Anti-government protests in Iran, initially sparked by the death of a young woman while in police custody for wearing an “improper” head covering, have now grown to include anger over rising poverty, rising unemployment and crushing sanctions.
The real figures on the number of injuries and deaths in the protests are not clear, but the account is increasing. Iranian state media reported that at least 26 people have been killed, including protesters and security officials. The Oslo-based Iran Human Rights Organization 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. Crowds of protesters pushed back Iranian security forces, known as “basij,” with videos shared on social media showing uniformed officers running away as people cheered.
Other videos showed a bloodied commander and the bloody 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 a 40-year struggle by Iranians to roll back a repressive political system, a system that gives them no voice and no chance,” says Dr. Sanam Vakil, a Middle East policy expert and Iran specialist at Chatham. House in London. “They want to feel, ordinary Iranians, that they are part of an international community and that they are fighting for very basic rights, decency and respect.”
Last week, officials who enforced Iran’s strict Islamic dress code arrested 22-year-old Mahsa Amini during his family’s visit to the capital, Tehran. The special unit, known colloquially as the “morality police”, accused her of wearing “inadequate clothing”.
After three days, she died in detention, with officials saying she suffered a heart attack. Her family and her critics believe she was beaten after an image emerged of her bruised, bloodied and intubated body.
As more protests have broken out, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry has warned citizens not to participate and said those caught in the demonstrations would be prosecuted.
“Given the exploitation of the recent incidents by opposition groups, any presence and participation in illegal gatherings will result in legal proceedings based on the Islamic Penal Code,” the ministry said, according to the state-run Nour News agency.
“We warn the instigators that their dream of destroying the religious values of the Islamic Republic will never materialize.”
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, designated a terrorist organization by the United States and other governments, issued two statements Thursday night. One condemned the protests as a conspiracy organized by enemies of Iran. The other announced that a pro-government rally would be held after Friday prayers in Tehran.
Internet access in Tehran and other parts of the country has been slowed down or shut down. Services like WhatsApp, Instagram and Google Play have been leaked this week, joining Telegram, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, which have been leaked for years.
As the protests continue, there are fears of a massive crackdown soon.
“I’m very much looking forward to that in the next few days. The repressive arm of the state will come out in full force,” Vakil of Chatham House said.
“They have the police and the IRGC on the streets,” Vakil said. “They are slowing down internet access to prevent people from coordinating. And in the past, they shut down the Internet completely to completely isolate Iran from the international community and from us seeing inside. And that could develop a lot. and an all-out repressive attack could be unleashed.”