Major Protests in Iran

Heritage Explains

Major Protests in Iran

What is it that sparked these historic protests? Could they bring positive change to Iran?

Widespread protests have erupted in Iran. What was it that sparked the unrest? Could it bring positive change to Iran? And what is the proper response from the United States? This week Victoria Coates, a senior research fellow in Heritages Thatcher Center for Freedom, explains. 

Michelle Cordero: From The Heritage Foundation, I'm Michelle Cordero, and this is Heritage Explains.

Cordero: Widespread protests have erupted in Iran. Crowds of brave Iranian women have been seen removing their hijabs and throwing them into fires, cutting their hair, and shouting death to the dictator.

Cordero: Women have been the driving force behind these protests but they are not alone. Students have refused to go to school, flooding the streets, and footage of men ripping down billboards of Ayatollah Khomeini have surfaced. Footage has also surfaced of Iran's morality police and other security forces using excessive and lethal force against protesters. Iranian state media has reported the death toll to be around 60 but that number is likely higher. What is it that sparked these historic protests? Could they bring positive change to Iran? And what is the proper response from the United States? Today, Victoria Coates, a senior research fellow in international affairs and national security at Heritage explains. But first, a short message from the Heritage Foundation.

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Cordero: Victoria, thanks so much for talking with us today.

Victoria Coates: It's a pleasure, Michelle.

Cordero: Starting at the beginning, what are the events that led to these protests?

Coates: Well, as I'm sure our listeners know, there are periodic protests in Iran, starting with the 2009 Green Revolution, and they've been going on for now well over a decade. The most recent iteration though is a little bit different and this was all centered on a young woman, a 22-year-old woman on a visit to Tehran. Her name was Mahsa Amini and she was picked up by the morality police who objected to the way she had her head covering. Her head was covered, they just didn't like the way it was done and they beat her to death in the van on the way to the police station. Just unbelievable brutality. She is such an appealing figure that it has really personalized the restriction on personal freedoms in Iran and caused now three weeks of growing protests.

Cordero: Was she a figure that people knew or was it just that she was an attractive young woman and it just captured everyone's hearts?

Coates: I think it's really captured a generational sense of dissatisfaction in Iran. She stands for all of the young people who have so few opportunities in Iran and it's a really almost oxymoronic situation. Iran has such enormous riches and hydrocarbons obviously but, across the board, it should be an enormously prosperous country. I think that whole generation, in their early twenties, who are way too young to remember the Islamic Revolution or have any sort of personal vesting in that system, this is almost a cry from the heart for all of them. And so, Mahsa really has become that every man and every woman who field great dissatisfaction in Iran.

Cordero: Yeah, the footage coming out of Iran is incredible. How long have these protests been going on now?

Coates: You know, it's been three weeks so it will be going on a month so it's longer than most of the previous iterations. I think the regime finds itself in a little bit of a pickle because everybody knows these are the young people, these are the students who are protesting, and it's really not a great look if you're shooting young women in the streets. One of the things they've been trying to do is clamp down on communications. They will literally turn off the internet, which they can do because they have a state controlled internet system in Iran. One of the issues we noodled in the Trump administration that continues to be in the news today is can we export free and unfettered internet access to the Iranian people to help them in their struggle?

Cordero: Are there other things that the Iranians are fed up with that may have contributed to some of this turmoil as well?

Coates: Absolutely. I mean, it's across the board and what a lot of us have been discussing is that 10, 15 years ago the thought was that the Iranians might try to internally reform their government and make changes to it. It seems pretty clear that the intervening years have kind of killed that aspiration, that they feel the situation is beyond repair, that the corruption, government corruption is so endemic. When you can get polling in Iran, one of the questions that polls the highest is eradicating government corruption, and then you have a host of other issues, just a complete environmental disaster.

Coates: They have ruined that beautiful country. They have a nasty water crisis because of some very irresponsible dams that have been built so that then you have a massive labor problem, teacher strikes, trucker strikes because the pensions and salaries they depend on are less and less dependable because the regime is running out of money. It's really a host of problems but the unequal position of women and the suppression of women is something that really seems to have touched a nerve.

Cordero: You mentioned this a little bit earlier when we were speaking. Has anything like this ever happened before?

Coates: Well, 1979 comes springing to mind. The Iranian people are quite capable of revolution and of dramatic change of their own government so anybody who tells you that is impossible is not telling you the truth, but I would say the closest we came was 2009. Those were political protests over what was a very obviously fraudulent election of then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and that was, unfortunately, not supported by the Obama administration. The claim was that any US support for the protestors would make us sort of a straw man for the Ayatollahs to point to and say, "Oh, it's Yankee interference that's coming in and ruining our country." Well, I think the reality is that the Obama administration recognized they could either have negotiations with a regime for a nuclear deal or they could support the Iranian people, they could not have both and so they chose the nuclear deal.

