Iran’s Women- and Youth-Led Protests Continue to Grow Amid Brutal Crackdown

The fourth week of anti-government protests in Iran has begun. They were sparked by the death last month of Mahsa Amini (22 years old), and have continued since then. The youth-led and women-led protests have crossed class and ethnic lines, and the demands for complete abolition are growing in scope and scale. Many even within the clerical community are calling for this. Many sectors of society, including businesses and unions, have also joined in protest, with oil workers from one of the country’s major refineries going on strike Monday. Iranian authorities have launched a violent assault on protesters in response, explains Amnesty International’s Raha Bahreini, with security forces shooting live ammunition into crowds to disperse the protests, leaving thousands injured and at least 144 victims dead, 24 of them children. The government violence is “indicative of just what a threat the regime believes these protests are,” argues Iranian American scholar Reza Aslan, who says that despite numerous revolutions in Iran’s history, “this time feels different.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be final.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Iran, where anti-government protests are in their fourth week, sparked last month by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in custody of Iran’s so-called morality police. Oil workers went on strike to support the protests on Monday. Nika Shakarami’s 16-year-old death has caused more public outrage. The girl’s family says she disappeared after being chased by security forces for burning her headscarf during a protest, and was found 10 days later in a morgue. Human rights groups claim that more than 200 protesters were killed in the brutal crackdown, with thousands more injured.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei condemned the widening protests in an address Wednesday.

AYATOLLAH ALI KHAMENEI: [translated] Some are either agents of the enemy, or if they aren’t agents of the enemy, then they are aligned with the enemy. They all have the same goals and they take to public transport. Others are simply excited. The second group can be fixed by cultural works. The first group must be addressed by national security and judicial personnel. Some say the atmosphere should not become one of national security, and we agree, to where it’s possible. The atmosphere in the country shouldn’t become one of national safety, but cultural programs should be distinguished by security and judicial matters.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as the chief of Iran’s judiciary has now ordered judges to issue harsh sentences for what he called the, quote, “main elements of riots.” Iran’s education minister, Yousef Nouri, said in an interview Tuesday some teenage student protesters are being detained and taken to what he called “psychological institutions,” saying they, quote, “can return to class after they’ve been reformed,” unquote.

Siavash Mahamoudi, 15, was reportedly one of the many teens killed by Iranian security force. His mother is calling on Tehran to bring justice.

SIAVASH MAHMOUDI’S MOTHER: [translated]This is Siavash, my child. I will hold a funeral in Aliabad in Saheb-e-Zaman mosque for him. Siavash was a boy who lived in Shahrak-e Beheshti. We have lived here for many years. I was a single parent and raised this child alone. They killed my son in a cowardly and unfair manner at the end. They shot him in the head. This is Iran’s Siavash! This is Iran’s Siavash!

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by two guests. Joining us in London is Raha Bahreini, a human rights lawyer who is Amnesty International’s Iran researcher. Reza Aslan, scholar, producer, writer, is with us in Washington, D.C. His recent pieceFor Time is headlined “The Iranian People’s 100-Year Struggle for Freedom.” His new book is titled An American Martyr In Persia: The Epic Death and Epic Life of Howard Baskerville.

We are pleased to have you both. Democracy Now! Raha Bahreini, let’s begin with you. Can you talk about the broadening scope of the protests and the Iran government’s crackdown on them? What have you seen at Amnesty International

RAHA BAHREINI: Hello, Amy. Thank you for having us.

The Iranian authorities have shown a deadly resolve to crush the spirit of resistance among Iran’s youthful population and to retain their iron grip on power. Amnesty International has documented widespread, unwarranted use of firearms and lethal force by Iran’s security forces. To disperse protesters and disperse them, the Iranian security forces have been using live ammunition. We have so far identified 144 of the victims. At least 24 children are among those who have been killed in this deadly crackdown. Amnesty International has provided details and names of the victims in a report we are issuing today. Three of the children were beaten to death by their mother. The majority of the boys were also killed by live ammunition in their heads, chests, and upper bodies. The vast majority of the people who were killed were killed by live ammunition fired at their heads or chests by security forces. This indicates that they either intended to kill protesters or knew that firing live ammunition would result death. They continued to carry out these deadly activities to suppress the protests. We also witnessed widespread torture and other ill treatment of protesters and others in the streets by security forces.

