How far could the Iranian protests go?

Anti-government protests in Iran have grown larger in recent weeks, but the government’s brutal response has raised questions about whether the demonstrations can effect meaningful change in the country.

Protests erupted in the streets of Iran last month in response to the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, who died after being arrested by Tehran’s morality police for wearing “inappropriate clothing”. Protesters demanded justice for Amini’s death, as well as the abolition of the mandatory hijab, a head covering worn by Muslim women, and the so-called “Guidance Patrol”, the morality police that have long oppressed and harassed women in Iran.

However, the demonstrations quickly turned into calls for “death to the dictator” – referring to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei – and the downfall of the Islamic Republic.

“There were a lot of pent-up complaints,” Sina Toossi, a senior nonresident fellow at the Center for International Policy, told HuffPost. “Right across the board, you see economic grievances, political grievances, grievances about social freedom.”

The current wave of protests is the biggest since the Green Movement in 2009, when millions of people took to the streets to demonstrate against what they saw as a fraudulent election. Other protests have gripped the country since then; many have been triggered by economic problems, including a rise in gasoline prices in 2019.

“People have become more disillusioned, they have lost more hope [in] any kind of change from this system,” Toossi said. “And then immediately we see this outpouring of anger.”

“What really comes out of these protests is this call for fundamental change,” he added.

Iran has been rocked by the biggest wave of social unrest in nearly three years as Iranians including university students and young schoolgirls protest the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.
Iran has been rocked by the biggest wave of social unrest in nearly three years as Iranians including university students and young schoolgirls protest the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.

‘Iron-Fisted Clampdown’

Officials at the highest levels of Iran’s government have blamed weeks of unrest on foreign interference. In his first public response to the protests, Khamenei accused the United States and Israel of instigating the demonstrations.

And the government’s response to protesters has been adamant. Security forces have fired on and detained protesters and imposed internet restrictions.

Human Rights Watch verified 16 videos posted on social media showing protests from September 17 to 22. The videos show police and other security forces using excessive and lethal force against protesters, including shooting them with handguns and Kalashnikov-style assault rifles.

At least 52 people, including women and children, have been killed, according to Amnesty International. Hundreds have been injured and at least 3,000 others have been arrested and are currently in prison, Iran International reported.

However, the widespread internet outages have made it difficult to confirm the figures.

The Iranian government’s “real approach to these kinds of protests and domestic pressure is that when they’re under tremendous pressure, they don’t want to give in to that pressure,” Toossi said. “It is common as the philosophy of the establishment there. They would think so [giving in to protesters’ demands] would create a slippery slope and would signal weakness.”

“Right now we see that in line with the playbook is an iron-fisted crackdown on these protests,” Toossi added.

A protester displays a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the word "terrorist" during a rally in Berlin on October 7, 2022.
A protester displays a portrait of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the word “terrorist” during a demonstration in Berlin on October 7, 2022.

JOHN MACDOUGALL via Getty Images

Reform or regime change

The most common slogan shouted in the streets has been “Woman! Life! Freedom!” But other marchers sing “death to the dictator”, expressing their desire for a change from the regime that has been in power for 43 years.

“Iranian society is a polarized society,” Toossi said. “I don’t think we should lose sight of the fact that there are many people who are united in their fierce opposition to the status quo, but within that there is a wide spectrum of different views and how much change people want, what kind system they would like to replace.”

But the results of previous protests indicate that the current demonstrations are unlikely to lead to the downfall of the current system.

“There are some key elements missing for this to lead to regime change,” Ellie Geranmayeh, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told HuffPost in an interview.

“First, the movement has not yet mobilized mass labor strikes across the country in support; we have not seen visible major divisions among Iran’s security apparatus; and Iran’s leaders maintain a monopoly on control,” she said.

The government’s violent crackdown on demonstrators has also cast doubt on whether the demonstrations can lead to lasting changes in the country. Government intimidation has proven effective in similar situations over the past decades.

“If we go by the past, it’s not the playbook,” Toossi said. “The playbook is that they do the iron-fisted clampdown and they talk about change … they allow, for a little while, more discussion and dialogue at the official level or bring in some more dissident voices. But then nothing really changes.”

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