Historical Trajectory of the Protest Movement in Iran



Since 1999, Iran has witnessed successive protest movements, with the latest one erupting  following the death of  Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman, on September 16 at the hands of Iran’s morality police in the capital Tehran. She immediately became  an inspiring revolutionary symbol  for various segments of Iranian society.

It is difficult to predict the protest movement’s trajectory in light of conflicting reports from Tehran about whether the protests are expanding or receding.  This is because the Iranian authorities have imposed a media blackout. But this does not change the fact  that the Iranian government is in a deep crisis and faces a deadlock with the protestors.  It is having difficulty finding radical solutions to the demands of protestors  due to limited financial resources on the one hand whereas on the other it prefers to embrace a security approach when dealing with protests, which has been apparent over the years.

The current  protest movement was sparked by the government’s tough stance on  the hijab,  a matter which the Raisi government and its security apparatuses, particularly the morality police and guidance patrols, pay close attention to.  This stance prompted a number of “women and veil” protests, as they were dubbed in the media. The current protests –  a continuation and extension of  factional protests seen over the years in Iran – are similar to previous protests  in terms of anger against  the Iranian government’s political and economic failures. This is in addition to   resentment against  the government’s repressive policies that have been directed at the Iranian people.

 Like previous protests, the current protests share the same features of confronting the government, nationalistic leanings that transcend  differences, the absence of  leadership, the government’s preference toward security solutions and its inability to address critical problems. Moreover, these protests have erupted at a tense time while the “hardliners” are in power, with a large female participation and the intervention of influential external actors.   Despite these similarities, the current protests have distinct characteristics including the following: the government’s use of extreme  options, the determined stance of Iranian protestors against the government, the absence of the fear barrier,   cracks appearing  within  Iranian military and security institutions, enhanced  unity among the government’s opponents despite their  various identities, and the “reformists” strengthening their position after being excluded from the political sphere.

Other differences also exist between the current and previous protests.  The 1999 protests, for example, lasted seven days, whereas the 2009 protests lasted only three days. The 2017 protests lasted 11 days, while the 2019 protests lasted six days. Iranians protested for 11 days in 2021, and the protests in 2022 have so far lasted 26 days until the evening of Tuesday, October 11, 2022. The 1999 protests spread to five Iranian cities, while the 2009 protests spread to four. In 2017, the geographical scope expanded significantly to 64 cities, but decreased to 31 cities in 2019. In 2021, the scope was expanded slightly to include 36 cities. According to Iranian sources, the Iranian protests in 2022 so far have  covered 83 Iranian cities.  

Students were among those who participated in the 1999 protests, who  were joined by other segments of Iranian society.  Meanwhile,   Iran’s middle class,  political elite, pundits and activists formed the core of the 2009 protests. The protests in 2017 were led by the poorer segments, while the elite stayed away. Only the most deprived and vulnerable segments took part, while other segments  participated on a limited scale. The poorer segments took part in the 2019 protests, while the elite did not. The  youth, students,  women and middle-class segments also participated in the 2019 protests. In 2021, the protesters were from diverse  backgrounds, including citizens infuriated by the government’s policies, particularly  from Ahwaz and other Iranian provinces.  Concerning the current 2022 protests, there is harmony between the grassroots and the elite. The protesters  are divided into two groups: the grassroots (university students, the youth, artists, athletes and pundits outraged by the government’s policies) and the politicized segments (activists and the political elite).

The 1999 protests were sparked by a press law that restricted press freedom while  the government  also closed  down Salam newspaper. In 2009, the protests were motivated by the rigging of the presidential election, the policy of exclusion and marginalization, and the arrests and detention of dissidents. In 2017, the motivations were primarily economic  as a result of rising prices that negatively impacted  the living conditions of the poorest and most vulnerable segments. In 2019, the rise in fuel prices in a country with the world’s fourth-largest oil reserves sparked mass protests, putting the government in a tight spot.  In 2021,  water scarcity and projects to transfer water from the Karun River  in Khuzestan sparked protests in the province. Protesters from other regions quickly joined the demonstrations to show solidarity because of their anger toward their deteriorating living conditions and the government’s repressive policies.  The killing of  Amini by Iran’s morality police sparked the current protests in 2022.  This is in addition to the Iranian government brutally repressing Balochi protesters under false pretexts and the existence of an environment ripe for protests in Sistan-Balochistan as a result of widespread popular anger and discontent  against the government and its policies.

Editorial Team