The Violent Mullahs Unrest in Iran Sends Waves of Uncertainty Across the Region

Students without headscarves in front of a photo of Iran's leaders Khomeini und Khamenei.
Students without headscarves in front of a photo of Iran’s leaders Khomeini und Khamenei. Foto: SalamPix / Abaca Press / ddp

With each victim in Iran, the question as to how the West should react becomes more pressing. Experts are skeptical that the end is nigh for the regime in Tehran – and the country’s nuclear ambitions remain a concern.

By Monika BolligerAnn-Dorit BoySusanne KoelblRené Pfister und Bernhard Zand


Asalouyeh, a dusty gas and oil town on the Persian Gulf, has only ever really held a place in Iran’s industrial history. But on Monday, hundreds of workers protested in front of the gates of a large petrochemical factory there. “Death to the dictator!” they chanted. “It will be a bloody year!”

Sanandaj, the capital of the Kurdistan province of northwestern Iran: Gunfire can be heard in brief clips posted to Twitter, while tanks and explosions are visible. Armed men are apparently firing on demonstrators in the clips. The authenticity of the videos is just as difficult to verify as the number of victims. Human rights groups report that there have been a number of deaths and injuries.DER SPIEGEL 42/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 42/2022 (October 15th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.SPIEGEL International

The Grand Bazaar in Tehran, meanwhile, is eerily silent. Numerous vendors have opted not to reopen their stores after the weekend. “Even if we did open” one of them told the news website IranWire, “people aren’t doing well economically. We wouldn’t sell anything.”

For the last four weeks, people across Iran, most of them young, have dared to protest against the Islamist regime. The uprising was triggered by the fate of the 22-year-old Kurdish woman Jina Mahsa Amini, who was taken into custody in Tehran on September 13 by the morality police and didn’t survive her treatment by the authorities.

Early on, it was mostly women and students who took to the streets. Now, though, the demonstrations include schoolgirls, blue-collar laborers and office workers. And while Mahsa Amini’s death may have provided the spark, the people are now focusing their ire on the regime, on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and on the dismal situation into which he has led the country. Iran is politically and economically isolated, vast swaths of the population suffer from poverty, and Iranians are at the mercy of the bigotry and brutality of the Revolutionary Guards.

Zamin* lives in Tehran and has been out on the street almost every day. Sometimes, there are just a handful of them, she writes in a text message, at others the group numbers in the hundreds. She says they have found lifeless bodies lying in a pool of blood on more than one occasion.

Nasima*, another critic of the regime, reports: “The regime’s spies are everywhere.” They primarily go after the photographers, she says, so that the world sees no images of the protests. In late September, the photojournalist Arash Ashourinia died, likely following torture involving electric shocks. Another photographer, Ahmad Halabisaz, was arrested. “They don’t want any witnesses to their foul work,” writes Nasima.

“The streets are full of the oppressors. Everywhere, they are after us.”


Foruz* also sends daily text messages to DER SPIEGEL, breathless and full of fear, sadness and anger. When the internet is working, she also sends videos, one of which shows a group of armed young men on motorcycles. “The streets are full of the oppressors. Everywhere, they are after us.”


Digitale Dekade: Die Chancen der Cloud

EU-weit sollen bis 2030 öffentliche Dienste digital verfügbar und 5G überall ausgerollt sein, Bürger über digitale Grundkompetenzen verfügen und Unternehmen die digitalen Schlüsseltechnologien Cloud, KI und Big Data nutzen. Ist das realistisch?

The longer the protests last and the more people lose their lives, the more pressing becomes the question for Western countries as to how to react. Washington has imposed sanctions on seven high-ranking politicians in Tehran, while the European Union intends to follow on Monday, with entry bans and the freezing of Iranian assets. But thus far, there has been no coordinated and compelling reaction from the West. That may have to do with the fact that Iran’s leadership tends to blame the West, and the United States in particular, for all anti-regime uprisings – a canard that former U.S. administrations have long been eager to promote.

A demonstrator walking in front of graffiti in Tehran reading: "For freedom."

A demonstrator walking in front of graffiti in Tehran reading: “For freedom.”

Iran isn’t just any old country in the Middle East. Its geo-political importance outstrips that of almost all of its neighbors. As the largest and most important Shiite country, Iran and the Sunni-led Saudi Arabia are the two strongest regional powers. Tehran’s confessional allies stretch from Syria to Bahrain and from the Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The country also provides shelter to millions of refugees and migrants, and the fact that it lies at the intersection of international smuggling corridors gives the regime significant blackmailing leverage, as does its increasingly tight relations with China and Russia.

Most of all, though, Iran is home to a nuclear program, the military dimensions of which only became clear in the early 2000s. After years of negotiations with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council along with Germany and the European Union, Tehran agreed in 2015 to place its nuclear facilities under the oversight of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But in 2018, the U.S. administration of Donald Trump backed out of the deal. Since then, Iran has been working on new centrifuges and concerns are again growing about a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Along with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the tensions surrounding Taiwan and the North Korean nuclear program, Iran is one of the most dangerous crises of the present day.

But what do the protests mean for Iran and its turbulent neighborhood? Could they – following the failed student uprising of 1999, the Green Movement of 2009 and the violently crushed protests of 2017/2018 and 2019 – finally herald the end of the Islamist regime? Similar to the situation in Ukraine, Western governments find themselves in a position of weighing any reaction to the Iranian protests against the significant geopolitical risks such a response might entail.

It remains to be seen whether the protest movement will be strong enough this time to destabilize the regime. What is clear, though, is that the unrest in Iran has consequences for its neighbors.

For many in Afghanistan, instability in Iran means that they might lose their last available refuge, and one of the few possibilities open to them for earning a bit of money and sending it back home. According to UN estimates, more than 3 million people from Afghanistan now live in Iran.

