This month marked the twentieth anniversary of student riots that sparked one of Iran’s most violent protests since the revolution in 1979. The 1999 July riots emboldened Iranians to challenge the revolutionary regime for its refusal to reform. Since then, protests continue to simmer despite ongoing state measures to prevent them.
These measures have proved to be brutally repressive. The student riots ended within five days when paramilitary groups attacked the Tehran University dormitory and carried out extrajudicial killings. Thousands of students were detained, and 70 disappeared.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) that rallied behind Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to prevent reforms following the student riots faced no charges for its involvement in the student crackdown.
Taking control of the capital’s security, the IRGC also turned against the reformist President Mohammad Khatami. Though the supreme leader stepped in to reconcile disputes between his hardline supporters and the reformists, in the months ahead, the IRGC told Iran’s president to halt reforms and it introduced new repressive strategies in the capital, Tehran, to contain future riots.
Protests subsided for nearly a decade after the student riots, but they still simmered, leading to the daily shut down of reformist newspapers and the arrest of thousands of activists and journalists.
By June 15, 2009, a new reform trend emerged in Iran under the banner of the Green Movement, contesting re-election results that led to the victory of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Like the student protests a decade earlier, the state crackdown was brutal during the Green Movement. Marchers were randomly shot by snipers, run over by state-operated vehicles, thrown from bridges, and beaten up. A wave of arrests followed. Many were tortured and dozens were killed in state detention centers.
Demands for change became more localized in the years that followed the Green Movement. They mostly focused on reforming the revolution from within rather than overthrowing it. This was the result of activists being systemically coopted by the state or forced to leave the country. Dozens more received long prison sentences or died in Iran’s notorious prisons.
But in less than a decade, protests erupted in Iran for the first time since the revolution on a nationwide scale in late 2017.
Unlike the Green Movement and the student riots before it that were mainly in the capital and led by Iran’s middle class, the new protests lasted two months and were carried out by impoverished sectors of a society tired of state mismanagement and corruption. There were demands by the protestors to overthrow the revolutionary regime.
Trade unions were targeted and their leaders arrested in the aftermath of the protests. The state failed to anticipate further riots by unionized workers.
It is now estimated that 17 protests occur daily in Iran, led mostly by unions and guilds. These protests take place on Iran’s piers and at its ports, as well as in the transportation, shipping, forestry, and steel industries.
In the past year and a half, multiple labor demonstrations led by labor unionists have been quelled. The state has failed to raise labor wages, and workers lack insurance. In addition, workers are unpaid for up to ten months despite being required to work by their employers.
One of the most famous riots was on May 23, 2018, when truck drivers went on a strike that brought the nationwide transportation of goods to a near standstill.
By May 1, 2019, on International Labor Day, a group of unionised guild leaders had been arrested.
The day before, marking Iran’s Teacher Day, protestors rallied in more than 15 provinces to call for increased pay, leading to the arrest of 40 teachers, students, and journalists.
Tehran is unresponsive to most workers’ demands. A promised 20 percent wage increase for unionized workers has yet to materialize. Those Iranian members of Parliament who express concern about the welfare of workers are labeled as traitors by Iran’s judiciary. The Ministry of Education has called on teachers to halt protests as the country is in an economic war resulting from US-led sanctions on Iran.
But hardly anyone in Iran sympathizes with the regime’s narrative of blaming its economic problems on sanctions alone. Iran’s failure to reform comes from within the revolution itself, and it has even led the embattled former President Mohammad Khatami, to recently warn that either the regime could soon face collapse or that Iran itself might disintegrate as a result of the failure to reform.