These are images that one rarely sees from Iran: women demonstrating without headscarves against the rule of the clergy, men protesting against the oppression of their fellow citizens, countless people all over the country. All of this was triggered by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the religious police, who apparently arrested the young woman for allegedly violating the headscarf rule.
What is remarkable above all is that the rulers do not exclusively condemn the protests. Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi said Amini's death touched him "as if I had lost someone dear to me". And he decreed that the work of the religious police had to be checked. Other religious scholars are even calling for an end to compulsory headscarves, one of the most obvious features of Iran's religious system. Is that the revolutionary spark? Does this death, this anger change the whole authoritarian system?
It remains unlikely that Iran is on the verge of an upheaval. Because in truth, the protest images as such are not that rare. Since 2017, Iran has repeatedly experienced unrest that has gripped the entire country. Sometimes the reasons are high fuel prices, sometimes inflation, and each time the protests – like today – lead to demands for the abolition of the system.
In recent years, these protests have always been suppressed with the utmost brutality and have never become a serious threat to the ruling Islamic scholars. After initial reluctance, the state power is now striking again. There are the first dead. According to US figures, more than 1,000 have died in unrest since 2017. Iran is further away from democracy than ever.
After the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody, people took to the streets in many Iranian cities. The arch-conservative state leadership is in need of explanation. The young woman had been arrested by the religious police because of her "un-Islamic outfit".
The chances of a reversal could further decrease for another reason: the negotiations in the nuclear dispute with Iran are deadlocked.
Worse, even those states that have pushed the most vehemently for a negotiated settlement, including Germany, are increasingly reluctant to believe that Tehran is interested in a deal. Meanwhile, the country has pushed its nuclear program so far that it could build nuclear weapons in a relatively short time.
If the leadership possesses nuclear weapons or can produce them at any time, the prospects for the country's democratization diminish even more dramatically. Because rulers who feel unassailable have even fewer reasons to listen to their people.
And yet: Even if pictures of the protest are not unusual in Iran - this courageous solidarity between men and women is special. And the reaction of the state seems particularly concerned. This shows how explosive and central the issue of gender equality is in the country. Perhaps this fight is Iran's best chance for democratization.