Anti-government protests in Iran, initially sparked by the death of a young woman while in police custody for wearing the “wrong” headscarf, have now grown in anger over rising poverty, soaring unemployment and tightening sanctions.
The actual numbers of people injured and killed during the demonstrations are unclear, but the number is growing. Iranian state media reported that at least 26 people were killed, including protesters and security officials. The Oslo-based Iranian Organization for Human Rights said at least 31 protesters were killed and an unknown number arrested.
In Tehran, marching protesters chanted “death to Khamenei” and “death to the dictator,” referring to the country’s supreme leader, 83-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran’s security forces, known as the “basij”, were pushed back by crowds of protesters with videos shared on social media showing uniformed officers fleeing as people cheered.
Other videos showed a bloodied commander and the bleeding body of a policeman hanging from the window of an overturned car. Protesters 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 reflect the 40-year struggle of Iranians to push back against a repressive political system that gives them no voice or opportunity,” says Dr. Sanam Vakil, an expert on Middle East politics and Iran specialist at Chatham House. London. “Ordinary Iranians want to feel that they are part of the international community and fight for basic rights and decency and respect.”
Last week, followers of Iran’s strict Islamic dress code arrested 22-year-old Mahsa Amin while her family was visiting the capital, Tehran. The special unit, colloquially known as the “morality police”, accused her of wearing “inappropriate clothing”.
He died in custody three days later, officials said of a heart attack. His family and critics believe he was beaten after a picture surfaced of his bruised, bloody and intubated body.
As more protests have erupted, Iran’s intelligence ministry has warned citizens against participating, saying those caught at demonstrations will be prosecuted.
“Given the exploitation of recent incidents by opposition groups, any presence and participation in illegal gatherings will result in prosecution under the Islamic Penal Code,” the ministry said, according to state news agency Nour.
“We warn the instigators that their dream of destroying the religious values of the Islamic Republic will never be realized.”
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and other governments, issued two statements late Thursday. One denounced the protests as an organized conspiracy by Iran’s enemies. Another reported that a pro-government rally would be held in Tehran after Friday prayers.
Internet access in Tehran and other parts of the country has been slowed down or shut down. Services such as WhatsApp, Instagram and Google Play have been filtered this week – joining Telegram, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, which have been filtered for years.
As the protests continue, there are fears that a large-scale crackdown will soon follow.
“I am very much looking forward to it in the coming days. The repressive arm of the state will come out in full force,” said Vakil of Chatham House.
“The police and the IRGC have taken to the streets,” Vakil said. “They’re slowing down access to the Internet to prevent people from coordinating. And in the past, they’ve completely shut down the Internet to completely shut Iran off from the international community and from our insight. And that could very well develop. and could unleash a full-scale repressive attack.”