An image posted on Twitter reportedly showing protesters heading towards a cemetery in Saqez, western Iran, in October after the death of Mahsa Amini.
An image posted on Twitter reportedly showing protesters heading towards a cemetery in Saqez, western Iran, in October after the death of Mahsa Amini. Photograph: UGC/AFP/Getty

Iran’s moment of truth: what will it take for the people to topple the regime?

An image posted on Twitter reportedly showing protesters heading towards a cemetery in Saqez, western Iran, in October after the death of Mahsa Amini. Photograph: UGC/AFP/Getty

Three months after the uprising began, demonstrators are still risking their lives. Will this generation succeed where previous attempts to unseat the Islamic hardliners have been crushed?

For the past 12 weeks, revolutionary sentiment has been coursing through the cities and towns of the Persian plateau. The agitation was triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman, on 16 September after she was arrested by the morality police in Tehran. From the outset the movement had a feminist character, but it has also united citizens of different classes and ethnicities around a shared desire to see the back of the Islamic Republic. Iran has known numerous protest movements over the past decade and a half, and the nation’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has comfortably suppressed each one with a combination of severity and deft exploitation of divisions within the opposition. This time, however, the resilience and unity shown by the regime’s opponents have consigned the old pattern of episodic unrest to the past. Iran has entered a period of rolling protest in which the Islamic Republic must defend itself against wave upon wave of public anger.

In their retaliation against the protesters, the security forces have killed at least 448 people, including 60 children and 29 women, and made up to 17,000 arrests. Thirty-six protesters have been charged with capital crimes, according to Hadi Ghaemi of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, including several people accused of killing members of the security forces. Still, the authorities insist that they have erred on the side of restraint. On 9 November the commander of Iran’s ground forces warned that Khamenei only needed to say the word and the opposition “flies” would “without question have no place left in the country”.

Every day there are fresh demonstrations, whether in universities, in the streets or in cemeteries where the victims of police bullets and truncheons are buried. And whenever a protester is killed, you can be sure that in another 40 days, when the Shia mourning period climaxes, there will be a graveside protest and the possibility of more deaths, extending the cycle of savagery and reaction. It was this cycle – of deaths leading to funerals, protests and further deaths – that sapped the Shah’s regime over the course of 1978 and culminated in his flight from Iran in January 1979.

This movement without a name, without a leader, is diverse and adaptable. It has harnessed a vast and hitherto underexploited resource – the latent dissatisfaction of women at their second-class status – and turned it into a mighty asset. And it has already scored a success, albeit a reversible one: for the first time since the early days of the revolution, significant numbers of women in cities across the country are going about their business without any form of hijab at all. On 4 December, Iran’s public prosecutor announced that the morality police had been “suspended”, suggesting that the authorities’ policy, discernible since the beginning of the protests, of turning a blind eye to women not wearing the hijab has been made permanent. Sceptics on social media countered that the announcement is a government ploy to divide and weaken the opposition.

Besides the social radicalism that female protesters bring to the movement, its other novelty is its youthfulness. From older Iranians – the ones who stay at home worrying about their protesting children, or who reluctantly accompany them, hoping to steer them out of harm’s way – one often hears the phrase “the fear has evaporated”.

Why protesters in Iran are risking everything for change – video explainer

Fear and caution are usually to be found among people who have something to lose, which cannot be said for Iran’s young people, most of them in their late teens or 20s, who make up the bulk of the protesters. They have spent much of their lives watching inflation rise, the rial tank and their prospects of marriage, a flat and a car – Iranian society’s trinity of success – recede. Emerging from lockdown, they have found that the world outside Iran’s borders has become less accessible, while sanctions continue to inhibit growth and spending power, the authorities impede access to the internet, and more and more economic power accrues to regime figures and their families.

The current movement began with the uplifting slogan “woman, life, freedom”, and exhilarating protest videos spread online. In one, schoolgirls who had taken off their maghnaehs, a close-fitting form of head covering found in schools and offices, chased a male official out of their school while pelting him with items of stationery. The movement’s unofficial anthem was For, a lament by Shervin Hajipour, a honey-voiced young man from the north of the country, so dreamy, so full of sadness and yearning, it went around the world.

After almost three months of violence, the slogans have hardened. Nowadays you’re more likely to hear “I will kill him who kills my brother”, while your Instagram feed brings up video guides to making molotov cocktails and footage of arson attacks on barracks of the Basij, the regime’s volunteer militia. The darkening mood was captured by the popular rapper Toomaj Salehi shortly before his arrest at the end of October. Salehi’s last music video as a free man shows him reading coffee grounds for a well-groomed member of the ruling elite. “The bottom of your cup is … full of lies and hypocrisy,” he raps. And borrowing a technique used by Iranian interrogators, he tells his interlocutor to write his confession, only this time “make sure it reaches the Supreme Leader”.

Salehi is one of many celebrities who have thrown their support behind the protesters, including actresses who have abandoned the hijab, film directors who posted videos denouncing the crackdown and the country’s best-known football commentator, who appeared before a boisterous crowd at his alma mater, Sharif University of Technology in Tehran – Iran’s MIT – demanding freedom for all arrested students.

Salehi himself could have had no illusions about his fate once he started posting calls for his social media followers to protest, advising on tactics (don’t accept invitations to protest if they come with a time and place – it’s a trap) and beseeching the older generation to join their children on the streets. After Salehi’s arrest, the authorities issued footage showing him blindfolded and expressing regret for his actions; his uncle promptly popped up on social media declaring that the Salehi in the video was an impostor, the implication being that the real Salehi remains unbroken and unbowed. On 27 November a judiciary official announced that Salehi had been charged with the capital crime of “corruption on earth”.

The courage of the young Iranians who face the guns and truncheons of the security forces has won them admiration around the world. But the world’s attention is fickle, and the regime has huge resources. The question is whether today’s opponents of the Islamic Republic will have the numbers, staying power and tactical nous that their predecessors lacked: in other words, whether this time will be different.

The protesters’ avowed aim is regime change, but in the Islamic Republic of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei they face a formidable foe. Khamenei’s Iran is a state built on an idea – of a Shia cleric enacting God’s will on earth – that has seen off communism and senses that capitalism is in terminal decline. This idea is on the march even now.

The regime has been emboldened by recent successes in its many-pronged struggle against the United States. In the past decade, Iranian arms, men and advice helped save Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, a key ally of the Islamic Republic, from an array of domestic and foreign enemies, including the US. By providing similar help to anti-US militias in Iraq, Iran contributed to President Joe Biden’s decision to end the American combat mission in that country in 2021. It also makes the long-range missiles and supplies military drones that Vladimir Putin is using to bomb Ukraine. All the while – and again in defiance of the US and its allies – the Islamic Republic has enriched enough weapons-grade uranium to be able to build a nuclear bomb, according to UN assessments of the country’s stockpile.

Protesters during the World Cup match between Iran and USA in Qatar, 29 November 2022
Protesters during the World Cup match between Iran and USA in Qatar, 29 November 2022. Photograph: José Sena Goulão/EPA

After repeatedly outfoxing their vastly better-resourced rival, the US, the hardliners of the Islamic Republic exhibit a swaggering self-belief. In Ekbatan, a complex of residential towers in south Tehran, on the night of 31 October, that self-belief was chillingly evident. State security forces launched a punitive assault on protesters, driving them into their homes and then terrorising them with advanced gadgetry. Sound bombs produced tremendous booms that bounced off the buildings, rockets shot into the sky and laser pinpricks danced across the faces of the tall towers and into living rooms. High in one of the towers, a woman filming on her phone murmured: “They’ve turned the place we live in into a war zone.”

While residents listened from their flats, an officer in one of Iran’s security forces called into the night: “We give our blood for the nation, we give our lives for the nation, if need be, I swear to God, we’d cut the throats of our own women, our wives and children, but we’ll not let our country come to harm.” Footage that residents posted showed the lobby of one of the towers, its floors smeared with blood.

On the same night, in another Tehran housing complex that had witnessed protests, a group of men brandished truncheons and fired guns into the air while residents filmed them from their windows. “Unfortunately you’re part of the 85 million,” the officer in charge of this group called into his megaphone, by which he meant the 85 million people who live, for better or for worse, in Iran. And he warned his audience that if they continued to protest, they would be dealt with more harshly than they had been to date. “You’re not fighters,” he said. “For us this is recreation.”

