Snap checkpoints. Internet malfunctions. Disinfection of universities.
The theocracy in Iran is trying hard to ignore the upcoming anniversary of the protests over the country’s mandatory hijab law, and to quell any possibility of further unrest.
However, the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on September 16 continues to reverberate throughout Iran. Some women choose not to wear the hijab, despite an increasing crackdown by authorities.
The graffiti, likely against the Iranian government, was quickly painted black by Tehran municipal workers. University professors were dismissed because of their apparent support for the demonstrators.
International pressure remains high on Iran, even as the administration tries to calm tensions with other countries in the region and the West after years of confrontation.
“Using ‘public indecency’ as a weapon to deny women and girls freedom of expression greatly disempowers them and will entrench and expand gender discrimination and marginalization,” independent UN experts warned earlier this month.
The demonstrations over the death of Amini, which erupted after she was arrested a year ago by the country’s morality police for wearing the hijab, represented one of the biggest challenges facing Iran’s theocratic regime since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The crackdown by security forces led to After that, more than 500 people were killed and more than 22 thousand people were arrested.
The Iranian government, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has blamed the West for fomenting the unrest, without providing evidence to support the claim. However, the protests have found fuel in the widespread economic pain that Iran’s 80 million people have faced since the collapse of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers after former President Donald Trump in 2018 unilaterally withdrew America from the agreement.
With the return of Western sanctions, Iran’s currency – the rial – collapsed, wiping out people’s life savings. Prices of food and other necessities have risen sharply as inflation grips the country, partly due to global pressures in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine. The unemployment rate officially stands at 8% overall, although one in five young Iranians is unemployed.
Videos of last year’s demonstrations showed many young people participating in the protests, prompting authorities to appear to focus more heavily on Iranian universities in recent weeks. There is historical precedence for these concerns: in 1999, student-led protests swept through Tehran and at least three people were killed and 1,200 arrested as demonstrations quickly spread to other cities.
Although college campuses have largely remained one of the few safe places where students can demonstrate, the latest crackdown has been felt by universities themselves. Over the past year, the Iranian Student Union Council said hundreds of students faced disciplinary committees at their universities over the protests.
During the same period, at least 110 university professors and lecturers were dismissed or temporarily suspended from work, according to a report published by the reformist Al-Etemad newspaper. The dismissals were primarily concentrated in schools in Tehran, including Tehran Azad University, Tehran University, and Tehran Medical University.
Etemad said those fired were divided into two groups: teachers concerned about the election of hardline President Ebrahim Raisi and those who supported the protests that followed Amini’s death.
But there have been shootings at other schools as well.
At Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, artificial intelligence and bioinformatics professor Ali Sharifi Zarchi, who supported his students participating in the protests and later faced interrogation by Iranian security forces, was among those dismissed.
A petition urging the university to rescind his expulsion was signed by 15,000 people.
“The pressure on professors and students is a black stain on the honorable history of #TehranUniversity and must be stopped,” Zarchi wrote online before his dismissal.
The university professors who were also dismissed included Hossein Alaei, a former commander in the paramilitary Revolutionary Guards and deputy defense minister, and Reza Salehi Amiri, a former culture minister. A decade ago, Alaei had once compared Khamenei to the former Shah of Iran, while Amiri was a former official in the administration of relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani.
Rouhani, whose government reached the nuclear deal with world powers in 2015, criticized university dismissals.
“Destroying the prestige of universities and their professors… is a loss for the students, the science, and the country,” Rouhani said, according to a report on the “Jamran” online news website.
The president of the University of Tehran, Mohammad Moghimi, had tried to defend the dismissals, describing the professors as facing “ethical problems.” Some hardliners also tried to insist that the dismissals were not political, although the hardline Kayhan newspaper directly linked the dismissals to the demonstrations.
“It makes no sense to allow someone to propagate against the regime under the supervision of foreigners,” the newspaper wrote.
Protesters in the streets of Tehran say the government’s move will likely worsen the situation.
“They want to bring their people into the university in the hope of stopping the protest, but we students will show our objections in a way they cannot imagine,” said Shima, a 21-year-old university student. “They failed to prevent last year’s protests because no one can predict earthquakes.”
Farnaz, a 27-year-old university student, added that the authorities are “fighting windmills with wooden swords.” Both women gave only their first names for fear of retaliation.
The government is trying to remain publicly silent about the anniversary. Raisi never mentioned Amini’s name during a recent press conference with journalists — who also made casual references to the demonstrations. Iran’s state-run and semi-official media also avoided mentioning the anniversary, which usually indicates pressure from the government.
But activists have privately reported a rise in the number of people being interrogated and arrested by security forces, including Amini’s uncle.
Saleh Nikbakht, the Amini family’s lawyer, is facing a lawsuit accusing him of spreading “propaganda” during his interviews with foreign media.
More police officers have been observed on the streets of Tehran in recent days, including surprise checkpoints for those riding motorcycles in the country’s capital. Internet access has been significantly disrupted in recent days, according to the advocacy group NetBlocks.
Abroad, Iranian state media reported that someone set tires on fire in front of the Iranian embassy in Paris over the weekend. Demonstrations to mark the anniversary are scheduled for Saturday in several cities abroad.
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