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Opinion: Iran's regime cannot be fixed

 Yalda Zarbakhch
Yalda Zarbakhch
November 5, 2022

For weeks now, Iranian women have been fighting for democracy and freedom. Many have been arrested, beaten or killed. DW's Yalda Zarbakhch asks why Western governments still seek compromise with Iran's regime.

Iranian women protest without hijab at Sanandaj Technical and Vocational University
World leaders have kept mum as Iran's regime has intensified violence against protestersImage: SalamPix/abaca/picture alliance

Every day another funeral: young people carried to their graves by their families, mothers carried to their graves by their children. For weeks now, these images have dominated the news from Iran.

Right now, the picture circulating around the world is of a 5-year-old weeping beside her mother's grave. Fereshteh Ahmadi, who had two children, was shot and killed by security forces. The image of her little daughter at her grave is heartbreaking for me as a mother — for every mother, for every human being. Or so you would think.

To date, at least 270 Iranians — women, men and 30 minors — have been shot or beaten to death because they took to the streets to express their anger and outrage following the death of Jina Mahsa Amini on Sept. 16. People are being murdered because they are fighting for democratic values. They want to live according to these values. And for this they are paying with their lives.

Protests at graveyards

Every day marks 40 days since a protester's death in Iran right now — and relatives and demonstrators turn out to observe the occasion. Despite the significant security presence, tens of thousands of people come to gather in and around the cemeteries. They mourn Jina Mahsa, Nika, Sarina, Hananeh, Asra and Hadis, to name just a few of the brave girls and women killed. Parents are being arrested in order to force "confessions" by torture — made to say that their children died of heart failure or a stroke or by suicide.

Cemeteries and universities are now the biggest sites of protest. Every innocent victim increases the anger and determination of Iranian women and men, and strengthens their unity in standing up against the government.

A girl in a pink poncho, seen from behind, stands with her arms raised and fingers in a victory sign, her long brown hair loose down her back. Behind her, a country road is jammed full of cars and people.
Protesters traveled to Jina Mahsa Amini's grave to mark 40 days since her deathImage: UGC/AFP

Human rights organizations estimate that about 14,000 people are being held and abused in Iran's overflowing jails, including at Tehran's infamous Evin prison. These people, too, ought to be acknowledged by name: the activists, musicians, children and students abducted from their homes, schools and residences — some of whom may now face the death penalty.

Every day, their calls grow louder and more clear: "Death to the dictator, death to a regime that murders children," they cry. "Death to the whole apparatus of power, death to the Islamic Republic."

A regime beyond reform

In the West, of all places, it seems that many political leaders cannot hear the screams of Iranians. Or is it that they don't want to? Why is the West clinging to possible reform scenarios when people in Iran have known for many years that this system cannot be fixed?

With Iran in the midst of a unique feminist revolution, Germans have directed their expectations for a response to Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. But how is it possible that the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, remained silent for five weeks? It wasn't until Oct. 31 that he condemned, in a tweet, the "disproportionate violence of the security forces" against demonstrators in Iran. And why is the West still hoping for a resumption of the Iran nuclear agreement, signed in 2015 and abandoned in 2018? This is a slap in the face of all Iranian women and men who are currently putting their lives on the line.

The demonstrators do not want reforms or compromises. Because what compromises can you make with a regime that arrests schoolgirls, rapes them, shoots them, beats them to death?

Headshot of Yalda Zarbakhch, wearing a pink jacket
Yalda Zarbakhch, head of DW PersianImage: DW/Privat

As an Iranian, and as a journalist following the pictures, videos and flood of news stories coming out of Iran every day, I speak for my compatriots who have been protesting for weeks when I say that people want regime change. They want to live self-determined lives in a free and democratic country. This is not possible with the current regime in Tehran.

Listen to the protesters

I am not calling for intervention by the West — or for outside involvement in overthrowing the Islamic Republic. That is up to the people of Iran alone. What I am calling for, though, is governments to listen to the protesters: Do not contribute to the strengthening of the regime.

It is irresponsible to strengthen or legitimize a regime that will stop at nothing to remain in power. A regime that no longer has any legitimacy among its own population cannot be legitimized by the international community as a diplomatic partner for dialog.

It is a paradox. In the liberal West, of all places, there is a widespread fear of regime change. I keep hearing warnings that a revolution in Iran would result in instability throughout the region — that it could spark a civil war and turn the country into a second Syria.

I wonder what these warnings are based on. The region is already far from stable, and the Islamic Republic and its Revolutionary Guard, supported by Hezbollah, play a significant part in that, as well. The narrative of a second Syria or impending civil war as the sole alternatives to the Islamic Republic has put the brake on change for years now, both at home and abroad.

A wide grass lawn covered in rows of posters with black and white photos of faces of men and women. Bunches of red flowers are positioned between the rows.
An initiative in Washington commemorates the at least 270 Iranians killed in the protestsImage: Stephen Shaver/ZUMA Press/dpa/picture alliance

Apart from the machinery of power that is centered on the Revolutionary Guard and Basij militias — who would give everything for their religious ideology and their leader, Ayatollah Khamenei — the vast majority of the population is united in the struggle against the Islamic Republic. This has seldom been as apparent as in the past six weeks: People of all ethnicities and minorities, Kurds, Baluchis, women and men, old and young, Muslims, people of other faiths, atheists: All are protesting together across the entire country — with and without hijabs.

Despite all the repressive measures, a strong civil society has developed in Iran in recent years. A great many activists, lawyers, women's rights activists, and others who could provide an alternative to the Islamic Republic are currently being held in Evin prison. If they are freed in time, they would be able to build a new Iran. This could stabilize the entire region. If they are not released, they face show trials and execution.

Ever since it was established, the Islamic Republic has cemented its power with brutality, oppression, and human rights abuses. It is still doing so 40 years later, and before the very eyes of the international community. For how much longer?

This article has been translated from German.

 Yalda Zarbakhch
Yalda Zarbakhch Head of DW Persian@yaldina