The movement, which grew out of prolonged anger over decades of repression, collapsed after police arrested 22-year-old Mahsa Amini – also known by her Kurdish name Jina – at a Tehran metro station for speaking out against violated Iran’s conservative dress code for women. then is said to have beaten her to death and tried to cover it up. What began in Amini’s hometown in a Kurdish-dominated province has grown into an ongoing, nationwide challenge for the regime – and one that will not be easily defeated.
Over the weeks the government escalated its deadly crackdown, particularly in the Kurdish areas, but demonstrations continued. They have seemingly left the Iranian leadership at an impasse and unsure how far they must go to regain control. The regime could fully unleash the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to crush the movement, but it would risk drawing even more ire from opponents at home and demanding another international condemnation.
What Iran’s protest slogans tell us about the insurgency
“I think it’s not too late to save myself and others in my generation,” Nazanin, a college student in the city of Azad, told the Washington Post. Out of concern for her safety, she only gave her first name. She didn’t see a future for herself in Iran, she said, until the protests changed her “like they’ve changed a lot of people.”
Day after day, protesters shout “Woman, Life, Freedom” and “Death to the Dictator” and burn images of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Women doff headscarves and stand shoulder to shoulder with protesters who choose to wear them.
Major social upheavals are underway – but Iran’s spiritual leadership and the security forces supporting it remain strong. At the first sign of unrest, authorities followed a well-known playbook. They cut internet and cellphone access, violently disrupted protests, and launched mass arrest and intimidation campaigns, even targeting doctors and schools. More than 400 people were killed, including more than 60 minors, and more than 18,000 arrested, human rights group Hrana estimates. Reporting on the spot is extremely difficult under the given circumstances, so that exact figures cannot be determined.
Every death, arrest and raid contributes to public outrage. But Iran’s security state was built to withstand popular unrest. The Shia revolutionaries who came to power in 1979 created a parallel security force, the Revolutionary Guards, and a separate judicial system, the Revolutionary Courts, to protect the Islamic Republic and its supreme leader.
Rights groups say Iran is escalating crackdowns in Kurdish areas
Part of what has changed is that many Iranians have abandoned reform. Even if Tehran were to crush the protests or make concessions – the latter rarely does – many Iranians reject the core values of the Islamic Republic. “Even if it’s suppressed, there’s a new discourse, a new sense of resistance,” said Mohammad Ali Kadivar, a sociologist at Boston College who studies protest movements in Iran.
For decades, people have endured the daily injustices of an authoritarian theocracy structured around gender segregation. Young Iranians in particular “have experienced declining standards of living, all reform efforts have ceased” and “have grown up with very little or no ideological attachment to the Islamic Republic,” said Manijeh Moradian, assistant professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Barnard College , who studies the Iranian diaspora.
The uprising is fueled by women and youth, but is leaderless in part because the state has arrested, exiled or marginalized most of the opposition. In 2009, millions of Iranians protested against electoral fraud. The demonstrations were violently suppressed. In 2017 and 2019, thousands rebelled against government economic grievances and mismanagement, and authorities killed hundreds in the resulting crackdown. Iranians know that a worse crackdown could follow, like the ones that killed thousands in purges in the decade after the revolution.
What are economic sanctions and how did they become Washington’s favorite foreign policy tool?
The United States and Europe have been left with few good options for a response. Before the uprising, Iran was already under sweeping sanctions under most of any country. Decades of economic isolation – coupled with internal corruption and mismanagement – have devastated the economy.
In recent weeks, Washington and Brussels have responded by naming more people and institutions involved in the violence. Ali Vaez of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said that while they are “morally justified, in practice they amount to feel-good policies” for the West, with little effect on Iran’s leadership. Meanwhile, broader sanctions serve to punish Iranians collectively, intentionally or not, and have “empowered” the Revolutionary Guards, which control much of Iran’s formal and black-market economy, he said.
In recent years, Western diplomatic engagement with Iran has focused on securing (and now re-securing) a nuclear deal that would include the lifting of sanctions. As a result, there has been a “reluctance” to raise other issues, such as Iran’s human rights abuses, said Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a German-Iranian political scientist.
Iran has blamed “foreign instigators” for the protests, particularly Iran’s enemies – like America, Israel and Saudi Arabia – although it remains sensitive to its international image. Pressure is mounting on the United Nations, whose human rights body voted last week to set up an independent fact-finding mission. Iran’s foreign ministry has pledged not to get involved.
But many Iranians these days are very connected to the whole world online and long for an end to international isolation. In recent weeks, Iranian athletes have shown small signs of solidarity with the insurgency at international sporting events, much to the chagrin of the state. The unrest spilled over into the World Cup, where regime opponents and supporters clashed, and the Iran national team struggled to reconcile signals of tacit support for the protesters and the need to ensure their own safety.
Back in Iran people continue to be killed, arrested and silenced. Khamenei on Saturday praised the Basij, a volunteer militia linked to the Revolutionary Guard, as another sign that violence could continue to escalate.
The movement doesn’t seem to fade away on its own. Iran’s spiritual leaders and the security state behind them will have to decide how far they are willing to go. Many supporters of the movement in Iran see international attention as one of their few, if limited, defenses.
“We will be on the streets until the day we find some peace from this constant injustice and oppression,” a 30-year-old woman from Sanandaj in Kurdistan province told The Post last month. Despite an almost total loss of communications, she spoke anonymously out of concern for her safety — hoping one day to be able to speak freely.