Giovanni Giacalone, a senior analyst for the Italian Team for Security, Terroristic Issues and Managing Emergencies/Catholic University of Milan, and for the Britain-based think-tank Islamic Theology of Counter-Terrorism. He is the team coordinator for the “Latin America Group” of the International Institute for the Study of Security.
The current situation in Iran, with the protests that broke out immediately after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September 2022, has generated international condemnation with demonstrations organized in Europe, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. Amini was arrested by the religious police in Tehran on 13 September for allegedly violating the regime’s strict rules requiring women to cover their hair with a headscarf.
However, not all Western government officials responded in the same way. For example, Canada’s foreign minister, Melanie Joly, backed women taking to the streets of Iran in protest, hosted a meeting to show Canada’s solidarity with Iranian women fighting inside the country, and sanctioned every major Iranian government body. However, other countries were far milder or even silent on the Khomeinist regime’s crackdown.
The European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK) seem far more concerned about Iran’s supply of drones to Russia in its war against Ukraine, rather than about the regime’s massacre of demonstrators and major human rights abuses. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that the 27-member block was “considering” sanctions on Iran over Amini’s death.
On 18 October, the EU froze the assets of eleven people, including two leading morality police officials, Mohammad Rostami and Haj Ahmad Mirzaei, and Information Minister Issa Zarepour (who was indicated as responsible for the internet shutdown after the protests started). These individuals were also banned from traveling in Europe. However, such measures can still be considered very mild, and it is very unlikely that Brussels will go any further.
Between the end of December and early January, the Iranian government summoned the Italian and Swedish ambassadors over “interventionist statements” made by European governments which condemned the violence against demonstrators. According to Iran, the EU is interfering in the Republic’s internal issues.
In mid-December, the Italian Parliament approved a resolution calling on Iran to immediately cease handing down death sentences to anti-government protestors. However, the Italian government also stated that it wants to “keep open the door to diplomacy” with Tehran, notably over Iran’s nuclear program.
In early October, the UK ambassador to Iran, Simon Shercliff, criticized the regime’s crackdown, but no major steps were taken by the British government against Tehran. On the other hand, on October 20, Britain announced sanctions against three Iranian generals (Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, Seyed Hojjatollah Qureishi and Saeed Aghajani), as well as Shahed Aviation Industries, the Iranian manufacturer of the drones used by Russia in Ukraine.
However, the British government now has to deal with the Alireza Akbari issue; a British-Iranian dual national accused of espionage and sentenced to death. The UK urged Iran to halt the planned execution, immediately release him and also requested urgent consular access, but Iran’s government does not recognize dual nationality for Iranians.
The US position doesn’t seem much different from Downing Street’s, with the Biden administration claiming its support to the protesters while avoiding any drastic steps against the Khomeinist regime to remain committed to the nuclear talks (read the White House statement). On October 6, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned seven senior leaders within Iran’s government and security apparatus for the shutdown of Iran’s internet access and the continued violence against demonstrators—a measure that will likely make no difference to Tehran.
However, on October 20, White House National Security Coordinator for Communications John Kirby announced a tough position on the Iranian regime’s weapons sales to Moscow: “We’re going to continue to stand with our partners throughout the Middle East region against the Iranian threat.” Despite this declaration, the United States and its European allies refuse to close the door to the nuclear deal and the diplomatic approach with Iran, no matter if Iran is also providing drones to Russia to be used in Ukraine.
In the meantime, protesters await concrete measures against the regime.
This absence of a clear and strong stance by Western chancelleries towards the Iranian regime can only have negative effects on the protests, with demonstrators not feeling significant and pragmatic international support from the global community while putting their own lives at risk.
Moreover, the Iranian regime is well aware of the fact that the West will not carry out any serious measures against Tehran as long as the issue remains on the domestic level. The human rights of the Iranian people are considered by the West to be an Iranian problem. No Western government is willing to go beyond a certain line due to the fact that the Chinese and the Ukrainian-Russian front have a higher priority on the Western agenda.
It all started on 13 September, when Amini was arrested by the Guidance Patrol (Gasht-e-Ershad) or “morality police” while in the company of her family. She was then transferred to the custody of the Public Security Police (PAVA). According to Amini’s cousin, she was beaten and insulted in the van as witnessed by her co-detainees. Once at the police station, she began to lose vision and fainted. It took over thirty minutes for the ambulance to arrive and an hour and a half for her to get to Kasra hospital.
The clinic that treated Amini released a statement on Instagram saying that she had already been brain-dead when she had been admitted. But on 19 September, the post had been deleted.
