Oct 12, 2022

The protests in Iran, explained.

The protests in Iran, explained.
Photo by Artin Bakhan / Unsplash

Widespread demonstrations are threatening the Iranian government's control.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes

We're covering the protests in Iran and what they mean for Iranians and the U.S. Plus, a question about how the Tangle team goes to work every morning. 

Quick hits.

  1. President Biden said he plans to reevaluate the United States' relationship with Saudi Arabia after OPEC's oil production cuts. (The evaluation)
  2. John Fetterman (D) gave his first sit-down, one-on-one television interview since suffering a stroke in May. The Pennsylvania Senate candidate used closed captioning during the interview to respond to oral questions. (The interview)
  3. President Biden called on Nury Martinez (D) and other Los Angeles City Council members to resign after leaked audio of a year-old conversation, which included racist remarks, was made public this week. (The controversy)
  4. Separately, in an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper, Biden said that he did not think Russia would use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. He also said he would make a final decision about running in 2024 after the midterms. (The interview)
  5. The Labor Department proposed a new rule that will make it more difficult for companies like DoorDash and Uber to classify workers as independent contractors. (The rule)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

The protests in Iran. For the last three weeks, spontaneous protests in Iran have led to chaotic scenes across the country, including deadly clashes between civilians and police, rioting, and attempts by the Iranian government to suppress the resulting outrage. On Monday, social media posts showed workers at two major oil refineries taking part in strikes, a significant escalation of the anti-government demonstrations right in the heart of Iran's critical oil industry.

What started it all: In mid-September, a 22-year-old woman named Mahsa Amini died after being detained by Iran's morality police. Since the election of hardline President Ebrahim Raisi last year, Iran's morality patrols have been more aggressive in the streets, often manhandling young women over their clothes or because they left the house without a mandatory headscarf known as a hijab.

Amini, an Iranian-Kurdish woman, was detained by those forces and then died in their custody. Iran's government insists she wasn't abused, and state television aired footage of her collapsing at a police station and receiving care. However, despite Tehran equipping police officers with body cameras five years ago, no footage of her arrest or transportation has emerged. That, paired with officials’ insistence on a quick burial, led to an outburst of anti-government anger in her hometown.

Protests at Amini's burial site have since spread across the country, and are being described as "spontaneous and leaderless." Largely fueled by Iran's upper and middle classes, the protests have been led primarily by university students.

What’s happening now: It's hard to say for sure. On September 24, state television reports said 41 people had been killed in the clashes. That “official” number has not been updated since. Iran Human Rights estimates the number is at least 185. Authorities have arrested at least 1,900 people, according to the Associated Press, including 35 reporters and photographers since the demonstrations began on September 17. Iranian authorities say rioters have killed at least 20 members of the security forces.

As they've done in the past, especially among the 10 million Kurds who live in Iran, the Iranian government is attempting to stem the unrest by shutting down the internet, cracking down on protests and arresting anyone who refuses to comply. Even in normal times, it can be hard to decipher what is happening in Iran, a country of 80 million people. But it's even more difficult now. Most of the images from Iran are coming in seconds-long video clips activists upload to the internet.

Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, demonstrations in Iran have become much more common, including massive student protests in 1999 and economic protests in 2017 and 2018. In 2019, protests broke out when the government eliminated subsidies on gasoline. This time, though, Iranian hardliners control every lever of government, meaning protesters are focused solely on the governing faction.

Today, we're going to look at some opinions from the left and right here in the states, as well as some thoughts from Iranian writers.

What the left is saying.

The New York Times editorial board wrote about how the U.S. can help support Iranian women who are calling for change.

“The protests since Ms. Amini’s death, led by women, have persisted for weeks and have brought Iranians in dozens of cities into the streets to reveal the depth of their anger. Iranians who are sick and tired of living under a tyrannical theocracy deserve the support of the United States and its allies," the board said. "Ayatollah Khamenei is 83 and ailing, and he is among the last of the Islamic revolutionaries who overthrew the monarchy. His passing, however, would be no guarantee of a more liberal regime in Tehran. As Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in a recent essay in The Times, his cohort of true believers have been largely supplanted by opportunists in search of wealth and privilege.

