In Iran Protests, A Crackdown Is More Likely Than Reform : Consider This from NPR The widespread protests in Iran were sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. She died after being detained by Iran's morality police for allegedly violating the country's strict dress code.

The fuel that's keeping them going is a broader, deeper resentment at life under the regime.

Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explains what risk the protests pose to the regime, and why he believes it is incapable of reform.

This episode also features excerpts from NPR's Steve Inskeep's interview with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and reporting from NPR's Peter Kenyon.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

In Iran Protests, Anger At Hijab Rules Is "The Tip Of The Iceberg"

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

If you live in Iran and you're a woman, you or someone you know may well have had a run in with the morality police.

NAHID SIAMDOUST: So the morality police are these committees in vans that are sent around Tehran and other cities to apprehend women who are, in their view and the view of the government, not well-dressed.

KELLY: That's Nahid Siamdoust, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. She's a former journalist who covered Iran.

SIAMDOUST: They don't have the proper hijab. Their hair isn't properly covered.

KELLY: Of course, what counts as proper depends on the judgment of the sitting government and whichever member of the morality police you happen to run into. And the sitting government, led by the hardline president Ebrahim Raisi, has been tightening the screws on what's allowed.

SIAMDOUST: If you look at the last 40 years of Iranian sort of women's dress, you could almost kind of diagram from going about in the '80s - long, dark clothes to gradually becoming shorter, tighter and more colorful.

KELLY: So as news spread of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old who died after being detained by the morality police, it touched a nerve.

GOLNAZ ESFANDIARI: When Iranian woman see what happened to Mahsa, they think it could have happened to them because you hardly find an Iranian woman who has not been either warned or detained or harassed by the morality police. So we all know we've all had this experience.

KELLY: Golnaz Esfandiari has been covering what has happened since for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty from her base outside the country. The police say Amini died from a heart attack after she was detained for allegedly violating Iran's strict dress code. Her family rejects that account and points to evidence she was beaten.

ESFANDIARI: I was talking to several women in Iran, and they told me, look, even if she wasn't tortured, but she probably died from fear. She had a heart attack from fear. Because they know how scary this is.

KELLY: Iran's president promised an investigation of Mahsa Amini's death. That has not stopped protests. Crowds have taken to the streets in dozens of cities across the country. On Twitter, Esfandiari has collected some of the videos that have emerged, like the woman sitting above a crowded street, cutting off her hair as the crowd chants, death to the dictator.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

KELLY: In another video, a woman at the center of a cheering crowd throws her headscarf onto a bonfire.

(CHEERING)

ESFANDIARI: You know, people have had enough. Women have had enough. They're burning their scarves in public. They're burning symbols of the Islamic Republic. They're burning symbols of state violence against women.

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KELLY: These are not the first widespread protests in Iran's recent history. In 2009, massive crowds marched in response to allegations of a rigged presidential election.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: There was chaos and bloodshed in the streets of Iran's capital.

KELLY: The regime cracked down, killing dozens, arresting thousands, some of whom were tortured. In 2019, the spark was skyrocketing gas prices and an economy in tatters. Protesters called for an end to the regime.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: It's the most intense and deadliest crackdown against protesters in Iran in four decades.

KELLY: The government shut down the internet. Security forces opened fire on protesters. Human rights groups put the number of dead in the hundreds.

CONSIDER THIS - Iranians are in the streets again to protest the regime. What's changed? What hasn't? And what does it mean for the future of the country?

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KELLY: From NPR, I'm Mary Louise Kelly. It's Wednesday, September 28.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. If Mahsa Amini's death was the spark that ignited these protests, a broader, deeper resentment of life under the regime may be the fuel keeping them going. Here's Sanam Vakil of the think tank Chatham House in London.

SANAM VAKIL: This response to the death of Mahsa Amini, her tragic death, I think is bringing up so many different grievances and emotion to a people that are repressed, angry and feel that their issues and grievances are ignored and not important.

KELLY: One of those grievances - the government's treatment of Iran's Kurdish minority. Mahsa Amini was Kurdish. In fact, her family knew her as Zhina. But many Iranian Kurds are not allowed to legally register their Kurdish names.

Meghan Bodette, director of research at the Kurdish Peace Institute, says that while all citizens of Iran face dictatorship, Kurds have it even worse.

MEGHAN BODETTE: They have been oppressed by the Iranian nation state both under the monarchy and under the Islamic Republic today. Their language - which is distinct - is restricted, their culture is restricted. They make up almost half of political prisoners in the country despite being a small portion of the population.

KELLY: The predominantly Kurdish areas in the northwest of Iran have seen some of the most intense protests. But the protests have brought out all kinds of groups all across the country.

BODETTE: Because all women in Iran face this severe oppression, their demands unify people across these religious and ethnic lines. And because gender inequality is so foundational to the state and its repressive institutions, a demand for women's freedom is naturally, I would say, a demand for the democracy and freedom from all the kinds of human rights abuses that women and men alike suffer from there.

KELLY: That demand seems to be on a collision course with an Iranian government that appears determined to suppress the protesters. NPR's Steve Inskeep talked to Iran's foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian. Through an interpreter, the foreign minister suggested that foreign influence was behind the protests.

HOSSEIN AMIRABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) So the Iranian people are emotional people, and they had pure sentiments. In the early hours after the incident, they protested peacefully. And it came to an end. But in the meantime, there have been some outside elements like satellite channels, some websites, that have been encouraging people inside Iran to pour into the streets and to turn violent, and this has - this is why the demonstrations turned violent and into riots.