Published hospital pictures show Amini bleeding from the ear and sporting bruises under her eyes. Medical scans of her skull leaked by hacktivists showed bone fractures, hemorrhage, and brain edema. Several doctors, after seeing the pictures of Amini in the hospital, claimed on social media that the cause of the bleeding from her ear could be a blow to the head. These statements do not match with the version provided by Iranian authorities who declared the cause to be a heart attack.
In a 13 October letter, over 800 members of Iran’s Medical Council accused the head of Iran’s Medical Council of assisting in a government cover-up of the cause of Amini’s death.
Protests in the West
The first protests took place after Amini’s funeral in the western city of Saqqez, when women ripped off their headscarves in solidarity. Since then, the protests have spread throughout the country. In response, the Iranian regime called in the anti-riot police in an attempt to crack down on protests and implemented regional shutdowns of internet access. As protests grew in numbers, an internet blackout was imposed. However, by then, protests had already spread internationally with major demonstrations organized on a weekly basis in Europe, the US and Canada.
Initially, many believed that the demonstrations would be extinguished in the span of a couple of weeks. However, things have, so far, gone differently. In London, protests continue to attract thousands of people, while on 22 October thousands of people poured into the streets of Berlin (80,000, according to the police) to support the Iranian uprising.
In Milan, protests are taking place between Piazza Duomo and Piazza della Scala and they are organized by Iranian students and professionals together with social centers and feminist organizations. In Rome, there is a conspicuous role of the Mojahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), the Albania-based Islamist-Marxist cult.
Among the various slogans displayed during the demonstrations in the West, a particularly significant one was noted as it clearly expresses what many demonstrators think: “To the world leaders: Iranian women do not need you to save them, they only need you to stop saving their murderers.”
Iranian Espionage Abroad
If on a domestic level the Iranian regime has been responding with crackdowns against demonstrators and internet blackouts, in Europe it is operating on a different level.
Firstly, in several countries such as Italy, the UK and Canada, individuals linked to the regime were recognized while photographing the demonstrators. They were consequently chased and then handed over to the police who carried out the necessary checks.
It is not clear if these people were sent by the various Iranian consulates in their respective countries, if they are members of the intelligence or simply sympathizers of the regime. It is, however, obvious that the objective is to identify Iranian citizens and then proceed with potential retaliations—if not against them as they are abroad, then against their relatives in Iran. One Iranian demonstrator in Milan who asked to remain anonymous said: “Iranians here in Italy are not that many. They know who we are, especially the students. They follow us and once they know who we are, they target our relatives in Iran. They arrest them and search our homes. We live in terror.”
In Rome, during a demonstration organized in mid-October, an Iranian student told the Italian State TV RAI that they all fear showing their faces because there are regime infiltrators within the demonstrations: “They monitor us here, too. They infiltrate and threaten us by saying that they saw us take part in the previous demonstration and that if we continue, there will be consequences.” She also added that these individuals are always the same ones. They are known and probably check their social networks and emails as well. “Here, we are not afraid, but we do worry about retaliation against our families in Iran,” she added.
In the meantime, Iran has also been arresting Western citizens on Iranian soil; among them, seven French citizens accused of various felonies that include “conspiracy and collusion to harm national security”, Belgian citizen Olivier Vandecasteele and 30-year-old Italian travel-blogger Alessia Piperno. The latter was released in early November. According to Iranian authorities, forty foreign nationals have been arrested during “riots” since September 2022.
After all, the Iranian regime is known for this type of strategy—the kidnapping of Western citizens to be used as leverage with their countries.
Beyond arrests, crackdowns and the surveillance of demonstrators abroad, Tehran has also been very active in political and religious propaganda, mainly through websites and religious-cultural centers.
It is possible to state that the common denominator of Tehran’s propaganda concerning the revolts is that the turmoil is being orchestrated by foreign powers—specifically, the US, Israel and the UK.
The Rome-based Islamic center Imam Mahdi recently published a long article on its website Islamshia entitled: “Dirty money: the US agent leading the CIA-induced riots in Iran.” The article focused on Masoumeh “Masih” Alinejad-Ghomi, indicated as the “weapon” chosen by Washington and working from an FBI-protected hideout:
“Operating from an FBI shelter, Alinejad has lived in the United States for the past decade working full-time for VOA Persia (Voice of America Persia), the Washington propaganda media group funded directly by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a soft power arm of the empire fully subsidized by the Congress of the United States, created to produce narratives in favor of the Washington corporatocracy.”
The same article was also posted in Italian by the website of The International Quran News Agency (IQNA), founded in 2003 in the presence of the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and described on its own website as “the first and largest news agency on the Quran in the Islamic world.”
