Iran: one year on, what’s changed?
16 September marks a year since the start of protests against Iran’s theocratic regime, triggered by the killing of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, by the morality police. The fact that the protests represented an existential threat to the regime were reflected in the dimensions of its repressive response. In the run-up to the anniversary, a wide range of authoritarian tactics has been used to prevent a repeat. But while mobilisation didn’t bring political change at the top, there are signs of significant social shifts. It will only take a spark to reignite the protest, and this will likely happen when the regime least expects it.
One year ago today, a photo of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini – bruised and in a coma she would never recover from after being arrested by the morality police for her supposedly improperly worn hijab – went viral, sending people onto the streets.
The protests became the fiercest challenge ever faced by Iran’s theocratic regime in its 40-plus years of rule. Led by women and young people, mobilisations under the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ banner articulated broader demands for social and political change. They spread like wildfire – to streets across Iran, to universities, even to cemeteries where growing numbers of the regime’s victims were being buried. They were echoed and amplified by the Iranian diaspora around the world. Iranian people made it abundantly clear they wanted the Islamic Republic gone.
A year on, the theocratic regime still stands, but that doesn’t mean nothing has changed. By sheer force, the authorities have regained control – at least for now. But subtle changes in daily life reveal the presence of active undercurrents that could once again spark mass protests. The regime knows this, hence the fear with which it has awaited this date and its redoubled repression as it neared.
Today we are multiple steps closer to change than one year ago. The voice of protest is louder and the severity of the crackdown only shows how scared the regime is of the protest movement.
The unprecedented scale of the protests was matched by the unparalleled brutality of the crackdown, which clearly revealed the regime’s fear for its own survival. Peaceful protesters were repeatedly dispersed with teargas, water cannon and batons. But they kept coming back, and as demands escalated into calls for the downfall of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the crackdown intensified, with live ammunition and metal pellets fired at protesters and bystanders alike.
To minimise protesters’ ability to communicate with each other and share information with the outside world, the regime disrupted internet access and arrested journalists. Claiming the protests were organised by Kurdish separatists, it deployed special forces and Islamic Revolutionary Guard units in Kurdish areas. This meant the highest casualties came in the Kurdish areas of western Iran, where Mahsa Amini was from.
As children joined the protests, they weren’t spared any of the harsh treatment: there’s no violation of international law on children’s rights that wasn’t committed in the attempt to suppress the protest movement.
Overall, the regime murdered protesters in the hundreds, injured thousands and arrested tens of thousands. It subjected many to torture, sexual abuse and denial of medical treatment while in detention. It weaponised the criminal justice system against protesters, lawyers representing them and those calling for accountability for rights violations, including human rights activists, journalists, students, teachers, doctors and labour leaders.
Many of those arrested have faced serious charges and have been tried, forced to confess under duress, convicted and sentenced in sham trials, without the slightest semblance of due process. After two months of protests that showed no sign of abating, the government began handing out death sentences. It started carrying out executions soon afterwards. It showed there’s nothing it won’t do to terrify people into submission.
A glimpse of change
As protests raged and the authorities were busy trying to stop them, women could be seen on Iranian streets without their hijabs for the first time in decades. After the protests were quelled, many simply refused to resubmit to the old rules. A tactical shift followed, with mass street mobilisation turning into more elusive civil disobedience.
Women, and particularly Gen Z women just like Mahsa, continue to protest on a daily basis, simply by not abiding by hijab rules. Young people express their defiance by dancing or showing affection in public. Cities wake up to acts of civil disobedience emblazoned on their walls. Municipal workers hurry to cover them with black paint, only to see them reappear the next day. Anti-regime slogans are heard coming from seemingly nowhere, from high up in rooftops or from inside random buildings. In parts of the country where many people from excluded ethnic minorities live, Friday prayers are followed by protest. It may take little for the embers of rebellion to reignite, bringing large numbers of people back onto the streets.
Voices from the frontline
Sohrab Razaghi is executive director of Volunteer Activists, an independent civil society organisation based in the Netherlands dedicated to building capacity among Iranian activists and organisations, facilitating information exchange among civil society activists and advocating for the expansion of democracy and human rights in Iran and the Middle East.
The situation in Iran is complex. While last year’s massive protests made people hope for change, the crackdown on the protests caused hopelessness. The authorities were mostly able to suppress the protests and regain control of the streets, forcing people back into their homes.
To reassert control, the authorities have imposed stricter control over media, universities, unions and other associations. In essence, civic space has shrunk dramatically over the past year, with the authorities purging most sectors of everyone who disagrees with them.
The number one tactic of the regime to crack down on protests has been to arrest protesters. Over the past year, thousands have been arrested, including over 20,000 who were arrested during the protests. Some have been given long jail sentences.
