Iran’s theocratic rulers used a construction crane to hang a protester on Monday. Majidreza Rahnavard was hoisted to his death, a dreadful execution intended to frighten tens of thousands who have taken to the streets over the past three months. But the killing’s real significance is that it shows the Iranian regime is at a loss for how to respond to the demonstrations with anything other than brute force.

It has executed two protesters, put nine more on death row and charged at least a dozen others with crimes that could bring the death penalty. It has arrested some 18,000 people and throttled the Iranians’ internet access. It has regularly blamed “foreign” forces, such as the United States and Israel, for instigating widespread protests. It has deployed legions of security officers, who have fired on civilians. The group Iran Human Rights, based in Oslo, reports that at least 458 people, including 63 children and 29 women, have been killed in the protests. The one thing the clerics have not done is grasp what the revolt is about.

What’s developing is a growing and irreversible chasm between state and society, between the rulers and the ruled — a potential death knell for an authoritarian regime. The protesters are demanding a free, open, secular and modern country, a stark change from the cloistered, suffocating Islamic republic. As Carnegie Endowment expert Karim Sadjadpour noted, the protests have become “a historic battle pitting two powerful and irreconcilable forces,” the predominantly young population of Iran, desperate for change, and the aging and isolated theocracy, clinging to power. The protests were initially triggered by the death of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, detained for what the “morality police” said was improper wearing of the mandatory head covering or hijab. But in the weeks since, protesters have voiced deeper and more profound grievances in an uprising that has drawn strong support from women and that is both generational and social. They have chanted “down with the dictator” and demanded “freedom” from the oppressive clerical overlords.

Unfortunately, the clerics are deaf to these words and have responded with more repression. Mr. Rahnavard, 23, was accused of fatally stabbing two members of a paramilitary force in Mashhad on Nov. 17 after he purportedly become angry about protester treatment. He was likely subject to torture during an interrogation to induce a confession; trials are held behind closed doors without due process. On Dec. 8, Iran executed another protester, Mohsen Shekari, also 23, who was charged with injuring a government security agent and blocking a street.

Iranian state media published photos of Mr. Rahnavard hanging from the crane, his hands and feet bound, a black bag over his head. Such is the terrifying image that Iran’s leaders seek to convey to the protesters. But the truth — obvious to all of Iranian society — is that the despotic clerics are the ones who are afraid. If they do not change, the people might force change.

Source » washingtonpost