Another article published on Islamshia presented the 3 October speech of Imam Khamenei where he pointed the finger at the US and even claimed that, during the riots, “the police, the Basij and the population have been oppressed more than anyone else.” According to Khamenei, the oppressed are the security forces and the slice of the population loyal to the regime. This distorted version of events is overturned by what was seen in the amateur videos that came from Iran.
On 15 October 2022, the Islamic Association Imam Mahdi organized an event at the Cinabro library in Rome to discuss developments in Iran. The two speakers who called for the event were Marco Hosseyn Morelli, who is a spokesman for the Imam Mahdi Association, and Hanieh Tarkian.
Tarkian, who is cited as “professor of Islamic Studies”, is currently working for the Al-Mustafa Institute of Islamic Studies (MIU) Italy branch (as indicated on her Linkedin profile)—an international university-style seminary institute in Qom, Iran established in 1979 with international branches and affiliate schools. In December 2020, the US Department of the Treasury sanctioned the MIU for allegedly recruiting students to fight in Syria.
It is interesting to note how Tarkian is also a contributing writer for the LaLuce News website, considered close to the Muslim Brotherhood and to the Turkish AKP. On LaLuceNews, Tarkian is described as Italian-Iranian, and it says that “she completed her doctoral course in Islamic Sciences at Jamiat az-Zahra, Iran’s most important center for Islamic studies for women, and is about to complete a Master’s in international Relations and Strategic Studies. She is currently a teacher and coordinator of the Master’s in Italian in Islamic Studies organized by the al-Mustafa International University (Iran).”
At the beginning of October, LaLuceNews published an article with an emblematic title: “The usual Western interested interferences on Iran”, signed by Donatella Amina Salina.
This should not come as a surprise, considering that, in November 2021, Ali Faeznia, president of the Milan-based Shiite Imam Ali Cultural Center, entrusted Mohamed Asfa, a Sunni imam belonging to the Padova mosque, and Ali Abu Shwaima (Sunni imam of Segrate mosque), both considered linked to Muslim Brotherhood ideology, as his delegates at the Council for Inter-religious Dialogue at Regione Lombardia.
The Imam Ali Center does not hide its ideology, with a series of Instagram posts praising Ayatollah Khomeini and others dedicated to the celebrations for the second anniversary of the death of the general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Qassem Suleimani. In November 2021, the Imam Ali Center advertised a conference on “Islamic resistance to US hegemony”, in which the Iranian consul also participated as a speaker.
Other posts are in support of the Palestinian cause. The issue was raised in April 2022 by the Italian Team for Security, Terroristic Issues and Managing Emergencies/Catholic University of Milan. The Imam Ali Center is active on a weekly basis, every Thursday, with religious functions in a private apartment just south of the Navigli area.
On Thursday, 23 January 2023, the Milan-based center commemorated the death of Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian military officer who served in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and who was killed on 3 January 2020 in Baghdad by a US drone strike.
Other international websites managed by Tehran such as Khamnenei.ir and Pars Today are basically using the same rhetoric indicating the West as the aggressor interfering in Iran’s domestic issues and inciting revolts. However, the interesting aspect regarding the Imam Mahdi Islamic Association and the Imam Ali Center is the fusion between the religious objective of divulging Islam and the political “Khomeinist” propaganda being spread.
Predictions for the Future
It’s very difficult to predict where these demonstrations will lead, if they will obtain anything, or if they will simply head to a dead end like the previous “Green Revolution”.
According to Dr. Raz Zimmt of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University:
“If the regime succeeds in suppressing the current wave of protests, we can expect continued manifestations of civil unrest, such as: removing veils in the public sphere, demonstrations and strikes in universities, sporadic workers’ strikes, writing anti-establishment slogans, etc. In the absence of practical solutions to the public’s demands, Iran may slip into a permanent revolutionary situation. This situation may continue for a long time, but it means further erosion of the already limited legitimacy of the regime and continued protests, which could become more frequent, more violent, and more radical to the point of posing a real threat to the regime’s survival. Revolutionary moments could eventually turn into a real revolution.”
In the meantime, Tehran will keep using its tools abroad to spread its propaganda, both political and religious, while trying to monitor the demonstrations and those who are considered “enemies of the Revolution”—a revolution that seems obsolete as Iranian society moves on.
The Khomeinists regime knows very well that despite the statements of condemnation made by the West, by the UN, despite the Iranian ambassadors been summoned by European governments, and the international media coverage of the deadly repression perpetrated by Tehran against its own people, nobody in the West currently wants a direct clash with Iran, especially since other areas of the world—such as Ukraine, China, and now Brazil—have priority. Therefore, the Iranian regime will very likely continue to conduct arrests of demonstrators and distribute death sentences.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.