Every night in Tehran, when the clock strikes nine, Iranians take to the roofs and windows of apartments, and their voices echo through the city.
“Death to the dictator!” they shout, along with the slogan that has become the rallying cry of more than a month of protests: “Woman, life, freedom!”
“We sing from behind the window every night with the lights off so we can’t be recognized or shot” by police in the streets below, said an Iranian woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her safety.
The same chants can be heard in daily protests in cities and towns across the country, a wave of public anger that only seems to be gaining momentum, even in the face of a violent crackdown by heavily armed security and paramilitary forces.
Since protests broke out in mid-September after a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, died in the custody of the country’s vice squad for allegedly failing to comply with a law requiring women to cover their hair, the Iranian clerical regime has struggled. to contain a movement that continues to spread and grow.
Every day seems to bring a new humiliation for the regime.
From anti-government graffiti to students harassing government officials, to women walking the streets without headscarves to workers laying down their tools, the Iranian regime seems increasingly baffled by the events.
Historians studying Iran, human rights activists, political analysts, US officials and Iranians on the ground all say the protests represent a potentially revolutionary moment and that Iranian citizens are increasingly willing to risk their lives for the cause.
“It’s like a war, the Islamic Republic versus the Iranian people,” the woman from Tehran said. She and other Iranians say the helmeted police flooding the streets resembles an occupying force, unsure of their position and unable to trust the locals.
There have been major protests before, but the protests are different this time, Iranians say, because the movement transcends class and geography, and the demands are explicitly political, calling for an end to the regime and not for reform or higher wages.
“Every protest we’ve seen before has been limited geographically, or socio-economically, or related to a particular complaint,” said Hadi Ghaemi of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran.
The 2009 ‘Green Movement’ protests focused on an election that protesters believed had been rigged and lasted for months, but the movement was dominated by mostly educated, more affluent people in Tehran. The protests in 2019 were shaped by economic hardship and the frustrations of the working class, Ghaemi said.
“This is different. It seems to have affected every Iranian, in every corner of the country,” he said.
The protests have no formal leadership or opposition leader, making it difficult for the regime to cut off oxygen to the movement.
The protests are often smaller in scale than past mass demonstrations in major cities, but they are more numerous and spread across both rural and urban areas. The security forces must constantly set up pockets of resistance in well-organized neighborhoods where the locals know where to hide and how to outsmart the police, human rights groups and Iranians.
The protesters have even set up separate medical care for injured protesters in private homes to try to bypass official clinics, said Ramin Ahmadi, an Iranian-American doctor in the US who is a longtime human rights activist.
“They don’t even go to the hospital when they get hurt. There is now a whole network of doctors who have them and they treat them at home,” said Ahmadi, who has provided medical advice over the phone to the doctors treating the protesters.
But the regime has shown it is ready to use deadly force to quell the protests, using live ammunition, buckshot, bullets, rubber bullets, tear gas and batons to push back the protesters, human rights groups said. Thousands of people have been arrested, including leaders of civil society and trade unions, rights groups say, and an unknown number have been killed by bullets or blows.
Norway-based Iran Human Rights group and the US-based Human Rights Activists News Agency said Friday that more than 250 protesters have been killed in the six weeks since the protests began. The death toll includes more than 20 protesters under the age of 18, according to Amnesty International. Iranian authorities estimated the death toll at the time last month at 41 people, including security agents.
The regime has previously survived street protests by using violence, imprisonment and censorship to silence dissent. And the government still has support from a significant portion of the population, especially those associated with the state bureaucracy.
The country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in Iran’s theocratic system, has dismissed the protests as “scattered riots” orchestrated by Iran’s enemies.
But the protests pose the greatest challenge to the theocracy since the 1979 revolution and its aftermath, and could mark the beginning of a regime unraveling — though that process could take months or years, experts and US officials said.
“There is an increasing division between state and society, and it is widening under the government of (Iranian President) Raisi,” a senior official in the Biden administration told NBC News.
The official said that “you have an erosion of the legitimacy of the system, which is basically held back by threats of violence.”
He added that “no one can say for sure how this will turn out.”
Roya Hakakian, an Iranian-American writer who recently met with officials of the Biden government and other activists, said the protests were the start of a revolution “about democracy in its purest form — the desire for a normal life.”
“The cultural foundation is there and the shift from theocratic thinking to democratic thinking has already taken place, but when and how they will succeed pragmatically is a matter of time and the confluence of other forces,” she said.
Despite the increasingly violent crackdown, Iranians – especially women – keep coming back to protest. The fear that discouraged open resistance to the regime is beginning to fade, said Abbas Milani of the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford University.
“The fear is fading because I think people recognize that given their sheer numbers, they’re not alone,” Milani said.
Seven years ago, Milani wrote that under a facade of normalcy, while most of the world focused on Iran’s nuclear program, Iranian society turned away from the ultra-conservative ideology propagated by the regime, and its leaders sat atop a “sick volcano” .
“The trend line is that this regime is becoming more isolated, misogynistic, incompetent and more corrupt, and Iranian society is becoming more democratic and secular, and more and more yearning for an economic future that does not exist,” Milani said. “That can’t go on.”
The Iranian government could decide to use even more deadly force to stem the protests, but there is a risk that such widespread violence — especially against young women — could backfire and provoke a mass reaction on the streets, it said. he.
“I think we are at the beginning of a process. Iran has been in a revolutionary moment for a while, it needed a spark, we need to see where this will lead,” said Ali Ansari, an Iran scientist at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. “But even if this subsides, it won’t be long before the next wave starts.”
For Iranians on the streets, there is a sense that they are hot on the heels of the regime, but that terrible bloodshed is yet to come.
“We all know that this time we will overthrow the regime,” the woman in Tehran said. “But at what cost? How many people should be killed?”