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The killing of 22-year-old Iranian Mahsa Amini sparked one of the largest waves of demonstrations Iran has witnessed in decades. Amini, now widely known, was on a visit to her family in Tehran when she was stopped by the morality police, accused of improper hijab, arrested, then tortured to death. Within a day, her name was known to all Iranians. Within two, her name became a symbol of resistance to tyranny worldwide.

Due to the heavy restrictions imposed by the Iranian regime, including on reporters and journalists, foreign and domestic, it is hard to assess how large the demonstrations are and if Iran is actually witnessing a major uprising. One thing remains crystal clear: most Iranians are done with ayatollahs. The death toll has reached 90, nine of whom are women and six of whom are children, killed by Iranian security forces. Official numbers indicate nearly 2000 have been arrested. The protests have now spread to over 300 towns and villages, many witnessing protests for the first time in their history.

For the last 43 years, and since the rise of the Islamic Republic, the country has witnessed various waves of protest with varying intensities. The first significant wave occurred on March 8th, 1979, only 25 days after Khomeini’s rise to power, when half a million Iranian women protested the new compulsory hijab and other new restrictions on women. And despite violent repression and mass executions, in the period between 1979 and 1988, Iran witnessed many waves of protest when Khomeini’s ruling coalition started to crack up. The protests in places of ethnic minorities such as Ahvaz, Kurdistan and Turkman Sahra witnessed a series of massacres trying to quell protests.

Regime security has been Iran’s most important priority, which Khomeini called “the duty of all duties” and asserting that everything is legitimate to protect the regime. This obsession with self-preservation caused the Islamic Republic to appropriate a large chunk of the national GDP for this purpose. Estimates put around 14% of NGDP is dedicated just to regime security. This is four times what Iran spends on education or healthcare. The IRGC, the primary military arm of the regime, has over 300 thousand troops and a budget of billions. These numbers do not include other security agencies loyal to the regimes.

Of Iran’s sizeable internal security apparatus, at least four branches are trained to deal with protests. The salaries and benefits of those who belong to those agencies, including the IRGC, are 30% higher than those of the Iranian national military. They run their own vast economic empire, known as bonyads, which control over 8000 companies and 25 landing docks in 9 ports in which most of the critical jobs and positions are filled by mullahs and their family members. Mullahs and their families receive the priority when it comes in hiring, education, and scholarship for education in the US and Europe.

There are also all kinds of welfare associations run by the regimes for the families of martyrs, the deprived, the followers of the Imam, etc. There are also lists of mullahs and their families who receive direct gift “envelopes” from the office of the supreme guide. And lastly, there is a large security community of informants, known as “two-lives,” who work for the regime, many of whom have residences in the US and Europe and travel back and forth to defend the regime in the West. In short, it is difficult to estimate the actual size of the support base of the regime in the country.

In the last presidential elections, the regime’s favorite candidate, Ibrahim Raisi, won with a quarter of the votes of eligible voters. Former president Hassan Rouhani recently estimated that 30% of Iranians are happy and content with the regime and provided it with its support base. But regardless of how extensive that support base is, it seems now that, for sure, it is shrinking. During these waves of protests, the number of people who came out against the regime, including a considerable number of figures and national celebrities who at one point were associated with the regime, including former mid and high-ranking officials. Several poets and novelists who once dedicated their work to defend the Islamic Republic suddenly denounced it.

This makes this protest very different from the one that occurred in 2009. The scale seems to be bigger, and the complaints motivating it do not strictly revolve around ethnic issues or better wages or calls for reforms, or fewer cultural restrictions. The protests this time seem to be about just not wanting the ayatollahs anymore. This is likely the reason for the confusion in the ranks of the regime in terms of deciding how to deal with the protests. And until now, Khamenei, who cried over the death of George Floyd, didn’t say a word about the protests.

This could be a decisive moment for Iran and the world or another crack in the Islamic Republic. Regardless, the Biden administration cannot ignore this and seek to shake hands with the Iranian men who beat their women to death, all while pretending to be the administration of values-focused foreign policy. Iranian women and men deserve America’s support, and it is hard to think of a more worthy cause for an administration that made feminism and human rights its slogan.

It’s time for the United States to seize the opportunity and voice its opposition to Iranian people living in a country ruled by corrupt fanatical religious leaders obsessed with controlling women. To abandon the Iranian people now and insist on giving the Iranian regime a nuclear deal that will only empower them to oppress their people, finance terrorism and spread chaos globally is an unthinkable betrayal of everything America is meant to stand for.

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Hussein Aboubakr Mansour

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