As a state that aims never to lose its revolutionary momentum, the Islamic Republic has always used crises to galvanise the faithful and eliminate the faithless. In 1980, a year after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini toppled the pro-western monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, replacing it with clerical rule, Iran was invaded by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which was backed by the US and its western European allies. The eight-year war that followed cost hundreds of thousands of Iranian lives, but the Islamic Republic survived the onslaught with its borders intact. Khomeini used the war to purge opponents and build a self-sufficient economy capable of withstanding the sanctions imposed after the US designated it a “state sponsor of terrorism” in 1984.

The country’s estrangement from the west is now all but complete. The west won’t buy Iranian oil – or anything else. The country’s young people have difficulty getting visas to travel abroad. The frustrations of isolation from the world have been compounded by official callousness and incompetence at home. On 8 January 2020 the Revolutionary Guard shot down an airliner full of Iranian civilians and took three days to own up to its mistake. In May this year, a tower block being built under government supervision collapsed with the loss of 41 lives. Both disasters led to protests on the streets, quickly suppressed.

Gradually since Khomeini’s death in 1989, the unassuming Khamenei has quietly achieved absolute dominance over the country. He is a frail 83-year-old who has a loyal following among hardened regime supporters, whose numbers are impossible to ascertain but who are generally reckoned to amount to no more than 30% of the population. The protesters have a slogan that they want to “take back” their country. Khamenei’s footsoldiers disagree. We are Iran, they say, not you.

Before these protests began, everyone was able to get behind the national football team, a unifying force in an otherwise polarised society. But this World Cup has shown that sport and politics have now merged. Before their opening group match against England, on 21 November, the players chose not to sing the national anthem. But this wasn’t enough for protesters who have watched other sports stars risk their careers and their freedom to support the agitation. (It was too much for the authorities; the team dutifully sang the anthem before their remaining two group games.) These include a female climber who competed in an overseas competition without hijab, a table tennis player who has withdrawn from the national team in protest at the crackdown, and the country’s best-loved retired football star, Ali Karimi, who keeps up a blizzard of anti-regime tweets from his current base of Dubai.

In the event, Iran’s elimination from the tournament on 29 November was greeted with jubilation by many back in Iran, where one reveller was reportedly shot dead by the security forces for hooting his car horn in celebration.

Earlier in the tournament, the team’s star striker, Mehdi Taremi, had refused to comment for the international press on the political situation, saying: “I am not a politician.” But that is precisely what Iranians increasingly expect their heroes to be. Iran’s footballers have long benefited from excessive adoration because they represent the nation at its most optimistic and unified. No longer: when the mood of the country is revolutionary, the whistles of the fans reminded them, no one can stay on the fence.

While the foreign media has emphasised the protests’ feminist character, the unrest that has unfolded across Iran is much more diverse than this image suggests. The majority of casualties have come in the Baloch region of the south-east and the Kurdish north-west. In Baloch areas, there are fewer female protesters; this is a rebellion by pious Sunni men against a Shia state that discriminates against them and regards them as a potential fifth column for Sunni extremism. In the Kurdish region the protests are an extension of the Kurds’ long and fruitless campaign for cultural rights and autonomy, if not outright independence. And now, with the increasingly military nature of the state’s crackdown, the movement in Kurdish towns such as Bukan and Javanrud feels increasingly like an insurrection, with barricades erected by protesters and the Revolutionary Guards shooting dozens dead.

Wherever people have agitated, from Babol on the Caspian coast to Asaluyeh on the Persian Gulf, the protesters are the sharp end of a thicker wedge of opinion. It is this much larger body of uncommitted Iranians who will determine the movement’s fate. Having reported on Iran since the 1990s, many times over the years I have heard Iranians who, while they have no affection for the Islamic Republic, express the fear that, should it fall, the country will disintegrate under pressure from ethnic separatism or become a failed state. It is this fear that the authorities are now playing on, with the pro-government media calling the nationwide protests a “political plot” ignited by separatist groups who want to split Iran. If there’s one thing the regime and many of its critics agree on, it’s the imperative of keeping the country whole.