Amnesty International obtained documents leaked from the National Headquarters of Armed Forces, Iran’s highest military body. They ordered all the armed commanders to be killed in all the Iranian provinces on the 21st. Since then, we have seen an increase in lethal force use and an escalation by Iranian security forces. On the night of the 21st of September, many men, women, and children were killed. The next deadliest day was the 30th of September in Zahedan, Sistan, Balochistan province, which is populated by Iran’s oppressed Balochi minority. Over 85 men, women, and children were killed in the melee by security forces.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Reza Aslan, if you could talk about, respond to the scale of these protests, and them, the protests, continuing despite the Iranian regime’s increasingly brutal crackdown on the protesters, and the fact, we just heard in our introduction, that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has dismissed many of the protesters as, quote, “agents of the enemy”?

REZA ASLAN: [inaudible] de rigueur. Any time there’s any kind of instability in the country or protest against his regime, he’s always going to lash out at the United States and Israel, and place blame on outsiders for what is, in effect, the failures of his own leadership and the regime itself. But I think what’s important to understand is that the scale of this backlash from the government, the horrific violence that we just heard, is indicative of just what a threat the regime believes these protests are, because, as you rightly note, they are not diminishing. They are actually expanding.

And they’re not just expanding in scope and scale and size; much more importantly, they’re expanding in terms of a broader coalition. You mentioned that business interests, merchants, and unions are striking now. Ethnic minorities in Iran, not only in Balochistan but also in the Kurdish regions of Iran, are calling for independence. And in a very surprising move, actually, we’re even seeing regime supporters, ostensible regime supporters, more sort of of the pious masses, in cities like Qom, which is, of course, the religious capital of Iran — we’re seeing widespread protests there, and not just protests against the morality police or in response to the death of Mahsa Amini and so many other young children, but protests very brazenly calling for the downfall of Ayatollah Khamenei, being chanted in what is essentially Khomeini — Khamenei’s backyard — pardon me — in Qom. And so, I think what’s happening now is that this coalition of Iranians on the street is becoming a serious threat to the very existence of the Islamic Republic. And unfortunately, as a result, I think we’re going to see an even bloodier response from the military and from the regime in the coming weeks.

NERMEEN SHAIKH:Reza, could you speak about the demographics and the groups of people who aren’t participating? You mentioned this in a recent pieceYou believe that younger clergy and seminary students have not joined yet, but that it would be a significant change. Explain.

REZA ASLAN: Well, I think most outsiders don’t understand how unpopular the Islamic Republic, the theological underpinning of clerical rule in Iran, is amongst the sort of rank-and-file Shia clergy. This is not the majority view. The so-called Valayat e Faqih is the theological foundation that allows clergy in Iran to have direct political power. This idea has no theological background. It actually violates 14 centuries worth of Shia quietism in terms of political influence over the government. Ayatollah Khani, founder of the Islamic Republic was able to create a completely new way of thinking about Shiism as religion.

While it is true that the theory is well-established among the clergy and ayatollahs in government positions, it is not true that the younger seminarians and mid-level clerics in Iran’s seminaries, especially in Qom are now rejecting the legitimacy of clerical rule. My argument was that when you see that kind of roll out and younger seminary student, mid-level clergy begin to speak out against state theocracy, then that might be all she wrote about the clerical regime.

AMY GOODMAN:Raha Bahreini. I want to concentrate on these women-led demonstrations and the children. You have a report about the deaths of children that was previously embargoed. And we just reported on the education minister saying they’re taking some children and they’re putting them in institutions to reeducate them? Could you please talk about what you’ve found? Balochistan: For people all over the world unfamiliar with Iran’s geography, what is the significance of the killings there of more 80 people?

