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Iran's regime has one response for popular uprisings: Crackdown

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Iran has experience shutting down protests. 2009 saw demonstrations sparked by allegations of a rigged presidential election. Protesters were killed, arrested, tortured. In 2019, it was soaring gas prices that drew masses into the streets. Another crackdown followed. Hundreds of protesters were killed according to human rights groups. So where might the regime's response go to this latest wave of protests now underway sparked by the death of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini? I put that question to someone who's followed all these protests closely, Karim Sadjadpour of 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 is driving these protests? They started as a protest over the hijab, over what happened to Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police. But is that the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is continuing to drive them?

SADJADPOUR: No. So what's somewhat unique about the Islamic Republic of Iran, even by the standards of dictatorships, is that it's not only politically authoritarian, but it's also economically and socially authoritarian. So in this instance, the trigger for these large-scale uprisings was the killing of a 22-year-old woman. And some reporting came out saying that she begged the morality police not to take her away, and essentially she was beaten into a coma. So this was the match that lit the fire this time. And once that fire is lit, you see all of these grievances come together. Some people - their primary grievance is social. Others, it's economic. For others, it's political. And it's a system, the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is ruled by elderly men. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is 83 years old. And he's empowered similarly geriatric traditional institutions. And so you have a country ruled by very old, traditional men presiding over a much more modern, young society.

KELLY: One thing that is different from the last big round of protests in Iran in 2019 is a new government, new president. Ebrahim Raisi stepped into the presidency last year. He's a hardliner. What does that tell you about where the protests may go or where the government response may go?

SADJADPOUR: Well, I think we can assume the government response is going to be overwhelming brutality. You know, there was a critical moment in late 1978 when there was protests mushrooming against the shah of Iran, the monarchy in Iran. And the shah famously went on television, and he apologized for past sins and transgressions. And he famously said to people, I've heard the voice of the revolution. And, you know, years later, I found a speech from Ayatollah Khamenei in which he said, you know, the shah thought by going on television, he was going to pacify the crowds. But on the contrary, that's when we saw how vulnerable he was. We smelled blood, and we pounced. And for that reason, whenever there has been popular uprisings in Iran, the immediate instinct of the supreme leader and the establishment is to crush it, to nip it in the bud, to not cede one inch. So we can assume these protests will be met with overwhelming violence. And they have 43 years of succeeding in snuffing out protests.

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 for uprisings to succeed, 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. You know, we haven't had a presence in Iran for four decades. 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, I'll tell you the challenge is that, for example, in Ukraine, Starlink has played an important role in providing internet 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 we 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 - it's a police state, so it wants to control communication, wants to control information and wants to be able, if necessary, to essentially throttle the internet so it can repress people in the dark.

KELLY: Yeah.

SADJADPOUR: 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.

KELLY: Karim Sadjadpour. He's a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on Iran. Thank you so much - always a pleasure.

SADJADPOUR: Always my pleasure. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SADE SONG, "SOLDIER OF LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Bridget Kelley
Bridget Kelley is the Supervising Senior Editor of NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, All Things Considered.