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The movement that’s grown around Mahsa Amini’s memory is unlike any other in Iran’s history. Clerical rulers, and the world, are watching to see where it leads

A woman, her makeup made to resemble tears of blood, holds an Amini jersey at an Iran-Wales match during last November's World Cup in Qatar. Jina Mahsa Amini died a few months earlier while in the custody of Iran's morality police. She was 22.Frank Augstein/The Associated Press

Sally Armstrong is a journalist, author and human-rights activist whose books include Power Shift: The Longest Revolution.

It began with a single spark – the death of 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini after being arrested by Iran’s morality police for wearing her scarf incorrectly. That combusted long-smouldering embers in Iran, now in its fifth month of protests, that have spread to every ethnicity, every religion, and every corner of the country.

Iran is no stranger to protest. But this time it’s different. The revolution is being driven by young people who are filling the streets with rage and led by women who are cutting their hair and burning their hijabs. It’s being broadcast across the country – by those able to circumvent the internet shutdown – on TikTok and Instagram. The young people in the streets are well-educated, tech-savvy, worldly and are outright rejecting a retrograde, hateful ideology.

Demonstrators in London dress as angels hanging from gallows.Dylan Martinez/Reuters

Despite the odds against beating the viciously brutal regime of the Ayatollahs, who hijacked Islam for political opportunism 44 years ago, this time the Ayatollahs may lose.

“This is actually the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” says Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel laureate, lawyer and judge who is living in exile in Britain. “People unanimously want a secular and democratic government.”

An epic change. A win for women everywhere. And a clear message to countries that mix religion and governance. Shouts of “Death to America” heard back in 1979 have been replaced with the rallying cry of “Woman, life, freedom.” Contingency plans for an interim government, a new constitution and a revamped court are already under way.

The protesters are relentlessly fighting for their future and are willing to give their lives for it. More than 41 per cent of the arrests being made by the revolutionary guards are of people under the age of 20, and 48 per cent are between 20 and 35. They are willing to go to jail, to the torture chambers, to be executed. They seem to think that death is better than living under the Ayatollahs’ regime.

Human Rights Watch has reported that as of early January, at least 516 protesters had been killed since the protests began, including 70 children. More than 15,000 were arrested for charges such as “enmity against God” and “corruption on Earth,” which both carry the death penalty.

Homa Hoodfar, a professor emeritus at Concordia University in Montreal, knows the statistics too well. She was at home in Iran visiting family in 2016 when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps first confiscated her passport and later arrested her for “dabbling in feminism and security matters” and put her in Evin Prison and held her there for 112 days.

“The regime has no legitimacy, moral or otherwise, today,” she says. “Apart from corruption, they can’t govern. They have the second biggest supply of oil in the world and yet the people have no gas for heat or cooking this winter.” She sees a major shift in that past protests elicited sympathy from the rest of the world. This one produced solidarity. “I think this is the time for change,” she told me.

Thousands of people make their way to a cemetery in Saqez, Ms. Amini's hometown in Kurdistan, last October to mark 40 days since her death. Anti-regime demonstrations have continued since then despite violent crackdowns by authorities.UGC/AFP via Getty Images

Solidarity protests earlier this month rally at Westminster Bridge in London and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. ‘Women, life, freedom’ is a common slogan at such gatherings. Justin Tallis and Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

Other than the relentless determination of the young people on the street, the single most powerful weapon Iranians have going for them now is a newfound unity. While dissent kept them apart in the past, unification is now the tool that most say will lead the country to victory over the regime. Ideology, religion and ethnicity are emerging after decades of suffering as part of the past. Ideology is not the point this time. Nor is religion; in fact, non-religious Iranians are very likely the majority today even though the regime insists Iran is a Shia Muslim country.

As for ethnicity, the majority are Persian but there are hundreds of minorities from various backgrounds, including the Kurds and the Baluchis who have had a long history of persecution. In fact, Mahsa Amini was a Kurd. The protesters don’t ask who is Shia or Baha’i or Kurdish or Jewish – they only want change and the chance to live normal lives.

It would be hard to fault a demand for revenge but the other weapon that has been activated by the protest is a sense of justice. Living in tyranny means living two different lives – one at home, the other outside. Kids learn to lie at a young age because their cautious parents tell them, “It’s okay to have this conversation in our home but you must not speak like this at school.” The protesters want to put an end to the duplicity.

Hamed Esmaeilion is a Toronto dentist whose wife and daughter were on board Flight PS752, which was shot down by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shortly after taking off from Tehran on Jan. 8, 2020. Today he represents the families of those who were on that doomed flight, and says this powerful demand for justice is permeating the protest.

“We want freedom and social justice and workable courts and fairness,” he told me recently. “We want a relationship with the West. We want trials like there were in Nuremberg – that bring people to account for their roles in the atrocities. Everyone must have access to a lawyer and a fair trial. It is important to tell the truth, not only for the victims to have closure but also so the wounds of our society can be healed, and we can move on.”

And the message is being carried into the diaspora: Homa Arjomand, the Canadian co-ordinator of an international campaign to close down Iranian embassies, says, “Teams of expat Iranians are meeting flights at Canadian airports that carry these IRGC people – telling them they are not welcome here, that their money is dirty and they should go elsewhere.”

