World watches politely as nationwide protests shake Iran; U.S. envoys did not walk out at UN

Special to

By John J. Metzler

Massive and spreading protests have rocked Iran in the wake of widening social discontent following the death of a woman Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody. Her crime? Not wearing the obligatory headscarf properly.

Demonstrations across the country have jolted the Islamic Republic to its core as thousands of women publicly and provocatively remove and then burn their headscarfs, the hijab, in public.

Mahsa Amini, 22, a Kurdish Iranian was arrested by the “morality police” in Teheran for not wearing her hijab in compliance with mandatory dress codes. She died shortly thereafter under murky circumstances.

Collective rage flared across the country as street protests enveloped most of Iran’s cities.

Women and even schoolchildren in Iran have protested without hijabs after the death of a young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini.

Women led and supported the demonstrations, a change in tactic for regular protests over economic or political conditions. Acts of civil disobedience have increased in Iran, where the country’s “hijab and chastity” law requires women and girls over the age of 9 to wear a headscarf in public.

As these protests were building in his country, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi was making a hardline speech to the UN General Assembly in New York predictably denouncing the USA and Israel but saying little about disturbances rocking Iran.

Interestingly and contrary to past practice, no member of the U.S. delegation walked out during Raisi’s Assembly speech.

While some delegates assessing the Assembly mentioned the disturbances in Iran such as Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky, “We follow with horror the atrocious manner in which the Iranian authorities handle the rightful protests of women,” for the most part there was quiet acquiescence to Teheran’s ongoing crackdown. Israel’s Prime Minister Yair Lapid scolded, “Young Iranians are suffering and struggling from the shackles of Iran’s regime, and the world is silent.”

In Geneva the UN Human Rights Council experts stated, “We are shocked and deeply saddened by the death of Ms. Amini. She is another victim of Iran’s sustained repression and systematic discrimination against women and the imposition of discriminatory dress codes that deprive women of bodily autonomy and the freedoms of opinion, expression and belief.”

“We strongly condemn the use of physical violence against women and the denial of fundamental human dignity when enforcing compulsory hijab policies ordained by State authorities,” the experts said.

Protests have erupted in more than 80 cities denouncing state violence against women and demanding greater rights, freedom, and justice for women. Many of the pro-democracy demonstrators have also called for an end to the Islamic Republic, according to Radio Free Europe (RFE/RL).

Security forces often used live ammunition to suppress the protests; mass arrests follow.

More than eighty civilians have been killed thus far by heavy-handed police and security force tactics. Iran’s large diaspora and human rights supporters turned out for massive demonstrations supporting the women of Iran and Mahsa Amini’s memory.

Solidarity marches have taken place globally in more than 150 cities from New York to London and Sydney to Seoul.

Iran’s president has warned that he won’t accept “chaos,” as authorities continue crack down on protests and added the government could, “not allow people to disturb the peace of society.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed for Iranian security forces to refrain from using “unnecessary or disproportionate force” against anti-government protesters.

While Iranians are demonstrating for freedom and liberty, the Biden Administration seems fixated on reviving the deeply flawed Iran nuclear deal reached during the Obama years.

That agreement, the so called JCPOA presumably monitors and controls the Teheran regime’s quest for nuclear weapons. Though, never endorsed by the U.S. Senate, the deal remains highly controversial among both Republicans and Democrats. Iran is still designated by the U.S. as a supporter of State Sponsored Terrorism.

But Iran’s troubles go deeper than religious divides; a weak economy, shortages, and widespread corruption are signatures of this regime. Yet the long term effects of the moribund economy,  international sanctions, and the free fall in value of the national currency could see these demonstrations light the fuse for a wider rebellion in the Islamic Republic.

Given their paralyzing fear of the morality police, and the regular and routine humiliations women suffer and endure from these enforcers of the Islamic religious code, there’s more than enough pent-up anger to protest among the country’s 40 million women.

Now even schoolgirls are  protesting.  Since the Islamic regime came to power in 1979, Iranian women once the best educated segment of the population, have suffered disproportionately under politicized Islam.

Iran’s theocracy may be at a crossroads; either the Mullahs blink or a bloody crackdown awaits.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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