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In mid-September last year, Mahsa Amini was visiting her family in Tehran when she was arrested by the Morality Police for wearing her hijab incorrectly, according to the authorities. On 16 September, after three days in police custody and no contact with her family, 22-year-old Amini died in suspicious circumstances.
At the time, no one suspected, especially Iran’s theocratic regime, that this episode would lead to a wave of public outrage that would sweep across the country and mutate weeks later into a deep social crisis not seen since the 2009 election protests.
The response of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s government to the protests has been brutal, according to Amnesty International and the NGO Iran Human Rights (IHR). An estimated 300 to 500 people, including children, have been killed during the protests.
So far this year, the government has executed at least 137 people involved in the protests, according to the IHR.
In addition, Amnesty documents a score of allegations of sexual violence and other forms of torture during detention by the authorities to extract forced confessions.
Political Scientist and Middle East Expert
The number of arrests since the start of the protests is still unknown, as the Iranian government has not released the figures. However, the judiciary announced on Monday 13 March that it would grant amnesty to 22,000 detainees, which gives an idea of the scale of arrests.
In total, some 82,000 defendants have been released and another 34,000 have had their sentences reduced, Judiciary Chairman Gholamhosein Mohseni Ejei said, according to the government news agency Mizan. The high numbers back up estimates by non-governmental organisations and the media that more than 120,000 people have been detained during the demonstrations.
Six months after the beginning of the social unrest in Iran, there is a “tense calm” in the country, according to Daniel Bashandeh, an Iranian-born political analyst, who spoke to Euronews from his home in Spain.
“Why? Because over the last five or six months, what the regime has achieved through repression is to try to demobilise the people, especially in the educational centres where most of the demonstrations were taking place,” he explains.
In addition to seeking demobilisation, Bashandeh also believes that the regime’s announcement to grant amnesty to 22,000 detainees is another move in the government’s strategy to “wash its image in the eyes of the population and try to pacify the mood” on the streets. “If the amnesties are actually carried out”, Bashandeh adds.
Iran’s strategic role, its allies and the EU’s position
“What the regime is looking for, is to gain international support, to try to get out of international isolation to somehow try to control internal political developments, because it knows that through strategic and, above all, pragmatic alliances with Russia or China, the regime somehow believes it has a lifeline, because as time goes by, what we are seeing is that the conflict in Iran, in the internal crisis, is being externalised,” he points out.
Iran and Saudi Arabia announced that they have reached an agreement to restore their diplomatic relations, broken by Riyadh in 2016. The Islamic Republic has also deepened its trade with Beijing and Moscow in order to circumvent US and European Union sanctions imposed in condemnation of the police crackdown on protests. Bashandeh, however, stresses that sanctions are a good but insufficient measure and that the EU’s response may be limited by geopolitical interests.
“The EU is trying to unblock the [Iranian] nuclear deal for greater regional security and to try to bring natural resources to Europe, because Europe has a deep energy crisis and Iran is a country where there are large oil and gas reserves, so there are a lot of interests at stake”, the Middle East expert points out, although he adds: “It is true that the European Union has shown its support for the Iranian people, especially Iranian women, by carrying out a series of sanctions. But I insist, they are not enough to materialise everything that is happening, because they are really demanding more democracy, they are demanding more firmness”.
“People have received a direct threat from the embassy”
For activist and interpreter, Ryma Sheermohammadi, more successful Western support for the Iranian people lies in offering tools of democratic value to the population.
“Obviously I am not saying that there has to be military intervention and no Iranian is asking for it. There are many things that can be done and the policy and legal framework of any country in the West, within the values of democracy, clearly shows us that there are many things that can be done to support the citizenry,” he insists.
Sheermohammadi also lives in Spain and is in consistent contact with the Iranian diaspora in Europe. She says that being outside the country these days does not mean being “safe”. Many dissidents have come together to demonstrate against the regime from different Spanish cities, and shared experiences of anonymous threats they have received.
“There have been people who have received threatening phone calls. There are other people who have received a threat directly from the Embassy of the Islamic Republic in the different countries where they live. There have been people, other Iranians, who have been messengers of these threats,” she says. “But also on the other hand, we see how Iranians are also supporting each other a lot. There are some… I have many friends who tell me ‘I’m not going back to Iran’,” she adds.