“Global isolation may be damaging to the regime, but global integration would be dangerous... The moral case is not solely the outrageous behavior of the clerical regime. It is also the fact that so much of the economic suffering of the Iranian people — rents that have multiplied, goods that have become prohibitively expensive, a currency that has plummeted so low that Iranians need stacks of bills to do everyday shopping — is the result of waves of American sanctions,” it added. “The U.S. needs to maintain its efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, and this board supports continuing diplomatic efforts that could curtail Iran’s nuclear weapons program and open the door to future agreements. But some of the current sanctions have gone too far, and fallen mostly on the very activists that the United States would like to help.”

In The Los Angeles Times, Alex Shams said this protest was different.

“The protests are unprecedented in scale and unity: Iranians from different ethnic and regional backgrounds, nonreligious and religious alike, have taken part, defying government threats that rebellion could lead to chaos,” Shams wrote. “And they differ dramatically from past protests that have shaken the country’s leadership. Authorities have tried to crush the demonstrations with batons, tear gas and bullets. Dozens, and possibly many more, have been killed and many more arrested. But the movement continues. Small groups of protesters move from place to place erecting temporary barricades, yelling out, ‘Death to the Dictator!’ and throwing rocks at cops who try to stop them.

“Students at many universities have gone on strike, holding sit-ins and walkouts that have been violently dispersed,” Shams said. “Acts of civil disobedience have even spread to high schools, where thousands of girls have defiantly pulled off their mandatory veils and shouted down administrators trying to stop them… Iranians are deciding their own fate. But it is crucial that the international community support them, including by lifting sanctions that have had a corrosive effect on Iranian civil society. The Biden administration wisely relaxed U.S. sanctions that blocked Iranians’ access to communication tools. He must continue to do more in that direction, including easing visa, financial and educational interchange restrictions that limit Iranians’ access to the outside world.”

What the right is saying.

In The Washington Examiner, Michael Rubin said the protests have exposed the purported "reformists" who court the West for approval.

"[Many in the West] embraced the idea that regime 'reformists' truly wanted a more progressive future. Think tank analysts and academics attended Track II dialogues, never questioning whether those with whom they talked had real power or were sincere. Journalists traveling to Iran amplified the voices of those who sought a change in regime style, not its substance. It was a quid pro quo for access. Whether out of naivete, ideology, or ambition, many diplomats embraced the notion that reformism was real. This was the case a decade ago when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s aide Jake Sullivan began secret dialogue with Iranian officials in Oman. His logic? Rewarding reformists might tip the balance of Iranian power in their direction.

“In reality, it did the opposite. Reformism always represented a cynical good cop to the leader and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' bad cop," he wrote. "Now, as regime thugs murder young women in the street and execute protesters behind bars, what is noticeable is what has not happened: None of the reformist diplomats who for so long cultivated Western scholars, officials, or journalists have defected or denounced the regime’s actions. Perhaps it would be too much to expect from some trapped in Tehran, but those serving in Paris, London, or New York have no excuse: If they resigned their commission in protest, they could seek political asylum and become a voice for change. In reality, however, their silence and inaction are telling. When push comes to shove, the reformists always supported the Iranian theocracy and were willing to excuse its worst excesses."

In National Review, Bobby Miller said Biden must not squander his Iran moment.

“This grassroots uprising is reminiscent of the 2009 Green Revolution that was doomed by the Obama administration’s strategic silence. Behnam ‘Ben’ Taleblu is urging the Biden administration not to make the same mistake,” Miller said. “A senior fellow and Iranian security and political expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), Taleblu said in an interview with National Review that he hopes the Biden administration avoids squandering an opportunity as its Democratic predecessor did. There are concrete steps the U.S. can take to assist in the protesters’ valiant struggle against dystopian theocracy. First, exit the Iranian nuclear deal.

“Taleblu believes that resurrecting the Iran nuclear agreement with a regime that is hell-bent on our demise ‘would be a bigger moral, strategic, and political mistake than ever before.’ He added, ‘So long as you are entertaining a deal that would ultimately fund the domestic repression we’re seeing, you’re working backward, not forwards.’ Second, financially punish the Iranian regime,” Miller wrote. “Taleblu believes the Biden administration should ‘vigorously enforce the sanctions it inherited’... Finally, provide technological help to those protesting the regime. Taleblu’s preferred method: effecting change on the ground from 340 miles above. Elon Musk’s extension of Starlink satellite-Internet service to Iran to try to counter the regime’s Internet blackout is a start. But the Biden administration needs to enable Iranians to connect to the satellite-based network by providing the necessary equipment so they can actually use the uncensored and encrypted broadband."

From Iranians...

