More bloodshed, harsher repression in Iran’s protests
A few weeks after the eruption of countrywide anti-government protests in Iran, information about the scope and scale of the demonstrations and the regime’s response gradually emerged but how does this crisis compare to earlier ones in the four decades-long history of the Islamic Republic?
The answer not only helps explain the protests that began November 15 but may provide insight into the regime’s will and ability to counter future anti-government protests.
Ever since the impeachment of President Abolhassan Banisadr on June 21, 1981, and the regime defeating all organised opposition to it within Iran, the Islamic Republic has experienced countless local protests and uprisings.
There have been six major incidents of urban unrest: economically motivated protests in 1992 and 1995, the pro-democracy student uprising of 1999, political protests after the disputed 2009 presidential election and economic protests in December 2017 and November 2019.
The latest anti-government protests were sparked by Iran National Petroleum Products Distribution Company’s November 14 news release introducing petrol rationing and price hikes of at least 50%.
The morning of November 15, protesters demonstrated in nearly all provinces of Iran, attacking petrol stations and offices of the local representatives of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The real number of the fatalities of the November protests is not known but at least 208 protesters have been killed, as documented by Amnesty International. Hossein Naqavi Hosseini, a parliamentarian, said that, by November 26, some 7,000 protesters had been arrested. Persian language open-source material indicates that a further 1,200 people were arrested by authorities since November 26.
By comparison, a 10-year-old boy was killed in May 1992 when local authorities and police attempted to evict people from shantytowns of Kou-ye Tollab neighbourhood in Mashhad. Riots erupted with mobs attacking police stations, looting banks and burning government offices. The riots spread to Arak in Markazi province, Mobarakeh in Isfahan province and the Chahardangeh neighbourhood of Tehran.
It was with some difficulty that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) imposed order in the affected areas. Several hundred protesters were arrested, four of whom were tried and executed.
The April 4, 1995, uprisings in Eslamshahr, a poor suburb of Tehran, resulted in fewer fatalities. Bus drivers protested insufficient petrol supplies and commuters protested a 30% increase in fares from the suburbs to central Tehran, where they worked. An estimated 50,000 people attacked petrol stations and government buildings and blocked the roads to the capital. IRGC special operations forces dispersed the rioters but only after 50 people were killed. It is not known how many protesters were arrested.
On July 9, 1999, university students protested the judiciary’s closure of the reformist newspaper Salam. Riot police responded by raiding a dormitory at Tehran University. A student was killed, sparking six days of protests and rioting throughout the country.
Arguably protests of the Green Movement in 2009 constituted the greatest political crisis in the history of the Islamic Republic. Rebelling against the fraudulent election that secured Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term in office, millions of people all over the country took to the streets. More than 125 protesters died at the hands of the IRGC and the Basij militia. The regime only regained control after the leaders of the Green Movement urged the people to withdraw from the streets.
The trend appears to be clear: In the face of angry protests, Iran is using harsher methods and showing less restraint. In doing so, the regime risks further radicalising the population, which, on top of economic grievances, is also mourning its martyrs.