For years the regime depicted its opponents as divided and lacking in credibility, and it was hard to disagree. Exiled groups such as the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a left-leaning personality cult with few adherents inside Iran, squabbled with elderly monarchists gathered around Reza Pahlavi, the late Shah’s US-based son, whose supporters long for him to occupy the throne his father left vacant. Meanwhile, ever since the revolution, armed Kurdish and Baloch groups have launched sporadic attacks on Iranian military targets, but the separatist and sectarian character of these groups have alienated them from the Persian-speaking Shia Iranians who form the majority of the population.

Iranian police officers attempting to disperse a protest for Mahsa Amini in Tehran, 19 September 2022
Iranian police officers attempting to disperse a protest for Mahsa Amini in Tehran, 19 September 2022. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

In the late 1990s and the early 2000s, the government of an elected reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, who promised political liberalisation and better relations with the west, gave both young people and former revolutionary firebrands a chance to articulate demands for peaceful change. But the unelected hardline clerics, who sit above the elected government and have the last say on all important policy matters, wouldn’t let Khatami realise his agenda – with two important consequences. Starting in 2005, when Khatami was replaced as president by hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran experienced a brain drain that relieved the regime of a generation of young professionals and students who might have gone on to form an effective internal opposition. At the same time, inside the country, discontent had nowhere to go but the streets.

Even though protests were growing in frequency, they didn’t add up to an existential threat to the Islamic Republic because each one espoused a different cause and served a different constituency. A huge but peaceful movement arose in 2009 in response to a disputed election, but it was largely a genteel, middle-class affair; a warning from the supreme leader and some carefully calibrated brutality sufficed to subdue it. In November 2019, a steep rise in petrol prices brought unemployed working-class youths on to the streets, where they burned banks and hurled stones at riot police. The regime isn’t squeamish about using live ammunition on minorities and the poor; hundreds were shot dead and the unrest ended.

It is demoralising to put your freedom and life on the line and get nowhere. To be outmanoeuvred and outgunned generates a sense of inferiority, of powerlessness, and it explains why many Iranians avoided politics and devoted their energies to getting by in a worsening economic climate or figuring out how to move abroad.

If the Iranian opposition has so far been divided and easily suppressed, this is where the current movement marks a significant departure from its predecessors. Whether by instinct or consensus, the groups that are now pressing for the Islamic Republic’s demise have gone out of their way to present a unified front.

Iranian Kurdish guerrilla groups based across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan have resisted the temptation – sharpened by repeated Iranian missile attacks on their camps – to launch military strikes in Iran, which would be interpreted as a bid for territory. In Zahedan, the main Baloch city, the protesters shout patriotic slogans such as “From Kurdistan to Zahedan, my life for Iran.”

On 4 November, Mowlavi Abdulhamid Ismailzahi, the city’s influential Friday prayer leader, called for a referendum to decide what kind of regime Iran should have. (He did not say what alternatives would be presented to voters, though some kind of federalism would be popular among his followers.) And with this audacious demand, which could easily lead to his arrest, Ismailzahi, a grey-bearded Sunni cleric, found himself pursuing the same goal as the late Shah’s besuited son, Reza Pahlavi, in exile in the US. Pahlavi’s name has been chanted during some protests in Iran, mostly in working-class areas; it is impossible to know how much support a restoration of the monarchy might command. Pahlavi himself quoted the original Kurdish version of “Woman, Life, Freedom” at a recent press conference he gave in Washington DC.

Another thing that makes this movement different from earlier ones is that Iranians outside the country – the post-2005 brain drain – have been tireless on the protesters’ behalf. In a leaked recording of a meeting attended by intelligence officials in the central town of Yazd, and broadcast by BBC Persian, one of the officials was heard telling his colleagues that, of 92m social media posts that were generated in the aftermath of Mahsa Amini’s death, 60% came from abroad.

Among the most prominent Iranian exiles is an Ontario-based dentist named Hamed Esmaeilion. In 2020, when the Revolutionary Guards shot down an airliner carrying Canadian-Iranians who were returning to Canada after visiting family in Iran, Esmaeilion’s wife, Parisa Eghbalian, and their daughter, Reera, were among the victims. In the aftermath, Esmaeilion founded an association of victims’ families that has, since the beginning of the unrest, organised anti-regime demonstrations around the world. The biggest of these took place in Berlin on 22 October, when 80,000 Iranian expatriates demanded the abolition of the Islamic Republic. Esmaelion and other prominent exiles, including Masih Alinejad, one of three Iranian activists to be received by France’s President Emmanuel Macron on 11 October, have demanded that the US and its European allies break off the negotiations that have been going on intermittently since 2003 aimed at limiting Iran’s nuclear development in return for lifting of sanctions.

