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What Remains of Mahsa Amini's Death and the Iran Protests One Year Later?
What is the legacy of Mahsa Amini's tragic death in Iran, which sparked protests in Iran and resonated worldwide with the chant of 'Woman, Life, Freedom'?
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One year has passed since the death of Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police. About 537 individuals, among them 71 minors and adolescents, have been killed, and tens of thousands have experienced imprisonment and endured the horrors of torture.
A year ago, a Kurdish woman, originally named Jina but officially called Mahsa due to restrictions on Kurdish names, died in police custody, sparking nationwide protests in Iran.
She was 22 years old and was fatally beaten for not covering her hair properly. This incident has become a symbol of the largest and most significant protests against Iran's clerical regime in recent times.
Women, Life, Freedom
Since the death of Mahsa Amini, Iranians and non-Iranians worldwide have shown their support for the "Jin, Jiyan, Azadi," which means "Women, Life, Freedom" in Kurdish, which still echoes worldwide and has become a movement.
In response to the "Woman, Life, Freedom" movement, the regime launched a severe crackdown to suppress demonstrations and regain control of public spaces. But in response, the movement has shifted from street protests to broad civil disobedience.
Every day, Iranian women protest against mandatory hijab laws, risking arrest, vehicle confiscation, job loss, and even the grim possibility of being forced to work in a morgue as a punishment.
Meanwhile, the younger generation, Gen Z, engages in acts of civil disobedience through simple means like creating anti-regime graffiti.
How protests affected the Iranian regime
The protests in Iran won't be easily forgotten, despite the Islamic Republic of Iran's hopes to do so.
However, one year later, significant and lasting reforms have not been implemented, and the regime's power may even have strengthened.
While some Iranian women continue to reject wearing the hijab, and their increased presence in public has forced the regime to develop expensive repression tactics, the impasse between the Iranian state and society remains unbridgeable. As it asserts itself as a divine authority, the Iranian theocracy has never been capable of having a genuine dialogue with the society it controls.
Nonetheless, the movement's most significant accomplishment has been illuminating the cultural, social, and political disconnect between the Iranian state and its society. It has altered the global view of the Islamic regime's strength and stability and seemingly restrained its assertiveness in foreign affairs.
Internally, the regime's leadership remained steadfastly united, choosing not to offer any concessions to the protesters. They knew that granting significant concessions could have encouraged the movement even further.
Is a regime change possible in Iran?
What protesters may have learned is that "regime change" through protests depends on the military's loyalty. Protests are unlikely to succeed if the military supports the regime. The regime becomes vulnerable only when the military's allegiance wavers. Furthermore, protests should encompass a wide spectrum of the population, not just a specific group. While the "Woman, Life, Freedom" demonstrations effectively mobilized youth and women, involving people in their thirties and forties, who make up the largest age groups in Iran, is crucial. Despite the enthusiasm of Iranian youth, engaging those aged thirty and above is necessary to represent the whole Iranian public.
But what is most important, protests lacked a clear leader to unite behind. The question of who should lead, whether it be the exiled son of the former shah, a figure within Iran, or someone from the regime itself, created uncertainty and hindered the movement's sustained momentum against the determined repression of the regime.
As news of Amini's death spread globally, the Iranian diaspora took swift action, using their social media platforms to share protest content and updates from Iran, organizing solidarity rallies, and lobbying local and international leaders to voice support for the Iranian people and enact measures to weaken the regime.
While the diaspora shares the common goal of replacing Iran's authoritarian theocracy with a secular democracy, disagreements on the path forward have posed challenges to their unity and progress.
Iran and the world
The protests in Iran affected international politics.
The failed talks to restore the Iran nuclear deal were mainly due to Iran's unreasonable demands, but the protests calling for an end to the Islamic Republic after Amini's death also played a part.
In October 2022, U.S. officials shifted their focus to supporting Iranian protesters rather than the nuclear deal. Currently, Iran seems more confident in controlling the situation, so it's open to reducing tensions with the West. However, the issues that led Iranians to protest against the regime are still there, so more protests might happen.
The U.S. and its allies must be careful not to support a regime the Iranian people see as illegitimate. Sanctions in Iran mainly target its nuclear program and "resistance economy."
Amini's death led to some limited sanctions, but the big change is Russia's increased involvement with Iran, which eases the impact of Western sanctions. However, this could make Iran demand more concessions from the West in negotiations, which might not be acceptable.
Iran's unprecedented protests
The regime's approach to the 2022 Mahsa Amini protests had both similarities and differences compared to past ones. Their main strategy, based on instilling fear, has intensified over the last two decades.
While earlier protests claimed fewer lives and resulted in fewer arrests, the 2022 protests saw many more deaths and arrests.
Security forces employed brutal tactics, including close-range shootings, targeting vital organs like the head and chest, and systematically blinding hundreds of protesters.
Snipers and baton strikes causing skull fractures and brain bleeding were common. Furthermore, they escalated their tracking methods using drones to identify and intimidate protesters.
The severity of the crackdown in 2022, driven by the large-scale protests and the regime's fear of being overthrown, was unprecedented.
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My name is Dario Sabaghi, and I am a freelance journalist interested in international news focusing on the MENA region.
Check out my work at dariosabaghi.com.
You can follow me on Twitter: @DarioSabaghi
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Cover photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images - NPR