The regime’s failure to create an open and prosperous society for Iranians is leading Iran’s richest and brightest to reconsider their future in their country.
AGSIW's publications are also available in Arabic. Help AGSIW expand its Arabic-language analysis.Donate
The slogans of countrywide protests that began in Iran in September following the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody suggest that Iranians are not demanding reform but a complete change of the country’s faith-based and fundamentalist political system. Amini was reportedly arrested and detained by the morality police for “wearing tight trousers.” Government officials deny any form of violence was used by the forces during her arrest and while she was in custody, but brain scans taken at the hospital raised suspicions that she was severely beaten and died because of multiple brain fractures and internal bleeding.
Iranians online quickly questioned the legitimacy of her arrest and helped prompt a worldwide reaction to her death. Hashtags with her name have been circulated more than 100 million times around the world. Both the compulsory hijab, one of the very first laws enforced by the Islamic Revolutionary government in 1979, and the regulations that allow police forces to punish women for noncompliance, are more than sharia laws in Iran. They are at the heart of state control over public and private lives of citizens. Many Iranians, especially youth, have directly witnessed harassment by these forces. Taking off the hijab, and burning it, as many Iranian women have done during these protests, is therefore a strong signal for rejection of the very foundation of state control. The frustration of young Iranians, both men and women, goes far beyond the religious practices and dress codes. The audacious display of corruption, hypocrisy, and oppression by the regime has touched very deep nerves among the public, which is openly demanding regime change on the streets across Iran.
The current protests are different from previous rounds as they have simultaneously highlighted three levels of oppression in Iran: socioeconomic, gender, and ethnic. Amini, a young Kurdish woman from a lower-class family, represents all these layers. Her case connects existing economic, social, and political grievances to challenges that Iranian people face in their daily lives, such as the issue of compulsory dress code in public spaces for both men and women.
The oppression of women is one of the fundamental mechanisms of state control in Iran, and the compulsory hijab is an omnipresent symbol of that. The current protests are a clear indication of the public rejection of the state’s decadeslong control.
Iran’s relatively young population is deeply frustrated by the absence of economic opportunities: The widening gap between the rich and the poor has been an important factor for youth mobilization in this round of protests in Iran.
Marginalization of ethnic minorities, particularly the Kurds, has been an integral element of the state’s domestic policies. Economic deprivation and political oppression of minorities have led to deep social dissatisfaction, which is evident in the intensity of protests in areas that are home to ethnic minorities.
Socioeconomic Marginalization of Women
Iran’s economy has significantly deteriorated over the past decade due to mismanagement, corruption, structural economic problems, and international sanctions. Various rounds of currency depreciation, high inflation, slow growth, and high unemployment have affected the standard of living and pushed millions of Iranians into poverty. Women have been particularly affected. Female participation in the labor force has been declining in recent years. According to the World Bank, Iran has one of the lowest rates of female participation in the labor force across the Middle East and North Africa – a region with rates among the lowest in the world.
Women’s Labor Force Participation Rate (% of female population ages 15+)
Since the early years after the revolution, the state has marginalized women’s social and economic contributions in Iranian society through a series of multifaceted, ideology-driven campaigns. This has included editing school curricula and books and implementing a gender-based quota for universities. The Ministry of Education recently announced that 200 books across various levels will be revised in accordance with the supreme leader’s vision. Some changes have already been made in both content and graphics of schoolbooks. In 2020, images of girls were removed from the cover of third-grade math books. Textbooks now also place a strong emphasis on the traditional role of women in the family as full-time mothers and wives. These changes have sparked widespread public debate and have been criticized across print and social media in Iran. The government has been tightening gender-based admission quotas in universities. In 2012, 36 universities in Iran imposed quotas blocking women’s admission to more than 77 different majors, such as accounting, chemistry, and engineering. The quota system has been based on a belief that women are not able to perform equally as men in certain careers.