A protest against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Tehran, 9 October 1978
A protest against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Tehran, 9 October 1978. Photograph: AP

There is a critical difference of perspective between those who continue to live in Iran and those outside. For impatient exiles, a nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions would constitute a lifeline for the Islamic Republic – an outcome they would find unacceptable. For Iranians living in that Islamic Republic, it would mean an improvement in living conditions that have, in recent years, become all but unbearable. As yet, calls for a national strike to include the bazaars, teachers and – crucially – oil workers have gone largely unheeded. This cannot be attributed to government intimidation alone. It’s also down to pay and allowance rises that the government has showered on public sector workers and poor families in recent months. And it’s down to the fact that, for all the heroism of the protesters, in the unlikely event that the regime suddenly crumbles, no one has the slightest idea what will come next.

According to an internal report compiled by the regime and made public on 25 November by hackers calling themselves Black Reward, 51% of Iranians want the hijab to be a matter of personal choice and 56% expect the protests to carry on. (The same report suggests that Khamenei is among that number; “the protests won’t end soon”, he is quoted as telling senior government figures.) But to what end? An opposition without a clear leadership has the advantage that it cannot be decapitated. But such is the diversity of this opposition, any discussion of a post-Islamic Republic Iran would imperil the unity that has been so painstakingly constructed. Among today’s revolutionaries, anyone who raises the question “what next?” is likely to be shushed with phrases like “now’s not the time for such discussions” and “anything is better than this lot”, or even accused of complicity with the Islamic Republic’s tactic of spreading fear that if the regime falls, chaos will follow.

The authorities are also showing signs of being in two minds, insisting that the “rioters” will be crushed, while also initiating a dialogue with the students whose universities have been a nerve centre of the protests. But dialogue brings its own risks, as one government spokesman, discovered when he received a sensational public lambasting at the hands of students at Mashhad’s Ferdowsi University, in the north-east of the country, on 10 November.

“You can’t continually slap a society in the face and then, when a hand is raised in dissent, say, ‘let’s have a dialogue’,” declared Amin Majidifar, the local representative of a nationwide student association. To whoops and applause, he deplored the regime’s habit of “attributing the anger that arises naturally from the youth of this society … to the enemies of this country, America and Israel.” He called on the government to “accept that the people of Iran are not as you think they are, accept that some of the people of this country do not fit into the frameworks that you have imagined, that they can live a different way, that they have the right to full citizenship and that they are not second-class citizens … accept that this system is in need of fundamental reform.”

The thrust of Majidifar’s speech was pluralist, liberal and inclusive. It was also – unusually – broadcast live on a state TV station. The question that hardliners in the clerical and security establishment will now be asking themselves is whether the opportunity to air grievances will appease students who are furious at seeing their campuses invaded and their friends beaten, arrested and suspended, or whether it will embolden them.

The opposition’s worst nightmare is that the regime will drive a wedge between them. And the Islamic Republic is in a class of its own when it comes to fomenting suspicion and paranoia. But paranoia and suspicion can rebound, as a recent snippet of film surreptitiously taken on a phone in a girls’ school in the southern city of Shiraz demonstrates. In this film, an exchange is going on between the girls in the class and their teacher. There is fury in the voices of the children and consternation in that of the teacher, a middle-aged woman in the regulation dark blue maghnaeh. Her pupils are convinced that Iran’s security forces were behind an attack on the tomb of a revered Shia figure in Shiraz on 26 October, in which 15 people were killed. The teacher is getting more and more distressed as she tries and fails to convince them that they are mistaken.

“My dear,” the teacher addresses one girl through the uproar, “whose influence are [the perpetrators] under? They are under the influence of the Isis people and the Zionists.” The children go wild with indignation. One of them yells “False!”

Nudging her maghnaeh up her forehead to give herself a little air, the teacher insists, “As God is my witness, our forces didn’t do it; I swear it.” A girl shrieks: “How do you know?” The teacher replies: “I know what I’m saying - on my children’s lives, Isis claimed responsibility that very night.”

