“Kurds and Baluch are brothers, thirsty for the leader’s blood” – Iran’s minorities, the Mahsa Amini Protests and Iranian identity

By Guy Fiennes

Kurds and Baluch have long complained of discrimination within the Islamic Republic of Iran. The nationwide protest movement following the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in police custody has pulled the issue of longstanding tensions and state repression between the regime in Tehran and the minorities of Iran back to the fore. The regime specifically blamed secessionist elements – such as the exiled Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI) in northern Iraq – for fomenting the protest movement and smuggling weapons into Iran. Beginning days after Amini’s death in September, Tehran launched various ‘retaliatory’ strikes against KDPI targets in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq which killed at least 18 people[1], and even went so far as to threaten an unprecedented land offensive[2]. Meanwhile, a separate protest movement was already underway in the south-eastern, majority Baluch province of Sistan and Baluchistan at the time of Amini’s death. These regional tensions were inflamed and underscored by a particularly bloody incident in the regional capital of Zahedan on 30 September in which at least 82 were killed and hundreds injured, including four security service members.[3][4][5]

Mahsa Amini was detained for allegedly wearing ‘bad hijab’ – a notoriously ambiguous term – and died on 16 September in custody of the controversial ‘morality police’ or gasht-e-ershad, who operate across Iran to enforce religious law. While some Kurdish activists argued that Amini’s Kurdish identity likely made her a target, making the incident an example of wider discrimination against Kurds[6], there is no hard evidence to support this view. Rather, what Iranians saw in Amini and her story was a woman who could have been any one of them – their mother, sister or daughter – regardless of Kurdish identity. Indeed, she was far from the first woman to be brutalized for alleged violation of the conservative dress code, and prior incidents in the same year[7] had already set the stage for public anger against clerical rule to burst through.

Despite Amini’s Kurdish identity being somewhat incidental to the wider protest movement, the protests in Kurdish-majority regions and cities were nonetheless more intense, as was the regime crackdown. From November 18, the regime sent military convoys into Kurdish cities such as Mahabad and established military suppression of the protests, a step-up from the use of the Basij paramilitary forces and the police[8].  The higher intensity of unrest in Kurdish majority regions stems from historical and ongoing discrimination and repression, exemplified by the more heavy-handed regime response in those regions, as well as Amini’s Kurdish background. A gathering of thousands marking the anniversary of Amini’s death was met by a strong security presence and gunfire amid clashes in her hometown of Saqez. Many Kurdish activists objected to using her non-Kurdish name, Mahsa, instead of her Kurdish name, Jina, as yet another form of cultural erasure and argued that media reporting should recentre her Kurdish identity.[9] However, the sentiment is far from unanimous. Not only did her father refer to her as Mahsa in interviews following her death, but also insistence on framing her as a particularly Kurdish symbol rather than one of the Iranian women regardless of ethnic identity would weaken the wider protest movement and corroborate with the regime’s narrative that the source of the unrest is primarily dissident minorities (besides foreign conspiracy), rather than frustration with the regime from Iranian society at large.[10] Ultimately, her death came as a result of a conservative religious law in Iran which targeted Iranian women rather than one which targeted ethnic minorities.

The Baluch make up around 2% of the Iranian population at an estimated 1.5 – 2 million and form the majority in Sistan and Baluchistan province, south-eastern Iran. The Baluch people, like the Kurds, have long complained of state discrimination, both religious and linguistic, and held surpressed aspirations for statehood and autonomy with the 5 million Baluch across the border in Pakistani Balochistan. Life expectancy and literacy in the province trail far behind the average in Iran[11] with 45% of the population reported to live below the absolute poverty line and water scarcity considered a growing issue.[12] Several separatist militant groups, such as Jundullah and Jaish ul-Adl exist in the region and are considered terrorist organisations by the central government in Tehran and the international community, with the line between Baluch anti-regime ethnonationalism and Sunni extremism blurring.[13]

The alleged rape of a Baluch minor by an Iranian police commander led to protests in multiple cities and rare condemnation of the regime from the influential religious leader of the region, Molavi Abdolhamid[14]. On 30 September, during a protest in the capital city of Zahedan, a police station was attacked, and the head of regional intelligence was killed along with three other members of the Basij paramilitary force. According to Amnesty International, at least 82 protesters and bystanders were killed and hundreds injured as the security services fired upon protesters. While the regime sought to paint the unrest as an issue purely of minority separatism, slogans such as – az Zahedan ta Tehran, janam fedaye Iran (from Zahedan to Tehran, I sacrifice my life for Iran)– reject[15] the state narrative that separatists are driving unrest in the region, although targeted killings of security service members have spiked after the incident.

