Protests have swept Iran in the last few days leading to clashes with security forces and the first protester deaths reported on December 30th. Videos have emerged from inside the country showing protesters in the streets and the government has sought to shut them down by warning against “illegal gatherings.” Train service and schools were ordered shut on Sunday. The Telegram messaging app, with 40 million users in Iran, on Saturday blocked a channel that Iran's telecommunications minister had accused of encouraging violence in the unrest. The US government has released statements indicating support for the protesters. After seventy-two hours, here is what we know so far.
Where are the protests?
When did the protests start?
They began in earnest on Thursday December 28th in a series of cities across the heartland of Iran. They spread on Friday to at least a dozen cities and continued on Saturday, reaching Tehran.
They have taken place across Iran, from border cities such as Mashhad in the far east to Rasht on the Caspian. By the second day they had spread to at least a dozen cities including Isfahan, Qom, Qzvin, Sari, Kermanshah, Ahvaz, Hamedan, Rasht, Shahrud, Nowshahr and Kashmar. These include a diverse grouping of cities, including those known for religious devotion such as Qom. They include areas with large numbers of minorities such as Kurds in Kermanshah and Arabs in Ahvaz, as well as those in the Persian heartland. On Saturday night and Sunday, the protests also spread to Bandar Abbas on the southern coast and to the Kurdish region’s cities of Ilam, Baneh and Sanandaj.How were they organized?
Iran’s regime has alleged that social media, especially Telegram has been used to spread the protests. The Minister of Information and Communications Technology asked Telegram to shut down accounts being used to inflame the people. A Telegram channel named Amadnews was suspended as a result.What are the protests saying?
A variety of chants have been heard in videos of the protests. These include “Death to the dictator,” which conjures up images of the 2009 protests when the green-clad supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi took to the streets in September of that year. They have also called on the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to step down.
They have also spoken out against economic woes and inflation. One man said that the protesters come from a broad spectrum of society. They speak about students graduating without a stable future. Protesters have also said that many who took to the streets are lower class, which would be in contrast to some of the 2009 protests. The protesters have also targeted government involvement in Syria, calling on the government to “leave Syria, think about us,” and also condemned the government’s obsession with supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon. “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran,” they said. Videos show protesters ripping down posters of Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani who is in charge of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s operations abroad. They have also removed posters of the Ayatollah. At Tehran university they condemned the “oppressive” government on December 30th and protesters chanted, “Independence, freedom, Iranian Republic,” a slight twist on the 1979 motto that called for an “Islamic Republic.”
What are leaders saying?
US President Donald Trump tweeted on December 30: “Many reports of peaceful protests by Iranian citizens fed up with regime’s corruption and its squandering of the nation’s wealth.” He said the world was watching.
The IRGC has said they will “not allow the country to be hurt.” Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Ayatollah Khamenei have been silent so far. Former Swedish Prime Minister and Co-Chair of European Council on Foreign Relations Carl Bildt wrote on December 29: “There is no doubt that protests are spreading in Iran. Might have been started by hardliners to undermine [President Hassan Rouhani] but have now clearly changed character. So far soft regime response, but highly likely forces inside it calling for brutal methods.” Other European voices such as French President Emmanuel Macron have been silent so far. UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson tweeted on December 31: "Watching events in Iran with concern. Vital that citizens should have the right to demonstrate peacefully."
The support for Iranian protests crosses party lines. “The Iranian people, especially the young, are protesting for the freedom and future they deserve,” tweeted Hillary Clinton. US Senator John McCain shared the following thoughts on Twitter "The US stands with the brave protesters who yearn for freedom, peace, and an end to corruption in Iran."
How has Iran’s regime responded?
On Saturday tens of thousands of pro-regime supporters were called out on the streets to counter-protest. At the same time, security forces in Tehran beat students who attended a rally at Tehran university. According to the Center for Human Rights in Iran the government has made it difficult for locals to access internet servers outside Iran. Locals predict that this means in the coming days there will be fewer videos from protests because Iranians will not be able to send them abroad. In the city of Dorud in the province of Lorestan several protesters were reported killed. Riot police have been sent against protesters in Rasht. In Mashhad the police responded with live fire on December 28th. As of December 30th the crackdown was not widespread and the reports of the Basij militia being sent in to attack protesters, as in 2009, have not been heard. Train service was cancelled Sunday and schools suspended for the day while the regime continued its crackdown on social media and the Internet to stem the protests. The regime has accused “foreign” elements of being behind the disturbances and claimed that protester deaths were also caused by enemies of the state. In Tehran at least 200 people were reported arrested on Sunday.
How have women been a symbol in the protests?
One of the symbols of the 2009 protests was the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, a philosophy student shot in Tehran in June of 2009. During the 2017 protests, one of the symbols has been a woman waving a white scarf while she refuses to don the headcovering or hijab that is mandatory in the Islamic Republic. She was allegedly arrested on December 28th.
What is the response in the United States?
The protests have fueled a debate in the US about the Iran deal and criticism of the Obama administration for not doing more in 2009. Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy writes that, “Civil unrest in Iran offers Trump an opportunity to chart different path than Obama.” Senator Ted Cruz has urged the Trump administration “to do everything possible to support these courageous protesters.”
What does it mean for the Middle East?
Iran has been blamed for spreading instability in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen through its Shi’ite militia proxies. There are many groups and countries in the region that have an interest in encouraging the protests. There are also close allies of Iran, such as Qatar, that want to encourage the regime to crack down. Major protests in Iran could encourage protests in other countries, especially if it seems protesters have succeeded in seizing state property. For instance journalist Julian Ropcke claims that on December 30 protesters “took over the town of Kashan” including the police station. There will be calls for the US and other powers to do more to aid the protesters but there will also be hesitation claiming that any aid could backfire and be seen as advocating “regime change.”Do the protests go beyond the narrative of "hardliners and moderates?"
The protests have revealed that there is a large amount of frustration in Iran that goes beyond the simplistic narrative of “hardliners” and "moderates” through which many western analysts like to see Iran. Unlike during the 2009 protests, where the protesters were largely seen as political partisans of the “moderates,” these protests so far seem leaderless and uncolored by political overtones. That may change, but they have revealed the economic issues and widespread discontent with the Islamist regime and have supporters among a spectrum of the population.