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Source: Harvard Political Review

Dec 4, 2023

In Iran, A Revolutionary Fuse Has Blown

By Benny Gilligan

In October, 17-year-old Armita Geravand was hospitalized in Tehran. She fell into a coma following an assault at the hands of the “morality police” and was declared dead on October 28. Her crime? Apparently, a refusal to comply with hijab laws.

Iranian state-run media is advancing a different narrative, alleging that Geravand fainted due to a sudden drop in blood pressure. But anyone with a basic understanding of the Islamic Republic’s political playbook knows not to believe a word they say. 

The streets of Iran were set ablaze last fall, a historic women-led movement kindling the flames of revolution. The international community attentively monitored this development. Iran dominated the headlines and Twitter feeds were saturated with an outpouring of videos capturing the protests. The unprecedented levels of violence made it hard to ignore. 

But this keen attentiveness was short-lived, the global observer’s eyes quickly darting to other parts of the world. After a few months, the subject of Iran had lost its novelty and immediacy for many outsiders. Little has been heard about the status of the protests since international interest died down after last fall. The surface-level state of affairs indicates a sad but not uncommon story: a short-lived moment of revolutionary optimism and spontaneity quickly crushed by the iron fist of authoritarian power, never to be heard of again. 

The reality of Iran’s condition challenges this perspective. In fact, women now roam the streets without their legally mandated hijabs. This is a major cultural victory for the movement that cannot be understated. Such an act would have been unthinkable just over a year ago — recall that Mahsa Amini died while in police custody for the alleged offense of “bad hijabi” — and these women know that they could very well meet the same fate as Amini, Geravand, and countless others. 

The international disregard for Iran and insufficient media coverage ostensibly play into the hands of the Islamic Republic. But even if Armita Geravand’s hospitalization doesn’t ignite the international fury we witnessed last fall, will domestic momentum be enough? 

A Missed Opportunity 

Geravand’s story is not receiving significant attention outside of Iran. However, even when stories like these do inspire international solidarity, Western foreign policy has historically done very little to support the Iranian people. 

The American exit from the Iran nuclear deal elicited a response from European powers that put their weakness and indecision on full display. Thoroughly lacking in diplomatic and economic sway, European signatories failed to uphold the deal despite repeated attempts. The European Union’s diplomatic leadership has been soft and acquiescent, even when Tehran assassinates and abducts its political targets on European soil. 

Iran has not just lost its fear of Europe — they can’t even take Europe seriously anymore. Deep ties with Russia and a budding relationship with China have rendered relations with Europe insignificant in the eyes of Iranian leadership. 

Lack of European leverage means that the United States has the most sway over Iran. In the past year, the Biden administration has leveraged the Islamic Republic’s weakened state to negotiate over its nuclear program, which, in August, included the release of $6 billion in frozen assets in exchange for the release of American hostages.

While this is valuable humanitarian work, it only encourages the Islamic Republic’s tactics. Hostage-taking is an integral part of the government’s diplomacy. In moments of weakness, they agree to release hostages in exchange for economic assets to secure their power — diplomatic ransom, essentially. The recent release of hostages has done no damage to Iran and has only strengthened their economic standing. 

Presented with a prime opportunity to support a feminist movement for democracy and to rectify a historical debt to the Iranian people, the Biden administration has done next to nothing. Direct intervention is by no means the answer; sanctions on Iran are also increasingly symbolic and ineffectual. However, a strategy involving fewer concessions and more effective sanctions is worth pursuing as the United States continues to negotiate with Iran and to unfreeze billions of dollars in Iranian assets. 

Ultimately, the American political establishment has shown that it has very little interest in helping the Iranian people, and merely is interested in viewing the Iranian state as a geopolitical and nuclear threat. Meanwhile, Iran’s widespread human rights abuses continue to fly under the radar. By leaving the Iranian people to sort it out themselves, U.S. officials have demonstrated that they are not even pretending to be the “good guys” anymore. 

Not the Full Story

On the domestic side, the Islamic Republic has carried out unthinkable levels of violence in the past year to combat transgressions of its strict, scripturally-rooted legal code. Much of this violence was captured and circulated across social media, shocking international audiences and inspiring sympathy. 

However, the detainments and killings of innocent protestors have taken the movement off the streets. According to a source in Iran, who asked to speak on the condition of anonymity due to safety concerns, many Iranians decided against public demonstration this September on the anniversary of Amini’s death, fearing the potentially mortal consequences. 

In spite of the thorough documentation of state violence across social media, the lack of sustained international sympathy for Iranians actions illustrates that Iranians’ cries for help went unheeded. Moreover, Iran’s stringent controls on the press and internet access mean that some violence may have never gone on the record. Although most prominent publications like to boast having an ostensibly unbiased foreign correspondent in the country, they cannot circumvent the Islamic Republic’s censorship. Foreign journalists must grapple with an elaborate system that subverts the truth and leads to self-censorship and over-correction. 

Yet even when the truth could not be more clear, the mainstream media fails to properly report stories in a feigned attempt at journalistic neutrality. Publications will report both sides, but this fails to contribute to a “balanced outlook” because one side is obviously and shamelessly lying. We know from history that the Islamic Republic and its state-run media lie and invent narratives when presented with cases such as those of Amini and Geravand.

The narrative in Geravand’s case was that she “fainted due to a drop in blood pressure,” an invention so laughable it’s hardly worth mentioning in a news article. Iranian officials claim that 22-year-old Amini “suffered a sudden heart problem” and then fell into a coma. When my great-uncle was tortured and executed in the infamous Evin Prison, many publications labeled him a “U.S. Spy,” which he simply wasn’t. Is it worth even acknowledging such outlandish lies in journalistic reporting? The misguided attempt at neutrality is, in essence, a cold-blooded betrayal of the reality of ordinary Iranians. 

The consequence of these dynamics is that the West’s media coverage of Iran is incomplete and, at times, selectively misrepresents what is a far uglier reality. If the mainstream media cannot properly report on Iran, how can we expect widespread sympathy and support outside of Iran? Foreign audiences almost always end up uninformed or misinformed, or both. 

A Flashpoint for Revolution

In spite of other shortcomings, a lasting domestic victory of last fall’s movement is the new collective consciousness of the abnormality of life under the Islamic Republic. The people can no longer bear governmental control over every mundanity of their daily lives. This is reflected in the new fashion rebellion, in which women are abandoning the hijab and even some men are (illegally) wearing shorts.

What happened last fall was a unique moment in Iranian society, the scale of which may not be seen again for some time. Armita Geravand’s hospitalization will not cause people to take to the streets in the same way, nor will other instances of state violence that continue to occur throughout the country.

Nevertheless, this past year has ushered in a new revolutionary era. Any regime that is vehemently opposed by nearly the entire population is simply unsustainable. The pathetic state of the crumbling Iranian economy only further weakens the regime’s standing. Even without international assistance, such a widespread and powerful movement will inevitably succeed in the long term. 

My hope is further fueled by Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi’s recent victory of the Nobel Peace Prize. Mohammadi’s work detailing the horrid abuse of women in Evin Prison is a fine example of authentic reporting out of Iran; her activism, of course, has led to years of imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Islamic Republic. 

Her brother rejoices in the Nobel Committee’s decision “not just for my sister.” In his view, “it’s about everything that’s happening in Iran, and how important it is for the world to see what is really happening in Iran — not the things that are on the news.” Iranians refuse to despair, just as Narges never has, in spite of how easy it is “when you are not seen or heard.” In its continuing crackdown, the Islamic Republic is playing with fire, and its ideological foundation can hardly stand up to the force of the new generation. 

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