Activist Hamed Esmaeilion, left, joins Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly in Toronto at a vigil on Jan. 8, three years after the PS752 disaster.Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

Bob Rae, Canada's UN envoy, speaks with his New Zealand counterpart at a Dec. 14 meeting in New York to discuss expelling Iran from a women's rights body.YUKI IWAMURA/AFP via Getty Images

There’s more. In an unprecedented act, in December the UN removed Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women – a monumental task led in part by Canada’s ambassador Bob Rae.

“The actions of the Islamic Republic since September, 2022, including the ongoing violent implementation of the hijab and chastity law by Iranian authorities, killing peaceful protesters and the abuse of the death penalty against young people on a variety of trumped-up charges, underscore the regime’s flagrant disregard for the promotion and protection of human rights and its intentional repression of women and girls, with disastrous consequences for its people,” Mr. Rae told the UN General Assembly. “Iran has shown the world the face that could only be described as a face of cruelty and of terror.”

The international demands reach even further. There’s a clarion call to kick out ambassadors and anyone associated with the regime.

Canada has already expelled the Iranian ambassador, but Senator Ratna Omidvar wants to take it further. “Declare IRGC a terrorist organization,” she says. “And it’s not enough to freeze the assets of the revolutionary guards and others who park their money in Canadian banks and their families in Canadian residences; seize the assets and repurpose them to victims.”

A similar law exists in Canada and was used to seize the assets of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich and repurpose them to victims in Ukraine.

“We know corrupt money from Iran is in Canada – go after it. The message to the regime needs to be: ‘As long as you are in power you will not be welcome on the world stage.’”

People in Brussels rally on Jan. 23 to demand international action against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of Iran's military. Johanna Geron/Reuters
Mourners gather at a Tehran mosque on Jan. 3 to honour Qassem Soleimani, the late leader of the IRGC's feared Quds Force. He was killed in a U.S. air strike in 2020. Vahid Salemi/The Associated Press

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei prays at the tomb of his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in Tehran on Jan. 31, the 44th anniversary of his return from exile in Paris.Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/West Asia News Agency via REUTERS

What would happen if protesters succeeded in overthrowing the regime? While it would depend on who took over the country, Ms. Ebadi contends that “if Iran becomes democratic, the Middle East region will certainly become peaceful.”

The Iranian regime provides funds and weapons for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and for the Houthis in Yemen. They help Bashar al-Assad stay in power in Syria. Even militias in Iraq are supported by Iran. And a change in leadership would hopefully ease tensions between Iran and Israel, which reportedly bombed Iranian research facilities last weekend. It may be a long shot to forecast peace between Israel and Iran, but most citizens feel this is a quarrel between governments, not between people.

While it’s apparent that the regime is faltering, and it’s true that the Ayatollahs’ next steps could be more brutality, history demonstrates that a regime verging on defeat is more likely to make a desperate run for the borders to a safe haven for failed bullies. There are choices for the revolutionary guards as well: They could turn on the Ayatollahs and take over the regime and ratchet up the ferocity or find the exit. News media in Iran claim five flights a day are leaving Tehran with the families of revolutionary guards who see the writing on the wall. They’re going to a number of countries, including Canada, where they have residences and bank accounts. Or like the KGB in Russia when “demokratizatsiya” was the slogan under Soviet Communist Party Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, they could simply switch shirts and play for the new team.

Lawyer Payam Akhavan, who was appointed an adviser to Global Affairs Canada after the downing of Flight PS752, said in 2022, “In 1979, when the people overthrew the Shah, they thought they were ushering in some sort of Islamic paradise. Forty-three years later, it’s a dystopian nightmare.” He agrees that the Ayatollahs’ days are numbered but feels they’ll hang onto power to the bitter end. Then, he says, “it will be time for Iran to have its Nuremberg moment. The message must be clear: If you commit mass murder, you cannot exercise power and there will be no impunity.” He says they need both a Nuremberg-like trial for punitive justice but also a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for restorative justice. For example, he thinks the notorious Evin Prison should be made into a museum that schoolchildren can visit so the past is never forgotten.

As much as unity and justice are the existential goal, there is no doubt that fury is the fountainhead of the protests we are watching today. More than anything else, many Iranians are furious that they live under a regime that uses the death sentence as a weapon of repression. Mahsa Amini was just going home when they took her to prison. The passengers on flight PS752 were just going home when they were murdered. The Iranian people know this story well.

Even the pessimists admit that there’s something happening that could not have been imagined before. The Iranian economy is hanging by a thread, most of the world has turned on the regime and the country is clearly on a precipice. The collapse of the Ayatollahs is waiting to happen.

Unrest in Iran: More from Globe Opinion

Vahid Salemi/The Associated Press

Ratna Omidvar and Julie Miville-Dechêne: Canada can do more to help Iran’s imprisoned protesters

Golnaz Fakhari: For the women of Iran, history shows us there’s no turning back now

Rosa Rahimi: Don’t be fooled by Iran’s ‘reforms.’ They are only meaningless distractions

Peter Jones: If Iran’s current regime ends, don’t expect democracy to take its place