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What makes these Iran protests different

The revolutionary fervor that brought the Islamic regime to power has turned on itself.
A woman holding a sign that reads, "Woman, Life, Freedom #MahsaAmini" sign, with a fallen street sign in the background and tear gas in the air.
A woman protesting Mahsa Amini's death in Tehran, Iran, on Saturday.Redux

The people of Iran are in open revolt, this time led by courageous young women protesting the murder of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman who died in the custody of the morality police, and the law requiring they wear hijab. And yet, in his first public reaction to the largest uprising since the 2009 Green Movement, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, once again resorted to the most tired item in the regime’s rhetorical toolbox: blaming the U.S. and Israel for the current unrest. 

Most significantly, this current uprising over the murder of a Kurdish 22-year-old is being led by the young women of the TikTok generation.

That the regime can only fall back in desperation on this tactic shows what dire straits it’s in — identifying a foreign enemy is its best chance at deflecting this existential threat to the regime. But several factors have changed since this strategy first emerged decades ago, suggesting it won’t be successful this time. Khamenei’s response rings hollow today for the Iranian people, who are not concerned with America or Israel but rather with regaining their dignity and humanity.

For over 40 years, since the 1979 revolution, the Iranian people have heard from the regime that the greatest danger facing their country comes from the “big satan” and the “little satan” — the U.S. and Israel. Pro-regime chants of “death to America” and “death to Israel” have been a staple of the rhetorical diet fed to the public.

However, the people of Iran know all too well that the outrage that is now flowing in the streets has nothing to do with the outside world. A common chant heard today: “Our enemy is right here.”  

As Britain’s Foreign Ministry stated on Monday, “The violence leveled at protesters in Iran is truly shocking … we have made our view clear to the Iranian authorities — instead of blaming external actors for the unrest, they should take responsibility for their actions and listen to the concerns of their people.”

Right after the revolution, Iranians may have taken pride in the regime’s anti-American stance because of U.S. support for the shah of Iran, who was viewed by the revolutionary zealots who overthrew him as an autocrat largely put in place to drive an American agenda in the region. Iranians might also have approved of the regime’s anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian posture, seeing it as a necessary step toward cementing a leadership role for the non-Arab, Shia-majority country in the Arab- and Sunni-dominated Muslim world. 

More fundamentally, the first supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, perceived the Jewish state as a “cancerous tumor” in the heart of Muslim territory and saw eliminating it as a personal mission. To that end, pro-Palestinian sympathy was ingrained in Iran’s propaganda via school textbooks, television programs, sports, cartoons, billboards and more.   

Today, Iranians are rejecting this indoctrination as they focus on the country’s real problems: its restrictions on basic freedoms and economic mismanagement abetted by corruption. Iranians don’t prioritize Palestinian rights because they are starving for their own human rights; they care about their daily subsistence, their daily humiliation, the daily acts of violence perpetrated against them.  

Amid the cities engulfed in protests calling for “Death to the dictator” (i.e. Khamenei) and the crowds reciting the mantra “Woman, life, freedom,” street signs for roads named Palestine are being torn down and refrains of “Not Gaza. Not Lebanon. I sacrifice my life for Iran” are being heard. 

That slogan reflects a broad frustration with the regime’s massive financial investment in terror groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which mostly targets Israelis and Jews abroad, over basic needs of the Iranian people such as access to clean water and food

At the same time, the regime lacks any viable political remedy to the current discontent. In the past, the regime attempted to assuage the public by allowing seemingly “reformist” presidential candidates to win office, such as President Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2005. 

But it was a false hope, since no concrete change was permitted by Khamenei. Under the so-called reformists, life has only become more miserable. The children of the religious elite have become brazen, showing off their Maseratis while average Iranians suffer through disastrous Covid-19 policies and massive inflation. The public no longer sees voting as a viable path for resolving their grievances. 

Most significantly, this current uprising over the murder of a Kurdish 22-year-old is being led by the young women of the TikTok generation, representing over 50% of a population between 25-50. Facing mounting problems of the present, they are not susceptible to the same divisions as generations past. 

In previous political upheavals, the regime turned reformists against hardliners, rural conservatives against the educated urban elite, the religiously observant against the secular, the Persian majority against ethnic minorities. This time around, women, students, Kurds, Baluchis, the young and the old are all uniting to fight against 40 years of oppression. 

The regime is now running on empty. It has nothing left to offer, not even a prayer for comfort. The revolutionary fervor that brought the Islamic regime to power has turned on itself. In 1979, the people of Iran yearned for a democratic revolution; instead, they got an Islamic dictatorship. 

Today, the people of Iran are fighting the ideologues who sold them the false dream of a nation built on faith and Iranian values. The people of Iran realize that those authentic values are not anti-Americanism or antisemitism, but rather a government dedicated to serve its people, to uplift its citizens, to respect basic human rights and to preserve the dignity of all its citizens. Woman, life, freedom — that’s the mantra of this generation of Iranians.