The most recent protests in Iran represent a culmination of grievances from seemingly disparate protests throughout the Islamic Republic’s history. Protestors have combined various techniques from the repertoires of contention they have developed over the last forty years to present the greatest challenge to the Islamic Republic since its inception. The gravity of Iran’s current protests and the threat they represent to the Islamic Republic are best understood when contextualised in the history of protests since the revolution.
Khatami, Khatami Hemaayatet mikonim! (Khatami, Khatami we support you!): 1999 Student Protests
Iran saw its first significant post-revolutionary protest movement in 1999 during the presidency of reformist Mohammad Khatami. Two years into Khatami’s mandate, regime officials closed the reformist newspaper Salam (Peace) after it published a letter from Intelligence Ministry officials discussing a further clampdown on already restricted press and artistic freedoms.
Following the paper’s closure, Iranian students in Tehran took to the streets in peaceful protests. The security forces’ response was swift and harsh: Basijis–paramilitary forces loyal to the regime–attacked a dormitory at the University of Tehran, killing at least one student and fanning students’ anger. This led to a week of more violent protests, with many student protestors battling Basijis and the police on the streets.
Student protestors looked to Khatami for support as Salam had ardently supported the president before his election, a demonstration of protestors’ initial faith in the elected institution of the presidency. However, much to their chagrin and surprise, Khatami called for moderation among his supporters, most likely because of a letter he had received from the Revolutionary Guards. The letter clearly said that ‘patience has come to an end’ and threatened to intervene if the president did not re-establish law and order.
Even though the protests subsided a week later, they had an enormous impact on the Islamic Republic. They were the first major public challenge to the then twenty-year-old regime’s system. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the protests the very reformists that the protests sought to empower were weakened. The regime’s response also proved the superiority of Iran’s unelected institutions over its democratic institutions. Finally, and practically, laws limiting freedom of the press were enacted, tightening the political sphere.
Ra’i-e man kojast? (Where is my vote?): The 2009 Green Movement
Ten years later, Iran witnessed a much more violent and intense wave of protests. After Khatami’s second term ended, much of the Iranian reformist electorate boycotted the 2005 presidential election, leading to the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad–a conservative populist known for his hardline views. In the 2009 elections, Ahmadinejad’s foremost challenger was Mir Hossein Mousavi, a reformist like Khatami, who campaigned on increased freedom of expression, individual liberties, and meritocracy. After a contentious election – highlighted by the head-to-head debates between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, in which accusations of corruption were aired on live television – Ahmadinejad is said to have won in a landslide, allegedly receiving 62% of the vote.
Shocked by the results, many Mousavi supporters took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations, with most the protestors donning green – the colour of Mousavi’s campaign. Simultaneously, Mousavi himself called for an investigation of election results. Unsurprisingly, the Guardian Council (the body charged with investigating the results) found no irregularities, which only fuelled peaceful protests. On June 15, three days after the election, Mousavi and his supporters took to Azadi Square in Tehran, with reports of attendees ranging from hundreds to millions.
Sensing a threat, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a sermon during Friday prayers on July 19 in which he affirmed the election results and said that the protestors would be met with violence. As Pouya Alimagham, a specialist in the Green Movement, argues, this was a declaration of war against protestors. From then on, paramilitary forces adopted tactics ranging from beating protestors to kidnapping and killing them.
Protests lasted throughout the rest of 2009 and into 2010, with protestors using events important to the Islamic Republic’s historiography as focal days of protest – from the anniversary of the martyrdom of Ayatollah Beheshti (Ayatollah Khomeini’s right-hand-man, who was killed in a bombing two years after the revolution) on June 29 to the anniversary of the US embassy takeover on November 4, and to National Student Day on December 7. Further, many opponents of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei within the regime expressed their support for the protestors – from Ayatollah Rafsanjani, who delivered a sermon on July 17 affirming his support for the Green Movement, to Mehdi Karroubi, a reformist candidate in the election, who was tear-gassed during protests.
Indeed, by coming out on holidays vital to the regime and receiving the support of some of its most influential figures, protestors and dissidents within the regime could subvert the Islamic Republic’s governing ideology. However, after severe repression, protests died down. They did not last beyond 2010, and its leaders – Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi – were put under house arrest in 2011 after their calls for renewed Green Movement protests following the Arab Spring. They have still not been released.
