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Iran’s months-long protest movement, explained

Though the Islamic Republic has a history of protest, this year’s unrest is unique.

Protestors in Istanbul, Turkey gather for an anti-Iran demonstration
Protestors take part in an anti Iran demonstration on December 10, 2022 in Istanbul, Turkey.
Hakan Akgun/ dia images via Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

For four months, protests have gripped Iran — protests that have not only been surprisingly durable, but also led primarily by women.

Activists believe at least 16 people have been sentenced to death by the Islamic Republic, headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for participating in the protests, according to the Associated Press. Executions began in December, when the regime executed 23-year-old Mohsen Shekari for the crime of “waging war against God,” or moharebeh in Farsi.

Shekari was the first prisoner to be executed due to the recent unrest, in what Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, head of the Norway-based organization Iran Human Rights, characterized as a “show trial without any due process.”

With Shekari’s execution — likely the first of dozens — the Iranian regime is reverting to a tried and tested playbook of executing political opponents and dissidents. But it’s not clear that the mass imprisonment, extrajudicial killings, and further possible state-sanctioned executions will deter the protesters who have for more than two months now defied crackdowns and curfews to call for an end to Khamenei’s regime.

It’s also not clear what success looks like for the protesters should they somehow manage to topple the regime that’s had an iron grip on the nation since the 1979 revolution — or how they would manage to do so in the first place.

The inciting spark for the now 11-week-long protests was the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16 while in the custody of Iran’s morality police. Amini, a 21-year old Kurdish woman, was arrested while in Tehran for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly; since her death, she has become a potent symbol of many Iranians’ contempt for the country’s oppressive theocracy.

The protests have gained momentum since they began in Amini’s hometown of Saqez, in Iranian Kurdistan, appearing in dozens of cities throughout the Islamic Republic despite the government’s efforts — including internet and mobile network disruptions, mass arrests, and civilian killings — to quash them.

There are some ways this protest echoes past movements, but there are also key differences — not just the longevity, but the degree of societal cohesion and solidarity, too. Women have led and become the public face of this movement — a particularly notable fact in 2022, given the ways that women have been repressed under the current regime.

All of that, however, doesn’t mean that this movement will bring down the Islamic Republic; decades of repression, a poor economic outlook, extremely limited opposition in the political establishment, plus the fact that the military and security service as well as the economic elite continue to throw their lot in with the regime make it difficult to imagine an alternative vision for the future of Iran.

Why the protests are happening now

The protests began with one young woman’s death in police custody, but quickly grew into a call to change the future of Iranian society.

Amini, who was also known by her Kurdish name Jina or Zhina, was taken into custody by the Guidance Patrol — Iran’s so-called morality police — on September 13 at a Tehran metro station. Police alleged she was wearing her hijab incorrectly, and they were taking her into custody to “educate” her, as Reuters reported in October. Sometime between her arrest and September 16, when she died at Tehran’s Kasra hospital, she fell into a coma. Police said it was due to a heart condition, but Amini’s family denied any heart problems, and her father claimed he saw bruises on Mahsa’s legs.

“There was nothing wrong with what she was wearing,” Azadeh Moaveni, an Iranian-American journalist and former head of the Gender and Conflict Program at the International Crisis Group, said on a November episode of the London Review of Books podcast. “She was completely covered and she died, so I think that’s what’s shaking about it. Any mother, from any religious background, from whatever type of family — and I think that’s why so many religious families are with the protesters — that could have been anyone’s daughter.”

News of Amini’s death spread quickly via social media, and her funeral erupted into protests; according to Reuters, security forces fired tear gas at the demonstrators as protests quickly spread to Sanandaj, the regional capital. Already protesters were shouting “death to the dictator,” and women were removing their headscarves. By September 18, protesters at the University of Iran were shouting what is now the protest’s slogan: “Woman, life, freedom,” in short, calling for the end of the regime.

“This corrupt regime will do anything to stay where they are,” a female protester told BBC News Hour on December 4. “We the protesters don’t care about ‘no hijab’ no more [sic]. We’ve been going out without it for the past 70 days. A revolution is what we care [about] — hijab was the start of it, and we don’t want anything, anything less than death for the dictator, and regime change.”

Amini’s death became the catalyzing event to unleash pent-up fury at the government; political opposition is basically nonexistent, with Iran’s Reform Party suggesting gradual fixes in the face of protesters’ demands for radical change. Ordinary Iranians have little political representation, particularly after the election of the hard-line current President Ebrahim Raisi, Khamenei’s preferred candidate in the 2021 elections who has a record of grievous human rights abuses. Many Iranians refused to vote in those most recent elections, both as the only feasible way to show disgust with the system, and because many understood the vote to be rigged in Raisi’s favor.

One of the main sources of people’s dissatisfaction is Iran’s miserable economy — the result of brutal sanctions on the part of the US and its allies, as well as the regime’s determination to exert its influence in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and now Russia by funding proxy groups and exporting weapons. With unemployment running at about 11.5 percent, people have both the incentive and the time to protest, and little to lose.

However, the country’s elite seem to be surviving the economic free-fall and maintaining their support for and ties to the regime, too. “We have seen no serious defections so far,” among the country’s well-connected and powerful upper class, Ali Vaez, the International Crisis Group’s Iran project director, told Vox in a November 18 email interview. Despite “the abject failures of the regime to improve the country’s economic well-being,” the highest echelons of society have, at least publicly, refused to stand up to those in power.

These protests pose a unique challenge to the Iranian government

Protest has been an important, and fairly consistent, part of Iranian political life since even before the 1979 revolution. But this year’s uprising differs from recent mass movements, like the 2009 Green Movement that called for the annulment of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election and 2019 economic protests which spiraled into a call for regime change.