Forty days after the Zahedan massacre – forty days being an important mourning date in Iranian tradition – demonstrations were held, and businesses shut down in Tehran and  across Iran, including in majority Kurdish cities such as Amini’s hometown of Saqez. As the regime stepped up its repression in Kurdish-majority cities, protesters in Sistan and Baluchestan chanted in solidarity: “Kurds and Baluch are brothers, thirsty for the leader’s blood”.[16] (kurd o baloch baradarand, teshneye khoone rahbaran).

It would be misguided to suspect any tangible coordination between the two groups, as the protest movement has been characterized by grassroots, spontaneous collective action rather than directed by specific organizations. Instead, as the chant suggests, the two groups are bound by similar, even parallel, grievances against the regime in Tehran – as is the case for the various other participants in the protest movement. The two groups are ultimately bound by their being Iranian, as with everyone else in the movement from Zahedan to Tehran to Saqez.

Curiously, while the protests have highlighted the divides and tensions between Tehran and the minorities of Iran, they have also sharpened and foregrounded Iranian nationwide solidarity. The Iranian public have mostly rejected the regime’s attempts to frame the protests as secessionist or foreign conspiracies. The protests are also notable for their ubiquity throughout Iran. Deaths and crackdowns on one side of the country have inspired demonstrations in solidarity on the other, and the popular anger echoes the 1979 revolution in its clear crossing of the geographic and ethnic lines of Iranian society. Despite a sense of discrimination along ethnic lines playing a key role in the unrest in Kurdish and Baluch areas, the protests have so far united them – and their fellow protesters regardless of ethnic affiliation – as Iranians with a common cause against a repressive regime, to the extent that the unrest manifests more as a popular, patriotic movement than the explosion of ethnic separatism decried in state media.

Whether the newfound sense of national unity will be maintained in the case of regime reform or continued intransigence is uncertain. It is possible that protest momentum in ethnic minority areas will outlive and alienate the Farsi-speaking majority, with the regime sticking to the fearmongering narrative that foreign powers seek to turn Iran into a Syria-esque civil battleground. Indeed, in the context of the 2011 Arab Spring protest movements, nationwide unity against dictatorial regimes quickly descended into inter-communal rivalry and conflict. It is possible that the same process would occur in Iran, in the unlikely event that the protest movement leads to significant militant resistance or regime change. In the more likely event of limited regime reform, it is unclear to what extent the Iranian people would remain in solidarity with ethnic minorities without the momentum of a dynamic common cause – for example, if Tehran tones down conservative religious laws and further restricts the morality police. However, for the moment at least there is a sense that Iranians have never been more united, regardless of ethnic identity and in spite of the regime’s best efforts.

[1] https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20221004-iran-continues-missile-attack-on-iraqs-kurdistan/

[2] https://apnews.com/article/iran-middle-east-iraq-tehran-baghdad-c0b63cf0ad45f5e087eb67e1110437b6

[3] https://www.trtworld.com/middle-east/iran-colonel-among-19-dead-in-sistan-baluchistan-attack-61259



[6] https://novaramedia.com/2022/10/04/jina-mahsa-amini-was-kurdish-and-that-matters/


[8] https://www.iranintl.com/en/202211206594

[9] https://novaramedia.com/2022/10/04/jina-mahsa-amini-was-kurdish-and-that-matters/

[10] https://twitter.com/loolotus/status/1574618397660352518?s=20&t=U4qem3t2bqsc6ketnytZoQ

[11] https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2020/aug/06/irans-troubled-provinces-baluchistan




[15] https://www.iranintl.com/en/202210219394

[16] https://twitter.com/IranReportsNow/status/1596096928378662913?s=20&t=cR1t__NOQcsw-AF9_2owkg

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

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 regime. 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 regime 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 Mashad. 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 regime 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 regime 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 regime 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 regime 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 regime 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 Regime 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

Contextualising the Current Uprising in Iran: A Short History of Mass Protest Under the Islamic Republic 

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.[1] 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.[2]

 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.[3] 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[4] and international sources, namely Reuters, claiming 1,500 deaths.[5] 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.[6]

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.

[1] Pouya Alimagham, Contesting the Iranian Revolution: The Green Uprisings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020, 92.

[2] ِRadio Zamaneh, 4 November 2009, https://zamaaneh.com/news/2009/11/post_11051.html; ibid, 98.

[3] Alimagham, Contesting the Iranian Revolution, 92.

[4] BBC Persian, citing Iranian Interior Ministry, https://www.bbc.com/persian/iran-52865225

[5] Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-protests-specialreport-idUSKBN1YR0QR

[6] Amnesty International, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/press-release/2020/11/iran-internet-deliberately-shut-down-during-november-2019-killings-new-investigation/

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