Since the death of twenty-two-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini on September 16, 2022, three days after she fell into a coma and died in police custody, Iran’s regime keeps ramping up its efforts to maintain order and rein in its people.
Last October, Ramtin Fatehi joined pro-democracy demonstrations in Germany. He wanted to be the voice of his father, uncle, and aunt who had all gone missing for ten days in Sanandaj, the capital of Iran’s northwestern Kurdistan province. By the time Ramtin had taken to the streets in Berlin, the regime’s security services had already murdered his father back home.
Roya Heshmati comes from Sanandaj. On January 6, the thirty-four-year-old activist who lives in Tehran was arrested after a photograph of her was posted on social media. “Roya Heshmati encouraged permissiveness [by appearing] disgracefully in busy public places in Tehran,” according to the court. Roya was walking down a popular street in the capital when a photo, snapped at a distance from behind, showed her in a modest black skirt, flat shoes, and a red blouse. Failure to wear a head scarf was her offense. Roya was sentenced to seventy-four lashes.
Last month on January 23, Mohammad Ghobadlou, a twenty-three-year-old protester with a mental disability, was hanged. On the same day, Farhad Salimi was executed. He came from Iran’s Kurdish Sunni minority and had pleaded for a retrial without torture-tainted “confessions.” Ethnic minorities in Iran are disproportionately targeted for executions.
Not that other minorities are spared. The Iranian regime is estimated to have executed between four thousand and six thousand gay and lesbian citizens since the Islamic Republic’s founding in 1979. Nor is deviation or dissent of any sort tolerated. Mohammed Nourizad, a filmmaker calling for political change, has been locked up now for half a dozen years. Recently, he denounced corruption in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where he’s being held. For that, he was just handed five more years.
The battle of wills in Iran between rulers and ruled is becoming extraordinary. The pro-democracy protests that rocked Iran in 2022 continue across the country’s thirty-one provinces. In December, a viral dance campaign frustrated authorities—and inspired the country.
One needs to be creative. “Disfigured faces. Metal pellets lodged in skulls. Ruptured retinas. Permanent blindness.” That’s the medical journal The Lancet on regime efforts to drive protestors off the streets. Blinding eye injuries led dozens of Iranian ophthalmologists to sign a petition demanding security forces end the use of projectile weapons.
“Despite the brutal crackdown—some twenty thousand people have been arrested over the past year and a half—Iranians remain defiant,” says Golnaz Esfandiari, managing editor of the RFE/RL Persian network Farda. People shout at night in defiance from the windows of their apartment buildings. Plain clothes police mark buildings with a red “x” to designate properties under surveillance.
It’s no wonder that the Iranian regime supports Vladimir Putin’s campaign to annihilate Ukrainians. The Moscow-Tehran axis is part of a wider war against pluralism, tolerance, respect for diversity—and a rules-based international order. A fragmenting, increasingly inward-looking America presents opportunities for tyrants lusting for spheres of influence. That we are prone to underestimate adversaries hardly helps. In Ukraine, Russia’s decrepit armed forces have shown resilience. Iran’s dictatorship is not going down without a fight.
Roya Heshmati has women’s rights and the safety and security of girls on her mind. “Why was I identified in less than twenty-four hours from a back-view photo,” she asked, “while for four months, schoolgirls have been poisoned without any arrests or trials?” Her jailers professed ignorance. Roya expressed skepticism that random mischief can explain gas attacks across ten provinces and sixty schools.
“The regime has no solution to its ‘Roya’ problem,” says Kambiz Fattahi, Farda’s director; “[the clerics] now face a new, courageous generation that is fearless and fed up with the Islamic Republic.” Of course, the brave people of Iran will decide Iran’s future. But considering the trouble Iran causes in the world, you would think the United States and its allies would do more to hasten a truly ghastly regime’s demise. How else to end the terror at home and abroad?
On her way to the lashing, Roya was reminded by her lawyer, whom she later described as kind and helpful, that an expression of remorse might mean leniency and that the expected bruises and scars would take a long time to heal. Into the dark room she went, recounting later:
There was a bed with handcuffs and iron bands welded to both sides. . . . there was a chair and a small table behind the door, the latter full of whips. It resembled a full-fledged medieval torture chamber. . . . The man began striking my shoulders, my back, my hips, my thighs, my legs. I lost count of the blows. Under my breath, I was reciting: In the name of woman, in the name of life, the garments of slavery were torn apart. May our dark night turn into dawn.
Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.
Image: Roya Heshmati. (Source: RFE/RL/social media)
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