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A look at where Iran demonstrations are headed after over 100 days of public protests

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's now been more than a hundred days since Iranians began protesting in the streets. These are the longest-running public demonstrations in Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. And even though the regime has cracked down on demonstrators with arrests, violence and executions, the people continue to march. Kian Tajbakhsh was arrested for taking part in earlier Iranian protests in 2009, and he's now with Columbia University. Good to have you here.

KIAN TAJBAKHSH: Good to talk with you.

SHAPIRO: Let's recall that these protests started when a 22-year-old named Mahsa Amini died after morality police detained her. But the movement has become about much more than just her death. How would you describe what the protests are about right now?

TAJBAKHSH: Well, I mean, I think, as you point out, it began as an anti-hijab movement. And I've described it as the first feminist uprising in Iran because it was both unprecedented in the anger, the explicit rejection of the fundamentalist Islamic model of lifestyle that is imposed on women and the willingness of these young women and their male supporters to confront the violent repression of the regime. You know, these young people rejected the idea that women's bodies should be controlled by an Islamist government that does not, you know, seek the consent of the people for its laws but imposes it. But it also grew into a much broader kind of criticism of the way in which public space and the public realm is governed in Iran. And then, as many people have heard, there are many demands for a change of regime. So that's the kind of evolution we've seen over the last three months.

SHAPIRO: And why do you think, when other protests have either lost momentum or been forcibly stamped out, this one has persisted?

TAJBAKHSH: Well, I think partly it has to do with what I - you know, what I think is a taboo-breaking kind of initiative or moment in Iran. I think it has to do with the fact that the young people who are protesting - and we should remember that, by all accounts, the majority of the protesters are young. They're from their mid-teens to their late 20s. They've reached a breaking point, where they reject the lifestyle imposed on them. They want to be free. It really is a group of young people who are fed up and who are willing to risk quite a lot.

SHAPIRO: Well, I was going to ask about that. It's one thing to say, I wish my life were different. It's another thing to say, in the face of imprisonment, torture, even death - I mean, by most estimates, hundreds of people have been killed in these protests. These demands are so important that people will continue to march in the face of that.

TAJBAKHSH: Yes, that's absolutely right. I mean, I have to say that I think that the bravery and the courage and the extent of the resilience of the young protesters has taken many people by surprise. And it is unprecedented, but I think it has to do with a sense - a very existential sense that these young people feel - that they no longer are able to tolerate this imposition.

SHAPIRO: And do you think it poses a true threat to the regime?

TAJBAKHSH: Well, unfortunately, I think, for the protesters and for those who wish a more liberal and democratic future for Iran, I don't think so in the short term. As of November, we've seen a kind of plateauing of the number of people coming out into the streets, and it hasn't really grown and brought in other groups of the society, such as workers or even the middle class and the middle-aged in the urban centers like they did in 2009.

So looking at it from afar, what we see is that what some people have called the - really the strength of the protests, which is the fact that it's somewhat dispersed - there's no leadership that can be decapitated - turns out to be, in fact, over the long term, a weakness because, without organization, leadership and strategy, it's hard to imagine how to turn - to transform the energies of the protests into a long-term transformational change.

SHAPIRO: Do you think these protests have had any impact on the regime at all? I mean, there was some talk earlier this month of disbanding the morality police, although it's not clear if that's actually officially going to happen or not.

TAJBAKHSH: I mean, I think this is really the bad news about what we've learned over the last three months, and that is that authoritarian systems are remarkably resilient in the face of opposition. I mean, the experts who look at authoritarian regimes point to three pillars of regime strength - a cohesive ruling elite, a highly developed, loyal coercive apparatus and the destruction of rival organizations and alternative centers of power. Looking at those three, what is very striking is how these all seem to be intact. So unfortunately, it's hard to see them crumbling in the next six months or so.

SHAPIRO: Well, to end on a more positive note, is there one moment or image from the last hundred-plus days of protests that sticks with you?

TAJBAKHSH: I think the image of young men supporting the young women has been absolutely uplifting. And I think that the fact that the young men supported and do support the young women in their demands for a more gender-equal society I think bodes well for the future. It'll be very hard for them to go back into their families and into their houses and even to their own marriages, let's say, or their partnerships, and treat women in a more traditional and discriminatory way. So I think that these protests have thrown down a gauntlet. It's a moral challenge to this regime - how they're going to govern a seething, dissatisfied, unhappy young generation and - it must be said - a much broader group of the society that is also unhappy, but is silent currently. How the regime is going to do this in the future - I think we've entered into a new phase in Iran, And I think this is a challenge that all Iranians need to think very, very clearly about.

SHAPIRO: That's Kian Tajbakhsh. His latest book is "Creating Local Democracy In Iran: State Building And The Politics Of Decentralization." Thanks a lot.

TAJBAKHSH: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kai McNamee
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.