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Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times and international editor at Time.
A week ago, I worried that the anti-regime demonstrations in Iran might falter if the mostly young protesters didn’t get some help from grown-ups — like the trade unions, say, or the so-called moderate elements within the theocratic state. I reckoned it would take the participation of groups of that stature to rattle Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s ruthless supreme leader.
The adults have not yet risen to the occasion, but the tyrant and his theocrats have been confronted and confounded by an unexpected constituency: schoolgirls. They represent a new kind of challenge for a regime that usually deals with dissent by licensing its security forces to use torture and murder. Does Khamenei dare turn his thugs on children?
Now in its third week, the protests have evolved from an expression of disgust over the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, in the custody of Iran’s notorious morality police. Women continue to dominate the demonstrations, but they are no longer content merely 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 schoolgirls, who are likewise calling for the downfall of the regime. Video clips of girls confronting teachers and officials in classrooms are proliferating on social media, despite the government’s efforts to impose a communications blackout. In some clips, the kids can be heard chanting “Death to the dictator,” and stomping on images of Khamenei — and even of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic.
Even for a regime practiced in the dark arts of dissimulation, these videos are hard to reconcile with its usual dismissal of dissent as the work of foreign actors. Per usual, Khamenei is blaming the protests on the U.S. and Israel, but he will struggle to explain how they managed to reach into the classrooms, past the minders appointed by the state, to pollute the minds of children.
Demonstrations have also spread across university campuses across the country, accelerating after a bloody crackdown on protesters at Tehran’s Sharif University. Beating down on college students is practically routine for the regime, however, and Iranians are all too familiar with images of carnage in the campus, 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 set his attack dogs upon schoolkids — not yet, anyway. Will the Revolutionary Guard and Basij balk at clubbing children into submission, especially given the risk that their actions will be caught on cellphone cameras and shown to the wide world?
They must know that the world is paying attention. In the US, Canada, Europe and Turkey, there have been rallies in solidarity with the Iranian protesters. Their signature slogan — “Women! Life! Freedom!” — has been taken up in Afghanistan, where women are fighting their own battles against misogynistic rulers.
World leaders are watching, too. Having already announced sanctions against the morality police and other regime officials, President Joe Biden has announced he will impose “further costs” on those responsible for violence against the protesters. The European Union is considering sanctions requests from Germany, France, Denmark, Spain, Italy and the Czech Republic.
Any action against schoolkids will undoubtedly invite harsher penalties, such as expulsion of diplomats and barring Iran from international forums. Even allies like China and Russia will find it hard to back Tehran in those circumstances.
But perhaps most worrying for Iran’s supreme leader is that a crackdown against children might finally bring the grown-ups into the streets. The kids are a problem Khamenei can’t easily solve.