Student protestors at Amirkabir University in Tehran | By Darafsh – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=123177340
The Islamic Republic of Iran is facing its most serious threat since its creation after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. A 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, was arrested by the Guidance Patrol, Iran’s morality police for allegedly wearing a hijab improperly. All women must wear one under Iran’s interpretation of Sharia law.
Ms. Amini was tortured by police after her arrest, and she died in a Tehran hospital three days later on September 16. Her death sparked nationwide protests that have only grown in intensity, garnering international support for the protestors and encouraging the United Nations to open an investigation into Iran’s human rights violations against protestors.
Previous protests have been predicated on political instability, such as the 2009 presidential election protests, or on economic insecurity, such as the 2019–2020 protests initially caused by a 50–200 percent fuel price rise. This movement is different. Protestors are calling for “death to the dictator” and a removal of the strict Islamic regime. A diverse coalition of activists are fighting for “woman, life, freedom,” a Kurdish revolutionary slogan.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has blamed foreign influences for the protests, seeking to deflect blame for these protests away from his oppressive policies. Mr. Khamenei is the “dictator” that this current protest movement seeks to depose.
It is far too early to tell whether or not this movement will be successful in introducing a stable secular government in Iran, but this iteration of popular uprising has the breadth to become a second Iranian Revolution.
The modern Islamic Republic of Iran was founded in 1979 after the Iranian Revolution ousted the U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Mr. Mohammad Reza’s strength grew after a 1953 coup d’état removed Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh from power. The United States feared a rise of communism in the broader Middle East, which was experiencing expanded Soviet influence, and it wanted to ensure that its oil contractors would continue to have access to Iran’s resources. Mr. Mosaddegh was determined to be a threat to this imperialistic ideal, so he had to leave.
This interference fostered a sense of anti-Americanism among the Iranian left and created the political environment conducive to a rise in aggressive Islamist politicians, forces that eventually created the modern Islamic Republic with the 1979 revolution. The anti-minority tendencies that began with Mr. Mohammad Reza’s father, Reza Shah Pahlavi, continued with the Islamic Republic.
The Iranian Revolution ushered in the current era of strict Islamic jurisdiction over all aspects of life. The mandatory hijab law was instituted in 1983 after several other attempts during the 20th century. Women are prohibited from riding bicycles. All banks must follow sharia law, though Iran has created various free trade zones to stimulate investment. The criminal justice system is guided by qisas, the principle of “eye for an eye” punishment, with one such example being amputating the hand of a thief.
Iran has had two supreme leaders since the revolution: Ruhollah Khomeini, who held the position from 1979 until his 1989 death, and Ali Khamenei, who had served as president of Iran under Mr. Khomeini and had held the position of supreme leader since Mr. Khomeini’s death.
Mr. Khamenei is a Twelver Shi’a marja’, meaning he has the authority to interpret laws and make legal decisions for the country from a Shi’a point of view. Mr. Khomeini was also a Twelver Shi’a marja’, and this distinction allowed both men to wield significant power in their religious governance of Iran.
Mr. Khamenei was selected to be Mr. Khomeini’s successor by the Assembly of Experts, whose 74 members at the time split their votes, with 60 going to Mr. Khamenei and the remaining 14 going to Mohammad-Reza Golpaygani, another marja’.
Mr. Khamenei cannot be threatened with Iran’s legal system: as supreme leader, he selects the Chief Justice. Currently, that person is Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i, who was sanctioned by the U.S. and the European Union for his role in suppressing the 2009 presidential election protests.
Mr. Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi have near-total control of the politics of Iran, dictating the rights of Iranian citizens. Several protest movements have come before the current one following Ms. Amini’s murder in an effort to effect change in Iran. But in each instance, Mr. Khamenei has wrested back control from the people, tightening his grip of Iranian life with each crackdown.
Previous protest movements
The first major popular threat to Mr. Khamenei’s Iran came in 1994 in the province of Qazvin. Protestors lamented parliament’s refusal to create a new province of predominantly Persian speakers from one with a powerful minority of Turkish speakers. Anti-government demonstrations soon followed, and the local Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps hesitated to suppress the uprising. Tehran-based troops then entered and ended the protests and closed that threat to Iranian unity for Mr. Khamenei.
Mr. Khamenei moved to crack down on potential sources of dissent, targeting the reformist newspaper, Salam, for immediate closure in 1999. For six days, students protested throughout the country, a movement that was quashed by the government and refined the techniques used to further crack down on other reformist papers.
The 2009 presidential election was fraught with controversy, exploding into conflict after incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared victory against reformist candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Iran became embroiled in demonstrations regarding the election, with the government shuttering schools and cutting internet access, tactics that are being repeated now.
