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Silence Falls on Iran’s Protest Movement

Despair Turns to Indignation in the Shadow of War

People light candles at a mourning ceremony for Qasem Soleimani in Tehran, January 2020 Ahmad Halabisaz / Redux

With the United States and Iran on the brink of war, regime change advocates are celebrating the assassination of the Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani as the beginning of a democratic Iran. Royalist expatriate talk shows briefly circulated rumors that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had died of a heart attack, readying the ground for people to rise up to change the face of Iran. After all, the street protests that washed over Iran this past November had unleashed the most widespread and deadly unrest the country had seen since the 1979 revolution.

But if anyone is expecting an inspirational people’s movement to rise up, the music shows otherwise. One might have expected the recent protests to come with an outpouring of revolutionary music. After all, in the absence of a free public culture, music has become an important mode of political expression in modern Iran, as I demonstrated in my book, Soundtrack of the Revolution. Famous Persian classical songs, including “From the Blood of the Youth Tulips Have Sprung,” fueled the uprising against the shah’s security state, and just a decade ago, musicians in Iran revived such hits as “The Winter Is Over” and “My Primary School Mate” to give beat to the Green Movement uprising.

But the soundtrack of the 2019 uprisings has been the sound of silence. Crackdowns on musicians and cyberspace following the Green uprising drove many prominent— especially younger—artists into exile. The Internet that once empowered an underground cultural scene has become an effective tool for state repression. The exiled musician Mohsen Namjoo went so far as to tell me that “Iran’s underground music is dead.” By assassinating Iranian Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani last week, Washington has helped the Islamic Republic to supercharge its discourse of resistance to the United States and suppress dissent even more effectively.

The absence of independent music in the fall’s street movement bodes ill for the future of Iran. The role that music plays in the country’s

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