to family and friends — in the custody of Iran's co-called "morality police." Demonstrations quickly spread across the country, and soon transformed from protesting the mandatory Islamic headscarf, the hijab, to calling for the end of Iran's cleric-led regime.

The government responded with a series of harsh crackdowns. Iranian authorities claim some 200 people have been killed, but the Norway-based group Iran Human Rights reported in late December that the death toll had reached at least 476.

Signs of a protest slowdown?

Recently, some observers have suggested that the size and frequency of the demonstrations are both on the wane. Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder and CEO of the London-based Bourse & Bazaar Foundation think tank, posted a chart to Twitter that appears to show such declines. Compared with the massive protests that erupted in 2009 and became known as the "Green Movement," Batmanghelidj asks why the current "protest movement motivated by such righteous anger has not generated large and durable protests — so far."

Javad, a 55-year-old protester from north-central Iran, tells NPR he has no doubt the protests will continue, and will get larger. He asked that his family name not be used in order to protect himself and his relatives from retaliation by the authorities.

"It is possible that the protests may stop on some occasions," he says, "but since the crisis for Iran is massive and multidimensional, and is both domestic and international, during this new year objections and oppositions will continue to be expressed and will even get intensified."

Protests have also taken place among the Iranian diaspora in Turkey, Europe, the U.S. and beyond. But, Javad notes, the protesters in Iran have yet to make a truly productive connection to those in the diaspora, who would also love to see the cleric-led regime toppled.

"Without this cooperation and coming up with a plan to put pressure on the Islamic Republic and facilitate the transition from this government to a new government, it'll be harder for new groups of people to join the movement," he says. "People will find it difficult to trust the opposition without such a cooperation."

Warnings of more brutal repression

Analyst Ali Vaez at the International Crisis Group says on one level, it's remarkable that the regime has essentially driven young Iranians onto the streets, primarily through its own incompetence and corruption. He sees a historic parallel.

"My sense is that the Islamic Republic is where the Soviet Union was in the early, not late, 1980s," he says. "Early 1980s in the sense that it is a system that is ideologically bankrupt, economically broken, at a political dead end and simply unable to address its problems with the same cast of characters who created this deadlock to begin with."

But one thing Vaez says the Iranian government has not lost is its will to fight.

"And therefore," he warns, "it is still capable of using much more brutal repression against its own people."

Nearly four months into these demonstrations, the protesters are still a minority voice, and Vaez believes that leaves the situation, for now, in a stalemate.

"As long as the protests don't reach critical mass, the regime is unlikely to fracture and lose its willingness to repress," he says. "But as long as it doesn't show any signs of losing its willingness to repress, it's unlikely that more protesters would come to the streets."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.