Anti-government protests in Iran, initially sparked by the death of a young woman while she was in police custody for wearing an “improper” head covering, have now grown to include anger over rising poverty, soaring unemployment and crushing sanctions.
True figures on the number of people injured and killed in the protests are unclear, but the tally is rising. Iranian state media reported that at least 26 people have died, including demonstrators and security officials. The Oslo-based Iran Human Rights Organization said at least 31 protesters were killed with an unknown number arrested.
In Tehran, marching demonstrators chanted “death to Khamenei” and “death to the dictator,” referring to the country’s supreme leader, 83-year old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Crowds of protestors pushed back against Iranian security forces, known as the “basij,” with videos shared on social media showing uniformed officers running away as people cheered.
Other videos showed a commander bloodied and a policeman’s bleeding body hanging out an overturned car window. Protestors also set fire to two police stations in the capital, according to local reports, with Tehran’s mayor accusing them of destroying the city’s public transport resources and fire engines.
“These protests are reflective of a 40-year struggle of Iranians to push back against a repressive political system, a system that affords them no voice, no opportunity,” says Dr. Sanam Vakil, Mideast policy expert and Iran specialist at Chatham House in London. “They want to feel, ordinary Iranians, that they’re part of an international community, and they’re fighting for very basic rights and decency and respect.”
Last week, enforcers of Iran’s strict Islamic dress code arrested 22-year old Mahsa Amini during her family’s visit to the capital, Tehran. The special unit, known colloquially as the “morality police,” accused her of wearing “unsuitable attire.”
After three days, she died while in detention, with officials asserting she suffered a heart attack. Her family and critics believe she was beaten after an image surfaced of her bruised, bloodied and intubated body.
As more protests have erupted, Iran’s intelligence ministry warned citizens against taking part, saying those caught at demonstrations would be prosecuted.
“Given the exploitation of recent incidents by opposition groups, any presence and participation in illegal gatherings will result in legal prosecution based on 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 religious values of the Islamic Republic will never materialize.”
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and other governments, issued two statements late Thursday. One condemned the protests as an organized conspiracy by enemies of Iran. The other announced that a pro-government rally would be held after Friday prayers in Tehran.
Internet access in Tehran and other parts of the country has slowed or been shut down. Services like WhatsApp, Instagram and Google Play have been filtered this week — joining Telegram, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, which have been filtered for years.
As protests continue to rage, there’s fear that a massive crackdown will soon follow.
“I very much expect that in the coming days. The state’s repressive arm will come out in full force,” said Vakil of Chatham House.
“They’ve got the police and the IRGC out on the streets,” Vakil said. “They’re slowing down access to the Internet to prevent people from coordinating. And in the past, they shut the Internet down completely in order to completely shut off Iran from the international community and from us seeing in. And that could very much unfold and a full repressive attack could be unleashed.”