Na ghazze na lobnaan ja’anam fadaaye Iran (Not Gaza, not Lebanon: I will sacrifice my life for Iran): 2017-18 Winter Protests
About a decade after the beginning of the Green Movement, Iranians took to the streets again in late December 2017. However, these protests were very different from the student protests of 1999, and the Green Movement in that protestors’ primary concerns were economic.
This changed both the fabric and the demands of protests. Whereas in 1999 and 2009, many protestors were guided by socio-political reform, the core of the protesting mass in the winter of 2017-8 was economically disadvantaged Iranians, with one of their primary grievances being the difficulties in purchasing basic necessities. Further, these movements were widespread throughout the country, as opposed to the previous two movements, which were concentrated in Tehran.
Because the protestors could not point to anyone in the regime they supported, this movement was both leaderless and quicker to oppose the Islamic Republic as a whole. Moreover, President Rouhani (a moderate who had the endorsement of reformists such as Khatami) stated that the government would not tolerate those breaking the law–a stark contrast from 2009 when reformists supported the protestors.
Protestors employed different tactics than their predecessors of 1999 and 2009. After the breakout of street protests, workers mobilised en masse in 2018, leading to labour strikes in various industries. Protestors also used street protests as a chance to criticise the regime’s foreign policy — which was perceived as wastefully spending the Iranian people’s money — and call for “death to the dictator.”
Though such criticisms and chants were present in 2009, they were not ubiquitous, with many of the protestors still advocating for reform rather than regime change. 2017-8 was a different story, and the overall ethos of the protests was regime overthrow.
The initial wave of protests lasted two weeks, with about two dozen protestors killed and thousands arrested. Still, strikes and intermittent protests continued well into 2018.
Marq bar diktatur (Death to the Dictator): 2019 November Protests )
The 2017-8 protests laid the groundwork for the 2019 November protests, the largest mobilisation against the Islamic Republic until today’s protests. Protests began when the government suddenly announced an increase in previously heavily subsidised fuel prices, ostensibly to help fund welfare programmes. However, this price hike was seen as a slap in the face to a populace already facing extreme economic hardship. As a result, people took to the streets in protest, with the makeup of protestors similar to that of 2017-8.
Protests were widespread throughout the country, and the government displayed the most violent reaction in its history. The death toll ranges by source, with the regime admitting 225 deaths and international sources, namely Reuters, claiming 1,500 deaths. The government also shut down the internet for over a week, preventing Iranians from giving information to foreign journalists, communicating with their families, or even going about their daily lives within Iran.
Though the protests began due to economic issues, we see an escalation of chants from the 2017-8 protests, mainly “death to the dictator,” accompanied by the attacking of government buildings, setting fire to banks, and the tearing down of posters with Khamenei’s photo.
Like the 2017-8 protests, the 2019protests were leaderless, did not receive support from any moderates or reformists in the regime, and were widespread. For many, the sheer breadth of the protests, and the unprecedented crackdown that followed, showed the extent of dissatisfaction with the regime. They caused many to believe that reform — the wish of protestors in 1999 and 2009 — was no longer possible.
Zan zendegi azadi (Women, Life, Freedom): Protests Today
Iran’s most recent protest movement, now in its eleventh week, began with Mahsa (Jina) Amini’s killing at the hands of Iran’s Morality Police. Her death sparked outrage on social media and then led to protests in the street. Protestors began by demanding the abolition of obligatory hijab laws and of the Morality Police. Yet protestors quickly broadened their message, starting with criticising the entire corpus of laws related to women’s treatment as second-class citizens – such as their inability to travel without their husband/father’s permission or the rules granting daughters only half of what sons receive from their parent’s inheritance.
Going beyond the Islamic Republic’s misogynistic laws, protestors began speaking out about other issues at the heart of previous social movements, such as economic mismanagement and censorship. This fusion of various social, economic, and political issues has brought hundreds of thousands of Iranians from every sector. Indeed, from factory workers going on strike, to university students occupying their universities, to women taking off their hijabs in city centres, many different groups of Iranians are expressing their anger at the regime.