Between 2017 and 2021, several political movements took place across Iran that broadly sought to overthrow the Islamic Republic but was more immediately focused on economic woes and lack of access to basic necessities.
Each protest movement endangered the Islamic Republic’s sustainability and Mr. Khamenei’s control of Iran, but these movements also encouraged Mr. Khamenei’s regime to find ways to shut down dissent by hindering communication and violently suppressing protests. He is using these techniques to confront the Mahsa Amini protests, but this time it will be much more difficult for Mr. Khamenei to force Iranians down his path of control. A diverse coalition wants Mr. Khamenei’s regime and the Islamic Republic at large to be gone; he has turned to stunning violence to destroy it.
Mahsa Amini protests
The fallout surrounding Mahsa Amini’s death became clear almost immediately after she was killed. When her funeral was held in the city of Saqqez on September 17, the day after she died in a Tehran hospital, protests erupted and prompted security forces to try to stifle dissent, opening fire on the protestors. The government began cutting internet access, just as it did in the 2009 protests, to prevent the spread of demonstrations to the rest of the country.
The government in Tehran recognized the power of these protestors and was willing to use violence in an explicit attempt to eliminate anyone deemed a threat to the government’s security. On September 21, the General Headquarters of the Armed Forces instructed officials in all provinces to “severely confront […] troublemakers and anti-revolutionaries.”
The United States, which has imposed numerous sanctions on Iran, relaxed some of its restrictions on internet communication to support the protestors and eventually entered talks to use Starlink, Elon Musk’s satellite internet service, as the government in Tehran continued to crack down on Iranian opposition.
Protests have only grown in strength, with a diverse group from oil workers to university students protesting both domestically and internationally, including in Canada, Germany, and Bulgaria, among others.
Iranians abroad have implicitly voiced their support for protestors, most notably in sports venues. Iran’s national soccer team, playing in the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, stood silently as the Iranian anthem played before a match against England. After government pressure, the players reluctantly sang the anthem during their next match against Wales. In South Korea, rock climber Elnaz Rekabi competed without a state-mandated hijab, a rule protestors seek to eliminate. She has since come out and said competing without a hijab was “completely unintentional,” comments made upon her return to Iran. Voria Ghafouri, a soccer player with a history of criticizing the Islamic Republic, was arrested for spreading propaganda against the regime.
The Iranian regime has not only relied on arrests to impose its will on the people. It is more than willing to murder, justifying the deaths by demonizing protestors.
On September 30, security forces killed dozens in the city of Zahedan in a massacre already known as the Black Friday of Zahedan. The regime has said such attacks were necessary to combat separatism, which the regime says is happening in border provinces like Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and Sistan and Baluchistan. These claims are bolstered by disinformation disseminated by the regime, which claims Kurdish revolutionaries have infiltrated and are capitalizing on the protests.
When protestors are not killed on the streets, they are handed death sentences if arrested. Military forces have killed children, including 10-year-old Kian Pirfalak, the youngest known victim in the crackdown on protests who was killed as protestors attacked the childhood home of former Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini.
The regime has been ramping up its use of violence to end this uprising. But the protestors hope to topple the Islamic Republic before it has a chance.
The protests in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death are different from the ones that previously confronted Iran. They are diverse, widespread, and seek deep change that cannot be waved away with trivial concessions. The regime has made no secret of its disdain for the protests, at first trying to organize pro-government protests before decidedly turning to violence.
This uprising is still in its very early stages, and Tehran could still put an end to public dissent and plow forward with a façade of normalcy. Tehran has myriad resources at its disposal, and it will undoubtedly use anything it can to extinguish the movement.
But these protestors have one clear advantage that has the potential to force regime change: strength in numbers. Without a clear leader, Tehran cannot disappear or murder a figurehead and eradicate this movement. It is generally true that if 3.5 percent of a population mobilize for a common goal, the peoples’ objective will be achieved. It is difficult to determine how many people are protesting in Iran, but Iran will need 3 million people fighting for change to break this threshold.
Previous protests have been motivated largely by economics; the Mahsa Amini protestors are motivated by a demand for profound social change. The protestors are men and women spanning age and region. They are tired of an oppressive Islamic regime and are continuing to protest in the face of immense government and military pressure. They have won international attention, at least for the time being.
This wave of protests, if it maintains its vigor, could very well grow to become a second Iranian Revolution. Instead of ousting one dictator and replacing him with another, though, the people of Iran could replace a dictator with a secular representative of the people.
Even if Mr. Khamenei remains in power and the Islamic Republic holds on, these protests will have won a victory that Mr. Khamenei cannot kill: the fact that the people, both at home and abroad, are against him. Whether this be a protest movement, a popular uprising, or a revolution, the Mahsa Amini movement has unified an oppressed country. The masses, at long last, have a voice.