Fuel to the Fire: How the Islamic Republic has responded to civilian uprisings

By Henna Moussavi

On the 8th of December, 2022, the Iranian government executed 23-year-old Mohsen Shekari in connection with anti-government protests on the charges of ‘enmity against god’. He was additionally accused by Iranian judicial news outlets of waging a knife on a member of the Basij paramilitary force in the initial weeks of protest, in September. Shekari was executed by hanging without any due court process in a show trial, revealing what could be the start of a brutal process for many of the arrested Iranians who have been on the streets fighting for their rights and subsequently sentenced to death.

As protesters in Iran embark upon their third month of demonstration, their persistence has warranted various avenues of responses from the Islamic Republic (IRI). The defiance shown across Iranian cities comes as a direct response to the death of 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini on the 16th of September, 2022. The young woman was of Kurdish origin and died at Kasra hospital in Tehran after having been in police custody for three days following her arrest for breaching the state-imposed dress code for women. Violent and often deadly for those involved, young people are the ones mainly impacted by the increasingly aggressive tactics of suppression by the state— namely by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), also known as the Sepah

It is important to note that this is not the Iranian government’s first time quelling protests. In 2009,  allegations of a rigged presidential election created friction between the IRI and the people, calling for methods of restraint from the government not entirely dissimilar to what we have observed over the recent weeks. Though in 2009, the protests had more precise objectives, addressing economic reform or the installation of the reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, all of which represented discontentment within the existing political framework. This time, however, a young woman’s death has developed into a larger anti-government campaign by Iranians more broadly, with protesters calling for “Woman, Life, Freedom,” and severely opposing what they perceive as outdated governance by a clerical institution. 

Due to the difference in the size and scope of these recent protests to those in 2009, security forces have alternatively mobilised to curb the unrest. The persistence of a mass protest consisting mainly of women and young people has defied traditional methods of intimidation, such as internet crackdowns or fearmongering through lurking security forces in the streets. These approaches have only been met with more resistance and continue to incentivise the evidently burning need for Iranians to stand against violating their rights under the Islamic Republic. 

Damage Control: early responses and the instrumentalisation of the internet

During the initial weeks of protest —in the immediate aftermath of Amini’s death— protest groups formed in her hometown of Saqqez, as well as in larger cities such as Tehran and Mashhad. By late September, the act of gathering in the streets trickled into other provinces and up to fifteen cities across the country, demonstrating nationwide unanimity early on. The extent of solidarity shown by Iranians from the start has aided in defying the typical repressive state apparatus used by the IRI in the past. 

For instance, in the primary stages of the protests, mass censorship was attempted by cutting out the internet connection. This included blocking access to social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Instagram, both of which were being used by the young people guiding the movement to document dissent. In an analysis conducted by the Washington Post, traffic patterns demonstrated a cyclical nature of the internet disruptions, faltering around 4pm, which is both the end of the workday and when protests would normally begin, and resuming normalcy past midnight. Disabling access to WhatsApp at the start made it more challenging for cohesive groups to communicate with one another once security forces interrupted gatherings, inciting confusion and panic if the interaction between police and protesters turned violent. As a result of those restrictions, people protesting would find themselves in vulnerable positions if separated from the crowd, allowing for swift arrests of isolated individuals by the authorities. These were some of the “most severe internet restrictions since the November 2019 massacre”, according to London-based cybersecurity organisation NetBlocks. 

The internet has proven to be an essential feature of the protests; demonstrators have relied heavily on photo and video-sharing platforms to broadcast the realities of the situation on the ground with the Iranian diaspora and the rest of the world. The symbols which have arisen and been shared through social media, such as women cutting their hair or setting their chadors on fire, have been described by Azadeh Akbari, a researcher of cyber-surveillance at the University of Twente, as existential to the mobilisation of protesters, not only to coordinate gatherings but also to amplify acts of resistance.” Additionally, at the point when the protests had not yet made the headlines in  European and American news outlets, it was platforms like Instagram that pushed the events into the global spotlight. Attracting Western media attention has proven to be another catalyst towards fueling revolutionary sentiment across Iran, empowered by the long overdue international condemnation of the political repression they have faced for decades.

Nation-scale connectivity losses have since been lifted, though the internet has been weaponized in other means by the state as weeks progressed. Aggressive cyber-enabled techniques such as blackmail, threats, and espionage have all been features of these invasive government schemes. It was recently discovered through leaked official documents that the country’s Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA) has been ‘using mobile surveillance tools to track smartphones owned by its citizens’. By reducing internet capacity to 2G, messages become easier to decrypt and aid in exposing the whereabouts, contacts, and daily activities of dissidents— a method which has led to several arrests of regular citizens. The government has also made a point of closely monitoring videos emerging from the protests, both those spontaneously captured on the streets as well as videos purposefully released by artists and public figures. As a result, Iranian authorities have arrested figures such as the actors and directors Soheila Golestani and Hamid Pourazari, who released a video demonstrating explicit resistance to the IRI with another fifteen of their colleagues. In the video, Golestani walks into the frame dressed entirely in black and in the absence of a headscarf, followed by several other men and women, emulating the very symbol of walking freely without the restraint of government-imposed regulations. Whilst both have been released on bail, they are one example of the many figures who have been arrested as a consequence of these public displays.  

Imprisonment and public show trials

As with any tumultuous global event, journalists have been instrumental in the coverage both within and beyond Iranian borders. The experience of two journalists, in particular, was representative of the general sentiment of the Islamic Republic towards the media, and foreshadowed the continued treatment of the government towards the unfurling “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement in the Iranian press. 

Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi were arrested and sent to Evin prison shortly after news of Amini’s death broke. This was following an accusation by the IRGC intelligence organisation and Iran’s ministry of intelligence that the women were ‘the primary sources of news for foreign media’ and were conspiring against the state in a joint operation between Mossad, the CIA, and other Western agents. Hamedi was the first to report from Kasra hospital whilst Amini was being treated after her experience in custody, whilst Mohammadi had reported from Saqqez during the funeral just a few days later. One anonymous Iranian journalist interviewed by the Guardian describes how journalists have been more closely monitored since, a difficult concept to fathom considering that the Islamic Republic already ranks 178th out of 180 in the world’s worst press freedom index. Espionage is also a common accusation made by the IRI due to the heavy anti-foreign sentiment which runs deeply in their leadership, and this has only been amplified for those working in media who are frequently in contact with their international colleagues. As of the 1st of December, 2022, the Committee to Protect Journalists has recorded up to 71 arrests of reporters in the last two months. 

Civilians are also generally targeted with arrest and detainment, often taken off the streets in “ambulances” directly into custody either unlawfully or after being injured or beaten. These vehicles are essentially police vans acting in the guise of ambulances, with the aim of conveying a sense of order and responsibility by the state on the streets; the stark reality is that most people they target end up in prison where conditions are particularly inhumane, with countless reports of both physical and sexual abuse taking place inside. According to the 2021/2022 Amnesty International report on Iran, ‘torture and other ill-treatment, including denying prisoners adequate medical care, remained widespread and systematic’.

By the end of October, Iran’s judiciary had announced the plan to hold public show trials for more than 1,000 detainees. The mother of Mohammad Ghobadlo, a twenty-two-year-old protester who was sentenced to death after just one hearing on the charge of  ‘corruption on earth,’ questioned his lack of access to a lawyer in court, and whether this harsh act is representative of the ‘Islamic law’ which the IRI preaches. Given that Iran’s judiciary chief, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, is closely aligned with the Ayatollah, many imprisoned young Iranians are subject to a precarious fate.

Reactions and responses of Iran’s main political figures

Similar to past occasions and continually echoing the fundamentalist anti-Western narrative of the 1979 Revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attributed the blame for these uprisings on Iran’s Western enemies. His first official address came just after the 2nd of October, 2022, when police conducted a siege of the Sharif University of Technology in the capital, Tehran. Plainclothes agents awaited a crowd of protesting students at one of the entrances and within the university parking lot, with violence rapidly ensuing as students attempted to leave the site. Security forces fired rubber bullets and shotguns at close range, as well as tear gas, leaving a number of students injured and many others behind bars.

Khamenei’s outlook on the situation did not differ much from his past comments, such as most recently in June 2022 when he stated that the “enemies’… plans, plots, and… schemes against the Iranian nation” inflict harm by means of sponsoring and provoking popular protests. This time, his language was similarly dismissive and entirely based on the conception that the West intended to stunt Iran’s ‘progress.’ Despite these protests being some of the largest group demonstrations the country has seen in years, the Supreme Leader labelled them as ‘scattered riots designed by the enemy,’ namely “the United States and the fake tyrannical Zionist regime, their mercenaries and those traitor Iranians outside of the country who help them”. He made an additional comment about Saudi Arabia aiding in funding media outlets which further stirred the country. Throughout his addresses, Khamenei reiterated his solid belief in the strengths and successes of the Islamic Republic rather than leadership reminiscent of the Pahlavi monarchy who would ‘follow the orders’ of the West.

More recently, on November 19th, 2022 in his eighth public address since the protests began, the Ayatollah continued on a similar path. Most recently, he has added how they are ‘too insignificant’ to falter the government and its values. Coming from their own leader, this comment sparked even more dissent and dissatisfaction among Iranian protesters— especially given the ever-rising death toll that is constructed significantly of  children. As of November 19th, the Norway-based organisation Iran Human Rights (IHRNGO) released a statement that at least ‘378 people including 47 children and 27 women have been killed by security forces’ across 25 provinces. The director of IHRNGO, Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, claims that based on their statistical gatherings, ‘the killing of protesters were committed exclusively by the Islamic Republic’s repressive forces’. The responsibility for the killing of protesters rests solely with the Islamic Republic and its leader, Ali Khamenei. Meanwhile, figures such as General Hossein Salami (the commander of the IRGC) and General Mohammad Bagheri (the chief of staff of the Armed Forces) warn against further acts of protest and dissidence, implying additional measures of aggressive suppression. Those in the government who suggest otherwise, or more lenient treatment of demonstrators, are swiftly pulled out of their positions and no longer hold influence in the Iranian state. Khamenei carried on to justify forceful action against civilians by making them understand the ‘mistakes’ they have made by ‘punishing’ them, refusing to appropriately acknowledge the deaths or elaborate on these comments. 

Will the government make a change?

Given the unpredictability of the movement from the start, it is difficult to determine whether Khamenei’s Islamic Republic truly intends to acknowledge the implications of such widespread dissent. Put simply, in each public comment, Khamenei has given the green light for further measures to suppress the people protesting— a concerning prospect given the already extreme violence and deaths that have occurred over the last twelve weeks.

As put by policy analyst Karim Sadjadpour in an interview with NPR when asked whether these protests come as a real threat to the state, explained that he believes so. He stated that, as seen in Iran, “for uprisings to succeed, you need pressure from below.” If the protests carry on with the persistence they have had for the last three months, then we may see the necessary divisions among Iran’s political and military elite— only then can real change ensue.

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