This time, the protests are demanding a reimagining of Iranian society; so far, the protests have seen remarkably diverse groups with their own unique sources of frustration, coming together to demand change.

As with the 2019 protests, the dire economic circumstances of 2022 — the result of the US’s aggressive sanctions, a corrupt and inefficient government concerned primarily with maintaining power, and lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic — set the stage for the nationwide eruption.

In a significant show of solidarity, some businesses across the nation — including Tehran’s Grand Bazaar — closed for a three-day general strike this week.

“Historically, protest movements in Iran, going back to the 19th century, have involved workers, shopkeepers, bazaars, and the like to succeed,” Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania focusing on modern Iran and the Middle East, said. “Although the economic and social landscape of today’s Iran is very different from 1890, 1906, 1953, or 1979, today’s strikes and boycotts nonetheless show the widespread nature of dissent and the willing participation of important commercial sectors of society.”

Kashani-Sabet called the current movement an “extraordinary departure” in that “women are its symbol and became the initial propellors of change.”

“Through these uprisings, it has become apparent that gender issues can no longer be relegated globally to tertiary political preoccupations, but rather gender concerns have become the driving force and motivators of social change,” Kashani-Sabet told Vox in an email. “For Iranian dissenters, gender issues are not their only grievances, but this fight has enabled them to connect gender violence and inequality to the regime’s other authoritarian behaviors.”

Iran is “a country whose identity is shaped around ethnic diversity,” Kashani-Sabet said, and many of those ethnic groups, like Balochs and Kurds, are subject to additional violence based on their identity. Whether that’s physical violence enacted by the state in the border regions many minorities call home, or the denial of their right to speak their own languages, such minority groups have even less of a voice in Iranian governance than ethnic Persians who speak Farsi and practice Shia Islam.

“These protests are primarily driven by a broadly shared sense of nationalism, not separatism,” Vaez told Vox in a previous email interview.

As Kashani-Sabet pointed out, there are a number of “deep-rooted frustrations that many Iranian dissenters share,” primary among them, “this sense of being deprived of human rights and of the ability to participate effectively in shaping the political outlook of their country.”

How the Iranian government has responded, briefly explained

The government’s response to the protests has been somewhat inconsistent, but primarily quite harsh. Raisi claimed in a recent speech that Iran “has the most progressive constitution in the world” and has blamed the unrest on outside influences, primarily Iran’s adversaries, Israel and the US.

Guidance Patrol forces have been scarce during the protests, and women and girls are out on the streets every day without head coverings despite the laws. But the government hasn’t made any official concessions or policy changes. While comments from Attorney General Mohammad-Jafar Montazeri were initially reported by the international press as an announcement that the government would be disbanding the Guidance Patrol and changing hijab laws, it later appeared his remarks were either misunderstood or overblown.

Moaveni did indicate in her piece that some politicians would be willing to loosen hijab laws — and clothing laws have been less strict under previous presidents, even the notorious Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But, Moaveni pointed out, at this point, for Raisi to allow such a change would be tantamount to “admitting that revolution secularized Iran, and [...] that’s a very humiliating thing for the authorities.”

Meanwhile, physical violence against protesters has escalated and could get worse.

To date, at least 517 people have been killed during the protests, though the actual number is unknown since the regime does not release data on those killed, arrested, or executed for participating in the uprising. That number includes roughly 50 children under 18, the New York Times’ Farnaz Fassihi previously reported. But casualties and arrests — the latter of which the HRANA activist news agency puts at around 19,200 — are difficult to track; social media and internet access are severely curtailed, and foreign reporters can’t access the country.

Borzou Daragahi, a senior international correspondent for the Independent and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Vox in a previous phone interview, “In the mind of the regime, nothing is off limits because ‘we’re doing God’s work.’”

Could regime change happen?

Regardless of the strength of the protests, regime change remains a very distant possibility. Authoritarian governments can have impressive longevity, as Syria, China, North Korea, and Russia show.

Still, the memory of the Arab Spring invites comparison; Moaveni likened Aminis death to Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor who died by self-immolation in 2010 after suffering humiliation at the hands of the police and the local government, setting off the Arab Spring. That multi-nation protest movement did see regime change in places like Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. In some cases, however, the alternatives that replaced the dictatorships were perhaps not what protesters had hoped for or imagined.

For Ali Khamenei’s theocracy to collapse would most likely require “pressure from below and divisions at the top,” Karim Sadjadpour wrote for Foreign Affairs this spring. The pressure from below is certainly there, despite the increasingly high costs.

There’s not so much pressure from the top, and while there are cracks in the regime’s façade, Daragahi said, they’re small and easy to miss.

“It appears that the difference is between those who support the crackdown and those who want more crackdown,” Vaez told Vox. The political fractures aren’t as extreme as they have been in past protest movements, likely due to the fact that “the system purged the most pragmatic forces of Iranian politics and is now left with either ultra-hardliners or sycophants,” he said.

Looming over Iran’s political future is the fact that the Supreme Leader is 83 years old. In the running to replace him when he dies are his second son Mojtaba and a familiar figure — Ebrahim Raisi.

Though there are vocal opposition groups formed by the diaspora, “any viable government for a post-Islamic Republic Iran cannot come from exile, but must emerge from the ground up,” Kashani-Sabet said. “Some individuals or groups in exile will undoubtedly be stakeholders, but it is hard to know whether the majority of the people in Iran, who are living under dire conditions every day, will want someone from the outside.”

In the present, the three-day general strikes show that the protests have real support from workers, who are a critical part of any political struggle in Iran and whose decision to close their businesses in a time of economic precariousness shows great solidarity with the protesters. But as of yet, the protest movement hasn’t defined a specific vision of Iranian society — which it will need to do in order to maintain momentum and work toward a political future.

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