The current protests are the most significant uprising in Iran since 2019, with large participation among youth. Around half of Iranians are under the age of 33. The population is technology savvy, well informed, and well connected through social media. Iran is ahead of some countries in the region, including Turkey and Egypt, in use of the internet. Therefore, it was not surprising that restricting internet access during the protests has been a central move by the regime to try to reassert control. As living conditions, income level, employment opportunities, and prospects for things like getting married and owning properties have worsened for most of the young Iranian population, sharing frustration, anger, and failures in the cyber realm has become the norm.
At the same time, a central topic of online discussion has been the disparity between normal, often struggling, Iranian families and those families with close connections to senior clerics, the political elite, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders, who enjoy government-provided privileges and business opportunities and don’t have to follow the same restrictive rules. Such connections have enabled a minority of Iranian citizens to maintain a lavish lifestyle, inside and outside of Iran. The internet has also provided a platform for the well-off minority to flaunt their privileges. For example, a video of the former head of the Tehran Police, General Morteza Talaei, exercising at a mixed-gender gym in Canada went viral in 2021. He was reportedly instrumental in forming the special forces that exert control over the public behavior of citizens (including enforcing women’s dress code). The video sparked a heated debate on social media and by Persian media outlets in the diaspora about the hypocrisy of the senior officials who condemn the West and insist young Iranians maintain a modest lifestyle and comply with religious virtues, while they themselves (and their families) enjoy freedom of travel to the West, live lavish lifestyles, and fail to adhere to the same religious codes they preach.
Internet Penetration (% of population)
Another key dynamic these protests have brought to light is the discrimination of ethnic minorities in Iran. Amini’s hometown, Saqqez, is in the center of the Kurdish region of northwest Iran. The town has been a stronghold of the leftist Kurdish resistance movement since before the Islamic Revolution. Virtually all Iran’s border provinces inhabited by ethnic minorities, such as Baluchistan in the east, Ahvaz in the south, Kurdistan in the northwest, and Lorestan in the West, have been deprived for decades of government investment, development of infrastructure, and employment opportunities. Kurdish areas have been systematically subjected to socioeconomic and ethnic discrimination and heavily suppressed politically, as discussed by scholars Allan Hassaniyan and Mansour Sohrabi in their recent article “Colonial Management of Iranian Kurdistan.” Despite the government’s structural and, in effect, targeted discrimination against ethnic minorities, the death of Amini brought together protesters across the country – from all ethnic groups – calling for solidarity with Kurdistan. One widely used slogan called Kurdistan “the light of the eye of Iran.” More than a symbolic act of national solidarity, these demonstrations are also a nationwide display of dissent against the state’s structural corruption, nepotism, and hypocrisy, which contribute to socioeconomic grievances across the country.
Distribution of Ethnic Groups in Iran
After the Islamic Revolution, the Kurdish regions were the last territories to remain out of full regime control. The post-revolutionary government launched several attacks particularly designed to suppress Kurdish movements in Iran led by the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan and Komala. And armed conflict between the regime and Kurdish militant groups continues to flare up occasionally. The regime has been conscious of the decadeslong resentment of the Kurdish communities. This is largely why Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi personally called Amini’s family shortly after her death; it was a gesture of solidarity but also an attempt to preempt backlash from the Kurdish population. This however did not lead to the desired outcome: Instead, the family openly criticized the government during her funeral and has continued to do so since. Their anger was taken up by the Kurdish parties, which announced a general strike for September 19 in Iran’s Kurdish cities. The nationwide protests spread shortly afterward.
The Iranian regime sees these protests as a major security threat. Its strategy in response has been heavy use of violence combined with tactics aimed at creating divisions in the broad coalition of mobilized people. Security forces have violently cracked down on protesters. For example, in the Baluchi city of Zahedan, they killed more than a hundred civilians. The regime has also blocked internet access to disrupt domestic and international communication. It has also sought to frame the unrest in the Kurdish cities as a military battle between Tehran and the Iranian Kurdish parties, which have bases on both sides of the border with Iraq. It seems to be trying to provoke a counterattack from the Kurdistan region of Iraq to justify military retaliation, divert attention to foreign aspects, and establish the pretext for a harsher crackdown on the protests. On September 26, the IRGC began launching precision-guided missile and drone attacks targeting bases of the major Iranian Kurdish parties in Iraq’s Kurdistan region to end what it called “secessionist plots” that the Iranian regime asserts are seeking to manipulate the protests to pursue their own political agendas. The attacks have hit many civilian areas, including a school in Koye, causing several casualties. The relatively indiscriminate use of violence, both in Iran and Iraq, also seems aimed at intimidating protesters across the country.
