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Sensemaker: Fearless in Iran

Sensemaker: Fearless in Iran

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The UK government increased its borrowing plans by £130 billion after the new chancellor cut income tax and stamp duty, including for the rich (more below). 
  • Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge trials came to an end after 16 years, with the UN-backed court upholding a genocide conviction against the regime’s last surviving leader. 
  • Cambridge University gained “significant benefits” from slavery, according to an internally-commissioned report.

Fearless in Iran

In any normal dictatorship protests like those paralysing Iran would presage blanket repression or regime collapse. 

At least 30 people have died in six days of unrest prompted by the death of a young woman whose crime was to show a little too much hair beneath her hijab. Crowds chanting “death to the dictator” have gathered to watch headscarves being burned and women cutting their hair in solidarity.

The protests are leaderless and unlikely to end Iran’s 43 year-old theocracy – for now. But they are quite unlike those seen recently in Russia (more below) in terms of 

  • numbers – they have broken out in 80 cities;
  • ferocity – footage posted online shows members of the loathed morality police being beaten up by furious crowds; and
  • context – they don’t come as a surprise. On the contrary, the gaps between eruptions of public anger in Iran are narrowing. 

Why now?

  • Mahsa Amini was a 22 year-old from Iranian Kurdistan, visiting her brother in Tehran before starting university. She had no record of activism and was, her family says, in perfect health. But she was detained by the morality police, severely beaten and died three days later after falling into a coma. The protests were triggered when the last picture of Amini on life support in hospital was posted on social media.
  • Technology. Police tried claiming the unrest was instigated abroad via illegal satellite TV channels – a telling throwback to 1989, when satellite TV played a crucial role in Eastern Europe’s revolutions. In reality news of Amini’s death went viral the usual way via smartphones, WhatsApp and Instagram, as the regime has now acknowledged by blocking access to both.
  • Sanctions. US sanctions following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 have halved overseas trade, quadrupled inflation and cut the real (black market) dollar exchange rate of the rial to a sixth of its official value. All of which exacerbates the effects of endemic corruption and economic mismanagement and helps account for the breadth and depth of anti-regime feeling in a population of 84 million painfully aware life could be so much better. 
  • Envy. Absent sanctions, Iran would be the world’s fourth-largest oil exporter. But it’s been largely unable to cash in on an oil and gas bonanza caused by the war in Ukraine and forecast to net the Gulf states at least $3.5 trillion and by some estimates up to $6 trillion over the next five years. That shiny Qatar is hosting the World Cup doesn’t help. 

For attacking women, the morality police have now been hit with their very own set of US sanctions. Meanwhile, their target has broad significance:

A brief history of the hijab as proxy for politics: Reza Shah, who wanted to secularise Iran as Ataturk secularised Turkey, banned all Islamic veils in 1936. The mullahs under Ayatollah Khomeini introduced a standard penalty of two months in jail for a bare head after the 1979 revolution. The morality police have since enforced a “cover or suffer” rule, although regular police in Tehran sometimes take a softer line. 

And of protests that have failed to dislodge Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei:

  • 2009 – the so-called Green Revolution, sparked by the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president and the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, a 23 year-old woman shot in the head by security forces, ended in mass arrests and jail terms.
  • 2017 – the Girls of Revolution street protest emboldened young women in Tehran to remove their hijabs but was crushed before it could spread.
  • 2019 – Sahar Khodayari set herself on fire in protest at being barred entry to a football ground as a woman even though she was dressed as a man.
  • 2021 – anti-corruption demonstrations led to a pledge by Tehran’s chief of police that bare-headed women would not be detained but would be “re-educated”.

Amini’s gravestone bears the message: “You will not die. Your name will become a rallying call.” For whom is not yet clear, but Iran is in the throes of what one human rights activist calls “a crisis of impunity” – a crisis that’s given a new wave of revolutionaries a new window of opportunity.