Coates: In my mind, very much a mistake but that was their philosophy. We fast forward to 2022 and the Biden administration, which we know wants to go back into the nuclear deal, they're trying mightily to get to that, have also been quite muted in their support for the Iranian people and the Supreme Leader still came out last night and said that, "Oh, this is America's doing," so they're going to blame us no matter what. You're not going to achieve anything by trying to appease or mollify someone like Ayatollah Khomeini so, I mean, I think we'd do much better to just be vocally supportive.

Coates: These people are incredibly brave, risking life and limb to try to stand for their freedoms. I mean, that's brand America, and they're not crying out for the Communist Chinese Party or for Russia or for anything ... Venezuela, they're crying out for America and I think that this is an easy ... Certainly not easy, I don't want to characterize it's an easy decision for us to make to support them and get Iran back into the shape where it can be a productive friend to America.

Cordero: Was there any positive change that came out of 2022 or 1979? Did the protests actually do anything to help the people?

Coates: Absolutely not. 1979 I would mark as a catastrophe for Iran and the Iranian people and a real lost opportunity. The Shah of Iran was a close friend and ally to the United States and they were not unreasonable people. The current Crown Prince is someone I know a little bit, he cares passionately about Iran and it certainly would've been a process to help Iran, the old Iran transition to a more liberal form of government but it was certainly possible. That was a real lost opportunity to go straight into an equally authoritarian, if not more authoritarian theocracy for the country, which is really, really a disaster. 2009 had only negative repercussions as well as the frightened regime after that uprising. Basically, imported a very draconian Chinese and Russian sourced security apparatus that would allow them to take much quicker, greater control.

Coates: The question in my mind, Michelle, is a little bit right now why they're not doing that and I think it does come back to the point that they have a real public relations problem on their hands and that if you kill everybody's kids you're going to lose your popular support. I think this is an area where the United States really should be leaning forward and expressing to the people of Iran, "You have friends, you have people who will help you if you make this step. We can't do it for you but if you take that decision and you make this change we will not let you descend into dysfunctional chaos, we will be there to help."

Cordero: What I'm hearing from you now and what I took from your op ed is that this is an opportunity that there could be change that comes out of this.

Coates: Absolutely. There's a lot of enormous good that the United States does around the world. I mean, we have freed more people without any intent of empire, which is remarkable, it's unprecedented in human history. But this isn't something I'm saying we should do just out of the goodness of our hearts, this is in the very strong national security interests of the United States to remove the threat of Iran, God forbid, a nuclear armed Iran, which is just such an irritant both to the region but then also to the globe. The fact that you could replace it with a tremendous ally to the United States that could become the next country to make a deal with Israel, for example. We might call that the Cyrus Accords rather than the Abraham Accords, but there's certainly a deal to be done there, a partner to our Gulf friends and allies so there's just an enormous strategic win for the United States here if we have the will to pursue it.

Cordero: In conclusion, just a silly little question, I suppose, but I know there's ... I heard about Elon Musk trying to help.

Coates: Yeah.

Cordero: What did he do?

Coates: Well, that's the Starlink System. That is the satellite internet system that SpaceX has developed. One thing your listeners might not know about both SpaceX and Tesla is that those companies exist largely because of the very generous research support of the United States government and the United States taxpayers. There's a lot of discussion about how Elon is saving us lots of money by running astronauts up to the International Space Station, and that is true. I mean, I think this is the way it should go in kind of a public private partnership, but this was really supported by taxpayers and this capability to stream internet via satellite we first established after Hurricanes Harvey and Maria when so much connectivity was knocked out. It's something then that SpaceX has commercialized with Starlink.

Coates: The critical thing is to get that capability to the people of Iran in a way that the regime can target. So good first step on the part of the administration to issue the general license so providers of this would not be sanctioned under our current architecture, but they have to do so much more if they're serious about this. They have to get the encrypted hardware in that will allow users to take advantage of that access. Right now, it's purely symbolic.

Cordero: So how ... Sorry, just to dig into that a little bit more. How is it that we are getting the footage that we're getting, that we're seeing these images?

Coates: It's very, very limited and there's this almost an information smuggling system that goes on right now at tremendous risk to the users because the regime can target them. It makes it very hard to verify, which means disinformation can be spread along with information, and that's why having a reliable, clean system that the message could get out on as well as information could get in on would be such a game changer at this point. It's new technology that we didn't have 10 years ago but now we do, and shame on us if we don't take advantage of it.

Cordero: Well, Victoria, thank you so much for explaining this situation and hopefully something good comes out of it and we could talk about that at a later time.

Coates: I look forward to it. Thanks, Michelle.

Cordero: That's it for today's episode. Victoria has a great op-ed on on this topic that I'm going to link in our show notes. As always, thank you for joining us and please, please share us on social media. One more thing. If you enjoyed this podcast highlighting the brave women in Iran, I just wanted to encourage you to tune into the Daily Signal's Problematic Women Podcast. Problematic Women celebrates right-minded women and challenges the left's narrative that women must be liberal, pink hat wearing, abortion supporters. Okay, that's it, Tim's up next week, we'll see you then.

Heritage Explains is brought to you by more than half a million members of The Heritage Foundation. It is produced by Michelle Cordero and Tim Doescher with editing by John Popp.