The People vs. Khameini: Protests in the Middle East

In 2019, thousands of demonstrators across Lebanon, Iraq and Iran took to the streets to march against the poor economic conditions, political corruption and oppression in their countries. 

While each opposition movement revolved around specific national issues, most roads — such as the protests in Lebanon targeting Hezbollah and the ones in Iraq against Iran-backed politicians — lead back to Iran. The governments of all three countries responded almost immediately with violence, and the voices of the people were temporarily subdued.

Three years later, followers of the Shiite cleric and Iraqi political leader Muqtada al-Sadr stormed a government building in Baghdad to protest Iranian interference in the country’s domestic politics. The Sadrists were demonstrating against the nomination of Mohammed Shia al-Sudani for prime minister, the Shia candidate supported by Iraq’s pro-Iran Shia Coordination Framework. Sadr, unable to form a majority within the Iraqi government, eventually stepped out of the race and of politics entirely — resulting in violent clashes between Sadrists and the police in August.

Two months later, protests erupted in Tehran after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman accused of violating Islamic dress code, died under the custody of Iran’s Guidance Patrol. Unlike other recent demonstrations in Iran, which revolved primarily around economic concerns, the protests following Amini’s death have amassed supporters from beyond social and political lines. Initially sparked by the harsh religious dress codes imposed upon Iranian women, the protests have since spread across Iran, with thousands coming together to contest the repression forced upon them by the government in power.

What do all of these demonstrations have in common? They represent an open rejection — domestically and abroad — of the hegemonic power of Supreme Leader and head of state Ali Khamenei and the authoritarian regime in Iran.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Republic of Iran has demonstrated clear ambitions to develop and maintain political influence in the Middle East. Through the consistent financial support of various militia groups and terrorist organizations, the Iranian government has been able to perpetuate regional instability in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestinian territories. 

In Iraq, the Iranian government capitalized on the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and began placing pro-Iranian leaders in positions of power. Today, the two countries enjoy friendly diplomatic relations due in large part to a shared Shi’ite system of government, which came into effect only after Hussein’s government collapsed.

During the Syrian Civil War, Iran — Syria’s closest ally — conducted “an extensive, expensive, and integrated effort to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power as long as possible,” while also laying the groundwork for Iranian presence in Syria in case of Assad’s failure.

The Iranian government has been accused of financing and otherwise supporting Hamas, Hezbollah, the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine, as well as, reportedly, Muqtada al-Sadr — the Shi’ite cleric who seems to have broken ties with Iran.

This break — alongside the mass protests happening within Iran’s borders — seems to indicate a larger disengagement from the authority of the Iranian government. The demonstrations kicked off by Amini’s death exposed civil liberty restrictions toward Iranian citizens and put them    under an international spotlight, sparking solidarity rallies across Europe and the U.S. 

The Iranian government’s position becomes increasingly unjustifiable as the death toll of its violent crackdowns rises. Globally, pressure is mounting against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his fundamentally anti-democratic and violently oppressive regime.

Moreover, in a statement made to a cohort of police students in Tehran, Khamenei insisted the riots were “designed by America and the Zionist regime, and their employees,” reinforcing earlier statements made by Iranian authorities blaming foreign influence and exiled opposition groups for unrest. However,  attempts to deflect blame on foreign agents have not convinced the Iranian people, with  “Death to Khamenei” and “death to the dictator” becoming popular slogans among protesters.

While removing Khamenei and his government from power seems to be the ultimate objective of the demonstrators, only time will tell if these protests will result in lasting change. 

Internationally, major global players like the U.S. are imposing sanctions on Iranian officials and Iran-backed foundations, and there have been calls to remove Iranian delegations from global cultural events such as the World Cup. 

Domestically, the number of casualties has exceeded numbers from previous years and will continue to rise until either the protesters feel their demands are met or the government doubles down on its harsh anti-protest tactics. As of now, both seem like unlikely outcomes as the scale and intensity of the protests grow every day. The situation has become a waiting game in which the Iranian government and the demonstrators will attempt to outlast each other. 

Amidst state-sanctioned killings, social media blackouts and thousands of arrests daily, the Iranian people are outmatched. Responsibility lies with the outside world to amplify their voices, continue applying pressure to the Iranian government and take notice of what millions in the Middle East are saying: The Iranian Regime must be stopped.

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