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2022 in review: Iran's Khamenei faces unprecedented challenge with protests, economic woes

Iran is limping into 2023 with a youth uprising that has taught existential fear to its once omnipotent theocracy.
Demonstrators, some hold banners with the image of Mahsa Amini, march by the federal chancellery in solidarity with protesters in Iran on October 15, 2022 in Berlin, Germany.(Photo by Omer Messinger/Getty Images)

Iran's protest movement has passed its 100th day on Sunday and is showing little signs of fizzling out. A new generation of bold youths disillusioned by the ruling theocracy and thirsty for a normal life is in the middle of a struggle that seems undeterred by crackdown, imprisonment and executions.

It all began on Sept. 16, when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody for improperly wearing her hijab. Public fury at the suffocating dress code quickly tapped into long-unaddressed demands, crises that have been swept under the rug: human rights, civil freedoms, corruption and unemployment.

The protests have marked the longest period of unrest in the Islamic Republic since its inception in 1979. The scale and intensity of the demonstrations and the protesters' determination to topple the ruling regime caught it off guard.

The Iranian establishment has tried to crush the unrest, killed over 500 protesters, according the Human Rights Activists News Agency. Nearly 70 of the dead were under the age of 18. Over 18,500 people have been arrested and two have been executed. Another 11 are on death row and the same fate looms for 47 others accused of crimes punishable by death.

The use of capital punishment has met with blowback not only from the international community and the public at home, but even among moderates within the clerical community. In a statement earlier this month, the Society of the Researchers and Teachers of the Qom Seminary denounced the policy, noting, "Execution is not a proper strategy to create security and ease tensions, as it will only exacerbate the public hatred and wrath."

Scrambling for a scapegoat and denying its own failures, Tehran has linked the unrest to foreign enemies, separatist groups and activists united in a "conspiracy" to partition the country. The argument has garnered little support as protesters proclaim their unity across the ethnically diverse country, chanting, "from Kurdistan/Tehran/Tabriz to Zahedan, we will sacrifice our souls for Iran."

An economy on life support

The protest movement is not the only headache the Iranian government has to cope with in 2023. A sanctions-hit, corruption-battered economy has long been eroding the establishment's financial power, adding to the public's grievances.

The national currency, the rial, is on a seemingly unstoppable slide of depreciation. The currency crisis has worsened tremendously since the start of the protests, with the rial effectively losing a third of its value over only 100 days. The dollar traded above 413,000 rials on Dec. 26, up from 320,000 in mid-September. 

Hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi had taken office with a promise to neutralize sanctions and not to let the economy hinge on the revival of the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The promise was far from materializing by year's end. His other pledges about tackling Iran's unregulated housing market and his ambitious plan to build one million housing units every year are under serious questioning even by his allies.

Government spokesperson Ali Bahadori Jahromi called the currency nosedive "short-lived, just as the unrest in recent months was."

While Iranian authorities speak in the past tense in reference to the protests, arrests of people as young as 14 have become routine. Business strikes hit one city after another and mourners of victims of the unrest have turned graveyards into protest sites where they chant against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and call to avenge the blood of the "martyrs."

What lies ahead? 

Perhaps what has distinguished the ongoing unrest from previous protests is its persistence despite a lack of organized leadership. Whether that is a weakness or strength remains an open debate on social media. Some argue that young Iranians are consolidating their own front and will not allow foreign-based opposition groups to lead, exploit or steal their struggle.

Others insist that the movement's survival and success without clear leadership is impossible. And it is on the same ground that they explain partly why the regime has managed not to crumble in the face of the relentless demonstrations. In the meantime, the Iranian intelligence and police apparatuses are going the extra mile in their boundless crackdown, showing no accountability and rebuffing all criticism over their brutality. The system seems determined to fight for survival no matter how much the human and political costs could be. But this is also triggering the question if the ongoing repression will definitely salvage the establishment from collapse.  

"The revolution in Iran has already triumphed in the minds of its people," tweeted Ammar Maleki, an Iranian assistant professor of comparative politics at Netherlands' Tilburg University. "It's only a matter of time before they celebrate it on the streets," added the scholar, who is also the director of GAMAN, a research center focused on surveying public opinion in Iran.

Despite a deepening crisis of legitimacy, Iranian authorities have shown near-zero flexibility, at least publicly, in the face of the protest movement. Giving in to one demand would open a Pandora's box of others, and with that in their minds, not a single high-ranking official is known so far to have resigned in recognition of the protests. To them, the protests are an existential threat, and one key resignation could quickly become a domino, accelerating  the establishment's nosedive to the rock bottom.

The weeks and months to come are sure to bring ever harsher repression, more arrests and merciless sentences. But the regime's biggest challenge appears not to be the conventional opposition, rather a neglected generation, and previously unknown names that are becoming icons of a movement that has shaken Iran to its core.

"Tough days shall pass, but tough people will live on," said one of the arrested protesters, Abbas Sharifi in an audio recording from jail.

"Let's not fear imprisonment. What we should fear is living with indifference."

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