The culmination and combination of grievances into one single movement are likely the primary reason these protests have been so massive, widespread, and constant. Indeed, this movement fuses aspects of all of Iran’s most recent protest movements: like the 1999 student protests and the Green Movement, the protestors’ demands were not economic and, instead, were socio-political — but they have grown to incorporate the economic protestors of recent years. Moreover, like the more recent protests (Winter 2017-8, November 2019), this mobilisation has been leaderless and widespread throughout the country, not just focusing on Tehran.
Just as the grievances culminated in the past 43 years of protests, so have the current protests’ tactical repertoire built upon past movements. Like 1999, universities in this movement are one of the hotbeds of mobilisation, with the government crackdown on Sharif University resembling the 1999 crackdown on the University of Tehran. Like in 2009, scenes of massive street demonstrations in Tehran have been broadcast all over the world. And like the protests over the last six years, workers all over the country are striking: from teachers in Tehran to shopkeepers in Sanandaj to factory workers in Tabriz. We’ve even seen anonymous hackers targeting Iranian state television — reminiscent of the hacking of Evin Prison’s security cameras over a year ago by a group identifying itself by the same name. Thus, if protests over the last 43 years have allowed protestors to develop a diversified repertoire of contention, it is over the previous two months that they have taken full advantage of it.
Protestors have adopted a tactic from the 1978-9 revolutionary movement. In Shi’a Islam, the fortieth day after a person’s death is a day of mourning, as it is believed that this is the day the soul leaves the body. In 1978-9, protestors used the fortieth day after a protest as a focal day, allowing the protestors both to control the revolutionary calendar and come out en masse on one specific day. In the current movement, protestors have used the chehellom of Mahsa Amini and Hadis Najafi – a 22-year-old woman killed in protests five days after Amini’s death – as focal days of protest. These protests then bring about harsh repression from the government, leading to the deaths of other protestors, whose chehellom will likely also inspire protests.
Yet, the movement has previously unseen characteristics.
For this, we can look at the role of women. Women played vital roles in the 1979 Revolution – as guerrillas engaging in armed revolt against the monarchy and as protestors (namely, in the Women’s Day march in March 1979).
Further, Neda Agha Soltan became a symbol of the 2009 Green Movement following her death at the hands of the police. However, the extent to which women have led this most recent protest movement is undoubtedly unmatched – neither by pre- or post-revolutionary protest movements. The faces of valiant young women protestors – many of whom have been killed by the police, like the 16-year-olds Nika Shakarami and Sarina Esmailzadeh and 22-year-old Hadis Najafi – have galvanised and inspired protestors. Videos of women going out publicly unveiled, burning their headscarves, and cutting their hair have gone viral on the internet–inspiring protestors and further attesting to women’s leading role.
Though the current movement has seen ups and downs, it still appears to be going strong after eleven weeks, an encouraging sign for protestors. Unfortunately, government officials at the highest level have yet to offer a real path for negotiation, despite some insincere statements from some government officials. Thus, there seems to be no end in sight for these protests. Yet these protests represent a culmination of demands, and protesting tactics show that we are at a turning point in the history of the Islamic Republic. It is unlikely that the regime will ever be able to govern like it used to. But whether or not this means that we are nearing the Islamic Republic’s end is uncertain.
It is important to note that this is not a comprehensive list of protests under the Islamic Republic. Indeed, within the past few years, Iranians have taken to the streets in Tehran to protest the IRGC’s downing of a commercial airliner, killing over 200 people, in Khuzestan to protest water scarcity, and in Isfahan to protest the drying up of the Zayandeh Rood river. Indeed, it is through the smaller protests focused on specific issues, coupled with the more widespread larger protests, that we can genuinely see the extensive discontent that the regime is dealing with.
 Pouya Alimagham, Contesting the Iranian Revolution: The Green Uprisings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020, 92.
 Alimagham, Contesting the Iranian Revolution, 92.
This piece was published as part of ‘Zan, Zindagi, Azadi’: A series of weekly articles and interviews that unpack different symbols and concepts at the heart of the most recent developments in Iran