Protests in Iran: popular demand or enemy provocations?
Author: Ida Sarkisyan
The mass demonstrations that swept Iran in the past months have subsided significantly, but the protest mood in the country does not fade away. Protests’ provocations periodically occur in different cities, resulting in radical, violent methods (attacks on eight state institutions and law enforcement officers).
As has repeatedly happened in Iran, from the original social and legal demands (in this case, the abolition of the mandatory wearing of the hijab and other women’s rights), protests turned into rallies demanding regime change. The protesters acted extremely aggressively and with particular cruelty. According to the human rights organisation Iran Human Rights (Oslo), 277 people died during the protests, including 23 minors and 28 security personnel. The number of wounded is 1541 people. According to the Iranian side, 35 security personnel were among the dead. Fifteen thousand people were detained, but this number is inaccurate since some Western sources report that about a thousand people were arrested in Tehran alone.
Officially Tehran considers the events of the last month to be the work of Iran’s enemies – the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the country’s authorities do not deny that there are those among the population who rightly defend their position. Thus, the head of the Iranian Judiciary, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, said that during the investigation, it was necessary to separate those who went out into the streets with peaceful demands – “deceived” from “terrorists”. To date, trials have begun in Iran over the demonstrators, whom the Iranian deputies have decided to call “moharebs” – the enemies of God. Two hundred twenty-seven members of the Majlis called on the judiciary to impose death sentences on those arrested. They also compared the protesters to Islamic State members who “attack people’s lives and property…”.
From the first days of the demonstrations, the protests were supported in many countries. Western politicians issued statements and condemned what they called the “Iranian regime”. These actions demonstrated which forces are interested in shattering Iran. So, at one of these actions in Berlin, one could see the flags of the separatists of the so-called “South Azerbaijan”, Iraqi Kurdistan, the flag of the separatists of Sistan and Balochistan (southeastern province) and the separatist group “Arab Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz” (southeastern province of Khuzestan). The monarchists did not stand aside either.
If we look at the geography of the protests, we can see that the most massive and active demonstrations took place in provinces such as Kurdistan, where Mahsa Amini is from and whose death became a formal reason for the protests, Sistan and Balochistan, Western and Eastern Azerbaijan. This circumstance gives grounds to assert that Tehran’s official rhetoric has specific grounds.
According to the statements of the Iranian border service, already in the first days of the protests, it became known that the Iranian border forces had detained a group of terrorists trying to enter the country from the territory of Azerbaijan. With them, a large arsenal of weapons was found, which was planned to be used in demonstrations. Many weapons, intelligence equipment and money, were intercepted while trying to transfer them to Iran from Saudi Arabia. In general, the rate of arms smuggling in September increased by 5% compared to last year.
Azerbaijani separatists distinguished themselves by their particular activity. In the Turkic-speaking cities of Iran – Tabriz, Urmia, Ardabil – there were not just slogans about overthrowing power but also about the creation of “Western Azerbaijan”. According to the head of the police of the province of East Azerbaijan, the main organisers of the protests are the separatists. In Western Azerbaijan, the police seized 125 units of illegal weapons – hunting rifles, cartridges, and knives.
If earlier the Republic of Azerbaijan tried not to show apparent participation in separatist movements, then against the background of the current tension between Tehran and Baku, Azerbaijan has ceased to hide its ambitions for Iranian territories. Images of Ilham Aliyev with the inscription “our president” began to appear on the streets, and the flags of Azerbaijan, Turkey and “South Azerbaijan” were hung up (in Iran, they say that Baku pays 200 dollars for such actions). The self-proclaimed “leader of South Azerbaijan”, previously banned in Baku, has begun to be promoted on Azerbaijani state television. On the air, he said that the end of the “Persian-fascist regime of the mullahs” was coming. Turkey, in turn, supports pan-Turkism and separatist sentiments on state television channels.
Analysing publications about the protests in Iran in the Western press, one can see that it also focuses on separatism. In an audio recording by BBC Persian, Iranian journalist Rana Rahimpour said that the editorial office of Iran International, sponsored by Saudi Arabia, instructed its employees to conduct television interviews only with the leaders of the forces opposing the regime – Kurds, Lurs, Arabs. She stated that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia fears that women will succeed in Iran and democracy will be realised because the protest moods can also go there. In addition, she said that the region’s countries do not care about the future of Iran. They aim to divide the country because they want a weak Iran. This audio recording is being cited in Iran as proof of the goals of the West and its allies in the region.
Protests are not the only way to put pressure on Iran. Opponents of the regime also resorted to terror. Indeed, on October 26th, 2022, on the territory of the Shah-Cherag mausoleum in the city of Shiraz, an armed terrorist opened fire on citizens in the mosque. As a result of the terrorist attack, 13 people were killed, and 45 others were injured. The performer was wounded and later died. The terrorist organisation Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.
According to the statement of the Ministry of Information and National Security of Iran, 26 detained participants in the attack were citizens of Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The coordinator of the attack turned out to be an Azerbaijani citizen who arrived from Baku. It is no coincidence that the Iranian authorities say that what is happening these days in Iran is the revenge of the Islamic State and its supporters on Iran due to the opposition of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the terrorist organisation’s plans in the region.
Tehran, in turn, promised to respond to the attack. In Shiraz, the red banner of retribution was even raised, and the Western media, citing Saudi intelligence, reported that Iran was preparing to attack Saudi Arabia. Iran did not enter a confrontation, but on August 7th, 2022, the Saudi media accused the Yemeni Ansarallah organisation of a rocket attack on their weapons depots in Marib (Yemen) [Ansarallah is a paramilitary group of Shiites-Zaydis operating in Yemen. The Houthis enjoy covert military and financial support from Iran and its allies in the form of the Hezbollah party].
The Iranian side considers Tehran’s position at the negotiations in Vienna to be another reason for the country’s destabilisation. According to this version, the United States is trying to disrupt the negotiations or persuade Iran to make concessions, as Iran is firm and insists on its position. However, the Iranian side has already agreed to several concessions unrelated to the nuclear program.
It is impossible not to consider the current global situation, namely the confrontation between the West and Russia in Ukraine. As you know, Iran supplies Russia with attack and reconnaissance drones, which have successfully shown themselves in Ukraine. Official Tehran claims that it provided drones even before the start of hostilities; however, the West cannot turn a blind eye to this military cooperation between Iran and the Russian Federation. Instability inside Iran may distract the republic from supporting Russia and focusing its efforts on solving domestic problems.
Even though the peak of the protests has now passed, instability in different parts of the country remains. Arrests or deaths of protesters provoke new outbursts of demonstrations. The protesters themselves are becoming more and more radical. In particular, a student who refused to insult the Supreme Leader was beaten to death. The forces behind the unrest will also not give up further efforts to destabilise Iran anytime soon. The deputies’ call to sentence the rebels to death is aimed more at intimidating those who want to take part in provocations in the future and break their resolve.
Author: Ida Sarkisyan. Analysis of media partnership with Kaspijskij Vestnik. Disclaimer. The views and opinions expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpecialEurasia.