- By Lyse Doucet and Behrang Tajdin
- BBC Persian Service
In the four weeks since Mahsa Amini’s death, Iran has experienced the largest anti-government protests in recent years.
The demonstrations are seen as a major threat to the religious government, which has responded with force as they have spread like never before among the new generation of Iranian women and girls, whose fathers and grandfathers tried unsuccessfully to change the system from within.
Social media is full of videos showing women ripping, ripping and burning the photo of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“If we don’t unite, one by one, we will become the next Mahsa Amini,” is one of her slogans, referring to the young woman who died in police custody after allegedly wearing the veil “improperly.”
As part of a day of special coverage, BBC Persian reporter Behrang Tajdin and veteran chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet answered questions from the audience about what is happening in Iran and why.
Who is leading the protests?
Behrang Tajdin: The short answer is that there is no single political figure or group leading the protests. They are run by Iranian women who are fed up with the state trying to control every aspect of their lives, including their clothes.
The songs that are heard the most are: “Woman, life, freedom” and “Death to the dictator”, in reference to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
What unites all these groups is the desire for fundamental change in the Islamic Republic, its non-democratic nature and its ideology-driven policies.
What part of the Iranian population supports the protests?
Behrang Tajdin: These protests did not actually start among students or in the capital of Tehran. They started in the city of Saqqez, in the province of Kurdistan, and spread like wildfire.
We have seen protests among students, people in larger cities and even smaller towns, generally conservative. In the most prosperous areas of the cities, as well as in the poorest communities.
It is very difficult to measure exactly what proportion of the population supports or sympathizes with the protests. However, the evidence suggests that they are the most supportive set of protests that we have seen in recent years in Iran and that the support comes from a very wide range of people across the country and society.
Why isn’t there more press coverage and international reaction?
Lyse Doucet: Many Western governments have issued strong statements condemning the crackdown on the protests.
They have also imposed new sanctions. Britain, for example, has sanctioned Iran’s morality police as well as five top political and security officials.
However, there are few foreign media based in Iran. They, like Iranian journalists, operate under restrictions but keep reporting.
Many outlets, including the BBC, want to deploy journalists to report on this story, but can’t get visas. So we depend on the videos and the accounts that the Iranians can send through a very restricted internet service.
Are the protests symptoms of a broader estrangement from religion?
Behrang Tajdin: Over the past two decades, Iran has become a much less religious society, partly as a backlash to the state’s strict interpretation of Shiite Islam and its forceful imposition on the population.
The growing refusal to adhere to Islamic values was one of the reasons the morality police were created in the first place.
In general, the more the Islamic Republic tries to implement religious values and invest public money in religious organizations and festivals, the more Iranians become disillusioned and move away from these values.
It is also worth noting that, under the law, turning away from Islam towards atheism or even other religions is strictly prohibited and could be punishable by death. Therefore, you hardly ever see anyone publicly expressing such views.
Can the police or the army join the protests?
Lyse Doucet Y Behrang Tajdin: Iran is a nation of nearly 90 million people who have different views, like all countries. This includes security forces.
It is difficult to know what they think now, in the midst of these protests. Some will remain fiercely loyal because their future is tied to the future of the Islamic Republic. Some may question the repression that must be carried out.
So far, the most loyal elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has not been deployed. But many wonder what happens if the full weight of Iran’s security forces is unleashed: Would they really want to target crowds of young and old women, men from all walks of life?
They may even have family members who are sympathetic to some of the protesters’ demands.
There are likely to be people within the police and other security forces who are sympathetic to the protests, but it is unlikely that they will be able to show it, as the punishment could be severe.
To join the police or security services, they must prove that they are religious, loyal to the Islamic Republic and believe in its “revolutionary values”.
Some high-ranking members of the government have raised concerns about the use of force, with restrictions such as compulsory hijab or head coverings.
But we do not know how deep this criticism is.
Are there human rights groups currently in Iran?
Behrang Tajdin: No, they are monitoring the situation from abroad.
Iran is suspicious of non-governmental organizations, including domestic ones. He often accuses them of espionage, undermining national security and plotting to overthrow the government.
That makes it almost impossible for the human rights group to work in Iran independently and safely.
How can the international community help the Iranians?
Lyse Doucet: As BBC journalists, we would not make recommendations in support of political movements. But many human rights organizations and other civil society organizations are making suggestions, I can mention some actions taken by governments or companies.
One way the US government is trying to help is by making it easier for Iranians, now cut off from the internet, to access online platforms and services.
The US Treasury has issued a new General License D-2, which allows exemptions in sanctions against Iran to ensure that global technology companies do not violate them.
Elon Musk has activated his satellite internet network, Starlink, in Iran to offer uncensored internet access, though Iranians need to obtain special terminals that pose other risks. Other companies, such as Google and Signal, now offer VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to bypass the Iranian network.
Could the protests really lead to regime change?
Lyse Doucet: Some top officials have expressed concern about the crackdown, but their red line is the survival of the Islamic Republic.
There have been many protests in Iran before, over issues ranging from water shortages, rising prices, compulsory hijab. The demonstrations for the economic situation in 2019 were much larger, but this wave has attracted many sectors of society.
The authorities may believe that they can deal with this situation, as they have in the past. The supreme leader has said that some protesters may be treated with “cultural means” or re-education. Others would be punished with judicial or security measures.
But many of the protesters are under 25, a sign of the profound social changes taking place in Iran.
As analyst Vali Nasr put it: “Instead of regime change, there may be regime change,” if they accept that the source of this protest is inside Iran and not outside, in the Western countries they now blame.
In the past, protests in Iran have finally died down after a major crackdown by security forces.
We have seen, in other waves like the uprising in many Middle Eastern countries that came to be known as the Arab Spring, that the leaderless protests of a young generation can be hijacked by more organized elements, including the military and Islamist movements. The future of this wave of protests is still very uncertain.
Remember that you can receive notifications from BBC News Mundo. Download the latest version of our app and activate it so you don’t miss out on our best content.