Mini-budget, maxi debt 
Everything that was trailed is now official. Liz Truss and her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng are going for broke. Kwarteng’s mini-budget – so mini that it required no responsibility scoring from the Office for Budget Responsibility – will cut stamp duty, scrap planned increases in corporation tax and National Insurance contributions and end the two-times-salary cap on bankers’ bonuses. In addition, it will take 1p off the basic rate of income tax from next year and scrap the 45 per cent top rate so that the most anyone in the UK pays, including those who earn more than £150,000 a year, will be 40 per cent. Kwarteng has already announced £60 billion worth of help with energy bills. The Institute for Fiscal studies say the tax cuts are the biggest in any budget since 1972. They will all have to be funded with borrowing, at higher costs (of 10-year gilts) than at any time since 1998. One baffled ex-Bank of England advisor called the package “bizarre nonsense”. Truss hopes voters will disagree. 


Neptune’s rings  
The main goal of Nasa’s James Webb telescope is to look further than ever before into our universe to discover its history and secrets. But its immensely powerful infrared instruments also offer a chance to look closer to home – 4.3247 billion km from Earth to be precise. Webb has captured the clearest images of the ice giant Neptune since the deep-space probe Voyager 2 sped past in 1989. At first glance, you would be forgiven for thinking the image is of a planet never seen before. The image shows bright narrow rings encircling a lilac planet – nothing like the cobalt blue sphere familiar from school textbooks. Astronomers knew these dust rings existed, but this is the first time Neptune has been imaged in infrared which means a much clearer view of the rings – as well as the planet’s moons and methane-ice clouds. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

NI’s Catholics 
Catholics officially outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time in its history as a province of the UK. In newly released data from the 2021 census, more people come from Catholic backgrounds (45.7 per cent) than Protestant ones (43.5 per cent) for the first time since the census began tracking both current religion and “religion brought up in” in 2001. Although religion is not a perfect proxy for political affiliation, Sinn Féin’s success in this year’s Assembly elections, as well as other findings from the new census – such as growing numbers of people with Irish passports, an almost even number of people identifying as British and Irish, and a steep rise in those with no religion – suggest that both the cultural and political environments in which the North emerged have shifted significantly.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

U-turn on net zero?
Liz Truss says she was green before it was fashionable, joining her parents on marches to save the ozone layer. But it seems likely she will not attend Cop27, due to be held in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, in November. The Times’ Lara Spirit – formerly of Tortoise – first reported Downing Street’s possible snub yesterday, noting she told a hustings of Tory MPs in July that she would attend, and Sensemaker’s sources agree, pointing out that Truss was among the least enthusiastic ministers at Cop26 in Glasgow. It is the latest in a stream of signals that this prime minister is breaking with her predecessors on climate, from lifting the ban on fracking in England to grumbling about solar panels on farmland. Remember: the UK still holds the Cop presidency, and the talks in Egypt will focus on whether promises are being kept.


Then they came for me
Sold out flights, crowded airports, queues on the Finnish and Georgian borders: that’s how Russians reacted to the “partial mobilisation” announced by Putin this week that will summon 300,000 reservists to fight (reports suggest the number could be closer to one million). Protests broke out in 38 cities across the country and at least 1,300 people were detained, with some directly conscripted into the army. Two military enlistment offices were set on fire. More anti-war rallies are planned this weekend, but these are the first nationwide protests since the fighting began in late February. Many Russians are not against the war – they just don’t want to fight in it. 

Something for the weekend… 

Western sanctions have reshaped the world of Russia’s elite, according to flight patterns analysed by Tortoise. In the summer of 2021, private jets taking off from Moscow headed across Europe to play: mainly to Italy, followed by France and Greece. Oligarchs’ summer destinations this year are markedly different, after Ukraine’s allies closed airspace to Russian planes following Putin’s invasion. Turkey, which has resisted sanctions against Russia, was the summer destination of choice, according to records of private jet flights from RadarBox.com, a flight tracking company, alongside the UAE and Russia’s post-Soviet allies like Belarus and Armenia. Turkey has also become a safe haven for Russian oligarchs’ yachts: Roman Abramovich’s £430 million Solaris superyacht, seen near Antibes on the French Riviera a year ago, was tracked to Turkey this summer, with 10 more Russian superyachts spotted in ports of Bodrum, Marmaris, Gocek and Fethiye. At least one private jet has been put to good use – five British prisoners of war were flown by Abramovich to Saudi Arabia this week after a prisoner exchange. 

Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Phoebe Davis, Nina Kuryata, Katie Riley, Jeevan Vasagar and Jessica Winch.

Graphics by Katie Riley.

Photographs Getty Images

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