RAHA BAHREINI:Iranian authorities have launched an all-out attack on children who courageously took to the streets to demand a better future. These protests are very young, as your other guest has just explained. And schoolchildren and young university students have been visibly present in protests calling for an end to the Islamic Republic system and for Iran’s transition to a political system that respects their fundamental rights and freedoms.

The Iranian authorities responded by using horrific forms of force including live ammunition to kill or injure these children. We have identified 24 children. Four of them were beat to death. Two of them were killed by metal pellets fired at close range. The rest were hit with live ammunition, often in the head, chest, or upper body. The Iranian authorities have the bloody hands of children.

And the more distressing pattern is that instead of conducting any investigations, they are, in fact, now harassing and intimidating the families of these children in order to coerce them into making video recorded statements and accept the authorities’ bogus narrative that the children committed suicide or died during car accidents. The Iranian authorities are not the only ones trying to cover up the crimes they have committed, even against children during protests. During the 2019 nationwide protests, the Iranian authorities unlawfully executed hundreds of men and woman, including 21 children.

They have been able continue the protests in their previous waves because of the systemic impunity crisis that Iran has suffered for decades. The price for this impunity is being paid in the lives of Iranians on the streets. This is because Iran does not have an independent judiciary to investigate. The scale and gravity of the crimes have not been given the attention it deserves at the international level by member states of U.N. Human Rights Council.

The events in Balochistan last Friday, on the 30th of September, showed the scale of the crackdown and is an extreme manifestation of the deadly crackdown that the Iranian authorities have long waged on Iran’s oppressed minorities. We have documented extensive use of lethal force and high numbers of death in Balochistan, which is populated by Iran’s oppressed Balochi minority, and in Kurdistan and Kermanshah and West Azerbaijan provinces, that are populated by Iran’s oppressed Kurdish minority. The protests began in Kurdish-populated places, as Mahsa was a Kurdish citizen.

There is now solidarity among Iranians from all parts of Iran. This is the most encouraging aspect of the protests. They cross over ethnic groups and classes and have included demands for a change in the political system. Many Iranian protesters and commentators see these protests as an uprising against the aging, oppressive, and criminally corrupt, theocratic system.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Reza, let’s look at this protest in historical context. You’ve written that of the three major revolutions over the course of the last century in Iran, the 1906 Constitutional Revolution provides the best historical analogy to the present uprising. Recent L.A. Times piece, you write, quote, “The Persian Constitutional Revolution may not have transformed Iran into a real democracy. But it set the precedent for the exercise of people power in Iran, creating one of the most robust protest cultures in the world.” Talk about that.

REZA ASLAN: Yeah, the 1906 Constitutional Revolution was not just the first of Iran’s three major revolutions of the 20th century, but it was the first democratic revolution in the Middle East. And while it had a very simple goal, which was the creation of a constitution that would outline the rights and privileges of all citizens and the creation of an elected parliament that would serve to check the absolute authority of the shah of Iran, and while it did achieve that goal for a very, very brief while, until autocracy was returned to Iran with the ascendance of Reza Khan, or Reza Shah Pahlavi, and the Pahlavi regime, which itself suffered two more revolutions — one in ’53 and one in 1979 — I think what it reminds us is that the women and men and, frankly, children who are on the streets right now dying for their most basic rights, the rights to have a voice, to have a say in the decisions that rule their lives, to be able to say and think what they wish — again, the most basic of human rights — that this struggle has been going on not for a couple of weeks, not for a couple of months, but for more than a century in Iran, against successive governments, be they the shahs or now the Islamic Republic.