In Newsweek, Ari Honarvar, the founder of Rumi With A View, said she hopes Americans see the dangers of theocracy.

“In the aftermath of the Roe v. Wade reversal, I argued that we in the U.S. need to pay attention to the history of women's rights in Iran. With this ruling, religiosity has crept further into the U.S. government and is threatening to continue stripping women and minorities of their rights, as happened when theocracy came to Iran," she said. "But the coverage of the Iranian uprising in American media has been relatively muted and there has been a general lack of support from U.S.-based women's rights groups. Out of a dozen prominent feminist groups I've looked at, only a few have even tweeted to express support for this remarkable feminist movement. I understand that compassion fatigue is real and so much is competing for our attention.

“But as someone who directly experienced how quickly a society can slide into crushing theocratic rule, I am concerned that many Americans are failing to grasp how our own political trajectory is pointing more closely to that of Iran's," she wrote. "The anemic coverage of these extraordinary acts of bravery tends to mischaracterize what is happening as a leaderless movement. This is perhaps tied to the outdated idea that change requires a single leader. In Iran, communities of young women and their supporters are leading the protests, strikes, and acts of civil disobedience... It might be hard for Americans to relate to the level of repression experienced by Iranian activists—we still have so much more agency than they do. But the U.S. majority, who support a women's right to choose, must fight against a religious takeover of the government."

In Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Saba Vasefi, who fled Iran in 2010 during a previous protest, wrote about what it's like to fight the regime.

"I can't forget the teenage dissidents who chose to end their life rather than buckle beneath the jackboot of the regime," Vasefi said. "I can't forget the voices of my students and classmates that scar the land like shrapnel. I can't forget the sound of kissing was banned, how love, happiness and dancing were forbidden. Each memory slams into me with physical pain. Worse still, these crimes are being repeated, re-traumatising Iran and the Iranian diaspora. Many Iranians see no future under the regime except the possibility of more surveillance, disadvantage, discrimination, and poverty. Systems of exclusion have destroyed any sense of belonging and many believe rebellion is the only way to get recognition as human beings in a system that has lost the trust of religious as well as secular people in Iran.

"With a heart full of thrill and hope, we participated in the protests, and in each defeat, it looked like it had atrophied and in our veins only silence ran. That's why I think hope is political," she wrote. "Often the unknown frightens us. But for Iranian people, state violence is infused in their daily life and is not an unfamiliar component. Their courage is the antidote to the dreadful desperation to survive. My people have come to realise that for more than 43 years, they have been living on death row, on a gradual death, where the imagination of any prosperity and freedom was impossible."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paying subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

Power to the protesters.

I'm often blown away by the bravery of demonstrators in other countries, especially in places where the government has so much unchecked power. In the last few years we've seen massive uprisings in Hong Kong, Colombia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Venezuela, Belarus, and even public anti-war movements in Russia.

These protests, though, strike a different chord. I think that's partly because they are easier to understand through a western lens. The core of it isn't about nuanced nationalistic beliefs or gas prices or some kind of governmental change that has enraged citizens — it's about freedom. It's about an Iranian population who doesn't want their every action to be policed, especially not by a government who has failed to provide them with even the most basic living standards. The contours of the story — that police arrested a woman for her choice of clothing, and then she mysteriously died in their custody — are offensive and terrifying to anyone who has lived in a free society.

Some stories are powerful in their simplicity and I think this is one of them. When a country is dysfunctional at the top, led by religious hardliners whose views do not align with huge segments of the population, and who demand obedience from the population not by earning their trust but with batons, guns and isolation, change should take place. And so, for the protesters’ sake, I hope they can maintain their energy and see results. I also hope they feel support from the global citizens who are watching.

When it comes to what we should do — here in the U.S., as this is an American newsletter, after all — the issue is a bit more complicated.

Iranian civil rights activists like Narges Mohammadi have called on the U.S. to make democracy and human rights a priority in any diplomatic negotiations with Iran about sanctions or nuclear programs. I think this call should be heeded. One of the refrains from conflict-weary Americans is that we should avoid the politics of “regime change” — and that it has to be up to the people who live in a country to determine their own leaders. I agree with this refrain. And here we have a group of citizens risking their lives to do just that.

The state of play is odd, of course. On the one hand, every branch of Iran's government has coalesced around the most repressive leaders. On the other hand, the democratic movement Mohammadi wants to see is as strong as ever, because decades of empowerment of women through education and outreach to communities to modernize Iran have begun to succeed. Hence, the clashes we see now.