It would make no sense for the Iranians to shoot up the tomb of their own Shia saint, and Islamic State has proudly claimed responsibility. But conspiracy theories have a long and successful history in Iran. In the summer of 1978, the doors of a packed Cinema Rex in the Iranian refinery town of Abadan were locked and the building was burned to the ground, killing at least 370 people. We know now that the Shah’s secret police weren’t responsible for this atrocity, but at the time many Iranians thought they were, with the consequence that the burning of the cinema did more than any other single event to turn the people against their sovereign. (In fact the cinema was set ablaze by Islamist zealots, one of whom, tortured by guilt, confessed to Khomeini’s government after the revolution and was quietly executed.)

And now, egged on by opposition TV stations abroad, it seems that a sizeable number of Iranians believe that their government attacked the shrine in order to spread fear of a breakdown in law and order. In the course of a recent statement announcing the arrest of 26 foreigners in connection with the attack (citizens of Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Afghanistan), the intelligence ministry took the trouble to rubbish these allegations – a sure sign that it is worried about them.

“They say you shouldn’t try and understand the 80s generation,” Ezzatollah Zarghami, the country’s culture minister, recently told an audience of loyalist students – referring to the Iranian calendar decade the 1380s, in which many of the protesters, now in their late teens or early 20s, were born. Zarghami used to be the head of the state broadcasting corporation, a propaganda machine whose specialities include airing the confessions of dissidents who have been broken under extreme pressure. “I spoke to the chief interrogator of many of the recent detainees,” Zarghami said, “and this person said to me, ‘I’ve spent a lifetime interrogating people, and this was the hardest session I’ve ever had, because I don’t understand what they’re saying and they don’t understand what I’m saying.’’’

Zarghami went on to speak about a cleric of modest means whose turban was tipped off his head as he crossed the street (turban tipping has become common during the protests), and said: “[The demonstrators] are angry about something else. They’re taking out their difficulties on a mullah who’s trying to get his daily crust.” Not that the country’s problems, he continued, are anything to worry about. “Our biggest problems are on questions of procedure and method, we don’t have any problems on the fundamentals,” he declared. With this reference to “procedure”, Zarghami was criticising the heavy-handed implementation of the hijab law that led to the death of Mahsa Amini. What he was not doing was questioning the law itself.

Early in the protests Zarghami received a visit from Bahman Farmanara, an urbane and elderly film-maker whose life and career, spent mainly in the west, suggest he has no affection for the Islamic Republic. Farmanara came to Zarghami seeking a permit for a film he wanted to make. Zarghami tweeted a photo of the meeting, which led to Farmanara being severely criticised online: the opposition was outraged that he was sucking up to a government that was killing people on the streets. That Zarghami was able to trash in a moment a reputation built over half a century is illustration, if one were needed, of the Islamic Republic’s uncanny instinct for the enemy’s weak spot.

In recent days a slew of journalists, writers, actors and film directors have been arrested, while at the end of November the judiciary chief announced the release of 1,156 detainees apparently considered less influential. At least four death sentences have also been handed down to protesters for committing violence against the security forces or public property. There will be more. State TV will broadcast trials and confessions and the police will announce the discovery of caches of arms and the disruption of underground networks directing funds to the “rioters”. Members of the police and paramilitary forces who are killed by protesters, as has happened already, will be given a martyr’s send-off.

It is unlikely that the government’s suspension of the morality police will lead to a change in the hijab law. Khamenei can live with the fact that large numbers of Iranian women are going around without the hijab, but he will never accept legislation legalising their effrontery, and, if conditions permit, he will force them to put it on again.

Zarghami’s words about mutual incomprehension came back to me as I listened to Reza Pahlavi, son of the late Shah, disclaiming all political ambition and only wanting the best for the Iranian people. He spoke in a stiff and effortful Persian, as if putting on a suit of clothes that has gathered cobwebs while sitting in his wardrobe in the US these past 43 years. What, if anything, do he and the rapper Toomaj Salehi, who lacerates the regime in a sharpened street tongue, and is now in a cell somewhere, have in common? They and the imam of Zahedan, the students of Mashhad, the militant women of Kurdistan?

Beware of anyone, pro- or anti-government, who claims to have an answer to this question. The ability of the opposition to pull together is only beginning to be tested. But already we know that whatever happens in Iran over the next few months, something has changed, something fundamental.

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