For more than three weeks, Iran's Mullah regime has been struggling to control nationwide protests led by young women, who have had enough of the religion-based tyranny that stripped them of basic individual freedoms. The uncontrollable popular anger against the hardliner theocratic regime, inside and outside Iran’s borders, is creating a situation that not only shakes Khamenei's throne but also threatens to demolish Iran’s regional power, particularly in the Levant.
Arabs and Turks should seize this rare geopolitical momentum to pursue security goals that have been repeatedly thwarted by the Iranian regime and its proxies and militias, which have spread throughout the Middle East region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
Decade of Rage
In Iran, youth-led rebellions are not uncommon. The current theocratic regime was founded in 1979 on the back of a revolution that was labeled later as Islamic. However, in the past fifteen years, in particular, several upheavals have erupted to protest government corruption, economic failures, and social injustice. The most notable of these protests are the Green Revolution in 2009, which erupted in response to presidential election fraud, and the Bloody November protests in 2019, which erupted in response to an increase in fuel prices and the practice of corruption.
Both uprisings drew a large number of young people from across Iran, who quickly escalated their demands to call for the overthrow of the Iranian regime. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) used cutting internet and phone connections as well as excessive use of force against protesters to control the two iconic upheavals and all the other rallies that occurred in between. At least 70 civilians were killed in 2009, and over 1500 people were killed in the Bloody November of 2019.
Out of all the prior instances of Iranian crowd fury, the angry protests that haven't subsided since mid-September over the unlawful torture and murder of a young Iranian Kurdish woman stand out. When determining the effect of the upheaval on the domestic and regional powers of the Mullah regime, it is crucial to take into account the cause of the protests, the demographic makeup of the participating activists and political groups, and the associated geopolitical dynamics.
The protests have been sparked by the killing of Mahsa Amini, 22 years old, by the Islamic Guidance Patrol on the 16th of September. Amini was beaten to death by the morality police, under the eyes of her family, after being arrested at a metro station in Tehran. Her offense was not donning her hijab per the Islamic Republic's dress regulations. In Iran, it is legally required for all women, even non-Muslim women, to dress in long, baggy clothing and wear the hijab.
The unjustifiable assault and murder of Amini was the mirror that reflected to the Iranian youth, especially young women, the miserable reality that they have been living through, under a religious regime that feeds on systematically violating their basic human rights and individual freedoms. Unlike all the previous protests that swept across the Iranian streets in the past decade, this protest is not motivated by political or economic factors. Instead, it is fueled by the strong desire of youth to live a normal life free from fear of political repression or divine punishment.
Since mid-September, Iranian women of all ages and social backgrounds have been burning their headscarves and cutting their hair in public gatherings to celebrate their liberation from the grip of the theocratic state. They are breaking the barriers of fear that kept them suffering for their entire lives between the natural desire to express their individuality through their clothes and appearance versus being obliged to adhere to social and religious norms enforced by the iron fist of the state. Even teenage girls in secondary schools decided to join the movement by taking off the hijab that is enforced on them by authoritarian figures at family, school, and state levels.
Human rights groups reported that more than one hundred people have been killed during clashes with the security forces in 45 Iranian cities, so far. The official statements of the Iranian government downsized this number to 60 people, claiming that security forces personnel have also been killed. Despite the harsh crackdown, the protests are still growing in size and impact.
The IRGC’s playbook needs an update to face the highly disciplined protesters. Cutting the internet and applying brute force, which has been successful in controlling previous protests, has failed in deterring the protesters this time. One reason is that the Iranian protesters do not fear dying in their fight for a normal existence since they have nothing more to lose than the personal freedom that has already been taken from them. Due to Amini's ethnic identification as a Kurdish, the fury has spread to places outside of Iran, which is another significant boost to the protestors' stamina.
The Kurdish Factor
Mahsa Amini is a member of a Kurdish family that resides in the northwest Iranian city of Saqqez. The demonstrators that gathered in the Kurdish cities in northern Syria and Iraq after her death are chanting "women, life, freedom," which is taken from her Kurdish name Jina, which means life. Human rights advocates for Kurds contend that Jina and her family were subjected to cruel police treatment mostly because of their ethnicity.
