The adults have yet to rise to the occasion, but the tyrant and his theocrats have been confronted and bewildered by an unexpected audience: schoolgirls. They pose a new kind of challenge to a regime that typically deals with dissent by allowing its security forces to use torture and murder. Does Khamenei dare to turn his thugs against children?
Now in its third week, the protests have evolved from an expression of disgust at the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, in the custody of Iran’s notorious morality police. Women continue to dominate the protests, but they are no longer content to burn their hijabs, or headscarves, in symbolic opposition to the regime’s restrictive dress code. Now they are calling for the dismantling of the entire theocratic edifice of the state.
Their ranks have been joined by high school girls, who are also calling for the fall of the regime. Video clips of girls confronting teachers and officials in classrooms are proliferating on social media, despite government efforts to impose a communications blackout. In some clips, children can be heard chanting “Death to the Dictator” and stomping on images of Khamenei – and even Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic.
Even for a regime practiced in the dark arts of cover-up, these videos are difficult to reconcile with its usual rejection of dissent as the work of foreign actors. As usual, Khamenei blames the US and Israel for the protests, but he will struggle to explain how they managed to penetrate classrooms, beyond state-appointed supervisors, to pollute the environment. mind of children.
Protests have also spread to university campuses across the country, accelerating after a bloody crackdown on protesters at Sharif University in Tehran. Beating up students is practically routine for the regime, however, and Iranians are all too familiar with the images of campus carnage, especially from 1999, when Khamenei unleashed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basij militia. against students protesting censorship.
But the Supreme Leader has never unleashed his attack dogs on school children – not yet, anyway. Will the IRGC and the Basij hesitate to bludgeon children into submission, especially given the risk that their actions will be caught on cellphone cameras and shown to the world?
They must know that the world is paying attention. In the United States, Canada, Europe and Turkey, there have been rallies in solidarity with Iranian protesters. Their emblematic slogan: “Women! Life! Freedom!” — was picked up in Afghanistan, where women are fighting their own battles against misogynistic rulers.
World leaders are also watching. Having already announced sanctions against the vice squad and other regime officials, President Biden announced that he would impose “additional charges” on those responsible for the violence against protesters. The European Union is considering sanctions requests from Germany, France, Denmark, Spain, Italy and the Czech Republic.
Any action against schoolchildren will undoubtedly result in harsher sanctions, such as the expulsion of diplomats and the exclusion of Iran from international forums. Even allies like China and Russia will find it difficult to support Tehran under these circumstances.
But perhaps most worrying for the supreme leader is that a crackdown on children could finally bring adults to the streets. Children are a problem that Khamenei cannot solve easily.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• It’s time for plan B on Iran: the editors
• Biden should amplify the voice of Iranian protesters: Bobby Ghosh
• Iran’s new scheme to disrupt the Middle East claims Bahrain: Hussein Ibish
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief of the Hindustan Times, Editor-in-Chief of Quartz and International Editor of Time.
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