In their opening match at the World Cup Football Tournament in Qatar, the players of the Iranian national team kept silent during the singing of the Iranian national anthem this week.
It was a moment of silence loaded with significance. The players of the Iranian national team come from different ethnic, class, educational, ideological, and religious backgrounds, reflecting the diversity and pluralism of Iran.
Dissatisfaction with the Iranian regime and anger over the excessive use of violence to quell the demonstrations that have been sweeping the country since last September are shared by the majority of Iranians.
The demonstrations began after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, an ethnic Kurd from Saqez in northwest Iran, who was arrested in Tehran by the country’s morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab, or headscarf, inappropriately and later died in police custody.
Within weeks, the demonstrations changed from protests led by women and young people to become a broader movement involving factory workers, workers at oil refineries, and ethnic minorities, especially Arabs and Kurds, who have long complained of ill-treatment, deteriorating economic conditions, and the denial of their cultural and religious rights.
With the Arab and Kurdish minorities in Iran strongly involved in the demonstrations, and some targeting the Iranian security forces and chanting slogans calling for the overthrow of the regime, the response of the authorities became more violent.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard deployed in the streets and squares of large Iranian cities and issued statements warning against the demonstrations and threatening the maximum penalties against the lawbreakers.
Meanwhile, Iranian parliamentarians called for the tightening of the state’s grip on the “conspirators” threatening stability in Iran. The authorities also issued death sentences against several demonstrators on charges of murder and plotting against the state.
Hengaw, an Iranian human-rights group, said that at least 30 anti-government protesters have been killed by the security forces in Kurdish-populated cities in western Iran in the past week.
The group, based in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, reported that seven people had died since Sunday in the city of Javanroud alone amid an intense crackdown by Revolutionary Guards armed with heavy weapons.
City MP Jalal Mahmoudzadeh said that at least 11 people had been killed there in the past week. The Iranian authorities have accused armed Kurdish opposition groups based in neighbouring Iraq of instigating riots in the region.
In one video of the disturbances, a demonstrator can be heard saying that the Revolutionary Guards are firing machine guns at people’s heads. A mother who was concerned about the safety of her young daughter and son posted an appeal to people elsewhere in Iran, saying “please help us. They are killing everyone, killing our youth. Why aren’t people in Tehran coming out onto the streets? Please help Kurdistan.”
In recent weeks, the size of the demonstrations has decreased in Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, and other major cities in Iran after the deployment of the Revolutionary Guards and the excessive use of violence against the demonstrators.
Hengaw said last week that more than 80 protesters had been killed and 4,000 others detained in Kurdish-populated areas alone. The Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), which is based outside Iran, has put the nationwide toll at 419 and also reported the deaths of 54 security personnel.
The Kurdish and Arab regions of Iran have remained the epicentre of the unrest and been a focus of the deadly crackdown by the security forces. Most demonstrations are taking place in the Kurdistan, Kermanshah, and west Azerbaijan provinces bordering Iraq and Turkey.
The majority of the population is made up of Iranian Kurds who constitute a large minority in the country with a population of around nine to 10 million people.
The protests are also strong in the Khuzestan Province in the southwest of the country. This province borders Iraq and the Gulf and is the home of most Iranian Arabs who comprise more than two million people.
Iran is a patchwork of diverse ethnicities and sects, and therefore it is vulnerable to the same fault lines that have led to internal chaos and civil strife in Syria and Iraq. Because of the involvement of Iranian Kurds and Arabs in the demonstrations, the regime has been playing the loyalty card, questioning the intentions of the demonstrators and accusing them of being external tools.
The Iranian authorities have also accused armed demonstrators in Arab and Kurdish areas of killing members of the police and Shiite clerics, threatening to fuel ethnic and sectarian tensions in Iran. “There is a fear that the demonstrations will only make things worse,” Roshan, an Iranian woman in her early 40s who lives in the affluent northern suburbs of Tehran, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Roshan, who has a Master’s degree in English literature, does not support the current regime, did not vote for Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, and does not want to wear the hijab. However, she fears the turmoil of the demonstrations that do not have a known leader or specific demands.
“It started this way in Syria. The big Syrian cities such as Damascus, Aleppo, and Latakia did not go out to demonstrate. Small villages in Daraa came out and expanded later. Look where Syria is today,” she said.
This apprehension is the embodiment of the fears of the Iranian middle classes. With their Shiite and Persian composition, the country’s middle classes do not want a reform movement that does not have well-known internal leadership and specific demands.
Demonstrators in Iran have previously gathered around a reformist movement led by politicians such as Mohamed Khatami, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, Ataollah Mohajerani, Javad Zarif, Mohsen Kadivar, and others. Their ideas revolved around making the Wilayat Al-Faqih, the ideological basis of the regime, merely “symbolic” after the death of the country’s current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
They also want to reform the country’s institutions and take steps to promote freedoms internally and improve Iran’s international relations.
However, there are also regional, international, and even local forces that support the demonstrations without having a reform agenda. Roshan was dismayed by the support of leading Iranian Sunni cleric Molavi Abdol-Hamid for the demonstrations.
Earlier in the month, Molavi Abdol- Hamid said that women in Iran “hate the hijab.” He added that “the majority of people aren’t happy” and “you cannot push back a nation that has been protesting on the streets for the past 50 days by killing, imprisoning, and beating.”
“These women have been disrespected [and] humiliated. Because they are deprived of everything and the covering of their heads is the only important thing for the government, they set their headscarves on fire.”
“Hold a referendum in the presence of international observers and accept the result.”
Molavi, the Friday prayer leader in Zahedan, Sistan, and the capital of the region of Baluchistan has not provided any details of the proposed vote. Sistan and Baluchistan in eastern Iran border Pakistan and Afghanistan are Iran’s poorest provinces and home to a Sunni Baluch minority.
Zahedan was also the scene of a violent crackdown on 30 September in which the security forces killed 92 people, according to IranWire sources. Four members of the security forces were also killed in a day dubbed Zahedan’s “Black Friday.”
Roshan was dismayed by Molavi Abdol-Hamid’s stance because he is an ultra-conservative cleric and a known supporter of Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
“This is the problem. Some supporters of the demonstrations in Iran want to change the current regime, not to establish a secular democratic system, but to rearrange the balance of power internally,” she said.
“There are international television stations that support the demonstrations in Iran, such as the [Iran International Channel], which is funded by some Gulf states. There are supporters in America and Europe who encourage the demonstrations, but they are allies of the former monarchy in Iran or followers of the [opposition] Mojahedin-e-Khalq.”
“This type of opposition is similar to the Cuban opposition in America: a conservative, non-progressive or reformist opposition that serves regional and international goals.”
Her words encapsulate the dilemma of the Iranian middle classes, which are eager for progressive reforms. There are potential regional and international backers, but these do not necessarily support progressive reforms in Iran, fair elections, the separation of powers, or equality between men and women, but instead want to press their own agendas.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.