In Tehran, “Death to the dictator” was the demonstrators’ refrain while angrily marching through the streets. In Mashhad, they set fire to a police car and chanted, “Our foolish leader is our shame.” In Kerman, they clashed with anti-riot security forces and shouted, “Khamenei is a murderer, his rule is void.”
Running battles between anti-government protesters and police in dozens of cities in Iran – now into their second week – were triggered by the killing of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman who died in a Tehran hospital on Sept. 13 after being arrested by “morality police.” Amini was accused of violating Iran’s strict Islamic dress code for women by not properly wearing a hijab to cover her hair and upper body.
Police claim Amini, who was visiting Iran’s capital from her home province in the country’s northwest, died of a heart attack. However, her family say that she had no history of heart problems and a photo that emerged of Amini lying comatose in a hospital indicates she may have been beaten and suffered a brain injury.
The latest news on protests, Iran’s response
- Iranians in recent times have used large-scale protests to express outrage at their government since at least 2009, when resentment over political oppression brought millions onto the streets in the first major unrest since the formation of the Islamic Republic in 1979. There were have been at least five major waves of unrest which, despite different catalysts, have reflected discontentment with Iran’s regime.
- Human rights and opposition groups say that at least 17 people have died and hundreds more have been injured and detained as the nationwide unrest provoked by Amini’s death.
- As the protests have expanded, Iran’s government has blocked access to the Internet and social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Instagram. Some mobile phone and landline networks have also been shutdown or circumscribed.
- Netblocks, an Internet monitoring group, says that Iran is now subject to the most severe Internet restrictions since 2019, when hundreds of people were killed as Iran’s security forces violently cracked down on protests over rising fuel prices.
- The U.S. on Sept. 22 sanctioned assets belonging to senior members of Iran’s “morality police,” an often plainclothes vice squad which enforces rules around religious observance and public conduct. The U.S. Treasury Department said it was sanctioning the unit’s senior officials for “abuse and violence against Iranian women and the violation of the rights of peaceful Iranian protestors.”
What’s about to happen
The bravest women among the protesters have stood on cars and makeshift podiums to chant messages of dissent and defiance and, in some cases, to highly visibly dance, cut their hair, tear off their hijabs and toss them into fires. Riot police have responded aggressively with batons, pellet guns, tear gas and live ammunition.
In recent days, the number of videos, photos and messages from Iran bearing witness to this activity has decreased as the government has moved to impose Internet and data blackouts, effectively partially cutting Iran off from the outside world and curbing awareness of the protests just as they accelerate.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, a government agency whose job it is to defend Iran from internal and external threats, has asked Iran’s judiciary to prosecute protesters for sedition and spreading false news. Information will trickle out despite the blackouts, but more slowly. However, it remains unclear to what extent realities on the ground will change for those on the receiving end of Iran’s repressive treatment of women and nearly all other civil liberties from freedom of expression to political participation.
Iran’s army on Friday released a statement via state media saying it was “ready to deal with various conspiracies of the enemy,” a reference to Iran’s well-traveled claim that political dissent in the nation is fomented by outsides forces, usually the U.S. or U.K.
What they are saying
- Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, a dual American Iranian national who founded Bourse & Bazaar, a news and research agency focused on Iran’s economy, noted that while Iran has seen a series of protests in recent years connected to economic mismanagement and corruption, fuel prices, water rights, currency prices, and over worsening living standards, “there are features of these protests that make them different.” Chief among them, according to Batmanghelidj, is the intensity of the anger, emotion and sadness expressed by the protesters and the fact that “multiple social groups are participating” in the unrest compared to previous rounds of protests where the demands of one group were often pitted against another.
- In a speech at the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi offered his condolences to Amini’s family and vowed an investigation into her death. But Raisi he also rejected what he called “the double standards of some governments regarding human rights,” singling out the U.S. and other western countries and pointing to the deaths of Indigenous women in Canada and Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories. “We are the defenders of a fight against injustice,” he insisted. Rights groups have accused Raisi of crimes against humanity for his role in the 1980s executing political prisoners in Iran.
- “This is the regime’s own doing. By blocking reforms, narrowing Iran’s political spectrum, and further limiting freedoms – all the while continuing the corruption, repression and mismanagement – the regime is literally pushing people to choose revolt over reform,” Trita Parsi, co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington think tank, wrote in a commentary. “But I fear we haven’t seen anywhere near the repressive capacity of the regime yet. There are indications that the state “held back” due to Raisi’s presence in New York.”
- Officials from Germany, Sweden, the U.S. and beyond have condemned the violence against protesters. In his address to the U.N. General Assembly, President Joe Biden said: “Today we stand with the brave citizens and women in Iran who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights.” At the same pulpit, Chile’s President Gabriel Boric said the international community must “mobilize efforts to stop violence against women whether it be in Iran, in memory of Mahsa Amini, who died at the hands of the police this week, or anywhere in the world.”
Why it matters
Mohammad Ali Shabani, editor of Amwaj.media, a London-based outlet focused on Iran, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula countries, said that even though Amini’s death was the spark that ultimately led to the recent uprisings it was important to understand that “economic and political grievances in Iran have been there for a long time, even preceding the 2009 protests. They haven’t gone away.”
He said that in the days ahead, as already started Friday with pro-regime rallies in Tehran, he expected Iran’s security forces to double down on disrupting communications and for the government to rally its supporters onto the streets in counter-protests that will be combined with ever-more harsh security crackdowns involving specialized police units, paramilitary forces and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
“Iran’s security forces were built for this exact scenario. They’ve been doing it for 40 years,” he said. “That’s the sad part of this.”
He added that prior to the unrest Iran was already in deadlocked negotiations with the U.S. over the terms for the revival of a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
“Iran now looks like an even more toxic country to deal with and it’s given another talking point to those in the U.S. and Iran who are not interested in renewing the deal.”