At a recent demonstration at Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University, one of dozens that have broken out at universities and schools throughout the country over the past month, students took up the chant, “Don’t call it a protest. It’s a revolution now.” The slogan speaks to the optimism and ambition, among both the protesters themselves and international observers, that something is new about the protests raging across Iran since the death of a young woman named Mahsa Amini in police custody after her arrest for wearing “unsuitable attire” Sept. 16.
There have been high-profile mass protests in Iran before, including, among others, the “Green Movement” that broke out after alleged rigging of the presidential election in 2009, and the massive and violently repressed protests that swept the country in response to higher gas prices in 2019. These movements tend to capture the world’s attention briefly before being snuffed out by state repression.
Still, the movement of the past month has been notable in several ways. “It’s distinct because it’s a wave of various groups coming together,” Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, told Grid. “It’s all propelled by the issue of Mahsa Amini’s death, but that’s motivated each group individually to advocate for their broader grievances.”
It is a largely leaderless movement with young people — and young women in particular — taking on the most prominent roles. It appears to be truly national, having spread to dozens of cities and towns. It has spread across ethnic and class divisions, with demonstrations breaking out from the country’s most elite high schools to oil refineries. And then there’s the direct and impassioned anger being directed at the ruling regime itself, and its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose picture has been burned at protests amid chants of “death to the dictator.”
“They are very directly explicitly calling for the change of the political system,” Hadi Ghaemi, director of the Washington-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, told Grid. “There’s not a specific grievance. They really have targeted the heart of the Islamic Republic.”
Moreover, the protests come at a moment of deep political uncertainty for Iran’s regime, which is struggling with rampant inflation, a host of geopolitical challenges, and the looming specter of a transition to a new supreme leader. From the ayatollahs’ perspective, the timing for a mass protest movement couldn’t be worse.
So just how much trouble is Iran’s ruling regime really in?
On Tuesday, Sept. 13, Amini, a 22-year-old woman from Iran’s northwestern Kurdistan province who was visiting the capital, Tehran, with her family, was arrested by the morality police while exiting a subway, for an unspecified violation of the country’s hijab rule, which requires women to cover their hair and wear loose-fitting clothing. By Friday, Amini was dead. Iran’s security forces first said that she collapsed and fell into a coma while being taken to a detention center to be “educated” on the hijab rules, but her family says witnesses have told them she was beaten, and photos and video have circulated showing her lying in a hospital bed with bruises on her head.
Protests first broke out in her hometown, Saqez, immediately after her funeral Sept. 17 and quickly spread to cities around the country. At many rallies, women have removed their headscarves or burned them. The protests have been met with harsh crackdowns by the police and the Basij — a volunteer pro-government militia. According to the Norway-based group Iran Human Rights, at least 185 people, including 19 children, had been killed in the protests as of Oct. 8. In the worst of the crackdowns so far, security forces killed at least 66 protesters and bystanders Sept. 30 at a protest, after Friday prayers in the southeastern city of Zahedan, according to Amnesty International. The families of multiple teenagers killed in the protests have reportedly been pressured by authorities to give false statements about their deaths. Shervin Hajipour, the singer whose song “Baraye” has become the protests’ anthem, has been arrested, as has one of Iran’s most prominent poets and several players on the national soccer team.
After two weeks of silence, Khamenei finally addressed the protests Oct. 3, backing the security forces and blaming the U.S. and Israel for inciting unrest. The government has also blocked access to Instagram and WhatsApp and shut off the internet entirely in parts of Tehran and Kurdistan in an attempt to stifle the protesters.
An economic and environmental tinderbox
The immediate cause of the protests was Amini’s death, and rage directed at the country’s repressive religious laws. But the situation in Iran was already combustible thanks to years of economic distress, caused by a combination of factors including international sanctions linked to the country’s nuclear program and the lingering impact of the coronavirus, as well as mismanagement and corruption. The country’s gross domestic product plunged by nearly 60 percent between 2017 and 2020. While growth did begin to recover last year, inflation remains a massive problem, with Iranians paying as much as 75 percent more for food than they did a year ago. One in three Iranians now lives in poverty.
In addition to the street protests, the movement is now becoming an industrial action with workers at several oil and petrochemical plants going on strike. These include the symbolically important Abadan oil refinery where strikes in 1978 played a major part in the revolution that overthrew the shah.
A number of statements from the current protesters, including Hajipour’s viral anthem, also reference environmental issues. In the past year, the country has endured flash floods, droughts, and punishing heat waves. While hardly alone in that regard, critics blame the government for mismanagement that has led to environmental problems including the water shortages that sparked protests and rioting in the city of Isfahan last year.