But I think that this time — I have to be honest with you — having studied history, having lived through the 1979 revolution, this time feels different. There is a fearlessness that we are seeing on the streets, particularly by young women, by teenage women, who simply have had enough and are not willing to do what successive — or, previous generations, who had also protested, who had also risen up against the regime, have been willing to do, which is accept a bit more freedom, accept a little bit of more sort of space, maybe in the private realm, in exchange for getting off the streets. What we are hearing right now, despite the fact that it is a very diverse coalition of old and young, religious and secular — we have women in chadors marching next to women wearing jeans and no veils. Despite this, there is a common call for reform and for the fall of the regime. The regime has failed its kids. This is not only a humane way of life, but also deeply culturally Persian. This is why this message works. The message of “shame, shame, shame” is working.

What we haven’t seen yet, however, is the international community actually shaming the Iranian government. I’m very glad to hear that the United Nations had a vote condemning Russia’s illegal annexation of parts of Ukraine. I am waiting for the United Nations’ vote condemning a murderous regime for kidnapping children and taking them to what they themselves refer to as psychological camps for reeducation. These actions are unacceptable in today’s world. And while the United States, unfortunately, can’t do much about it — we have already blanket sanctioned Iran for four decades, there’s really very little influence that we have — the United Nations still has major influence in Iran, especially at a time in which that government’s economy is on the verge of collapse. It’s time to hear the voice of the international community as loud as possible to condemn these inhumane actions by the Islamic Republic.

AMY GOODMAN:Reza Aslan is the supreme leader in Iran, Ali Khamenei. He is very old. He is preparing his son for the role of next leader by getting cancer. Can you tell me what that means. Have you witnessed any defections in the military or among the police?

REZA ASLAN:Well, we have seen video and anecdotal evidence that security personnel have joined the protesters. We haven’t yet to see any hint of cracks in the military hierarchy, thought that does not mean that that’s not happening. The Revolutionary Guard in Iran’s military is extraordinarily powerful. Many Iran watchers will confirm that the Revolutionary Guard is Iran’s true power. The ayatollahs may be the front face of the government, but they have no control over the Revolutionary Guard. It could be true. So we’re all waiting to see how the Revolutionary Guard and the military is going to respond to these unceasing demands on the street.

The real spark Iran watchers are looking for is: What happens to these protests, which is a long, hard marathon of a revolution and in the middle of which, Ayatollah Khanei, the supreme leader, dies? Because the succession to the third supreme ruler was always going to be difficult. This idea is not popular among the Shia clergy. The idea that Khamenei, according to all reports from Iran, has been grooming Mojtaba, a mid-level Shia cleric, who has no religious credentials to assume such a role, is going to put the final nail in the coffin for any legitimacy for clerical leadership. The supreme leadership is now just another name for shah. It’s just another kind of monarchy. So, even at that point, I think die-hard regime supporters will start to think twice.

We’re all waiting to see what the next spark is going to be. The death of Mahsa Alimini was the catalyst that turned the nationwide protests in Iran over the deteriorating economy into a national revolution. If Khamenei died, I believe that there would be a conversation about succession. That could really spark a new level of revolution. Already on the streets, by the way, I should mention, amongst many, many chants that we are hearing these protesters chant on the streets of Iran, a common chant is “Mojtaba, Mojtaba, we will die before we see you as the leader.”

AMY GOODMAN:We are grateful to Reza Aslan, the author of our new book. An American Martyr In Persia: The Epic Death and Epic Life of Howard Baskerville. We’ll link to your articleIn Time, “The Iranian People’s 100-Year Struggle for Freedom.” And Raha Bahreini, Amnesty International’s Iran researcher, human rights lawyers, speaking to us from London.

Next up, as the U.N. General Assembly votes 143 to 5 to condemn Russia’s annexation of four territories seized from Ukraine, we’ll speak with a Ukrainian activist, a member of the European Network of Solidarity with Ukraine, and a Russian activist living in exile in Berlin. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Baraye,” “Because Of,” by the Iranian singer Shervin Hajipour. It’s become the unofficial anthem of the Iran protests. The song’s lyrics are taken entirely from messages Iranians have posted online about why they’re protesting. “Baraye” has received more than 80% of the submissions for the Grammy Award which honors a song dedicated to social change.