Iran’s regime is more aggressive than ever as it fights for survival, 45 years on

Domestic persecution, arrests and executions are on the rise as Iranians increasingly reject Tehran's hardline rule

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Amir Sartipi has only known life under the Islamic Republic, a system born out of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

In the northern Iranian city of Gorgan, surrounded by lush mountains, the 25-year-old eked out the days following his military service by modelling and teaching drama, until his life was upturned almost overnight.

Born to a judge father, his uncles also served in Iran’s military under the power systems Mr Sartipi began to question as he grew older.

In 2019, he joined protests that swept Iran against fuel price increases in an already-battered economy, hoping for change within the government to improve the lives of fellow Iranians. Four years later, the same judiciary system his father worked for sentenced him to death.

February 11 marks 45 years since Iran’s Islamic Revolution that ended the Pahlavi dynasty and ushered in a new regime under exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

For the small minority in power, the revolution – and its enduring legacy – remain a victory. But its security lies on shaky ground, and Iranians say they are hungry, more than ever, for change.

Protester tells of arrest and torture in Iranian prison

Mr Sartipi is one of an estimated 22,000 people who were arrested during the 2022 Mahsa Amini protests – widely dubbed as the biggest threat to the regime in its history.

As news emerged of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) units being transferred to the Kurdish west to suppress demonstrations, he began to organise small protests with friends in Gorgan.

“In 2022, people were shouting 'Death to [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei, death to the Islamic Republic' for the first time. In 2019, we didn’t have that. Back then, we thought the police were supporting us. This time they beat everyone,” he told The National.

“They didn’t care if you were old, young, if you had nothing to defend yourself. I saw a video of a girl being beaten to death, but the road was so empty that no one could hear her.”

Days later, Mr Sartipi was arrested.

“They came for me when I was in the shower, pulled me naked on to the street and put me in solitary confinement,” he said, showing the spaces where his teeth were knocked out during lengthy police beatings.

For months, he was moved between solitary confinement, IRGC prison and police custody. In each, he endured extensive physical, psychological and sexual abuse.

“I was ready for torture, but not this kind of torture.

“At first, they tortured me for 10 days. I needed emergency medical help, but they sent me straight to prison,” he said.

“One time, they beat me so badly I fainted. They kept shaking me to wake up, but I couldn't breathe … They took me to hospital, and I was told I had a heart attack.”

While Iran’s regime remains committed to its ideology from almost half a century ago, its rivals, including Saudi Arabia, have made strides to modernise and integrate globally, and its population – mostly born after 1979 – are increasingly alienated.

Women’s personal freedoms in Iran further restricted

Neda Mirzaloo, 43, was born in Tehran a year after the revolution.

When she was six months old, her father, who had worked for the Shah, was killed in the Iran-Iraq war. She was sent to a school for “martyrs” of the republic, where she was forced to wear a chador from the age of eight and banned from speaking to male classmates.

In March 1979, four months before her birth, thousands of women had marched through Tehran on International Women’s Day in protest at new laws mandating a strict dress code, including mandatory hijabs for women, that remains in place to this day.

“If your ankles were showing, they would make you stand in piles of cockroaches, on the street. They would paint men’s arms if they were not covered,” she told The National, recalling scenes on the streets as she grew up.

Once I was going out to a concert, wearing a red coat. They arrested me. But the same morality police wanted to know where I had bought it.”

The actions of Iran’s morality police were thrust into the limelight after 22-year-old Ms Amini, arrested for “improperly” wearing her hijab, died in their custody.

Over the past year, Tehran has only intensified surveillance of women – installing security cameras to monitor them in cars, barring students not wearing a hijab from university, and enacting a law that punishes women without headscarves to 10 years in prison.

Under current rules, women are banned from water parks, public transport and shops for flouting the rules.

As a budding environmentalist, Ms Mirzaloo began working as a ministry lawyer in Tehran but became increasingly disillusioned due to government corruption, which she says has decimated Iran's environment.

She participated in the 2009 Green Movement protests, an eight-month movement against the election victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that was rejected by thousands of people calling for a new vote. Like Mr Sartipi, she said hope for reform has since died.

“We tried to change the laws, but right now Iranians don't want the regime any more. They don’t want Khamenei or the Islamic Republic. We tried that for 45 years,” she said.

“Eighty-five million people are in prison,” she said referring to Iran’s population. “Before the Islamic Republic, we wanted to turn Iran into Dubai, into the way it has modernised. Our leaders want to turn us into North Korea.”

Repression not sustainable but ‘the only instrument Iran has left’

Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, head of Iran Human Rights (IHR), an Oslo-based monitor that has tracked civil rights offences across Iran for two decades, said the regime has always been repressive.

“The human rights situation has never been good. The main difference, in the past four years, compared to 15 or 20 years ago is that suppression is the only instrument they have left,” he said.

“Years ago, they could give some hope by saying there were reformists people could vote for. People had hope for reform within the system. But now, slogans are against both factions of the regime.”

He said the government knows this level of repression is not sustainable.

“But sustainability is not their primary priority right now, survival is their priority. The only way they can hold on to power is by spreading fear.”

Repression is especially strong in areas where minority groups are dominant, including the Kurdish-majority west and Baloch south-east.