The 2022 Protests and the Future of the Islamic Republic
The long history of violent repression of the Kurds has been part of a broader strategy of discrimination and suppression of ethnic communities, which is a pillar of the doctrine of the Islamic Republic. For decades, suppression mechanisms have been successful in alienating minorities and consolidating regime control. However, the recent sense of solidarity that has been generated across many facets of Iranian society, domestically and in the diaspora, suggests the regime’s strategy may no longer be working. The regime may have assumed that the violent crackdown of protests in 2019 would serve as a deterrent against future popular uprisings. However, the shared grievances among women, youth, and ethnic minorities have generated a sense of unprecedented unity among Iranians.
International support for the Iranian protesters and their demands for change has been substantial. Activists, celebrities, athletes, artists, and others, from Iranian and non-Iranian origin, have expressed solidarity with the Iranian people. Large demonstrations have been organized across many European and North American cities, with those assembled chanting the same slogans as protesters in Iran. Moreover, Iranian activists in the diaspora who support the protesters’ demands for regime change have campaigned against more conservative Iranian diaspora elements, many of whom occupy positions of influence in academia or professional circles and are viewed as normalizing the regime with appeals to diplomacy and negotiations, while undermining the protesters’ calls for more radical change. Some Western governments have expressed support for the protesters, focusing on the protection of human rights in Iran. Germany and Spain summoned the Iranian ambassadors to raise concerns over the killing of Amini and the violent crackdown on protesters. Canada and the United States added the morality police to their lists of sanctioned Iranian entities.
The demands of the protesters for regime change are a clear manifestation of the deep frustration and the loss of hope for reform among the Iranian public; they also seem to signal that the time is ripe for comprehensive change. The heavy-handed government crackdown on the protests will continue if there are no far-reaching consequences for the regime at the international level. Iran has expanded international influence and oppressed dissidents globally through a complex network of proxies. While citizens have used online platforms to raise grievances, the regime has also used the same channels to manipulate the public discourse and spread false information.
The international community, especially Western governments, can play a role in getting Iran to end this aggression. Over the past two decades Western governments have focused on a nuclear deal with Iran. The unfolding events in Iran underline an urgent need for changing this approach. Rather than having such a narrow focus, negotiations and proceedings with Iran should capture the needs of Iranian society, public demands, and the nature of state-citizen relations. The current protests are not just spontaneous events; they are the consequence of decadeslong structured and multilayered oppression by the regime. Given the government’s willingness to use force domestically, regionally, and internationally, these protests are not only relevant to the future of Iran but also to the region and beyond. Further, the government’s systematic economic marginalization, ethnic discrimination, and women’s oppression as well as the blatant nepotism, corruption, and hypocrisy of regime officials suggest the regime is not an honest broker in pursuit of forming inclusive and peaceful foreign and domestic policies. International policymakers should take all these factors into consideration when formulating diplomatic strategies toward Iran. Amini’s death highlights the importance of protection of human rights in Iran, which should be set at the heart of negotiations with Iran rather than serving as a mere bargaining chip to pressure for compromises elsewhere.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. She is the Marie Curie Fellow at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies working on Iran’s economic diversification and economic resilience strategies.
is a doctoral fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area studies. Her research focuses on political culture, democratization, and security policy in Kurdish areas in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria.
The resumption of Kurdish oil exports hinges on achieving consensus between Baghdad and Ankara, but a lasting solution can only be cemented through a trilateral agreement that includes Erbil.
Through its careful examination of the forces shaping the evolution of Gulf societies and the new generation of emerging leaders, AGSIW facilitates a richer understanding of the role the countries in this key geostrategic region can be expected to play in the 21st century.Learn More