Mahsa Amini: Iran's Version Of Laszlo Tokes?
The Protests Breaking Out In Iran Remind Us That Authoritarians Are In Full Control....Right Up To The Moment They Are Not.
For the past four weeks, Iran has been the scene of an unexpected—and unexpectedly growing—series of riots and protests over the death of an Iranian Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, who was taken into custody by Iran’s “morality police” in the middle of September, only to die in custody on September 16th. While Iranian authorities deny mistreating her, and her official autopsy claimed she died from unspecified pre-existing conditions, many Iranians believe she was beaten while in custody, and died from her injuries.
Mahsa Amini’s death was but the first death, as the protests quickly grew violent…and deadly.
State TV suggested late Friday that the death toll from this week's unrest could be as high as 35, raising an earlier estimate of 26. Anti-government protesters and security forces have clashed in several major cities in the most severe political violence since 2019, when rights groups say hundreds were killed amid demonstrations against a hike in state-controlled gasoline prices.
With the protests continuing and apparently growing, western media is grappling for an historical parallel to provide a framework to explain what is happening within Iran. Ironically, there is such a parallel within easy historical reach—Laszlo Tokes1, the Romanian priest whose attempted arrest in the village of Timisoara in 1989 sparked a protest that turned into a riot, which became the overnight revolution that toppled longtime Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu.
Ceaucescu’s downfall and execution is a potent historical reminder that authoritarian regimes are always in complete control….right up to the moment when they are not, and then they collapse. Whether the ayatollahs in Iran have reached that moment of no control remains to be seen, but the protests certainly raise the possibility.
Romania, 1989: The Arrest Of One Village Priest Proves To Be One Too Many
Laszlo Tokes was the head of a little-known Reformed Hungarian Church in the Romanian village of Timisoara. Ethnic Hungarian churches were subject to frequent harrassment by the Ceausescu regime, and Tokes’ was no different.
For much of 1989, in the city of Timisoara, a minister of the little-known Reformed Hungarian Church had been resisting an order from his superiors to move to another congregation. Father Laszlo Tokes says ethnic Hungarian parishes were subject to frequent harassment by the Romanian Communist authorities, who had infiltrated the church hierarchy. Tokes was not alone and it was only by chance, he notes, that it was his church's dispute that led to a popular uprising:
"There were many priests or parishes or communities which tried their best in such a situation. It's the work of providence that out of these activities came the outbreak of the revolution in Romania. We did not count on it. Simply, we were faithful to our belief and to our conscience."
The eviction was not an unusual action, but the congregation’s response was. Objecting to the forced removal of their pastor, the congregation organically decided to block his removal.
To his surprise, says Tokes, the congregation undertook to defend him. From that moment, a permanent vigil was set up. And by December 15, a small crowd had gathered around the church building in downtown Timisoara, brandishing candles and calling on the authorities to halt their persecution of Tokes. By evening, the crowd numbered more than 1,000, and it continued to grow into the next day:
"In the first hours, those people were the members of our parish, the reform believers of the Timisoara congregation, but then, hour by hour, many people joined them from Timisoara, irrespective of whether they were Baptist or Orthodox, Romanian or Hungarian, or of other nationalities or religions. That we used to call the spirit of Timisoara, because in that day, in those two days, in a very spontaneous way, all the people belonging to all denominations and national communities joined together."
Within the week, the protests had spread—and the reasoning for them had grown beyond defense of Laszlo Tokes to discontent and opposition to the Ceaucescu regime more broadly.
The next day, a delegation of city officials appeared, headed by the mayor. They pleaded with the crowd to disperse, promising to revoke the eviction order. But the protesters jeered and moved to block traffic in the surrounding streets. Shouts of "Freedom!" echoed throughout the neighborhood. As Tokes puts it:
"The crowd forgot the initial reason for their resistance, and in general terms they opposed the regime itself."
As the situation deteriorated in Timisoara, Ceaucescu attempted to restore order the old-fashioned way, by ordering security forces to fire on any demonstrators they encountered.
Equally stunned but far more alarmed was Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his entourage in Bucharest, 400 kilometers away. With the situation in Timisoara rapidly spinning out of control, Ceausescu convoked an emergency meeting of the ruling Political Executive Committee of the Communist Party. He and his wife Elena lashed out at the interior and defense ministers for their forces' inability to quell the protests. "Why didn't they shoot?" Ceausescu demanded to know. Putting all law enforcement agencies under his direct and immediate control, the Romanian leader ordered the army and police to fire on demonstrators with live ammunition.
The tactics backfired, and the protests cum riots rapidly spread beyond Timisoara, and on Christmas Day, 1989, Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife Elena were put before a drumhead court, tried, convicted, and executed by firing squad2.
