“You are a worthless fly, I am a free woman,” young women at a university in Tehran sing of Iranian President Raisi after he compared protesters to flying. In other images from Iran, women burn their headscarves, students occupy their universities and workers in the oil industry lay down. Throughout the country the slogan is heard: “Woman, life, freedom!” Iranian protesters have been demanding the fall of the regime for a month. The protests started after the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman who, according to eyewitnesses, was beaten on the head by the vice squad for wearing a headscarf too loosely. A nationwide uprising, led by Iranian women, has become the biggest challenge facing the Islamic Republic since the Green Movement in 2009. Also read Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: from cosmopolitan to religious dinosaur “This is a feminist revolution,” said Negar Mottahedeh, a professor of Literature, Media and Women’s Studies at Duke University. “It started with women saying: ‘Don’t touch me, this is my body, I do what I want.’ That is very inspiring. Thanks to this feminine energy, Iranians overcame their fears and regained hope for self-determination.” escalating violence As repression mounts, Mottahedeh sees the nature of the protests changing. The regime has already killed 201 people, including 23 children , according to an Iranian human rights group. “The fire of violence flares up everywhere,” says the academic. “The energy on the street is becoming more aggressive. I am afraid that these girls and boys will be slaughtered.” Without organization and leadership, protests threaten to reach a deadly stalemate, said Ali Kadivar, a sociologist at Boston College. “The problem is that almost all potential leaders have fled the country or are in prison. And the opposition in exile is divided and overestimated its influence on the street.” Instead of leaders, it is mainly physical locations that give some structure to the protests, Kadivar sees. Universities in particular serve as breeding grounds for resistance. “The advantage of that is that there are universities everywhere,” says the sociologist. “But the question is whether the students can also step outside their own social circle. And whether, in addition to protesting, they can also organize.” Iranian trade unions can play a crucial role in this, says Peyman Jafari, historian at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. Jafari received his PhD on the role of striking workers in the oil sector in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. He watches with great interest reports that oil workers in the southern port city of Asalouyeh laid down work last Monday. “Strikes can reverse the balance of power,” says Jafari. “The Iranian workers’ movement has experience in organizing and formulating demands – exactly what the demonstrators lack. In addition, strikes are less risky than street protests, so more people will participate in them. That would hit the regime hard economically.” Women in Istanbul have cut their hair in anger over Mahsa Amini’s death. Photo Emrah Gurel/AP In addition to the oil workers, Kurdish unions also called for strikes and the BBC reports that shopkeepers in Tehran’s bazaar are closing their doors. Still, Jafari keeps a lid on the arm. “Comparisons with 1979 are premature. But if there is a strike wave, it will be a game changer .” The Iranian economy is already in a dire state . Western sanctions, corruption and mismanagement have sharply increased poverty and inequality. The Iranian rial has lost 90 percent of its value in five years, with prices of goods and services rising by an average of 1,135 percent. To illustrate: chicken is twenty times more expensive than ten years ago, cooking oil forty times. While many young people mainly protest against the oppression of women and Islamic regulations, it is precisely the economic grievances that strike a chord with the conservative supporters of the regime. “That’s because the Islamic Republic has always presented itself as a champion of the oppressed,” said Arash Azizi, an Iranian PhD student at New York University. “But now the supporters of the regime also see what is hidden behind that rhetoric: a corrupt clique of kleptocrats.” thugs That raises concerns among the regime’s traditional allies, Azizi said. “Some Shia clerics are already cautiously criticizing the violence against the demonstrators. They see that the Islamic Republic is damaging the prestige of Islam and with it their own status.” According to Azizi, the loyalty of the so-called basiji can also diminish over time. These paramilitary vigilante groups shoot protesters en masse, but usually come from poorer families who are also dissatisfied. Videos are already appearing on social media of protests in poorer working-class neighborhoods in which the basiji walk along with the demonstrators. “You can’t draw conclusions from a few videos,” emphasizes Azizi. “But I can imagine that at some point some basiji think: what the hell am I doing? Why would I kill ordinary Iranians in the service of a regime that pretends to be strictly Islamic while sending its own daughters and sons to top Western universities?” The regime no more has a plan than the demonstrators Abbas Vali Kurdish academic In the circles of power around Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei there are no visible cracks yet. And the chance of internal resistance at the top is slim, as Khamenei has surrounded himself in recent years with yes-men and sidelined possible rivals. It is conceivable, however, that the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) will eventually become at odds with Khamenei, say both Jafari and Azizi. The powerful elite military corps has a huge business empire of its own and could pick eggs for its money if Khamenei’s regime fails to put down the rebellions. “The scenario of a military coup such as we saw in Egypt cannot be ruled out in Iran,” Azizi said. “And the result of that will certainly not be a democracy.” ‘Worst is yet to come’ Before that happens, the regime will increase repression, predicts Jafari. “It sounds harsh, but the worst is yet to come. I think the regime is mainly trying to exhaust the protesters now. If that doesn’t work, they go a step further. Then there will be not hundreds, but thousands of deaths.” In the Kurdish areas it is already moving in that direction . “Kurdistan has participated most in the protests and is undergoing the harshest repression,” said Abbas Vali, a Kurdish academic from Iran who liaises with protesters. “The prisons are overcrowded and the security forces are firing indiscriminately. We are even receiving reports that the army is supplying tanks and helicopters.” The Revolutionary Guard has also been carrying out rocket attacks on Iranian-Kurdish parties in the Kurdish part of Iraq for weeks. “The regime wants to provoke a military confrontation in order to denounce the insurgency as the work of separatist terrorists,” Vali said. “But the Kurdish parties react in a controlled manner. For the first time, they are striving for unity with the Iranian civilian movement.” In that unity lies the strength of the insurrection, says Vali. Because the protests are spread all over the country, the regime has great difficulty suppressing them everywhere at once. “The repression is strong, but chaotic,” says Vali. “The regime no more has a clear plan than the protesters.” The uprising is a marathon, not a sprint, according to sociologist Kadivar. “If the protesters organize themselves, it could be the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic. But that end is far from in sight. Never mind what comes after.” Correction (October 15, 2022): An earlier version of this article stated that the protesters killed were 28 children. As far as we know, there are now 23. A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of October 15, 2022