KELLY: The foreign minister said police had no choice but to react if protesters are destroying things.

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KELLY: So far, state media report at least 41 protesters and police have been killed. Human rights groups say hundreds have been injured or arrested, including 20 journalists. And Iran has used drones to attack what it says is an Iranian Kurdish opposition group in northern Iraq. And as in past protests, the government has curtailed internet access, making it hard to know exactly what is happening in the country.

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KELLY: To hear Iran's foreign minister tell it, all of this is under control. He's telling his U.S. counterparts - don't get too excited.

AMIRABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) I'm assuring them that there is not a big deal going on in Iran. There's not going to be a regime change in Iran. And don't play to the emotions of the Iranian people.

KELLY: To get a sense of whether that's right or whether these protests do pose a threat to the regime, I talked to Karim Sadjadpour. He's an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I would argue that the survival of the Islamic Republic of Iran is simply not sustainable to have a regime whose ideology is premised on hostility toward America and criminalizes women's clothing. So it's not a sustainable system, but with a lot of repression, these systems can sustain themselves for sometimes longer than we think.

KELLY: What would satisfy protesters? What would end this is - I mean, it sounds like ending the hijab requirement, as unlikely as that is, wouldn't be enough.

SADJADPOUR: Mary Louise, I would argue that a sizable majority of Iranians has now concluded that this is a system. It's a regime which really has shown itself incapable of changing its politics and incapable of changing its ideology. The fact that 43 years after the 1979 revolution, women are still being killed for the way they dress is the best indication of that. And Iran's supreme leader understands something that a lot of other political philosophers understood - people like de Tocqueville and Machiavelli - which is that the most dangerous moment for any bad government is when they try to reform themselves.

This was an observation. This was Ayatollah Khameini's main takeaway from the collapse of the Soviet Union. He said, look at what happened when Gorbachev tried to reform the Soviet Union and pursued glasnost and perestroika. It didn't actually extend the shelf life of the USSR. It hastened its demise. And for that reason, Ayatollah Khameini is totally committed to the status quo, to preserving Iran's revolutionary ideology because he believes that if they start reforming, it's not going to actually save the Islamic Republic, it's going to hasten its collapse. And I actually happen to believe he is correct on that point.

KELLY: So, bottom line, do you see these protests as a real threat to the regime?

SADJADPOUR: I think they are a threat to the regime. But what I'm looking for is whether we start to see fissures among Iran's political and security elite because for uprisings to succeed, you need two key ingredients. You need pressure from below, and we see that in Iran. And I have no doubt that the vast majority of Iranians want to see wholesale change, but that's only one ingredient. The second key ingredient is you need to see divisions at the top. And so far, we haven't yet seen fissures among Iran's political and military elite. If the protests persist, we may start to see those.

KELLY: Would we know if fissures were developing? - because part of the challenge trying to watch this from outside Iran is the internet has been disrupted. Social media platforms have been shut down. How fully do we understand what's happening in senior levels of government?

SADJADPOUR: You know, they say the fog of war, and there's also the fog of revolution. We haven't had a presence in Iran for four decades. You know, the internet makes it a little bit easier to get a sense of things as compared to, you know, three, four decades ago. But I think how we will know if we start to see fissures among the revolutionary elite is you may start to see the security forces actually not enforcing crackdowns. We may start to see statements or maybe tweets from - actually, there have been some nascent examples of former Iranian officials, members of parliament issuing public critiques. We may start to see more of that.

KELLY: Let me turn you to the role the U.S. may have here, whether that's the U.S. government or private sector. On the former side, the government side, the U.S. has softened some sanctions to try to make it easier for tech companies to help Iranians get around government censorship. You've tweeted about your conversations with Elon Musk, who suggested that his company, SpaceX, could make its Starlink satellite-based internet available in Iran. How promising is that? How would that work?

SADJADPOUR: So I myself am not a tech expert, Mary Louise. But when I speak to my friends who are, they will argue that this is an important development. Now, what's challenging - I'll tell you the challenges is that, for example, in Ukraine, Starlink has played an important role in providing internet up - for up to a couple hundred thousand people. The challenge is that whereas in Ukraine, which is a country which is allied with the United States - the U.S. has a strong presence there, and the Ukrainian government eagerly wanted this internet access - none of those things are true in the Iranian context. And so logistically it's much more challenging because you're going to have to essentially smuggle in these internet kits through neighboring countries. And then there's a financial challenge here because you can't expect Iranians to be paying for this internet service. But neither of these are insurmountable obstacles.

KELLY: So just to make sure I understand the comparison, Starlink went into Ukraine. It was seen as a big success after Russia hit Ukraine's internet access. But the key difference was Ukraine wanted internet access. They wanted people to be able to communicate. Iran would not want people to be able to communicate over Starlink satellites.

SADJADPOUR: Exactly. I think the Iranian government wants to - it's a police state, so it wants to control communication. It wants to control information and wants to be able, if necessary, to essentially throttle the internet so it can repress people in the dark. And so, you know, outside internet access coming in would be very much viewed as a threat by the Iranian government. But the reality is that, you know, Iran is a country which prohibits satellite dishes, and it prohibits alcohol. And yet, there's probably 30 million satellite dishes in Iran. And according to the regime itself, there's a problem with alcoholism. So smuggling small devices into Iran, which are probably about the size of a pizza box, I would say on balance is not an overwhelming risk.

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KELLY: Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on Iran. It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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