The unrest could also become a problem for Pakistan. After years of hostility between the two countries, Pakistan, which was hit by devastating flooding this summer, has begun seeking closer economic ties with Tehran.

The consequences of the protests, though, are particularly dramatic in northern Iraq, where Iranian Revolutionary Guards have been firing on refugee camps and the bases of Iranian opposition groups for several weeks. In late September, nine people lost their lives in such attacks. Tehran has blamed organizations like the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan of supporting the protests from Iraq.

Passersby in Tehran, where hundreds have been protesting against the Islamist regime since the death of the young Kurdish woman Jina Mahsa Amini on September 16.

Passersby in Tehran, where hundreds have been protesting against the Islamist regime since the death of the young Kurdish woman Jina Mahsa Amini on September 16. Foto: Abedin Taherkenareh / EPA

Sunni Saudi Arabia is also viewing the events in Shiite Iran with no small amount of wariness. The two rivals have long been, and still are, rivals in a number of different conflicts, from the Iraqi civil war that broke out following the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the Syrian conflict to the ongoing fighting in Yemen.

The U.S., meanwhile, which has long been allied with Saudi Arabia, has grown increasingly concerned about the growing foreign policy self-confidence coming from Riyadh. At the same time, though, U.S. President Joe Biden is facing an even greater dilemma with Iran. He would like to revive the nuclear deal, but talks at IAEA headquarters in Vienna have been difficult from the start. Iran is demanding a guarantee that the next U.S. president won’t simply suspend the deal again – a demand that Biden is unable to deliver. The U.S. is also alarmed by the fact that Iran has continued to develop its nuclear program in parallel with the ongoing talks and will soon have enough highly enriched uranium to build a bomb.

The protests are making the situation even more complicated. Biden is under pressure to take a clear position in opposition to the violent regime in Tehran, but he also wants to complete a nuclear deal.

Other Western countries find themselves in the same predicament: Should they seriously be negotiating with a government that has young women beaten to death because a lock of their hair peaks out from under their hijab?

“Throw the diplomats out, cut off relations with this regime.”


Biden would like to posture as a statesman who doesn’t look away when human rights are being violated. At the same time, though, he is eager to avoid yet another large conflict on top of the war in Ukraine and ongoing enmity with China. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has made it clear that Washington intends to continue the negotiations with the Islamist regime in Tehran. Even during the peak of the Cold War, Sullivan has said, Washington was open to talks with Moscow aimed at nuclear weapons controls. The same holds true for Iran, he says, and U.S. efforts at ensuring that the country does not obtain nuclear weapons.

That, though, stands in contrast to what many of the protesters are demanding. “Close the embassies of the Islamic Republic,” the journalist Nasima has written on her “wish list” for the international community. “Throw the diplomats out, cut off relations with this regime.”

A woman from Shiraz demands: “Go after the investments of Iranian government officials and their minions in your countries. It is money that they have stolen from the Iranian people.”

“Stop pitying us. Show the uninhibited brutality. Destroy the regime by showing images of what they have done.”

A woman from Tehran

A 68-year-old from Tehran who is wary of sharing even her first name, wrote to DER SPIEGEL: “Stop pitying us. Show the uninhibited brutality. Destroy the regime by showing images of what they have done.”

Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director general at the IAEA responds to such demands with the sobriety of an experienced nuclear diplomat. “I do not personally see reasons for the IAEA member states to cut diplomatic relations with Iran.” The protests, he says, “will certainly have an impact on the atmosphere in the Iranian leadership,” he says, “but at least for the time being, high level Iranian officials have stated that the nuclear issue is not tied with the other developments taking place in Iran.”

Related Article

Heinonen has been monitoring the Iranian nuclear weapons program since it was revealed in 2003. And he is among those who believe that Tehran is just a few months away from being able to build a bomb. According to an IAEA report from September, Iran has managed to produce more than 55 kilograms of 60 percent enriched uranium and another 331 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium. From there, the step to a bomb is not large, Heinonen told DER SPIEGEL. “If you add up the capacities of their centrifuges, you have to assume that they are able to produce sufficient 20 and 60 percent enriched uranium within a month to build three atomic bombs.”

As such, Heinonen believes the nuclear deal from 2015 is obsolete and thinks that a new approach is necessary. “I would take the risk of allowing this treaty to flounder and start work on an entirely new one.” If Iran were to build a bomb, he says, other countries in the region would be sure to follow. “Neighbors like Saudi Arabia can unfortunately learn from the example of Iran: If you remain stubborn, then you get what you want. You might have to pay a high price, but the international community is not ultimately able to stop you.”

“A return to the nuclear deal is the least bad of all options.”

Raz Zimmt, an Iran expert from Israel

Israel, meanwhile, the country that is perhaps most affected by this development, finds itself in the midst of an election campaign. On November 1, Benjamin Netanyahu, among the most obstinate opponents of a nuclear deal with Iran, could celebrate a comeback. He has been warning for decades that Iran could become a nuclear power. Many Israelis see Netanyahu as a kind of security guarantee – for the eventuality that an overthrow of the Iranian regime fails to prevent the worst-case scenario, namely the construction of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

But Israel is also home to other views. The protests, says Iran expert Raz Zimmt from the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, are “likely the most serious domestic policy juncture since 1979, but I believe that a regime collapse remains unlikely.”

And if the protest movement does, in fact, find success? “Many think that would be an improvement,” says Zimmt. “But what if it results in a military dictatorship?”

Zimmt believes “that a return to the nuclear deal is the least bad of all options. There is no other possibility to win time and adapt our policies.”

*The last names of women in Iran have been withheld in this story to protect their identities.


Leave a Reply