Iran’s Islamist regime wields varied instruments of violent repression and totalitarian control, but most detested may well be the Basij force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a paramilitary militia of young ideologues that polices Iranians’ everyday lives. Since the beginning of the nationwide uprising sparked by the gruesome killing of Mahsa Amini for not covering her hair, the Basij have been called up to provide their usual service of clubbing and shooting protesters. This time the response from demonstrators has been a deep fury that is expressing itself in open rejection of the regime.
In the face of brutal repression that has taken the lives of over 100 mostly youthful protesters, Iranians are fighting back with bare hands and engaging in kharabkariyeh sherafatmandaneh or “honorable vandalism,” sabotaging the regime’s surveillance cameras, hacking its cyber infrastructure, demolishing security force vehicles, burning banners of the supreme leader and Qassem Soleimani, blocking streets, setting fires, destroying signs emblematic of regime ideology such as Palestine Street, pulling down statues, and surrounding security forces to beat them back. Videos from street protests show panicked Basiji thugs trying to escape the wrath of protesters in unprecedented scenes that have helped sustain the morale of the most sweeping and powerful nationwide protest movement in Iran since the 1979 Revolution.
But Basijis are still deeply feared. On Oct. 2, students at Sharif University of Technology, Iran’s MIT and the country’s most globally connected institution, joined the nationwide uprising by protesting against the killing of Mahsa Amini as well as the imprisonment of four of their own classmates. Silent sit-ins were held in the university’s different colleges and a rally was held in front of the university’s main entrance.
Sharif is not an ordinary Iranian university. Every year, its graduates fill slots at the world’s best science and technology graduate programs. Stanford and other top schools in the United States regularly take in its graduates and Silicon Valley startups and the top brass at large American technology corporations include many of its alumni.
Compared to previous protests at the university, the Oct. 2 rally at Sharif University was unprecedented in size. As the crowd of students grew louder, Basijis left a nearby mosque and surrounded them. The students decided together to change locations to avoid the Basijis and also because the previous day new surveillance cameras and telecommunication antennas had been installed at the university entrance.
The students went to another entrance of the university where street protesters also joined them. Here they found uniformed security forces with vans waiting to arrest them. One student was badly beaten on the head with a baton. Students began to panic as all doors to the university were shut, trapping them. Basijis and security forces began to shoot at the unarmed students as the university was surrounded on all sides by vans and security forces waiting to take the youthful protesters to regime dungeons. For incoming freshmen, this was only their second day on campus.
The president of the university and the security forces agreed to allow the students to escape through the university’s parking garage. But once students filled the garage, the Basij ambushed them there, and started firing and yelling insults, particularly at girls. Video footage from students inside the parking garage shows them in stages of shock and fear. Many describe the scene as a war zone.
Some professors from the university tried to protect the students and at one point even the regime’s minister of science, Zulfi Gol, intervened, but none succeeded in stopping the violence. At one point the university’s security forces were attacked by the regime’s security forces.
Video recordings from the Sharif protest showing students being taken into the vans with black bags over their heads outraged the public. A woman filming a young man being taken away on a motorbike with his shirt pulled over his head was herself shot.
Messages and videos of terror filled Twitter as the country’s best and brightest minds were bludgeoned and terrorized. The Basijis clubbed and beat the students, deployed tear gas, and fired live ammunition at the unarmed students. Many were wounded and more than 30 arrested. As of this writing it is unclear how many students are still in regime custody, at risk of torture, solitary confinement, forced confessions, and show trials. Students who have been released have given their parents’ homes as bail, in order to ensure their silence.
Aside from Sharif’s international prestige, another reason for the regime’s quick and brutal response to the student protests there is the inherent security risk involved in having the country’s leading research center—for nuclear technology, missile development, drone technology, and internet censorship—fall into the hands of the country’s most intelligent young revolutionaries.
Ordinary Iranians were livid at the attack on the country’s brightest young minds. With the wall of totalitarian fear crumbling and protesters occupying many disparate parts of Tehran, they formed a caravan of honking cars and surrounded the school. By the next morning, students who had not been rounded up were able to exit safely.
Outside Iran a group of prominent Sharif graduates released an open letter demanding independence for the school and no interference by security forces, prosecution of those who perpetrated the violence, and release of all students in prison, as well as a call on all professors to refuse teaching until the imprisoned students are all back home and safe. The organizer of the letter is Ehsan Afshari, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan who was once himself a vigilante enforcer of Islamist ideology while a student at Sharif. His journey from supporter of Islamo-fascism to ardent believer in liberal norms and academic freedom is striking. A letter by professors of the electrical engineering faculty at Sharif released soon after was just as forceful, with the very same demands. Since their letter, more faculties have joined the ongoing teacher strike.
Though the signers of the letter are ensconced in elite positions at NASA and companies like Tesla, Goldman Sachs, Amazon, and Intel, they were still hesitant to call for prosecution for those responsible for the violence, a mark of the fear Iranians in the diaspora still carry with them.
Perhaps the most profound result of the attack on Sharif is the response by students at schools and universities across Iran, especially young teenage girls whose removal of headscarves and loud, angry denunciations of their school administrators—all proudly captured on social media. It has become the stuff of history, drawing the admiration and support of people across the globe, including luminaries from J.K. Rowling to the Pet Shop Boys to Juliette Binoche, as well as impassioned solidarity from Iranian schoolboys fed up with the subjugation and segregation of their sisters.
Iranians believe their feminist revolution cannot be defeated. Their courage has shaken the world. Theirs is a yearning for secular humanism and for an egalitarian society that embodies Cyrus the Great’s universal declaration of human rights. Instead of accommodating regime demands for nuclear weapons and its hold over regional states like Lebanon while paying occasional lip service to the protesters’ bravery, the Biden administration must listen to their demands: removal of the regime that brutalizes them daily and transition to a democratic government that is bound to be among America’s greatest allies. To do so will require an honest reckoning about an Iran policy that has done nothing but legitimize America’s greatest enemy.
As the example of Ukraine makes clear, it is both morally destructive and geopolitically foolish for the United States to side with anti-American tyrannies while undercutting brave and principled opposition movements that are backed by large popular majorities. The logic of Cold War accommodation with tyrants makes little sense in a world where the Soviet Union ceased to exist over 30 years ago. The Iranian regime is not powerful, except when it comes to beating up unarmed students and murdering women who refuse to cover their hair in the streets. The Iranian regime is visibly weak, and—as of now, at least, with no thanks to successive teams of accommodationist American negotiators—it lacks nuclear weapons.
President Biden should halt the nuclear negotiations with Iran and end any prospect of handing the oppressors of the Iranian people another cash windfall. The girls of Iran deserve their freedom—and they deserve at least not to be murdered in the streets by weapons purchased with American dollars.
Mariam Memarsadeghi is Founder and Director of the Cyrus Forum, Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and a leading advocate for a democratic Iran.