Is This the Turning Point for Iran? Protesters Continue to Defy Regime

The mass anti-government protests that have been shaking Iran for nine weeks are like no other uprisings the ruling regime has seen before.

Sparked by the death of a Kurdish 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, after she was arrested by the country's so-called morality police for wearing an "improper hijab," the protests have been bringing Iran's young people to the streets, with women at the forefront.

"These protests are different because, unlike 2009, which were protests defined by corruption grievances around the elections, and 2019, which were economic protests, they are bringing together a number of different groups around the country—you have labor, women, students, ethnic groups and young people coming together to protest," Dr Sanam Vakil, deputy director and senior research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, told Newsweek.

"And while the numbers are not as significant as in past protests, the simultaneous challenge from across these groups does pose a legitimacy problem for the state."

Iran protests in France
Protestors hold placards during a rally in support of the demonstrators in Iran, at the Place de la Republique in Paris, on October 29, 2022. Experts agree that the current protests are a turning point in the history of the country. BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP via Getty Images

There's another key difference between the current protests and the ones of 2009: the goal of the protesters.

"The leaders of 2009 protests—Moussavi and Kahroubi—didn't want to challenge the entire regime, those protests were more 'controlled,' there were fewer slogans against the Islamic Republic and the supreme leader," Yassamine Mather, a Middle East specialist at the University of Oxford, told Newsweek.

"Current protests are more radical, they challenge the entire state and the supreme leader—Khamenei—, so they are less predictable, there's no single leader to ask them to tone down demands."

Is This a Turning Point?

Despite a violent crackdown by the country's authorities and the threat of potential death sentences for those arrested—the first of which was issued on Sunday against one unidentified protester—Iranians protesting are not backing down.

"Almost 10 weeks after the murder of Mahsa Amini in custody, there is no sign that the protests are stopping. In fact, protests are becoming more organized and gaining momentum," Dr Roham Alvandi, associate professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Newsweek.

Hundreds of protesters have been killed in confrontations with authorities since the protests began on September 16, and some 15,000 are estimated to have been arrested. Last week, a majority of lawmakers in Iran's parliament supported a letter calling on the judiciary to issue harsh penalties for protesters, which could include the death penalty.

Mather said this is a turning point in terms of the level of anger shown on the streets "caused not just by the treatment of women, religious interference in the private lives of citizens, but also severe economic hardships."

While the 2019 protests were suffocated by the government's deadly repression, demonstrations across Iran continue today on the 61st day since the first mass protest following the death of Amini.

"Iranians have patiently given the Islamic Republic countless opportunities to reform itself, yet the regime never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity," Alvandi, said.

"Unlike previous protests, Iranians are no longer asking for their votes to be counted, or their economic grievances to be addressed. They are now calling for an end to the Islamic Republic."

But could Iran's government, led since 1989 by Supreme leader Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei, be overthrown by the current movement?

Is Iran's Government Likely to Be Overthrown?

Alvandi said it's possible. "This is the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic. The regime has lost all legitimacy and is now clinging to power solely through the use of force. The tide of history is against them," he said.

But the leaders of the Islamic Republic are unlikely to give up easily, Alvandi added.

"They will fight and kill to retain their power and privileges. Every outrage will generate more protests," he said.

"The protestors are now engaged in a war of attrition with the regime. Each day they chip away further at the Islamic Republic's authority and control over society. For the opposition to triumph, leaders will need to emerge inside Iran who are able to negotiate with the regime and also provide assurances to Iranians who are worried about what will come after the Islamic Republic."

Vakil disagrees, saying that it's unlikely that the Iranian government will be overthrown. "The protests have not yet halted Iran's economy, we have not seen widespread strikes; we have not seen severe division within the political establishment, and we have not seen mass political mobilization in Iran in the way that we have seen in 2009," she said.

"I think these factors are important to create a more revolutionary momentum, rather than a protest-like momentum inside the country. Right now I'm quite cautious and conscious that the state in Iran, which is institutionally-based, has a monopoly of force and a monopoly of wealth, and they will use these tools to be repressive and try to sustain their power."

Mather is also skeptical that protesters could overthrow the government on their own. "If we witness major strikes by oil workers, industrial workers, joining teachers, medics, then maybe, but we are far from that," she said.

"However, this has changed everything in Iran, and we are probably seeing the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic of Iran."

Not even Alvandi, with his positive outlook, has a timeframe to offer when it comes to predicting the end of the protests.

"Nobody can confidently predict what will come next. Sadly, it seems more violence and bloodshed is likely," he said.

"Yet, there is also a sense of national unity and purpose that has never existed before. A national consensus has emerged that the Islamic Republic must be replaced with a secular democracy. The question that nobody can answer is how long it will take or what cost Iranians will have to pay to achieve that."

Professor Ali Ansari, a specialist in Middle Eastern history at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, told Newsweek that the current protests should be seen "as a process, not an event, and any change may take time.

"This is the latest in a series of protests to rock the Islamic Republic and it has little to offer other than further repression – as can be witnessed by the decision of the Parliament to vote to execute all (14k) prisoners. Short of fundamental structural reform there is no future for the Islamic Republic," he said.

Correction 11/15/22, 13:25 p.m. ET: This article was updated to remove the reference to the Iranian Parliament voting for death sentences. A majority of the parliament supported a letter to the judiciary calling for harsh punishments of protesters, which could include the death penalty.