The anti-government protests in Iran, initially sparked by the death of a young woman who was in police custody for wearing “improper” headgear, have now turned into anger at rising poverty, rising unemployment and crushing sanctions.
True figures on the number of people injured and killed in the protests are unclear, but the balance is increasing. Iranian state media reported that at least 26 people have died, including protesters and security officials. The Oslo-based Iranian human rights organization said at least 31 protesters were killed and an unknown number arrested.
In Tehran, marching protesters chanted “Death to Khamenei” and “Death to the Dictator,” referring to the country’s supreme leader, 83-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Crowds of protesters pushed back against Iranian security forces known as “Basij,” with videos shared on social media showing uniformed officers running away as people cheered.
Other videos showed a bleeding commander and a bleeding police officer hanging from a fallen car window. According to local reports, the protesters also set fire to two police stations in the capital, with Tehran’s mayor blaming them for destroying the city’s public transport and fire engines.
“These protests reflect a 40-year struggle by Iranians to resist a repressive political system, one that gives them no voice and no opportunity,” said Dr. Sanam Vakil, Middle East policy expert and Iran specialist at Chatham House in London. “They want to feel, like normal Iranians, that they are part of an international community and they are fighting for very basic rights, decency and respect.”
Last week, enforcers of Iran’s strict Islamic dress code detained 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while visiting her family in the capital, Tehran. The special unit, colloquially known as the “moral police”, accused her of wearing “inappropriate clothing”.
After three days, she died in custody, with officials claiming she had suffered a heart attack. Her family and critics believe she was beaten after a picture of her injured, bloodied and intubated body emerged.
As more protests erupted, Iranian intelligence warned citizens not to attend, saying those caught demonstrating would be prosecuted.
“Given the exploitation of the recent incidents by opposition groups, any presence and participation in illegal gatherings will result in legal prosecution under the Islamic Penal Code,” the ministry said, according to the state-affiliated Nour news agency.
“We warn the instigators that their dream of destroying the Islamic Republic’s religious values will never come true.”
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has been classified as a terrorist organization by the United States and other governments, issued two statements late Thursday. One denounced the protests as an organized conspiracy by enemies of Iran. The other announced that a pro-government rally would be held in Tehran after Friday prayers.
Internet access in Tehran and other parts of the country has slowed or stopped altogether. Services like WhatsApp, Instagram and Google Play were filtered this week – alongside Telegram, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, which have been filtered for years.
As protests rage on, there are fears a massive crackdown will soon follow.
“I’m very much looking forward to that in the coming days. The state’s repressive arm will be deployed at full force,” Chatham House’s Vakil said.
“They sent the police and IRGC into the streets,” Vakil said. “They slow down access to the internet to prevent people from coordinating. And in the past they shut down the internet completely to completely isolate Iran from the international community and from us. And that could very well unfold and a full repressive attack could be unleashed.”