“[If] one day [Iran] is a free country, it will be thanks to these people — to these girls who take to the streets and set fire to their hijabs, and to these men who are fighting for their women,” wrote Alessia Piperno in one of her latest posts on Instagram, commenting on the protests triggered by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.
It was a comment on current events like so many on social media. However, Alessia Piperno was in Tehran, where one can end up in a jail cell for as little as a like. On Friday, the 30-year-old woman from Rome was detained, together with eight other Westerners. Pawns in a game far bigger than themselves.
This has happened before with the French tourist Benjamin Brière, 36, arrested in May 2020 for taking “photographs of forbidden areas” with a drone in a nature park in Iran, and sentenced in January to eight years and eight months in prison for “espionage” and “propaganda” against the regime.
Before him, on July 1, 2009, French student Clotilde Reiss had been detained and charged with espionage as she tried to leave the country: she had taken photos of the protests taking place at the time – triggered by fraud in the elections in which the ultraconservative Ahmadinejad was confirmed for a second presidential term – and emailed them to a friend in France.
Alessia Piperno, Benjamin Brière and Clotilde Reiss are European citizens, who don’t have Iranian nationality. As a result, the Italian Foreign Ministry and the Elysée can act through diplomatic channels. The situation of those who have dual passports, Iranian and Western, is different: Tehran only recognizes Iranian citizenship, so intervening to help them is more difficult.
But it’s still possible, as in the case of Baquer Namazi, 85, an Iranian who became a naturalized American: detained in Iran since February 2016, he was banned from leaving the country. Now, following an agreement between Tehran and Washington, he has been granted permission to leave Iran. His son, who had been detained for seven years, has also been released from prison and is now living with family members in the Iranian capital.
Following the release of the Namazis, Islamic Republic authorities said they were awaiting the release of €7.1 billion frozen abroad, Iranian money that had been stranded in South Korea following sanctions passed by the U.S. Treasury in 2018, when President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal. Now this money could be used by the ayatollahs and Pasdaran to divide the united front of the protesters by raising wages and pensions and handing out subsidies.
Doing so might calm the spirits of those who are taking to the streets at night primarily against the high cost of living and unemployment; and it would also give compensation for the losses of the bazaar merchants, whose income has fallen by half: after 5 p.m., no one goes shopping anymore because of the protests.
Meanwhile, the machinery of repression continues to claim victims. Some 1,200 Iranians have been arrested during the demonstrations. On Sunday night, students at Tehran’s Sharif Polytechnic were brutally attacked with gunfire and tear gas by Revolutionary Guard forces, police and plainclothes officers.
A large number of people in Tehran went to the university after students, including children of the ruling class, called for help. Many drove through the streets around the university, honking horns and shouting slogans.
Dozens of Polytechnic students were arrested and, according to social media reports, students from 111 universities, including those in Tehran, Isfahan, Kermanshah, Tabriz and Semnan, went on strike to support them on Monday.
After a very long silence, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei spoke in public for the first time on Monday. He first expressed regret over the death of Mahsa Amini, who “broke our hearts.” Then he claimed that “these riots were planned. If it were not for this girl, they would have come up with another excuse to foment insecurity. These uprisings were planned by America and the Zionist usurping regime, aided by their minions and some traitorous Iranians abroad. The United States is against a strong and independent Iran. They are trying to return Iran to the era of the Pahlavi dynasty, which obeyed their orders like sheep.”