The ethnic question
Amini was a member of Iran’s 10-million strong Kurdish minority, who live primarily in the country’s northwest and have long faced discrimination. The protests have been most intense in the Kurdish region, and the government has blamed Kurdish separatists for inflaming tensions. On Sept. 28, Iran launched airstrikes against Kurdish groups across the border in northern Iraq in retaliation for their support of the protests. Iranian authorities have also claimed that the security forces who killed dozens of protesters in Zahedan (which is in the Sistan and Baluchistan region, which has a large Sunni Muslim population) did so after coming under attack from armed separatists, though the city’s main imam denies this.
The protests are clearly crossing ethnic boundaries at this point. In fact, protesters nationwide have adopted a slogan — ”woman, life, freedom” — traditionally used by Kurdish groups throughout the Middle East.
At a briefing for reporters in Washington, D.C., last week, Abdullah Mohtadi, the exiled head of the opposition Iranian Kurdish party Komala, said that while his group was not organizing the protests, “the Kurds can play a pivotal role in getting the Iranian opposition united. We were the first to say no to the Islamic Republic in Iran. We fought his regime for many, many years. Now everybody is in.”
The world responds
Since the protests began, solidarity marches against the regime have taken place in cities around the world. Online, some prominent celebrities have filmed themselves cutting off locks of their hair in support of the women of Iran. Governments have been responding as well, if a bit more cautiously. The U.S. has slapped new sanctions on the morality police as well as on a number of senior Iranian officials in response to the crackdown, as has the United Kingdom. The European Union is weighing asset freezes against a number of senior officials as well.
Somewhat complicating the picture are the ongoing talks over a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, which then-President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of in 2018. Progress in the European-mediated negotiations between Washington and Tehran seems to have stalled lately, but in theory both sides are still committed to a deal under which the U.S. would lift sanctions in exchange for Iran halting its nuclear enrichment program and submitting to international inspections.
Ghaemi told Grid that in Iranian opposition circles “there’s a lot of nervousness about what may be going on behind the scenes at the nuclear negotiations.” While the sanctions have contributed to the country’s economic woes, opponents of the regime fear that lifting them would take pressure off the regime and give it more resources that it could turn toward repression. “The nuclear issue is extremely important and needs to be addressed diplomatically, but removing sanctions at this moment would really be against the Iranian people’s wishes,” Ghaemi said.
Rob Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, has denied that there’s any contradiction between pushing for a deal and condemning the crackdown, telling NPR, “The reason we’re pursuing a nuclear deal is [that] we don’t want this government to have its hands on a nuclear weapon.”
Ayatollah Khamenei, only the second supreme leader in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s 43-year history, is 83 years old, has been in power since 1989, and by all appearances is not in good health. Last month, he had to cancel meetings and public appearances for several weeks when he was bedridden following surgery.
Leadership transitions are always vulnerable moments for autocratic regimes, so the current situation raises natural questions about Khamenei’s successor. The next supreme leader will be chosen by the Assembly of Experts — a body of 88 Islamic jurists — but the process is opaque and somewhat unclear. After all, it’s only been done once before. Vakil feels this may be yet another factor driving the protests. “There’s no clarity about the process,” she said. “There’s no public discussion about what to expect. And I believe that that’s fueling probably broader anxiety.”
President Ebrahim Raisi, who has both political and religious credentials and shares Khamenei’s hardline conservative views, has generally been considered the favorite to succeed him. But taking the country’s presidency last year also exposed him to more scrutiny. The state of the economy and now the protests have probably not helped his candidacy. (Female students at Tehran’s Alzahra University chanted “get lost” when he visited campus last week in response the protests.) Another frequently mentioned candidate is Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba. But this would be a tough sell from a regime that, after all, came to power in a revolution that overthrew a monarchy.
In any event, the direct and vociferous anger that Iranian protesters are now directing at the supreme leader himself, with surprisingly little fear, suggests that the stakes of the leadership transition will be even higher.
Last days of the Republic?
For all the global excitement surrounding the Mahsa Amini protests and the remarkable scenes on the streets of Tehran and around the country, the actual overthrow of the Islamic Republic still seems very unlikely. The government still controls an immense, repressive apparatus. Autocratic governments do not tend to fall solely in response to public opposition. Cracks within the regime or the security services themselves are more often drivers of change. So far, there are few signs of that happening in Iran, in part because Khamenei and Raisi have systematically purged many of their potential critics.
Ghaemi concedes that the protesters face an “uphill battle” that “could take years,” but still argues that Iran’s political order has lost legitimacy, and that we’re watching the beginning of the end. He points out that many of the key turning points in Iran’s political history, from the rise of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1923, to the 1979 revolution to the 2009 Green Movement, took most international observers by surprise.
“Yes, I think this is a revolution,” he said. “But it may be only the opening chapter of it.”
Thanks to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.