On Christmas Day Nicolae and Elena faced a drumhead court-martial, captured on tape. In a 55-minute trial, they were found guilty of committing genocide, subverting state power, destroying public property, undermining the national economy, and attempting to flee Romania with public funds. Little evidence was offered, but the horror of their rule was evident to all. Their appointed attorneys joined the prosecution in contending that the Ceausescus were guilty of capital crimes. They were sentenced to death.
In less than a month Nicolae Ceaucescu would go from being in complete control of Romania to being shot by a firing squad of his own security services, all because the Romanian people decided that the harassment of a simple village priest was one petty act of oppression too many.
Is the same thing happening in Iran? Consider events in Iran.
Mahsa Amini: No Fear Means No Control
As already noted, the protests over Mahsa Amini’s death spread across Iran within a week. Within that same week, however, the protests quickly acquired an anti-government flavor, with protesters shouting “death to the dictator”.
The “dictator” is, of course, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khameni.
Moreover, the protests are being sustained in part by fresh reasons to protest, such as the death of 17 year old Nika Shakrami, who died in unknown circumstances around September 29 after participating in a protest.
While Iran’s ruling regime has responded in typical authoritarian fashion, meeting protest with violence and arrests, the protests not only have not stopped but, at least for now, they have grown.
Anti-regime demonstrations have also penetrated the Islamic Republic’s power bases, including the Shia holy cities of Mashhad and Qom. Ethnic minorities — notably Kurds in the country’s north and northwest, and Baloch people in the southeast — have also staged protests, enduring what appear to be some of the most brutal crackdowns, with scores reportedly killed.
Thus far, the intimidation tactics used by the government have not worked.
CNN has not been able to independently verify the number of the dead and injured, but state media says 40 people have died since the start of demonstrations in mid-September. Rights group Amnesty International says at least 52 have been killed. Over 1,000 people are believed to have been detained, including journalists and artists.
Fear—the eternal go-to weapon of every authoritarian regime to control its people—thus far has proven ineffective against the Iranian people this time.
Indeed, the protesters themselves appear to be saying exactly that.
“We are not afraid anymore. We will fight,” said a large banner placed on an overpass of the Modares highway that cuts through central Tehran.
If that is truly the prevailing sentiment among the protesters, then the ruling clerics in Iran are in a truly desperate situation.
One Petty Act Of Tyranny Too Many
While the situation in Iran is still unfolding, and the government is as of yet a long way from being toppled, the possibility seems to be growing that, much like with the attempted forced eviction of Laszlo Tokes from his congregation in Timisoara in 1989, the arrest and death of Mahsa Amini is one petty act of tyranny too many. The insistence of Iran’s ruling clerics on controlling everything, right down to whether a woman is wearing the hijab “correctly”, is proving to be intolerable for a growing number of the Iranian people.
That state-run media would report that as many as 40 people have died protesting this one act of Iran’s “morality police”, with over a thousand people being detained, and still the protests continue strongly suggests that this time, at last, Iran’s ruling clerics have reached too far, pushed their authority and control too hard, to where the people are starting to say “No more!”
This was what unfolded in Romania in 1989. What started in a small, politically insignificant village had pushed that one congregation too far, and when word of the protests spread, Romanians in general agreed that the attempted eviction of Laszlo Tokes was indeed going too far, and joined in on the original protests, which quickly metastasized into a general anti-government movement, much like what appears to be happening in Iran today.
As with all protests against authoritarian regimes, the ruling clerics in Iran eventually must squelch the protests or they will be toppled. The more the people protest, the closer even Iran’s security forces come to questioning the clerics’ hold on power and control over the people, and if the security forces in Iran come to believe the ayatollahs have lost control, the ayatollahs will indeed lose control, as the very people they need to enforce their control abandon them, either fleeing the protests or potentially even switching sides. As of yet, that does not appear to have happened, and it is by no means certain that it will happen; what is certain is that if the security forces defect to join the protesters, the days of the Islamic Republic in Iran are numbered, and the ayatollahs will at last fall from power.
Will that be the ultimate result of these protests? It is much too soon to say. But as we know from the experience of one seemingly insignificant village priest in Romania, that very much can be the ultimate result of these protests.
The ultimate truth of all authoritarian regimes has never changed from before 1989 Romania until Iran today: authoritarians are in full control right up until the moment when they are not, and then they have no control. That truth should give the ayatollahs pause, and the Iranian people hope.
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Bransten, J. “Romania: Events In Timisoara Ignite 1989’s Bloody Revolution .” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1999.
Bandow, D. The Rise and Fall of Nicolae Ceausescu, “the Romanian Fuehrer” . Dec. 2019, https://fee.org/articles/the-rise-and-fall-of-nicolae-ceausescu-the-romanian-fuehrer/.