It was there that the fiercest opposition to the regime erupted following the death of Ms Amini, and there where the regime’s response was the most brutal.

“The Islamic Republic is facing a crisis of legitimacy in the region,” said Rebin Rahmani, director of the Kurdistan Human Rights Network.

“This has led it to label the dynamic and potentially dissenting Kurdish society as a threat to its existence.”

He said security measures have since intensified along with increased arrests of civilians, rights activists and relatives of the killed Kurdish protesters.

“But hope is still alive.”

Surge in executions a sign that the regime has become ‘more desperate’

At least 76 people were executed in the first eight weeks of 2024, according to an IHR toll.

Most are executed on drugs charges, said Mr Amiry-Moghaddam, because it typically results in lessened international outrage. But as domestic fury grows, so do the punishments as the regime becomes more desperate to cling to power, say rights groups.

At least five people are at imminent risk of execution for participating in the 2022 protests, said Mr Amiry-Moghaddam.

In the north-eastern city of Mashhad, shopkeepers told The National they have been left with no funds after a strike in support of four executed Kurdish prisoners prompted authorities to freeze their accounts.

Mr Sartipi was sentenced to death after being accused of various crimes, including insulting the supreme leader, without trial.

One day, while in custody, he was told he was being taken to the doctor before being blindfolded and led up some stairs.

“They told me to pray to God to go to heaven. I thought everything was finished,” he said, describing a noose being put around his neck.

“I was so scared, I urinated, and they started laughing.”

His sentence was later repealed without explanation, and he has since fled the country.

“I feel what the people who are executed felt. I just didn't die.

“Every day I feel more anger, I feel more hopeless. I wish I was dead.”

Mr Amin-Moghaddam said it was only a matter of time before the government would “lose control” over the people again, having underestimated public anger following the death of Ms Amini.

“When they lose control next time, what will trigger it? No one knows. Iran is a country of more than 80 million people. The absolute majority don't have any hope of any improvement. The poorer are getting poorer, and this creates a very dangerous situation for the regime.

“Even the people who support it, within the regime. They are no longer willing to die for it,” he said.

As internal tensions rise, Iran plays with fire abroad

Dissatisfaction with the regime's authoritarian rule, economic mismanagement and social restrictions have fuelled widespread dissent across Iran. From pro-democracy activists to ethnic minorities seeking greater autonomy, the regime faces formidable challenges.

“Iran experienced its most radical movement of dissent in 2022-23 in the context of the Women, Life, Freedom movement, which showed the depth of popular discontent,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, dean of the College of Arts, Sciences, and Education at Missouri University of Science and Technology and co-author of the book Postrevolutionary Iran.

“However, the regime managed to suppress it like it has done with numerous other movements before it,” he said, adding that “the Iranian opposition is suffering from a collective action problem”.

That cauldron of internal tension within the borders of Iran shapes not only the trajectory of the country’s domestic affairs but also its involvement on the global stage.

The regime has, in recent years, resorted to proxy wars and become involved in military actions in the region to assert its dominance as well as to deflect attention from domestic discontent, an Iraqi politician who spent nearly 20 years in exile in Iran told The National.

“Iran’s proxy-driven policy and direct military actions are partly seen as an attempt to divert attention from the enormous domestic pressure and criticism,” said the Shiite lawmaker, who still lives between Tehran and Baghdad and meets regularly with Iranian counterparts.

“For the first time since 1979, Iran is feeling significant concern about the internal tensions,” he said. “Even during the Iraq-Iran war the level of concern was not as high as it has been in the past few years.”

Iran has also been subjected to numerous assassinations over the past few years – mostly by Israel – that have targeted scientists at home and military commanders in Syria.

Last month, during the commemoration of the assassination of IRGC commander Qassem Suleimani in a US air strike in 2020, ISIS carried out a suicide attack in Kerman, killing near 100 mourners.

Nearly two weeks later, Iran’s armed forces fired ballistic missiles and drones on Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan, saying it was targeting Israeli espionage centres in Iraqi Kurdistan, ISIS and other militant groups in Syria, and Baluch separatist groups in Pakistan.

Last year, Tehran also struck Iranian Kurdish dissident groups in northern Iraq.

Since the start of Israel's war on Hamas in October, Iran’s proxies in the region have been attacking US troops in Iraq and Syria, Israeli forces from southern Lebanon, and commercial ships in the Red Sea.

“Iran is allergic to signalling weakness,” said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project and senior adviser at the International Crisis Group think tank.

“It has not entered the fray in support of Hamas but has tried to calibrate pressure on the US and Israel in a way that doesn't result in a regional conflagration,” he said.

“But this is not an exact science. Tehran has been playing with fire.”

Although Iran’s “adventurous regional policy” has been under way for four decades, the government “uses events like the recent bombings in Kerman to showcase its ability to hit its opponents as a way of projecting its power”, Mr Boroujerdi said.

But some of these external actions were “miscalculated and backfired”, the Iraqi Shiite lawmaker said, referring to the response by nuclear-armed Pakistan when it retaliated within Iran, targeting Baluch dissidents.

“The Iranians didn’t expect it and sought de-escalation immediately as it was the first time since the Iraq-Iran war a country struck targets inside Iran,” he said.

“The Pakistani response showed Iran's vulnerabilities.”

Updated: February 10, 2024, 5:01 AM