Opinion: The relentless bravery of Iranian protesters is a moral test for the Western world


Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.


On the 40th day after Mahsa Amini died while in the custody of the Iranian regime’s intrusive morality police, protests sparked by her death grew even more widespread, more defiant, more determined.

They also added to the moral imperative for the rest of the world to do more.

In Amini’s birthplace of Saqqez, where the 22-year-old also known as Zhina is now buried, thousands of people defied the police and turned out to mark an important day in the mourning process, even as security forces fired live bullets and tear gas to stop them.

Demonstrations also took place in numerous other cities: In Isfahan, women waved black scarves in the air, chanting “Azadi, Azadi!” (“Freedom, freedom!”) in Farsi. In Shiraz, young women walked confidently on city sidewalks without veils, their hair flowing in the air in violation of Iranian law. In Amol, where authorities have already shot and killed protesters, unarmed men and women marched directly toward armed security forces, kneeled, put their hands up, and declared themselves ready to die for their cause.

While Amini’s death has become the trigger for this uprising, it is the mandatory headscarf, or hijab, that’s become its symbol, because her run-in with the morality police was so familiar to so many women. She was visiting Tehran from her hometown in Iran’s Kurdish region last month when she was detained for, allegedly, not properly wearing her hijab – a degrading experience familiar to Iranian women who are routinely harassed for minor clothing infractions. Authorities later claimed Amini died of an illness while at a “re-education center.” Her family says she was perfectly healthy.

In the weeks since, the regime has killed hundreds of peaceful protesters, among them many children and idealistic young women.

One of the teenagers whose bravery and death has become a rallying cry is Nika Shahkarami, a 16-year-old who disappeared last month after waving her hijab in the air at a protest in Tehran, and then setting fire to another headscarf in front of a small crowd.

Nika later turned up dead. Though Iran’s government and state media have claimed her death had nothing to do with the uprising, a CNN investigation found video and witness testimony showing she was hunted down by plain clothes Basiji militias – security forces utilized by the regime to crack down on demonstrators – following her protest. Eyewitnesses told CNN they saw Nika among groups of protesters being detained later that night. That was the last time she was seen, days before her battered body was returned to her grieving family. Now her mother, too, is rallying protesters.

The courage of Iranians, young and old, risking it all for a chance at freedom, is defying the predictions of jaded foreign observers. Recalling previous failed protests, many have argued that the strength of this one, with its shouts “Women, life, freedom,” was little more than a doomed social media mirage.

But the protests are persisting. Seven weeks in, they have lasted longer than any uprising since the 1979 revolution toppled the Pahlavi regime and brought to power today’s theocracy. And these protests are different from their predecessors. In 2009, the Green Movement supported a reformist candidate. In 2019, demonstrators called out harsh economic conditions.

This time, women, and the men who have joined them, are crying out, “Death to the dictator.” This is not about reform. This is about fundamental change.

Let’s be honest. From the first day of protests, this has been inspiring, but also terrifying to watch. We have seen what the Islamic Republic is capable of. We fear for the safety of these brave people, and it can seem irresponsible to encourage them. The odds, after all, are stacked against them. And yet, they have made the choice to continue the fight. They deserve our solidarity.

As a group of 12 female foreign ministers declared in an October 26 statement, “we have a moral obligation” to support this women-led movement. But the people demanding their freedom in Iran need more than symbolic backing – even if symbols matter.

The United States and other Western powers have always worried about backing Iranian protesters, because the regime already dismisses those who oppose them as tools of the West. The Obama administration allowed such concerns to muzzle its response during the 2009 protests. The Biden administration is trying to avoid making the same mistake. Already, Washington has spoken out repeatedly in support of the protest movement. On Wednesday, the State Department announced new sanctions against Iranians involved in repressing demonstrations.

That’s a good start. Anyone – regime officials, the Basiji militias, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – involved in crushing the protests should be banned from entering the US. Other countries should follow suit.

But much more can be done.

Germany this week announced that, given the situation, there can be no “business as usual,” with Iran, launching a wide-ranging diplomatic response that includes a review of bilateral trade and financial relations, support for nongovernmental organizations monitoring crimes against protestors and expanded protections for “particularly vulnerable Iranians,” among other efforts.

The US, its other allies, democracies across the world and any country that rejects the regime’s actions should join in isolating Iran diplomatically. Diplomatic relations should continue, but as long as Iran is killing protesters, relations should be downgraded. And Iran must be expelled from the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Its presence there is a travesty.

Then there’s the matter of the abandoned 2015 nuclear deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA – which the Biden administration has been working to reinstate. Currently, negotiations to revive the deal, designed to delay Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon, are stuck because Iran keeps raising the stakes. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has said he foresees no return to the JCPOA in the “near term.” Such phrasing likely means the goal of reviving it has not died entirely.

The US and its allies want to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon, an unimpeachable objective. But restarting the deal could bring hundreds of billions of dollars to the regime that is currently killing peaceful protesters, arming Russia with killer drones used to slaughter innocent Ukrainians and continuing to support terrorist groups across the Middle East. At the very least, the wisdom of reviving the nuclear deal must be reevaluated.

The relentless bravery of the Iranian women, of the Iranian people, is a timely moral test for the rest of the world. They deserve more than they have received.

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