Editor’s Note: A version of this story appears in today’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, CNN’s three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.
The cries of the women outside a Tehran courthouse swell to a collective wail. The gathering is reminiscent of a vigil, but it is one of the vestiges of a nationwide uprising that has all but died down after the Iranian judiciary’s breathless handing down of death sentences in recent weeks.
Children stand at the front of the courthouse protest chanting “No to execution” in a January 14 video shared by the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA). Despite the blurring of faces in the video, one girl can be seen wiping her tears. She appears no older than 10 years.
The nationwide uprising that began in mid-September convulsed Iran, posing the biggest domestic threat to the ruling clerical class in more than a decade.
It penetrated the regime’s conservative support base and produced countless acts of defiance – and sometimes violence – against the formidable Basij, a voluntary paramilitary group that is the fulcrum of the Islamic Republic’s security apparatus. The protesters were young and angry, and a barrier of fear appeared to have broken.
Four months on, the protests have fizzled out amid a growing wave of repression against demonstrators. Four protesters have been executed by the regime; many others fear the same fate. The executions are the culmination of an increasingly violent crackdown including the gunning down of protesters, mass arrests, physical assault and sexual violence.
The regime has also doubled down on the repression of dissidents, ethnic minorities and women. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has chalked the protests up to a foreign conspiracy and has called them an “act of treason.”
Another factor working against the protesters: most people over the age of 25 have steered clear of the demonstrations, analysts and activists said. This deprived the protest movement of the momentum needed to topple a heavily sanctioned regime over which the international community has little to no remaining leverage.
Still, Iran analysts agree that the regime has kicked the can down the road, and that protests are likely to resurface. Iran’s clerical leadership is either unwilling or unable to address its festering economic problems, exacerbated by a US sanctions regime and by widespread corruption.
“People’s anger has increased, not decreased,” said a 25-year-old activist from the southeast of the country who asked not to be named due to concern for his safety. “If there were no guns in the hands of security forces, large masses of people would stage an insurrection tomorrow.”
Almost 20,000 people have been arrested according to activists. More than 500, including dozens of children, have been killed, according to HRANA.
The repressive methods have left Iran’s protesters in a catch-22 situation. Disgruntlement against the regime appears to be spreading, but its use of brute force has deterred protesters from growing to the level needed to force the regime to stand down.
The absence of a critical mass created a “mathematical problem” for the protest movement, said Ali Vaez, International Crisis Group’s Director of the Iran Project.
“The majority will only join in when the regime has lost its will to suppress,” he told CNN. “And the regime’s will to suppress is unlikely to crack unless there is a critical mass on the streets.”
Vaez compares the state of affairs in Iran to the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, a period of public frustration and dire economic conditions that years later prompted the string of reforms, known as Perestroika, that preceded the USSR’s collapse.
“(The Islamic Republic) is where the Soviet Union was in early 1980s … It is ideologically bankrupt, is economically in deep trouble and is simply unable to reform itself,” said Vaez. “Unlike the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, (Iran) still has the will to fight.”
“One can conclude that the protests will re-emerge sooner rather than later in a more ferocious manner,” he added.
The chilling effect of executions
Echoes of the uprising continue to reverberate in the country. Every night in Tehran, , chants of “death to the dictator” ring out from rooftops and from behind drawn curtains, out of the sight of security forces. Anti-regime protests continue to crop up in some of the country’s minority-dominated border regions which bore the brunt of the regime’s crackdown.
On Friday, thousands of people poured into the streets of Baloch-majority Zahedan city after noon prayers, demanding the fall of the regime.
The Kurdish-majority west of the country continues to be peppered by gatherings marking the end of 40-day mourning periods for slain protesters.
“Kurdistan, Kurdistan, the graveyard of fascists,” mourners chanted in a video shared by Iranian-Kurdish human rights group Hengaw on January 16. The mourners raised roses in the air to commemorate Hooman Abdullahi, a protester who was shot and killed by security forces.
For activists, the endurance of the protests among ethnic minorities is a sign of what’s to come. The executions, they say, will eventually backfire.
At least 18 protesters have been sentenced to death as of now, with only five having won the right to appeal, according to HRNA. More than 100 protesters have been charged with crimes that carry the death penalty.
Four people have been executed already, including high-profile prisoners such as a karate champion and children’s coach.
“People are more angry after we realized how fast and hastily they hanged those men,” said one activist in Iran who does not want to be identified for security reasons and calls himself Mr. Z. “I think they compressed the spring more. Next time, people won’t even be afraid of being hanged,” he told CNN.
The executions have drawn sharp condemnation from the international community. Reports, including CNN’s own reporting, suggest that most protesters are being denied due process, with speedy trials and access only to state-appointed lawyers.
But the death sentences have also had a chilling effect, mostly on the older generation of Iranians who largely stayed off the street and who are now trying to keep their children at home, activists say.