The second tactic has been the prevention of organising and networking. Even small communities have been actively prevented from getting together. Online networking has been limited by censorship, filtering and hacking. Leaders and activists trying to establish any form of group are arrested and their work is disrupted. They threaten activists with jail and even death. They also target their personal life by demanding that they be fired or suspended from work or university. Many teachers and professors who supported the protest movement have been fired and students expelled.
To reach those who may not have joined the protest yet, the authorities spread propaganda, fake news and conspiracy theories that delegitimise the protest movement. Some communities fear the protest movement as a result.
To prevent the development of a political alternative to the regime, the authorities have targeted the opposition within and outside Iran. Their main aim seems to be to sow division among opposition groups and force them to deal with issues internal to the opposition movement instead of focusing on developing an alternative coalition. Iranian cyber forces have supported these efforts through hacking and social media manipulation.
But I think today we are multiple steps closer to change than one year ago. Iranians are less scared of the consequences of their activism. They dare to take action against the regime. The voice of protest is louder and the severity of the crackdown only shows how scared the regime is of the protest movement. The regime understands it won’t be easy to shut down this protest movement, which threatens the legitimacy and therefore the existence of the regime.
We also see a major lifestyle change. People on the streets are now dressed differently and are less afraid of showing their lifestyle in public. Although political change is minimal, cultural change following last year’s protests is clearly visible. This change shouldn’t be underestimated.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Sohrab. Read the full interview here.
One year on
There’s been a clear campaign of preventative repression ahead of the anniversary. Family members of those killed during the 2022 protests were pressured not to hold memorial services for their loved ones. The lawyer representing Mahsa Amini’s family was charged with ‘propaganda against the state’ due to interviews he gave to foreign media. University professors suspected to be critical of the regime were dismissed, suspended, forced to retire, or didn’t have their contracts renewed.
Students were subjected to disciplinary measures in retaliation for their activism. Artists who expressed support for the protest movement faced reprisals, including arrests and prosecution under ridiculous charges such as ‘releasing an illegal song’. Some were kept in detention on more serious charges and subjected to physical and psychological torture, including solitary confinement and beatings.
Two months before the anniversary, the regime put the morality police back on the streets. Initial attempts to arrest women found in violation of hijab regulations, however, were met with resistance, leading to clashes between sympathetic bystanders and police. Women, including celebrities, have been prosecuted for appearing in public without their hijab. Car drivers carrying passengers not wearing hijab have been issued with traffic citations and private businesses have been closed for noncompliance with hijab laws.
The most conservative elements within the regime have doubled down, proposing a new ‘hijab and chastity’ law that seeks to impose harsher penalties, including lashes, heavy fines and prison sentences of up to 10 years for those appearing without the hijab. The bill is now being reviewed by Iran’s Guardian Council, a 12-member, all-male body led by a 97-year-old cleric.
If not now, then anytime
In the run-up to 16 September, security force street presence consistently increased, with snap checkpoints set up and internet access disrupted. The government clearly feared something big might happen.
As the anniversary passes, the hardline ruling elite remains united and the military and security forces are on its side, while the protest movement has no leadership and has taken a bad hit. Some argue that what made it spread so fast – the role of young people, and young women in particular – also limited its appeal among wider Iranian society, and particularly low-income people concerned above all with economic strife, rising inflation and increasing poverty.
There are also ideological differences among the Iranian diaspora, which formed through successive waves of exiles and includes left and right-wing groups, monarchists and ethnic separatists. While most share the goal of replacing the authoritarian theocracy with a secular democracy, they’re divided over strategy and tactics, and particularly on whether sanctions are the best way to deal with the regime.
Ever since the protests took off last year, thousands of people around the world have shown their support and called on their governments to act. And some have, starting with the USA, which early on imposed sanctions on the morality police and seven senior leaders of the force and other security agencies. New sanctions affecting 29 additional people and entities, including 18 members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and security forces, were imposed on the eve of the anniversary of the protests, 15 September, which also happened to be International Day of Democracy. That day, US President Joe Biden made a statement about Mahsa Amini’s inspiration of a ‘historic movement’ for democracy and human dignity.
The continuing outpouring of international solidarity reveals that the world still cares and is watching. A new regime isn’t around the corner in Iran, but neither is it game over in the quest for democracy. For those living under a murderous regime, every day of the year is the anniversary of a death, an indignity or a violation of rights. Each day will therefore bring a new opportunity to resurrect rebellion.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
In their diplomatic dealings with Iran, democratic states should clearly state their concerns over repression and human rights violations and impose targeted sanctions on perpetrators.
International human rights organisations should monitor and report on the situation of people in detention and press for their release and a moratorium on the death penalty.
International human rights and feminist organisations should continue to support Iranian women through advocacy, campaigning and funding.
Cover photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images