How does Iran’s 2022-23 protest movement compare to earlier protests, and how have anti-regime protests evolved under the Islamic Republic? Itself born out of the protest movement against the monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Islamic Republic is no stranger to anti-regime protests. Soon after the victory of the revolution on February 11, 1979, and establishment of the Islamic Republic, the revolutionaries turned against each other in their attempts to seize control over the new regime. This in turn led to a near permanent state of crisis and reemergence of separatist movements in Iran’s periphery regions dormant since the end of World War II. But by June 1981, the alliance between the revolutionary Shia clergy and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps effectively defeated all organized opposition within Iran and consolidated the regime’s rule.
Since June 1981, Iran has experienced countless local protests and uprisings, including scattered anti-war protests in the final phase of the war with Iraq in the 1980s, labor protests, ethnic and sectarian protests, and increasingly, protests provoked by the effects of climate change. However, Iran has only faced seven major anti-regime protests, which can roughly be divided into economic and political protests:
- In 1992, economic protests were provoked by attempts of the local government to bulldoze the Kou-ye Tollab shantytown in Mashhad, Razavi Khorasan province. The riots quickly spread to Arak in Markazi province, Mobarakeh in Isfahan province, and the low-income Chahardangeh neighborhood of Tehran. It was with some difficulty that the IRGC restored order in the affected areas.
- In 1999, students took to the streets in Tehran in a political protest against the closure of the Salam newspaper.
- In 2009, political protests and million-man marches broke out in Tehran sparked by suspicion of electoral fraud during the presidential election, which secured President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term in office.
- In 2017-18 residents in poor suburbs of major population centers rose up in economic protests over increased food prices.
- In 2019, economic protests spread across the country against the government’s gasoline rationing and price increase of at least 50%.
- In 2022, political protests were triggered by the suspicious death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody.
Without exception, economic protests started in poor suburbs of major population centers, for the most part inhabited by first-generation migrants from the countryside. Bereft of the social safety net of the extended family in the village, but not yet integrated into the city’s social fabric, these people are often plagued by instability. As day laborers or street vendors, they have no savings to cushion them against economic shocks. When facing existential threats, such as the municipality – as a part of urban development plans – leveling their meager dwellings made of tin cans and mud, when exposed to increased prices for public transportation to the city center where they work, or in the face of rising food prices and the abolishment of government subsidies, they don’t hesitate to take their protest to the streets. Economic protests were triggered by economic stabilization policies of President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the 1990s and President Hassan Rouhani in the 2000s, which included abolishment of government subsidies to low-income groups. In recent years, they have been sparked by economic hardship brought on in large part by the international sanctions regime. Abstract political concepts, such as personal and political freedom, on the other hand, do not appear to have motivated Iran’s underprivileged.
Iran’s educated middle class, by comparison, is highly motivated by personal and political freedom. Urban, educated, well-informed about the surrounding world through traditional and new media, and well-connected through social media, Iran’s middle class demands political influence, as urban middle classes have throughout world history. Mohammad Khatami’s promise of political liberalization mobilized this class, leading to his astonishing victory in the 1997 presidential election. Regime backlash against Khatami, and closure of newspapers, coupled with increased expectations among the educated urban middle class, led to the 1999 student uprisings. In 2009, suspicions of electoral fraud securing Ahmadinejad a second term in office triggered the largest anti-regime protests in the history of the Islamic Republic. However, Ahmadinejad’s political rivals remained reformists, not street activists or revolutionaries, and urged the protesters to clear the streets while they negotiated the outcome of the election with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. With the streets cleared, the regime put presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi under house arrest, imprisoned most of the people involved in their political campaigns, and systematically suppressed the leaderless protesters. The protests sparked in 2022 too had deeper roots than merely serving as a reaction to the suspicious death of a young woman in police custody, Iran’s dress code for women, and its violent enforcement. In abstract terms, the Islamic Republic modernized Iran and created an educated urban middle class, which it denies genuine and legal paths for political participation, leaving street protests as one of a few instruments for voicing political demands and expressing grievances.
Remarkably, none of these seven major protests managed to mobilize both social classes. Limited or lack of cross-class solidarity and tensions, if not resentment, between the two classes may explain this, which complicates forging of broad anti-regime coalitions. However, as Iran’s economic woes worsen due to a combination of mismanagement and the international sanctions regime, the increasingly impoverished middle class may find common ground with the underprivileged and may perhaps even persuade the underprivileged that improvement of their economic lot goes hand in hand with, if not depends upon, personal and political freedom.