Mohammadi's argument is, in part, to relieve Iran of western sanctions. U.S. sanctions in Iran come in two forms: primary and secondary sanctions. The primary sanctions prohibit U.S. citizens and entities (like financial institutions) from partaking in certain business in Iran. Secondary sanctions are on non-U.S. entities, preventing them from engaging in transactions with specific Iranian entities. These secondary sanctions are much more controversial because they impose limitations on non-U.S. entities by threatening to cut them off from powerful U.S. entities, like the American banking system.

Just last week, the U.S. announced fresh sanctions on Iranian morality police for crackdowns on the protests, while also exempting tech companies from sanctions so they can provide increased internet access for Iranians. Mohammadi has made the case, as has Jason Rezaian, that economic sanctions designed to punish the regime actually hurt Iran's middle class more than they weaken the regime, because they give the regime more power and more ammunition to point the finger at the West.

Rather than isolate Iran with travel bans or do everything possible to grind its economy to a halt, Mohammadi argues we should engage Iran's civil society, do what we can to connect to it, and try our best to keep it connected to us — including by supplying internet connections. Meanwhile, we’d allow the middle class to function without the handicap of sanctions.

I think these are strong points, and the potential upside is huge. Isolating Iranians and leaving them to suffer from the 1-2 punch of our sanctions and their own repressive regime seems counterproductive. Regardless of the currently defunct nuclear negotiations, the least we could do for the people in Iran is allow them to engage non-Iranian businesses and monetary systems, and make it clear we support their fight for freedom from afar. Ending some of our sanctions satisfies both many Americans’ desire to remove ourselves from every global conflict, and our common desire to see global citizens benefit from increased freedoms and rights.

It’s not as much about “our support” in terms of financial or military aid, moreso removing our own thumbs from the scale and stating plainly that we side with the protesters in the street. If our government just stays the course, it’s unlikely the protesters stand a chance.

Your questions, answered.

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Tangle: This is a great question! On normal days, for the typical Monday through Thursday newsletter, I write the entire first draft of the newsletter myself. Obviously, this takes a tremendous amount of work, often with a major time crunch, so that first draft isn't always particularly strong. But it is the basis for the newsletter, with much tinkering to come, and I pretty much do it alone.

Usually, I let the team know a day or two before the newsletter goes out what topic we’ll be covering. This gives everyone time to do their own research, send me opinion pieces they think should be included, or suggest potential angles for the piece. Our intern Audrey, in particular, is responsible for sending 5-6 pieces she finds every day with explanations of why she thinks they should be included in the newsletter.

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There's some occasional variation in all this. For instance, sometimes, if we’re covering a topic really unfamiliar to everyone on staff, we’ll invite someone else in for content proofing. Or if I’m doing a lot of interviews with experts as part of our background research, I’ll ask sources to take a look at the newsletter too, and see if they find any glaring errors. But that's the general process. Friday editions are a little different, as sometimes a staff member or intern writes something, or we spend weeks on one topic, but they often follow a pretty similar process.

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Under the radar.

The death of telephone polling is near, and the impact on our understanding of public opinion is unclear. In a fresh new piece in The New York Times, resident pollster Nate Cohn talks about how polls are conducted and what can (and can't) be gleaned from them. "In the poll we have in the field right now, only 0.4 percent of dials have yielded a completed interview," Cohn writes. "If you were employed as one of our interviewers at a call center, you would have to dial numbers for two hours to get a single completed interview." You can read the full piece from The New York Times.


  • 185. The estimated number of people who have been killed during protests in Iran.
  • 19. The number of those who were children.
  • 27. The number of days until election day.
  • 51-41. Brian Kemp's (R) current lead over Stacey Abrams (D) in Georgia's governor's race.
  • 46-43. Raphael Warnock's (D) current lead over Herschel Walker (R) in Georgia's Senate race.

Have a nice day.

NASA has confirmed that its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission successfully changed the trajectory of an asteroid it intentionally struck two weeks ago. The mission was carried out by NASA to see if, in the event an asteroid were on a path to strike earth, the space agency could successfully redirect it away from our planet. “All of us have a responsibility to protect our home planet. After all, it’s the only one we have,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “This mission shows that NASA is trying to be ready for whatever the universe throws at us. NASA has proven we are serious as a defender of the planet. This is a watershed moment for planetary defense and all of humanity, demonstrating commitment from NASA's exceptional team and partners from around the world.” You can read more at NASA.com.

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