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Analysis

With cross-class, ethnic, gender support, Iran protests pose new test for regime

Unrest unifies diverse groups and comes at particularly sensitive time for the ayatollahs, with economy still bogged down by international sanctions over nuclear program

Nasibe Samsaei, an Iranian woman living in Turkey, cuts her ponytail off during a protest outside the Iranian consulate in Istanbul on September 21, 2022, following the death of an Iranian woman after her arrest by the country's morality police in Tehran. (Yasin AKGUL / AFP)
Nasibe Samsaei, an Iranian woman living in Turkey, cuts her ponytail off during a protest outside the Iranian consulate in Istanbul on September 21, 2022, following the death of an Iranian woman after her arrest by the country's morality police in Tehran. (Yasin AKGUL / AFP)

PARIS (AFP) — Women setting their headscarves ablaze and chanting anti-regime slogans. Pictures of the leadership defaced and burned. Vehicles belonging to the security forces set on fire.

The images of the protests in Iran are indicative of the taboo-breaking nature of a movement that erupted after the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, following her arrest by the notorious morality police.

A country where street dissent is tightly controlled, Iran has seen bursts of protest in recent years, notably the 2009 “Green Movement” that followed disputed elections, protests in November 2019 over fuel price rises, and rallies this year over the cost of living.

But analysts say that these protests present a new challenge to the Islamic system under supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 83, as they are now taking place nationwide, have support across social classes and ethnic groups and were instigated by women.

Amini, also known by her Kurdish first name of Jhina, was visiting Tehran with her family last week when she was arrested for purportedly violating Iran’s strict dress code rules for women, in place since shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

She fell into a coma hours after her arrest and died in the hospital on September 16.

Activists contend she was ill-treated in detention and could have suffered a blow to the head. While this is not confirmed by the authorities, the anger fueled the protests that started from her funeral last Saturday.

A picture obtained by AFP outside Iran on September 21, 2022, shows Iranian demonstrators taking to the streets of the capital Tehran during a protest for Mahsa Amini, days after she died in police custody. (AFP)

“These are the biggest protests since November 2019,” said Ali Fathollah-Nejad, Iran expert at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

“While the last two nationwide uprisings were led by the lower classes and were triggered by socioeconomic degradation, this time the trigger was socio-cultural and political, comparable to the 2009 Green Movement,” he told AFP.

‘Outrage shared’

The 2009 movement had been driven by demands by the middle class for fair elections and the 2019 protests by the anger of the lower classes, he said.

“Current conditions in Iran suggest that there may be a tendency toward unifying both groups. The outrage over Amini’s death is shared by both the middle and lower classes,” said Fathollah-Nejad.

The protests also come at a particularly sensitive time for the leadership, when the Iranian economy remains mired in a crisis largely caused by international sanctions over its nuclear program.

Despite repeated warnings from Europe that time is running out, there is also no indication that the sides are on the verge of agreeing a deal to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear accord (JCPOA) that would see sanctions eased.

Protesters chant slogans during a rally over the death of a woman who was detained by the morality police, in downtown Tehran, Iran September 21, 2022 (AP Photo)

The protests have featured chants of “death to the dictator” as well as other anti-regime slogans and the emergence of a new rallying cry, “Zan, zendegi, azadi” (“Woman, life, freedom”).

Unprecedented images have shown protesters defacing or burning images of Khamenei or, on one occasion, setting fire to a giant image of Revolutionary Guards commander Qassem Soleimani, who is presented by the authorities as a near mythical figure after his 2020 killing by the United States in Iraq.

Protesters have also been seen directly resisting security forces, with women refusing to put their headscarves back on in front of the police and vehicles belonging to the security forces torched.

At least 14 people have been killed in the protests and activists fear the authorities will resort to the repression that, according to Amnesty International, saw 321 people killed by the security forces in November 2019.

Saeid Golkar, senior fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, described the protests as a “turning point” and predicted that moral policing — “an ideological cornerstone of the Islamic Republic” — would be weaker in future.

“This cannot be solved until the regime implements a series of reforms. Since the Islamic republic is both an ideological regime, inefficient and corrupt, it cannot solve its own created problems,” he told AFP.

“Even if the regime can successfully suppress these protests by brutal force, the situation will be very different from the past.”

Mannequin heads dressed with head scarves at a shop in a commercial district in downtown Tehran, Iran, July 17, 2021. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

‘Even higher level of violence’

The authorities appear to have resorted to the familiar tactic of restricting access to the internet in a bid to prevent images being shared, activists say.

The Netblocks monitor said access to Instagram — the only major social network which is not blocked in Iran — was severely restricted from Wednesday.

The Iranian authorities’ responses “are manifest reflections of the deepening crisis of impunity in the country and the state’s policy of resorting to even higher levels of violence to quell criticisms and protests,” said Saloua Ghazouani from freedom of expression group Article 19.

The protests have extended well beyond the Kurdistan province from where Amimi originated to become a nationwide movement — extending to Tehran, the Caspian provinces in the north, the historic cities of Isfahan and Shiraz and even the tourist hub of Kish island in the Gulf.

People participate in a protest against Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi outside of the United Nations on September 21, 2022 in New York City. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images/AFP)

“I think there will be a hardening of the regime and that it will also push them to show no flexibility on the JCPOA,” said a European diplomatic source, asking not to be named.

“These demonstrations are likely to put in question the survival of the regime. In November 2019 they did not hesitate to shoot. I do not see why they would hesitate this year,” added the source.

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