Major Anti-Regime Protests in Iran, June 1981 – January 2023
*Estimated fatalities are devised from the author’s database based on media coverage of funeral services, Amnesty International, and the Oslo-based Iran Human Rights Society.
**The armed forces, as defined by the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, include the army, IRGC, and Law Enforcement Forces (police).
Iran’s economic and political protests have evolved over time, in particular with regard to length, locality, primary means of mobilization, and degree of violence, as reflected in estimates of fatalities. Economic protests appear to be shorter, usually not lasting longer than a few days or, at most, weeks. Political protests tend to span a longer period of time: The weeklong 1999 student uprisings in Tehran were followed by almost six months of protests in the wake of the 2009 presidential election, and the 2022 protests too may continue well into 2023.
In the early 1990s, protests were generally localized, however, since 2009, protests have become widespread. This may be due to technological innovation and introduction of new means of agitation and mobilization, enabling protests in one location to spread across the entire country like wildfire. While the Pahlavi regime blamed BBC Persian’s shortwave radio broadcasts to Iran for inciting unrest in Iran during the 1979 revolution, foreign radio, and later satellite television, broadcasters had no or very limited impact on protests in Iran, as Iran’s state-censored media remained the primary source of information for the majority of Iranians. This gradually changed by the late 1990s, with the introduction of mobile phones, text messaging services, and, later, smartphones providing access to social media. Despite the government’s efforts, technologically savvy Iranians bypass government filtering of the internet to access information from the likes of the London-based, but reportedly Saudi-financed, Iran International TV, whose role in Iran’s recent protests is comparable to the role of Al Jazeera during the Arab Spring uprisings.
Assessing the size of protests is no easy task, as the regime tends to downplay, while the opposition tends to inflate, the numbers. Estimates of the number of arrested protesters, which can indicate the size of protests, remain imprecise. Even fatality rates are disputed; for example, during the 2019 protests, Amnesty International identified 305 named protesters killed, and the U.S. Department of State, without identifying or naming the victims, claimed the number of fatalities was over one thousand. A conservative estimate based on identified victims, excluding the State Department data, shows a significant rise in fatalities among protesters as well as among the armed forces. With 592 protesters and 73 government personnel killed, the 2022 protests not only mark the highest number of fatalities in major protests in Iran since June 1981, but they have claimed more lives than total fatalities in all previous protests combined.
Armed Forces and Protester Fatalities in Major Protests, 1992 – 2023
Though the recent protests have been countrywide, government personnel and protester fatalities show a concentration of lethal violence in a few provinces: 154 out of 592 protesters killed lost their lives in Iran’s Kurdistan province as well as Kurdish- and predominantly Sunni-populated cities in the West Azerbaijan and Kermanshah provinces. In Sistan and Baluchistan province, which is populated by Iran’s predominantly Sunni minority, 131 protesters were killed. Therefore, 285, nearly half of protester fatalities were among Iran’s Kurdish or Baluchi minorities. The armed forces, too, appear to have suffered disproportionately in those same provinces: 33 out of 73, or 45% of the government personnel killed, lost their lives in those same provinces and cities.
Armed Forces and Protester Fatalities by Province September 2022 – January 2023
The rise in fatalities in recent protests can in part be explained by use of firearms by the armed forces and protesters alike. While the cause of death of 133 protesters is not known, 377 out of 592 killed protesters, around 64%, were reportedly shot. On the regime side, 40 out of 73, around 55%, were killed by a firearm. Just as important, most government personnel killed by firearms lost their lives in Iran’s Kurdistan and Sistan and Baluchistan provinces, which may be an indication of the relative ease of smuggling firearms into Iran from Iraq’s Kurdistan province and Afghanistan.
Armed Forces and Protester Fatalities by Cause of Death, September 2022 – January 2023
These tendencies paint a dark picture of the trajectory of anti-regime protests in Iran. As long as the Islamic Republic remains incapable of improving the economic lot of Iran’s underprivileged and unable, or unwilling, to accommodate middle class demands for political liberalization, the regime is likely to face more protests in the future. Should the underprivileged and middle class find common ground and join forces, the regime is likely to face a formidable challenge to its rule. But even if such a broad anti-regime coalition does not materialize, future protests are likely to be more challenging. Protests may start as local conflicts but spread to the rest of the country thanks to social media and foreign satellite television broadcasts to Iran and are likely to be more protracted, and more violent, in particular along Iran’s international borders.