Iran protests 'a prelude to collapse of regime,' Nobel laureate predicts

The newest wave of unrest that has seized Iran in recent weeks has sparked an exceptionally brutal response that left thousands of victims in its wake.

Canada can help protesters by stopping money laundering, Shirin Ebadi says

Nobel Prize-winning human rights activist Shirin Ebadi says protesters see the Iranian regime as corrupt, and too concerned about foreign and regional issues. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)

The newest wave of unrest that has seized Iran in recent weeks has sparked an exceptionally brutal response that left thousands of victims in its wake.

At least 208 people have been killed and 7,000 arrested in protests since mid-November, according to UN human rights monitors and the latest estimates are likely far below the real numbers. The Trump administration believes as many as 1,000 have been killed in the ruthless crackdown.

In a year when Iran celebrated the 40th anniversary of the revolution that ushered in the Islamic regime, some activists believe it is on the verge of another revolutionary moment.

The evidence, says Nobel Prize-winning human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, is in the scale of the protests and the subsequent crackdown — as well as the identity of the protesters themselves.

Unlike previous episodes of unrest, this time the protests have spread throughout Iran — some 100 cities in 28 of Iran's 31 provinces. And while the initial spark was a sudden hike in the price of petrol, the unmistakable target of the protesters' wrath is the Islamic regime itself.

Crucially, the protests have swept up less advantaged, low-income people, among whom support for the Islamic regime has traditionally been strong.

Protesters see the Iranian regime as corrupt, said Ebadi, and too concerned about foreign and regional issues when ordinary people at home are suffering unprecedented levels of poverty.

A hint of change afoot

After widespread anger over the brutal response — which reportedly included live ammunition, tanks and even helicopters — the regime has belatedly tried to soften its stance by offering compensation to those caught in the crossfire.

Ebadi says such backtracking is unprecedented, and an indication of real fear on the part of the authorities. Together with the spread of the protests, and the fierce response, she says, there's a hint change is afoot.

"The latest wave of protests is a prelude to the collapse of the regime," Ebadi, now 72, told CBC Ideas in an interview.

"A collapse is a process, and takes time: It could be short-term, it could be long-term. But the gap between the regime and the people is far too deep now to be healed."

Not all Iran watchers are convinced the regime is in an existential fight, but there seems to be some agreement that with these protests, and those in recent years, its authority and perhaps its power are being incrementally eroded.

Unprecedented violence

Following an internet shutdown in Iran that lasted several days, many Iranians have shared video with the outside world that speaks of the violence deployed at the hands of security forces.

Some of the footage shows security forces shooting demonstrators in the face, and in the back as they ran away — "in other words shooting to kill," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement on Friday.

"Verified video footage indicates severe violence was used against protesters, including armed members of security forces shooting from the roof of a justice department building in one city, and from helicopters in another," the statement said.

She added that some injured protesters have been denied medical attention, and that many of those arrested have not had access to a lawyer.

Iranian authorities have shared figures and images of the damage caused by the protests to government institutions and public facilities, including more than 700 banks — but not about arrests, injuries and deaths.

People walk near a burned bank in Tehran on Nov. 20. (Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA via Reuters)

Blaming foreign agents

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the unrest could only be the work of "thugs" working for counterrevolutionaries and foreign agents.

The regime is under pressure due to U.S. sanctions and the fraying of the nuclear deal it cut with world powers to be able to sell its oil. The Iranian currency has been deeply devalued, and its relationships abroad are mostly tense.

But the protests — and their slogans — are clearly aimed at the regime and its domestic political and economic policies.

"With or without U.S. sanctions, Iran's economic and political systems are in urgent need of an overhaul," says the International Crisis Group, an independent nongovernmental organization based in Brussels that tracks and reports on conflicts around the world. "As the level of street anger shows, there may not be much time to undertake it.

The protests are the biggest the country has seen since the Iran revolution 40 years ago, and are far more widespread than protests in 2009 that alleged fraud in the election that year that gave Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term as president. 

Ebadi, who as a woman was relieved of her duties as a judge after the Islamic Revolution, was there during both periods of unrest. She built a reputation — and earned the Nobel prize — for her human rights work, on the rights of women, minorities and political dissidents.

Since 2009, Ebadi has lived abroad, and says she's been working with other human rights activists to help ensure that any transition in Iran happens peacefully.

Urges crackdown on money laundering

In the interview, she said that with ultimate power in Iran remaining with the supreme leader, the regime has proven unreformable, despite many attempts.

Iranian protesters clash in the streets following a fuel price increase in the city of Isfahan, central Iran, on Nov. 16. (EPA-EFE)

She called on the international community to support Iranians desperate for change.

For one, she urged Canada and other countries to crack down on money laundering by figures with links to the Iranian regime who invest "dirty money" abroad. It is an issue she previously raised on a visit to Canada.

In a statement last month, Global Affairs said Canada "is deeply concerned" about the violent crackdown in Iran, urging restraint and allowing Iranians "the rights and freedoms they deserve."

Ebadi says Canada and other countries must do more to "hear the voice of the protestors and to stand by the people of Iran and not on the side of dictators."


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.