Widespread protests continue to erupt in Iran following the Sept. 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was beaten fatally by Iran’s morality police after being arrested on charges of wearing clothing that violated a strict Islamic dress code.

The protests, which swiftly spread from Amini’s hometown to more than 80 cities, now pose the biggest challenge to the clerical regime’s harsh repression since the 2009 wave of protests sparked by the rigged reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then Iran’s president.

Mounting protests have escalated into an open challenge to the Islamist regime, with crowds chanting, “Death to the dictator!” The political unrest shows no signs of abating despite a violent crackdown by powerful internal security forces, which have claimed at least 41 lives, according to state TV. 

Iran’s main teachers union called Sunday for a national strike of teachers and students. If such strikes spread to other sectors of Iranian society, the government will be confronted by cascading chaos.

Iranian women have played a prominent role in the protests, publicly removing and burning their head scarves, scorned as symbols of the regime’s oppression, and cutting their hair, a symbol of mourning.  Crowds have chanted, “zan, zendegi, azadi” or “woman, life, freedom.”

Amini’s death ripped the scab off longstanding popular grievances against Iran’s repressive regime and triggered the most extensive mass protests since 2019, when at least 1,500 were killed by internal security forces amid nationwide protests over the regime’s surprise announcement of reduced subsidies for gasoline and other goods.  

Protests initially erupted after Amini’s funeral in her hometown of Saqqez in Iran’s northwestern province of Kurdistan, then spread. The fact that she was a member of Iran’s repressed Kurdish minority triggered riots in restive Kurdish areas.

Such ethnic tensions pose a major long-term problem for the Iranian regime. Like Russians at the end of the Soviet era, ethnic Persians likely have become a minority within Iran because of the growth of minority ethic groups on the periphery of the Persian heartland: Kurds, Azerbaijanis, Afghans, Baluchis, Arabs, and Turkmen.

Raisi Ramps Up Repression

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, an ultrahard-liner, warned that his government must “deal decisively with those who oppose the country’s security and tranquility.” 

Given his past record of acting as one of the regime’s brutal enforcers while rising to head Iran’s Islamic judiciary, few doubt that Raisi will double down on repression rather than seek to defuse tensions.

Raisi’s government has denounced protesters as tools of Iran’s foreign enemies and launched artillery and drone strikes against Iranian Kurdish opposition groups based across the border with Iraq. 

If the civil unrest worsens and continues indefinitely, the regime’s hold on power will be increasingly threatened. However, it has survived even bigger waves of protest in the past. 

The current revolt is unlikely to become a successful revolution as long as key internal security forces—the Revolutionary Guard and its Basij militia branch—remain united and willing to shoot protesters, who lack organizational unity and national leadership.

But the eruption of numerous protests in recent years over harsh political and social restrictions, economic hardship, corruption, repression, water shortages, and labor disputes are dangerous signs that the regime’s narrow base of support continues to erode.

Raisi’s regime has no effective answer for resolving these deepening grievances, except for more repression. If his regime survives this round of protests, it inevitably will be confronted with other rebellions.

By blocking reforms and rigging elections, the regime is pushing Iran’s long-suffering people into the streets to demand a revolution.

Will Biden Repeat Obama’s Mistakes?

Iran’s brutal dictatorship is counting on the Biden administration to turn a blind eye to the plight of the Iranian people in a misguided effort to negotiate a nuclear deal with Tehran, just as the Obama administration did following the massive Iranian protests in 2009.

President Joe Biden’s Iran policy remains an incoherent mess. His administration granted a visa to Raisi to travel last week to the U.N. General Assembly in New York City, where he denounced and defamed the United States at the same time Iranians were being shot down in Iran’s streets.

The Biden administration made largely symbolic moves by imposing sanctions on Iran’s morality police and by granting permission to technology firms to provide tech tools and services to enable ordinary Iranians to defeat government censorship and freely communicate with each other despite internet blackouts.

The White House, however, has made it clear that it remains committed to reaching another nuclear deal with Iran’s ruthless rulers over the bloodied heads of Iran’s people.

This makes a mockery of Biden’s pledge to make democratic values the centerpiece of his foreign policy. In a speech at the State Department on Feb. 4, 2021, the president said:

We must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.

Just last week at the United Nations, Biden proclaimed: “And today, we stand with the brave citizens and the brave women of Iran who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights.”

What Biden Should Do

To make good on these pledges, Biden should personally and forcefully condemn Iran’s rulers for the killing of Mahsa Amini and the violent suppression of peaceful protests. But action is more important than rhetoric.

Biden should immediately end the failed nuclear negotiations with Iran and adopt a “Plan B” strategy for defeating Iran’s threats, strengthening U.S. allies in the Middle East, and deterring a nuclear breakout by Tehran.  

Iran’s oppressive regime should be held accountable and punished for its systematic crimes against its own people and its terrorist attacks against others, not rewarded with billions of dollars in sanctions relief for signing an illusory nuclear deal that only would delay but not halt Iran’s march to a nuclear weapon.

Another flawed nuclear agreement not only would enrich Iran’s dictators and amplify the security threats they pose to the United States and its allies, but also would boost their capacity to suppress domestic opposition. 

The big winners of such a deal would be Iran, Russia, China, and Tehran’s terrorist proxies. Iran’s distressed people would be some of the biggest losers.

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