Dubai, United Arab Emirates — Protesters across Iran continued to clash violently with security forces early Friday after the death of a young woman in police custody, as Iranian state television suggested the death toll in the unrest could reach 26, without providing details.
While the scale of protests in a dozen Iranian cities remains unclear, the movement represents the largest unrest since 2019, when rights groups said hundreds were killed in a violent crackdown . Iran has also disrupted internet access with the outside world, according to Netblocks, an internet traffic monitor, and tightened restrictions on popular platforms used to hold gatherings like Instagram and WhatsApp.
A state television presenter said Thursday night that 26 protesters and police had been killed since protests erupted last Saturday following the funeral of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, without specifying how authorities arrived at the figure. He said official statistics would be released later, but in past times of unrest, the Iranian government has not offered an official death toll.
The unrest killed at least 11 people according to an Associated Press tally, based on statements from state and semi-official media. More recently, Qazvin Deputy Governor Abolhasan Kabiri said a citizen and a paramilitary officer were killed in the unrest that rocked two towns in the northwestern province.
The unfolding crisis in Iran began with a public outpouring over the death of Amini, a young woman from a Kurdish town in the northwest who was arrested by the country’s vice squad in Tehran last week for allegedly violating its strictly enforced dress code. Police said she died of a heart attack and was not abused, but her family questioned that account.
Amini’s death drew strong condemnation from Western countries and the United Nations, and touched a national nerve. Hundreds of Iranians in at least 13 cities, from the capital, Tehran, to Amini’s northwestern Kurdish hometown of Saqez, took to the streets, expressing their pent-up anger at social and political repression. Authorities alleged that unnamed foreign countries and opposition groups were trying to foment unrest.
“The death tapped into broader anti-government sentiment in the Islamic Republic and in particular the frustration of women,” wrote political risk firm Eurasia Group, noting that Iranian extremists have stepped up their crackdown on women’s clothing in the country. over the past year since former justice chief Ebrahim Raisi became President.
“In the cold calculation of the Iranian leadership … a more forceful response is needed to quell the unrest,” the group added.
Videos on social media show protesters in Tehran torching a police car and confronting officers at point-blank range. Elsewhere in the capital, videos show gunshots ringing out as protesters run from riot police, shouting: “They are shooting people! Oh my God, they kill people!
In the northwestern town of Neyshabur, protesters cheered on an overturned police car. Footage from Tehran and Mashhad shows women waving their mandatory hijab head coverings in the air like flags while chanting “Freedom!”
The scenes of women cutting their hair and burning their hijabs fuel a wider political debate about the role of religious restrictions in a modern republic – issues that have plagued the Islamic Republic since its founding in 1979.
But the protests have also become an open challenge to the government. The chants were scathing, with some calling for the downfall of ruling clerics. The demonstrators shout: “Death to the dictator!” and “The mullahs must disappear!”
In a sign of the test that the protest movement posed to the government, extremist groups organized a counter-demonstration in Tehran on Friday. Thousands of women dressed in traditional black chadors and men dressed in the manner of the Basij, a volunteer force under the paramilitary Revolutionary Guards, took to the streets after Friday prayers to express their anger over the unrest, state news agency IRNA reported.
“Death to America!”, “Death to Israel!” and “American mercenaries are at war with religion!” they chanted.
Iran’s Intelligence Ministry warned citizens against participating in “illegal” street rallies on Friday, threatening legal action. Local authorities announced the arrest of dozens of protesters. Hasan Hosseinpour, deputy police chief for the northern province of Gilan, said 211 people were arrested on Friday. The government of the western province of Hamadan said 58 protesters had been arrested.
Tehran University has announced it will move classes online next week amid the unrest, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.
Amnesty International, a London-based watchdog, accused security forces of beating protesters with batons and firing metal pellets at close range. Videos show police and paramilitaries using live fire, tear gas and water cannons to break up protests.
Iran has recently been grappling with waves of protests, mainly over a long-running economic crisis exacerbated by US sanctions related to its nuclear program. In November 2019, the country saw the deadliest violence since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, as protests erupted against a state-controlled gasoline price hike.
Economic hardship remains a major source of anger today as prices of basic necessities soar and the value of Iran’s currency falls.
The Biden administration and its European allies are working to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, in which Iran limited its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief, but talks have stalled for months .