“Nobody wants to hold a picture of their kid,” said one activist outside Iran, referring to mothers carrying photos of their slain and arrested sons and daughters. The images have been ubiquitous since the start of the protests.
“But the kids want to build their future,” said the activist, known as Mamlekate, who has played a key role in distributing photos and video from the protests, and in connecting journalists to sources in the country.
“If the kids don’t do it, who’s going to do it?” he told CNN. “This is far from over.”
Netanyahu dismisses key ally Aryeh Deri after High Court order
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed key ally Aryeh Deri from all ministerial posts on Sunday, complying with a ruling by Israel’s highest court that it was unreasonable to appoint the Shas party leader to positions in government. Netanyahu told Deri he made the move “with a heavy heart, with great sorrow,” according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s office.
- Background: The court had said Deri’s appointment “cannot stand” due to his criminal convictions and because he had said in court last year before being sentenced over a tax fraud conviction that he would retire from public life. The ruling was a dramatic move amid an unprecedented confrontation between his government and the judiciary.
- Why it matters: Netanyahu’s government is planning major judicial reforms, which include a series of changes announced earlier this month that would allow parliament to overturn high court decisions and give politicians more power in appointing judges. More than 100,000 people protested Saturday night in central Tel Aviv, the largest in a series of demonstrations against the planned changes.
Prominent Egyptian businessman and his son released from prison
Safwan Thabet, founder and former CEO of Juhayna Food Industries, and his son Seifeldin Thabet were released from prison in Egypt on Saturday following almost two years in pretrial detention. The businessmen’s release comes almost two weeks after a loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) called for stronger support for the private sector as one of its key demands.
- Background: Safwan was arrested in December 2020, and his son was later summoned and arrested in February 2021. They were both accused of “belonging to and financing terrorist groups,” but were never formally charged. The businessmen’s case gained international traction over the last two years, and in September 2021 Amnesty International said the incident shows “just how far the Egyptian authorities are willing to go to exert control and exposes how terrorism-related accusations are ruthlessly exploited in today’s Egypt”.
- Why it matters: The listed company Juhayna is Egypt’s largest producer of dairy and juice products. In 2021, it had a 58% market share in the milk segment. It is unclear why the two men were released, which comes just two weeks after the IMF released details of its $3 billion Extended Fund Facility to Egypt, in which Egypt pledges to “reduce the state footprint” in the private sector.
EU approves new Iran sanctions package, says Iran Guards terrorist designation requires court decision in member state
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Monday said any decision to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) as a terrorist organization would first require a court decision in a member state.
- Background: The European Parliament on Thursday approved a resolution calling on the bloc to designate the IRGC as a terrorist group. And on Monday, the EU approved a new package of sanctions on Iran amid the country’s crackdown on protests at home.
- Why it matters: Borrell’s statement comes amid conflicting reports from Iranian politicians about potential retaliatory action should the EU move forward with the terrorist designation. The Vice Chairman of the Internal Affairs and Councils Commission in the Iranian parliament, Mohammad Hassan Asfari, on Monday said that shuttering the Strait of Hormuz to European commercial ships is “on the table,” according to local media. Shortly afterwards, parliament spokesman Nizamuddin Mousavi said that there is no plan on the parliament’s agenda to close down the strait. The strait, which lies off Iran’s southern coast, is only 21 miles wide at its narrowest point. One third of the world’s seaborne oil passes through it.
Around the region
Conservatives in Jordan’s parliament are up in arms over a locally produced Netflix film that depicts crime and corruption in the country.
“The Alleys,” set in a fictitious neighborhood in Jordan, started streaming in early January and has come under heavy attack by lawmakers, some of whom described it as a decadent portrayal of society and criticized its use of obscene language.
One member of parliament (MP), Suleiman Abu Yahya, went as far as to demand on Monday that the government strip the citizenship of one of the film’s actors.
Last week, another MP, Mohammad Abu Suailik called for the producers to be taken to court for defaming the country and its people.
“This is a great assault on other people’s freedom, their values, religion and beliefs.” he said in parliament. “The filmmaker and its funders should be held accountable.”
Bassel Ghandour, the director, didn’t respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Jordan’s nascent but thriving film production industry has frequently come under fire by conservatives in parliament for its depiction of local society.
Liberal activist Sanad Nowar responded to the controversy by saying on Instagram that Jordan’s reputation is being marred not by the movie but by parliament’s own behavior, posting a video of MPs last year throwing punches at each other.
“This is not the first time parliament attacks such Jordanian movies,” he told CNN. “Every time, they use the same argument, which is that it doesn’t represent (the) Jordanian community.”
“We’ve been seeing so many attacks on anything related to art, music or any creative work that is outside of the box.”
Co-written and directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Bassel Ghandour, the film recounts events in a “claustrophobic neighborhood where gossip and violence police people’s behavior,” the film’s synopsis reads.
The film has won multiple awards, including the Audience Award and Special Mention at Sweden’s Malmo Arab Film Festival.
By Celine Alkhaldi