The Iranian regime is notorious for practicing systematic discrimination against the Kurdish minority in Iran, as well as in northern Syria and Iraq. The Kurds represent 17% (about 15 million citizens) of the Iranian population. Most of them live in purposefully impoverished cities, that are deprived of basic governmental services, and close to the western borders. More than 45% of the Iranian Kurds are young people, and most of them are well-educated despite their tough living circumstances.
The Kurds are more inclined to secular rather than religious values. Thus, they have always been perceived by the Islamic Republic as an existential threat. The Kurds form the strongest political opposition blocs in Iran, since the 1980s. Ayatollah Khomeini, the first supreme leader and one of the founders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, publicly instructed the elimination of the Kurds because of their Marxist beliefs, which he considered a threat to Islamic belief.
Jina’s cousin, as revealed in an AFP interview last week, is a member of the communist Komalah Party, and he currently lives in Sulaymaniyah Iraq as he got involved in rebellious activities against Tehran, in the past. Komalah is an Iranian Kurdish party that has been fighting against the Mullah regime for decades. One main objective of Komalah is to establish an autonomous rule for Iranian Kurds in the northwestern territories of Iran.
The assault on Jina and her family echoed loudly in the Kurdish-controlled regions in Syria and Iraq. In northern Syria, hundreds of women took to the streets to set their headscarves on fire and cut their hair to show solidarity for struggling sisters in Iran. In Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, dozens of activists gathered outside the United Nations headquarters to protest the tyranny of the Iranian regime and call for justice for Mahsa Amini. Sympathizers from all over the world led similar rallies in Western capitals.
While failing to repress the internal protests that are growing by a snowball effect, Tehran decided to target the sympathizing Kurds in neighboring territories with missiles and drones. On September 29th, as demonstrations entered their twelfth day, the IRGC launched a missile attack on the Kurdish cities of Koya and Qala in northern Iraq, which are located roughly 60 kilometers to the east of Erbil. At least seventeen people, including a pregnant woman, were killed and 58 civilians were injured under the Iranian offensive.
The IRGC justified the attack by claiming that they were only targeting Iranian Kurdish separatist groups, whom the Iranian regime labels as terrorists because they participated in the protests happening inside Iran. The IRGC released a media statement, on that day, promising that the missile attacks on northern Iraq will continue “with full determination until the threat is effectively repelled.” The Iranian offensive on the Iraqi Kurdistan region is not the first. Tehran has been regularly attacking Kurdish communities in northern Iraq, since 2016, under the claim of combating terrorism.
The central government of Iraq, the regional government of Kurdistan, and the Arab League condemned the recent Iranian armed attacks on northern Iraq. In the past five years, the Arab League has been repeatedly condemning the Iranian intervention in northern Syria and Iraq, but no unified Arab action was taken on the ground to deter Iran. The Iraqi government considered the Iranian assault as a “provocative unilateral action that complicates the security scene and cast a shadow over the region and will only contribute to more tension.” The Iraqi government also asserted that it rejects any military logic that could be used to justify these attacks and warned that it “will use the highest diplomatic instruments to prevent it from happening again in the future.”
A few days after the attack on northern Iraq, Khamenei made a speech to highlight the protests as a Western conspiracy, led by the United States, against his country. The next day, the commander of IRGC’s Land Forces blamed Israel for the attacks that his forces launched on northern Iraq. He accused Israel of "using anti-Revolutionary Guard bases in the northern region of Iraq to its advantage.” He, also, argued that despite Iran's repeated pleas to the Iraqi central government, no action was taken, leaving Tehran with little choice but to directly shell the Kurdistan area to fight Israeli influence. He claimed that the Iranian attacks successfully struck 40 targets run by Israel and Kurdish separatist groups in northern Iraq.
On the flip side, Israel, Turkey, and the Arab Gulf countries are closely monitoring the developments in Iran and the Levant region, without directly commenting or intervening. The current protests may not topple the hardliners of the Islamic Republic. However, they are already creating a new geo-political reality that will work in favor of Turkey, Iran’s staunch frenemy, in terms of security objectives and military targets at its southern and eastern borders in the Levant and Caucasia. Meanwhile, Arab Gulf countries that have been suffering from Iran’s political and ideological hostility for decades, should also benefit from this geopolitical rebalancing, especially in light of their newly refurbished relationship with Turkey.