Mahsa Amini, 22, fell into a coma and died after being detained last week, apparently because she had not sufficiently covered her hair. There were suspicions that she had been tortured by the so-called “morality police,” reports that her head had been slammed repeatedly against a hard surface.
Mistreatment at the hands of security forces is commonplace in the Islamic Republic, but Amini’s death was the proverbial last straw for many Iranians, especially women. Social media platforms quickly filled with videos of women removing and burning their headcovers — the theocrats in Tehran deem the hijab compulsory — and cutting their hair.
The regime responded with a characteristically heavy hand. As Raisi took his turn at the UNGA lectern to issue a tired tirade against Western perfidy, his security forces were clubbing and shooting protesters. But videos also showed civilians fighting back, beating cops and setting fire to their vehicles. Demonstrators were calling for the very thing Raisi and his boss, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, routinely accused foreigners of plotting: regime change.
In New York, Raisi was met by protestors outside the UN as well as criticism in the great hall. Some of it came from unexpected sources: Chile’s President Gabriel Boric name-checked Amini in his call to “mobilize efforts to stop violence against women.” And President Joe Biden expressed solidarity with the protesters: “Today we stand with the brave citizens and the brave women of Iran who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights.”
But the remark went almost unnoticed, since the meat of Biden’s (somewhat undercooked) speech was about Putin and the escalation of nuclear danger in Ukraine. Raisi was not in the audience as the US president spoke, but he doubtless muttered a sotto-voce “spasiba” to his Russian benefactor for sucking all the oxygen out of the UNGA.
As he heads back to Tehran, Raisi will be counting on Biden’s attention — and the world’s — remaining on Russia as the Iranian regime deals with the protests the only way it knows how. There are ominous signs of a violent crackdown akin to that of 2019, which led to the killing of more than 1,000 Iranians who participated in demonstrations against gasoline prices.
As of this writing, the death toll in Iran is 17, but the government has moved to shut down access to the internet and other forms of communication, which is usually a tell that it wants to keep word of state brutality from reaching a wider audience.
The challenge for Biden is to help the protesters without allowing the regime to portray them as American stooges. The most useful thing the US can do is amplify the voices of the protesters and help them evade the regime’s blackouts, the better to communicate with each other and coordinate their protests.
One practical way to achieve this is to exempt from international sanctions Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite system, which can provide internet connectivity to Iranians. The US Treasury has said some satellite internet equipment can be exported to Iran.
At the diplomatic level, the State Department should also use every opportunity to draw attention to the protests and encourage American allies to do likewise. Every statement relating to the negotiations over the revival of the Iran nuclear deal should be accompanied with a strong reiteration of solidarity with the protesters and an equally forceful denunciation of the crackdown.
Finally, the White House should make it clear that any Iranian official linked to abuses against protesters will be subject to sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. Here, too, the Biden administration has made a good start, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken announcing sanctions against the “morality police.”
Iran’s protesters know the grave risks they take when they challenge the regime, but Mahsa Amini’s example has inspired them to rise up rather than be cowed down. Biden should reward their bravery by helping them to be heard above the noise created by Putin.
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.