Non-Military Security

Mass protests are shaking the Iranian regime

Michaela Ružičková

Iran is swirling in a wave of anti-government protests which were sparked by the death of detainee Mahsi Amini, 22, on September 16. The young Kurdish woman was detained by the morality police for allegedly wearing a traditional hijab headscarf inappropriately. She lost her life in prison after a severe blow to the head, which the police deny, claiming that Amini died of natural causes. Her family members believe that she was subjected to cruel treatment after her detention and that her death was the result of torture.

At the UN General Assembly, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said that the circumstances surrounding the death of the Kurdish woman must be thoroughly investigated. At the same time, however, he expressed his dissatisfaction with the alleged double standards of the West in the field of human rights, as deaths by police violence occurred in the US or the UK many times. He assured the public that the investigation was in the hands of the official institutions, but this is not considered sufficient by the protesters, given the distrust of the institutions.

Amina’s death was followed by a series of protests that took place in a number of cities and were the strongest protests in Iran since 2009. Women cut their hair or tore off their traditional headscarves and burned them in the streets during the protests. The state has cracked down harshly on the demonstrations, using violent methods such as tear gas, beatings, arrests, and shootings against the protesters. The human rights organisation Amnesty International has also drawn attention to the unacceptable crackdown by the police on protesters. A number of people have died after being shot by riot police (the official death toll exceeds 40) and many others have been injured.

Access to the internet and to platforms such as Instagram or WhatsApp, where the protest movement has been forming, is also blocked in the country. Social networks have been a coordinating force for protesters, but also an opportunity to show what is happening in Iran to the world. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have called on the country’s judiciary to sanction information about the protests that goes viral online. They refer to it as fake news and rumours. The tightening of the cyber regime in the country could have the effect of allowing the control of cyberspace alongside the control of physical space, which would mean a very significant restriction on the opposition. In addition, messages have been sent to mobile phone owners informing them that the protests are organised by ‘enemies of the state’ and that anyone taking part will be punished under Sharia law.

The protests have since spread to 80 cities, and are also being organised on campus and involving men. The movement is thus directed not only against the compulsory hijab but against the very principles and values on which the Iranian state is based. In addition to protesting and setting fire to police vehicles or stations, protesters have chanted slogans against the government, but also against Iran’s supreme spiritual leader Ali Khamenei or his son and likely successor Mojtaba. In the northern Iranian city of Rasht, protesters chanted slogans such as “Death to the dictator!” or “Death to the oppressor, be it the Shah or the Supreme Leader!”. According to experts, the growing scale of the protests stems from years of economic frustration and religious restrictions, with the criminalisation of violations of cultural and religious traditions. Iranian citizens have long faced high inflation, and lack of food or job opportunities, which naturally fuels frustration and creates a climate of unrest.

The international community has also reacted to the escalated situation in Iran. The US has placed the Iranian morality police on a sanctions list, while the Treasury Department has announced sanctions “for abuse and violence against Iranian women and the violation of the rights of peaceful Iranian protesters”. Solidarity with the demonstrators was also expressed by the people of several European countries such as Germany, Greece, and Sweden, where symbolic protests were organised.

The 2009 protests known as the Green Movement against the re-election of conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as the 2019 demonstrations provoked by high energy prices, were harshly suppressed by the regime. Given the scale of the crackdown on the current demonstrations, a similar development can be expected now. President Raisi has declared the protests as riots. Iran, he said, must “deal decisively with those who oppose the country’s security and tranquillity”. This strategy involves, in fact, the arrest of protesters, but also a crackdown on activists and independent media in the country. However, the situation may escalate even further. In fact, Iranian state television has accused armed exiled Iranian Kurdish dissidents of involvement in the riots. The media also reported that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards had shelled the bases of Kurdish opposition groups in the region in the north of Iraq where the minority is based. Dozens of Iraqi and Iranian Kurds gathered outside the Iraqi UN headquarters chanting: “Death to the dictator”, referring to Khamenei.

Photo credit: Shahram Sharif, Flickr

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