What triggered the protests in Iran?
Iran has been rocked by the biggest protests in years following the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16.
The country’s vice squad – tasked with enforcing strict codes of dress and behavior – had arrested the 22-year-old for not wearing her hijab properly and wearing skinny jeans.
Her family says Amini was beaten and received several blows to the head. The government and police have denied the charges, saying his death was due to an “underlying illness”.
Protesters reject this official line and demonstrations continue across the country.
Iranians of all ages, ethnicities and genders joined the protests, but it was mainly the younger generations who took to the streets.
“Women started this wave of protests,” said Ramyar Hassani, spokesperson for the Hengaw Organization for Human Rights.
“But everyone joined. Women and men are neck and neck. All of Iran is united.
“For the first time in the history of Iran since the Islamic revolution, there is this unique unity between ethnic groups. Everyone chants the same slogan. Their demand is the same.”
What form did the protests take?
Almost all types of “peaceful and non-violent” protests have been used in Iran, Hassani says.
In large street protests, which took place in all of Iran’s major cities and many small towns, women burned their hijabs, often dancing at the same time, while others cut their hair.
Strikes have been reported in schools, universities and the country’s vital oil sector, while shops have repeatedly closed.
Iranian football team refused to sing their national anthem during the World Cup in Qatar on November 21 and supporters chanted anti-regime slogans outside the stadium.
Violent clashes have erupted at times, with protesters setting fire to security force buildings.
The protests have also spread to Europe. Women from Stockholm to Athens have cut their hair in solidarity.
How did the regime react?
Security forces cracked down on protesters “very violently” from the start, especially in areas where ethnic minorities live, such as Kurdistan and Balochistan, Hassani said.
People have been shot for honking their car horns in support of protesters, with swathes of journalists (including those who first reported Amini’s death), lawyers, celebrities, sports stars and civil society groups arrested, reports IranWire.
At least 402 people, including 58 children, have been killed and several hundred injured, according to the US-based Human Rights Activists News Agency, although the numbers are likely much higher as many go unreported. The government claims that more than 20 members of the security forces have been killed.
In Kurdish areas, the government deployed troops, heavy weapons and military vehicles to suppress protesters in late November. Here, Hassani says people have been killed indiscriminately, adding that warehouses are being used to detain people as the prisons are now full.
He also received evidence that 50 caliber machine guns were fired at civilians in parts of Kurdistan. This type of weapon is typically used in war zones, with bullets measuring 138mm from top to bottom.
The regime has accused foreign states, such as the United States (which it calls the “Great Satan”) and Israel, of stoking dissent, although there is no evidence of this.
Iran’s top judge called in November for the “main elements of the riots” to be given harsh sentences, saying the time had come “to avoid showing unnecessary sympathy”.
What is the context?
There is deep anger in Iran against the government’s Islamic policies, especially those regarding dress codes. Even when the hijab was made compulsory in 1983, there were protests, dissidences which have continued since.
Frustrations have deepened since hardliner Ebrahim Raisi became president in 2021 and began tightening control over women’s dress codes, says Roulla, an Iranian political activist and researcher, who wanted to protect her identity for security reasons. .
However, the protests are also about the failure of the reform.
“For decades, Iranians invested heavily in the idea promised by reformist leaders that things would change,” says Shadi Shar, an Iranian human rights lawyer.
“But nothing happened… The message is now loud and clear, the Islamic Republic itself must go.”
Former presidents Hassan Rohani and Mohammad Khatami have tried in the past to bring Iran closer to the West, reduce social restrictions and bring more democratic freedoms, though these efforts have largely failed.
Adding insult to injury Iran’s economy has collapsed in recent years, while inequality has grown.
“Young people on the streets see the sons and daughters of those in power living luxurious lives while their parents plunder the wealth of the people, while normal Iranians see no future,” Hassani said.
After US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal – aimed at preventing Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon – in 2018, international sanctions were imposed on Iran and its currency plummeted, Ordinary Iranians bearing the brunt of these economic hardships. strokes.
What role is Iran’s Gen Z playing in the unrest?
Many of the protesters are young women and men – or those known as Generation Z.
According to Roulla, globalization and the Internet have led this group to protest by destroying “the cultural differences between young people in the Middle East and Europe”.
“When a young girl in Iran sees on social media that at the same time she has to go to a compulsory religion class, while people elsewhere are having a pool party… it’s a comparison that cannot pass unnoticed.”
In Iran, students must take compulsory courses on Islam, with strict Islamic dress codes and gender segregation enforced in schools and universities.
Why are these events different from previous ones?
What is unique about today’s protests – far larger than those of 2019 – is that they have united almost all sections of society.
Roulla says that in 2019, poorer sections of society protested against rising fuel prices, while unrest in 2009 focused on middle class issues of voter fraud.
The “simple reason” there is more unity now, he claims, is that Amini was an “ordinary girl”. “She wasn’t from a big city or an activist. She was taken from her family…it’s a lot easier to sympathize with that.
Another thing that distinguishes these protests from those of the past is that they show that the Islamic Republic has “lost legitimacy among its core supporters”, Sadr says, attributing this to the “horrifying violence” inflicted on former protesters.
“It’s like an internal bleeding inside the regime that is getting worse and worse.”
For the first time in recent years, anti-government protests took place in more traditional and conservative cities, such as Qom and Mashhad.
Can Europe do something?
Foreign Ministers of the European Union slapped penalties on Iran following its deadly crackdown in November. It targeted 29 people and three entities with asset freezes and travel bans.
Calls have been made for European officials to do more and cut diplomatic ties in a bid to increase political pressure on the government.
While she hated to compare these “horrible situations”, Sadr said Iran needed the same action from the West that it showed towards Russia during the invasion of Ukraine.
“The elites cannot continue to enjoy their normal lives,” she said.
Iran is already one of the most sanctioned countries in the world. Exports of many goods, such as some medicines and aircraft parts, are blocked, while the country is locked out of the global banking system.
According to Roulla, such sanctioning of “essential goods” had increased the power of an “aristocratic elite” by “making people completely dependent … and allowing them to militarize food and medicine”.
“It’s counterproductive,” he added.
The impact of sanctions is debatable. Many argue that they are an effective tool for exerting political pressure on governments and changing their behavior.
Could the protests topple the regime?
Observers are divided on whether the unrest could topple the regime.
Despite the violent crackdown, protests continue in what is now one of the biggest challenges it has faced since the 1979 revolution.
According to Roulla, an important factor will be that the regime remains united and that parts of the security forces do not defect.
Iran’s last king fell in 1979 after mass army defections.
Videos have surfaced on social media of riot police joining the protests, although it appears to be an isolated event, while Roulla claims the regime is more divided than it appears with reports making state of tension over how to deal with protesters.
“Although on the surface the regime may be tough for a while,” Hassani said. “It is not finished.”
“We have crossed the threshold of revolution.”