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Iran protests have subsided, but clerics can’t declare victory yet

ILan’s supreme leaderAyatollah Ali Khamenei may be breathing a sigh of relief. The death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman arrested for not wearing an “appropriate” hijab in September, has seen daily protests in the country, many of them led by women. Four months on, the cries of “women, life, liberty” have all but died down. The college campuses where the demonstrations have lasted the longest are like castles, monitored by security guards and cameras. Banners praising the Islamic Republic abound. The Iranians, however, are still seething.

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The regime has sentenced more than a hundred protesters to death following a rough trial for the catch-all crime of “corruption on earth”. Four have been hanged. It has imprisoned nearly 20,000 people, including top footballers, movie stars, journalists and students. Digital communication is more constrained than ever before. “More and more people are disappointed and start their lives anew,” said an Iranian journalist.

Khamenei was initially slow to respond to the protests, but the 83-year-old cancer survivor now appears energized. He regularly preached to the faithful, addressing a large crowd of women in black robes one day and a hooded priest the next. The rioters were “traitors,” he called out, threatening execution for anyone who questioned his rule.

His opponents, by contrast, were mostly silent. Slogans composed of rhyming couplets can no longer be heard. Their scribbles were painted over. After previous crackdowns, Iranians have vowed to stay put. Now many are planning to leave.

However, Khamenei was wrong to conclude that he had won. The Iranians remain defiant. “Go away, or I’m taking off my pants too,” an elderly woman was recently heard yelling at police officers who demanded she wear a hijab in a women-only carriage of the Tehran subway. University cafeterias have returned to gender segregation, so male and female students eat boxed lunches together outside.

The protests have not completely died down, either. Commemoration of the accidental downing of a passenger plane by authorities in 2020 reignited their enthusiasm for the first time in a month. On Jan. 9, several hundred people marched at Karaj prison near Tehran, where two other protesters were due to be hanged. “I will kill my brother’s murderer,” they chanted as security forces opened fire on them. Executions have not yet been carried out.

Mr Khamenei may also worry about divisions among his allies. Some, including staunch supporters linked to the regime’s Janissary, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, have called for more compromise with the protesters and an easing of the requirement for women to wear the veil. The former president warned against responding to unrest with an iron fist. On the street, the police looked tense. “I felt the fear in his eyes,” said a driver who confronted police. “It’s as painful as if he had to choose between his responsibility to his leadership and his country.”

Worse still for Khamenei, his form is a mess. Organized strikes have subsided. But it is difficult for Iranians who want to travel across the country to buy plane, train and bus tickets. Since August 2021, the rial has lost 50% of its value against the dollar. As inflation spiraled, many turned to barter. On a smartphone app, you can trade some chicken for a formal shirt. For now, the regime continues to subsidize petrol prices in the rial exchange rate, meaning that a liter of petrol costs the equivalent of five cents. But given the harsh sanctions, few think that will last. Gasoline price increases have sparked turmoil before. When the next problem comes, Mr Khamenei may find it harder to appease his people.

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