The crisis unfolding in Iran—and the passions that sustain it—occasionally features an individual face or a human voice that conveys the public’s anguish. Kimia Alizadeh, a lithe, six-foot-tall athlete with raven hair, won the bronze medal, in Tae Kwon Do, at the Rio Olympics, in 2016. No Iranian woman had ever won a medal, in any sport, in the summer Olympics. Few outside Iran noticed. Over the weekend, however, Alizadeh generated headlines around the world when she defected. In a message on Instagram, she wrote, “How do I start? With a hello, a goodbye or to offer my condolences? Hello to the oppressed people of Iran, goodbye to the noble people of Iran, and my condolences to the perpetually mourning people of Iran.” She recounted being “a pawn” of a regime that told her how to dress, dictated what she said, and paraded her and her medals around for political gain. “To the kind and oppressed people of Iran: I did not want to climb to a pedestal whose steps are paved with lies and deceit,” she wrote. “I am willing to bear the difficulty of living in exile because I could no longer stay at a table where dishonesty, con-artistry and injustice were being served. Making this decision was more difficult than earning the Olympic medal.” In the accompanying black-and-white picture, she wears her sports uniform; her face was buried in her hands.
Alizadeh’s defection coincided with protests that erupted when Iran finally admitted on Saturday, after three days of lying, that its Revolutionary Guard shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, on January 8th. (U.S. officials said they detected the signatures of two heat-seeking missiles near the Boeing 737.) The public outpouring began as a vigil; more than eighty of the passengers were Iranian. The vigil quickly turned into demonstrations that started on university campuses in Tehran, then spread, on Sunday, to at least a dozen cities. The chants were scathing. “Death to the liars” was a common cry. So was “Clerics, get lost!” At Tehran’s Azadi Square, where protests against the Shah four decades ago helped end millennia of monarchies, the demonstrators shouted, “The Supreme Leader is a murderer. His regime is obsolete.”
Anger has gripped Iran. On Sunday, the students at Amirkabir University in Tehran issued a lengthy statement—a kind of manifesto, in the name of “the children of Iran”—outlining their grievances and their demands. “Today, we are surrounded by evil from every quarter.” They railed at the theocracy for “complete incompetence,” from political repression to economic neglect and a foreign policy that brought the nation close to war. “Dear Iranian people!” they appealed. “The only way to escape the current crisis is to return to a policy based on people’s democratic rights, a policy that will not rush into the arms of imperialism due to its fear of despotism, and one that in the name of resistance and fighting against imperialism will not legitimize despotism.”
President Trump praised the protesters on Twitter, highlighting their refusal to walk on huge American and Israeli flags painted on the road for Iranians to symbolically trod on. “Wow! The wonderful Iranian protesters refused to step on, or in any way denigrate, our Great American Flag.” Trump wrote on Sunday. “It was put on the street in order for them to trample it, and they walked around it instead. Big progress!” But the students expressed equal scorn for U.S. “aggression.” For several years, they wrote, America’s presence in the Middle East “has produced nothing but increasing insecurity and chaos.”
The protests have been a stunning contrast to the emotional outpouring by millions of demonstrators, just a week ago, at memorials for General Qassem Suleimani. The mastermind of Iran’s strategy to export its ideology and influence, Suleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq on January 3rd. Iran is a society deeply polarized between those who hate the regime and those still loyal to its rigid revolutionary ideology. The back-to-back outpourings are not a contradiction. Iranians are passionately proud of their country—which dates back millennia, before Persia’s seventh-century conversion to Islam or the 1979 Iranian Revolution—whether or not they like their leaders or political system. “The outpouring of grief after Suleimani’s assassination was an ephemeral peak of nationalism that dissipated as quickly as it had emerged,” Ali Vaez, the International Crisis Group’s Iran Project Director, told me. Suleimani, beyond his support among the regime’s hard-line base, was admired by many Iranians for protecting the country as well as the Revolution. But the shooting down of the Ukrainian flight, further defaming Iran’s already deeply tarnished image, also struck a nationalist nerve.
Gelare Jabbari, the host of a popular program on state-controlled television, issued a public apology on her Instagram page for propagating the regime’s original claim that the Ukrainian plane had a mechanical malfunction—and other lies. “It was very hard for me to believe the murdering of my countrymen,” she wrote. “Forgive me for believing it too late. I apologize for lying to you on television for thirteen years.” After her comment was picked up by international media, the post was deleted. A union of journalists in the capital also apologized and appealed to other national media not to aid the government’s coverup. “We are currently holding a funeral service for public trust,” the union’s statement said. “The first coffins are for state broadcast company and all media and websites.”
The new protests appear distinct from four earlier confrontations between the public and the state that have occurred since 1979. In 1999, students demonstrated on campuses after a reformist newspaper, Salam, was banned by the government. Protests grew into an open challenge to the regime and lasted six days, despite mass arrests, raids on dormitories, and the use of brute force. The most famous picture, which made the cover of The Economist, showed a long-haired student waving his blood-soaked T-shirt above a demonstration.
A decade later, after the Presidential election in 2009, tens of millions turned out on the streets of several cities to charge the government with fraud in the reëlection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Those protests raged on sporadically for more than six months, even as security forces used live ammunition, arrested thousands, and held mass Stalinesque trials. Former senior officials, including a former vice-president and a member of parliament, went to prison. A decade later, two opposition Presidential candidates—a former prime minister and a parliamentary speaker—are still under house arrest. Many participants in the street marches were from the middle class and reformist political camps. The most iconic image in 2009 was a cell-phone video of Neda Soltan, a twenty-six-year-old aspiring musician, after she was shot in the chest. Streams of blood poured from her eyes, nose, and mouth, as passersby tried to help her. It was over in forty seconds. On social media accounts, dissidents transposed the pattern of blood on her face onto the face of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Two other rounds of nationwide protests—the first spanning the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, and the second in November, 2019—were triggered by pocketbook issues. In the past year, Iran’s economy has contracted by more than nine per cent, according to the International Monetary Fund. Prices for basic necessities have soared, while the government removed subsidies and instituted fuel rationing. Unemployment is high, and underemployment is chronic. U.S. sanctions are partly responsible, but Iranians also blame government corruption and mismanagement. Protests during the past two years have been different because they included members of the lower classes in whose name the Revolution was carried out. They were also striking because the regime used force against its political base to crush the unrest. In November, hundreds were killed and thousands were injured, the highest casualty count since the Revolution, according to human-rights groups. The government shut down the country’s Internet—and the prospect of lingering images.
The pace of protests is now more frequent, the tone more anti-establishment, and the government’s reaction more violent, Vaez told me. “The leadership’s abject failure to allow any serious reforms has brought the system to a dead-end. It is unlikely to regain the trust and support of the middle class and is increasingly losing the support of its own more pious/poorer constituents.”
The regime is scrambling to placate public opinion. On Tuesday, Iran’s judiciary announced the arrest of people linked to the shooting down of the Ukrainian plane, but provided no names, no number, and no specific charges; it also announced the arrest of dozens of protesters. Khamenei, who has been the Supreme Leader for more than three decades, announced that he would lead Friday prayers this week—the first time in eight years. But so far there is no government transparency. And the protests continued on Tuesday into the night.
“The Iranian leaders may take solace in their apparent ability to corral protests, but it would be the wrong conclusion,” Vaez said. “There are numerous examples of repression backfiring, hardening opposition, and in some cases toppling governments that once seemed invulnerable.” Behind the protests, there is a wistful longing as well as deep disillusionment. At the end of her Instagram post, Alizadeh wrote, “Please know that wherever I am, I will forever remain a child of my native country.”