Unrest in Iran with Mohamad Machine-Chian

Senior Research Scholar at the Center for Governance and Markets Mohamad Machine-Chian provided personal and academic insight into the ongoing unrest in Iran during a conversation on September 28. Before he was forced to flee last year, Machine-Chian was a leading voice for reform inside Iran. He served as the economy and public policy editor of the prominent Tehran-based Sazandagi newspaper and the political economy editor at Siasatnameh journal. At CGM, he works on issues of public policy in Iran and the greater Middle East.

Machine-Chian spoke about the anti-regime protests that broke out in Iran following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. Amini was arrested traveling to Tehran by the so-called “morality police” (an official police squad tasked with enforcing rules regarding religious observance and public morality as determined by Iranian authorities) for allegedly wearing her hijab incorrectly. Three days after she was detained, Amini died from injuries sustained during her arrest. 

“If they [morality police officers] deem that you are indecent and you are insulting public opinion, they are going to grab you, they are going to arrest you,” Machine-Chian said. “I personally know a lot of people closely, my relatives, my friends, who have been there, who have been grabbed.” 

Machine-Chian explained that the typical procedure for such an arrest is for a civilian, once deemed indecent, to suddenly be pulled from the street into a police car. From there, they are taken to facilities within the city where the detainee is “educated” or “cured of their indecency.” These arrests are often violent if resisted, Machine-Chian said, and result in injuries like those that caused Amini’s death. 

While living in Iran, Machine-Chian routinely witnessed such arrests. He said that his former home in Tehran is only minutes away from where Amini was detained. 

“Where I lived, I am ashamed to say I have seen.…hundreds of times, hundreds of girls being grabbed and pushed into those vans,” Machine-Chian said. “And I stood there, as did many others, helplessly.” 

Machine-Chian said that while Iran has experienced unrest before, the current protests are notable due to their pervasiveness. While the regime would normally flood Tehran with police forces to put down unrest, officials are currently unable to do so because protests are so widespread. All areas of the country require officers to control the situation in their own regions. Even celebrities and notable figures in Iran who in the past appeared supportive of the regime have responded to pressure from the public to denounce it. 

At the time Machine-Chian spoke, the Iranian regime had acknowledged between 50 and 100 deaths in the crackdown against protesters. According to Machine-Chian, by the standards of Iranian regime repression, this is a relatively mild number. Police forces so far favor non-lethal tactics such as pepper spray or rubber bullets, which result in injuries but fewer civilian deaths than in previous uprisings. 

Machine-Chian said that while fewer protesters have been killed in these protests, there is no indication that the regime is becoming more flexible in how it deals with criticism. He described the regime’s two core values as opposing Israel and extreme enforcement of “morality,” particularly regarding how women choose to wear the hijab. The regime will not bend to public desire to move away from these principles, Machine-Chian explained, because they are too central to its platform.

“The current regime has taken these values as core values, and without it, it will not be the same,” Machine-Chan said. “So they are resistant. They are not backing out of it. And they are not willing to change. They’ve made it clear. At this point they’re hoping unrest will die off eventually.”

According to Machine-Chian, while it is too soon to say what the effects of this latest unrest in Iran will be, it is undeniable that  “new ground has been gained” by civilians demanding reform in the country. He thinks Iranians across the political spectrum agree on three major priorities for a new regime: democracy, secularism, and acknowledgment of Israel. 

Machine-Chian explained that, should the protests lead to concessions by the Iranian regime, the positive developments will be felt across the globe. 

“A normal Iran, a democratic Iran, will benefit, I assure you, the whole world,” Machine-Chian said. “Whatever government comes after the current regime, I assure you about a couple of things: If people have anything to say about the next government, the next one cannot be a tyranny. These people will not accept another tyranny.”