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"They can't arrest all of us": Why Iran's defiant young protesters "want the change today"

Students protest in Iran despite crackdown
Student protests in Iran continue despite crackdown 06:02

Unprecedented scenes are emerging from the Islamic Republic of Iran: Schoolgirls across the country are flouting the law, some uncovering their hair, and many chanting, "We don't want the Islamic Republic!" and even, "Khamenei is a murderer!"

It is a rare and highly risky direct criticism of Iran's 83-year-old Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who on Monday accused the United States and Israel of plotting the protests that have swept across the nation.

"They have sat down and planned this," Khamenei claimed in his first public comments since the demonstrations began 18 days ago. "Those who take their salaries, some being traitorous Iranians abroad, have helped them."

His words did nothing to quell the calls for freedom spreading from school to school and university to university across Iran. The protests were sparked by the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran's "morality police." She was accused of wearing an improper hijab, which covers the hair and body, as required under the country's draconian interpretation of Islamic law.

Since Saturday, when the academic year officially began in Iran, college students have been protesting daily, shouting slogans such as "The mullahs must get lost!" and "Iran is drowning in blood, our professors are drowning in silence."

People under the age of 25, most of them women, have continued to drive the protests despite a harsh crackdown by the regime.

The Oslo-based Iran Human Rights group says at least 133 people across Iran have been killed by the authorities since the protests began. That figure includes more than 40 people reportedly killed in the southeast city of Zahedan last Friday. Thousands more have been arrested, according to activists.

"Everyone is out on the streets," one college student said in a video message. "We have to keep going. They can't arrest all of us."

On Sunday, security forces besieged Tehran's prestigious Sharif University of Technology — often referred to as the MIT of Iran — where students had been protesting peacefully. The student union said armed plainclothes agents beat demonstrators with batons, fired at them with plastic bullets and shotguns at short range, chased students down into a parking garage, and brutally arrested hundreds of them — though many were later released.

"The ground was full of blood," one woman said on condition of anonymity, adding that the authorities started scrubbing it clean the next day. "Nobody was chanting anything bad. We just want freedom. Why do I have to be afraid? We are human beings. We want to live like the rest of the world."

The Iranian authorities "think that by using force, brutal force, they can be in power forever," Maziar Bahari, the London-based editor of IranWire news, told CBS News. "But of course, they're wrong." 

Bahari said Iran's younger generations have simply had enough.

"My generation and the generation after me, we gave the government the chance to reform itself," said Bahari, who was jailed in Iran in 2009 while living and working there as a journalist for Newsweek. "But this generation can see that… the Islamic Republic cannot be reformed, so this government has to be ended."

Modern Iran emerged with the overthrow of a secular government in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Now, 43 years later, many young Iranians in the Islamic Republic are fed up with what they see as repressive rules, global isolation and severe Western sanctions imposed on their country.

"Young people are becoming poorer," Bahari said. "They are being humiliated at school. They're being humiliated on the streets by the morality police… their country is being humiliated by the world because of their kind of government. So, imagine living in that country. You want change. You want the change today."

Iran's Gen Z — those born between the late 1990s and early 2010s — are also the first generation to have grown up immersed in social media and the Internet, much like their counterparts in the West, explains Holly Dagres, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

"While it is heavily censored and has to be accessed through circumvention tools, Iranian Gen Z can see, in real-time, how the rest of the world lives," Dagres told CBS News. "Iranian youth look inwards and see how isolated their country is and that a corrupt and hypocritical clerical establishment rules it. Naturally, they want more - things we take for granted in the West."

Dagres said the violent tactics Iranian authorities used against students at Sharif University on Sunday were symbolic, because the university is known for having the best and the brightest, many of whom end up living and working in the West.

"Viral videos of the crackdown on the country's brilliant minds signals to youth everywhere two choices: Take down the Islamic Republic, or leave Iran," said Dagres. 

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi sits near a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as he speaks during a press conference in Tehran, August 29 2022. STR/AFP/Getty

On Tuesday, President Ebrahim Raisi called for national unity and acknowledged that Iran had "weaknesses or shortcomings."

But Omid Memarian, senior Iran analyst at the Democracy for the Arab World Now group, said the president's remarks only further highlighted the regime's disconnect from reality.

"Protesters are chanting, 'Down with the dictator…' and he is talking about national unity," Memarian told CBS News. "It's obvious the authorities have not understood that the anger and dissatisfaction are much bigger than the recent death of Mahsa Amini." 

Iran has had many other Mahsas - women who have been killed - whose stories were never told, said the college student.

"Our problem is not with Islam or religion," she said. "We just want… people to live as they like in Iran and not be jailed for it."

"Please hear our voices," she added. "Help us in any way you can." 

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