Iran has been rocked by a series of developments in recent months, from the mass protests over raised fuel prices to the killing of powerful Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani. Over the weekend, protesters returned to the streets, spurred by the military’s mistaken downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet. As in past protests, like 2009, the government has met demonstrators with a draconian and violent response. USIP’s Garrett Nada and Maria Stephan explain how the protests have evolved over time and how demonstrators could use nonviolent tactics against the repressive regime.

Anti-government protesters rally at Tehran University in Tehran on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. (Arash Khamooshi/The New York Times)
Anti-government protesters rally at Tehran University in Tehran on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. (Arash Khamooshi/The New York Times)

How have Iran’s protests evolved in recent months?

Nada: Iranians launched a new wave of protests on January 11 after the government admitted that the Revolutionary Guards had mistakenly shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. All 176 people on board, including dozens of Iranians, were killed. Iranians were enraged at the government’s incompetence and for denying responsibility for three days. “Death to the liars,” people shouted in Tehran.

At Amir Kabir University in Tehran, some people chanted, “Commander-in-chief [Ali Khamenei] resign, resign.” Others shouted, “Death to the supreme leader, all these years of crimes.” The protests spread across Tehran and other major cities on January 12 and 13. But the scale was difficult to determine due to government restrictions on social media and press coverage. Videos posted on social media showed that protests continued on January 14 in Tehran. Demonstrations seemed to dwindle by January 15.

These smaller-scale demonstrations came soon after mass protests in late 2019. In a surprise overnight announcement on November 15, 2019, Iran hiked gas prices—by up to 300 percent—and introduced a new rationing system. The government’s goal was to raise funds to help the poor, but it backfired. The protests swept 100 cities over four days. Some 200,000 people participated, according to the government. Demonstrators reportedly chanted anti-government slogans, including, "Have shame [President Hassan] Rouhani, Leave the country alone!" The protests appeared to be the most serious since the sporadic demonstrations in December 2017 and January 2018, in which 22 people died.

In both cases, a government mistake or misstep triggered an outpouring of anti-regime sentiment. But the political, social, and economic grievances that motivated people to take to the streets were longstanding. For decades, the government has suppressed political expression, imposed rigid social restrictions, censored the press, and limited access to information. The Islamic Republic, despite having the world’s fourth-largest oil and second-largest gas reserves, has suffered from chronic inflation and unemployment. Poverty rates have been on the rise since 2013. War, sanctions, mismanagement, and corruption have all taken their toll. 

The protests have occurred organically, without the direction of a centralized movement. People have called for officials to resign, but no unified list of demands has been published. On January 11, a group of students at Amir Kabir University read a powerful statement that condemned Iran’s elite and government, in addition to U.S. policy in the region. “The events of the past two months have been a clear testimony to the complete incompetence of the regime ruling over Iran, a regime whose only answer to every crisis is to resort to force.”

The statement also contained some generic demands. “Above and beyond anything else, the people demand freedom and equality, and they raised their voices in the loudest form in the month of Aban [November] to bring their message to others,” it read. More than 30 filmmakers, artists and cartoonists said they would not participate in the Fajr festival, Iran’s equivalent of the Oscars, in April. "The only way out of the current situation is a crucial decision and straight talking by authorities with the people," they wrote in a statement.

Iranians have been in the streets multiple times since November. In between the two rounds of anti-government protests, millions joined massive processions to mourn the death of Qassem Soleimani. The head of the elite Quds Force was killed in a U.S. drone strike on January 3 near Baghdad International Airport. Soleimani had reportedly masterminded major military operations, bombings and assassinations since he took over the external operations wing of the Revolutionary Guards in 1998. But many Iranians viewed him as a national hero who protected Iranian interests abroad. He was lauded for his role in defeating ISIS. At rallies, some mourners protested U.S. policy in the region and burned U.S., British and Israeli flags and chanted “Death to America.”

How has the government responded?

Nada: The regime preemptively deployed security forces, probably to intimidate protesters. By January 12, day two of the demonstrations, plainclothes police, Revolutionary Guards on motorcycles, and riot police (some on horses) were out in force. Tear gas and live ammunition have reportedly been used to disperse crowds. Riot police have reportedly beaten people with batons.

A steep drop in internet connectivity registered on January 13 at Sharif University, where students protested the deaths of colleagues and alumni killed on the Ukrainian flight. The government may have curtailed connectivity to limit social media posts about the protests. On January 14, the judiciary said that some 30 people “had been arrested for taking part in illegal gatherings.”

The government tried to head off the new demonstrations, especially after it was caught off guard by the November 2019 protests. The interior ministry claimed that 731 banks, 140 government buildings and 70 gas stations were burned. At least 304 people were killed and thousands more were injured in the harsh crackdown, according to Amnesty International.

The level of violence used was “unprecedented since the early years after the 1979 revolution,” according to Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran. The regime used tear gas, water cannons and live ammunition to disperse the protesters. The government also nearly completely shut down the internet for five days to prevent images of the protests and crackdown from spreading over social media. The United Nations estimated that some 7,000 people were arrested.

How could nonviolent action help Iranian protesters achieve their goals?

Stephan: First, by channeling the anger and frustration fueling the protests into organizing structures. Organization is the secret sauce for successful movements, which thrive on large, diverse, and sustained participation. During the 1979 Iranian revolution, organized networks of clerics, merchants, and students sustained the uprising. More recently, Iranian women have collectively defied dress codes and gender segregation. A greater coalescence of various networks and groups (women, youth, workers, professionals) would help give the protests resilience and staying power.

Secondly, by developing movement narratives that bridge issues and groups. The collective feeling of being insulted, lied to, and disrespected by governments is a powerful motivator of mass action. It helped drive successful nationwide anti-corruption campaigns in Turkey (1997) and Egypt (2005). In both cases, scandals not unlike the downing of the passenger plane in Iran were linked to wider issues of government corruption and incompetence. Helping people see the linkages between focal point events and general grievances is key to movement success. Indeed, developing a unified vision and a list of demands is critical to building a sustained movement.    

Thirdly, by tapping into the vast array of nonviolent tactics available to the protesters. Street demonstrations like what we’ve seen in Iran are critical expressions of dissent. But building the power and durability of a movement requires many types of actions, including lower-risk tactics that build confidence and a shared sense of solidarity. Go-slow tactics, the wearing of symbols, targeted boycotts, and work stoppages can be difficult tactics to repress when they are organized and dispersed.

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