When protests broke out in Mashhad on December 28 and quickly spread to dozens of other cities across Iran, very few seemed to be able to say who the protesters actually were and what specific grievances sent them to into the streets. Even in online Telegram groups encompassing hundreds of political and social activists inside and outside the country, few could offer a first-hand narrative of what was happening.
But by piecing together video footage and witness narratives to document likely government abuses, it is becoming clear that regardless of what ignited the protests, protesters are raising a wide range of longstanding political, social, and economic grievances. The concerns are compelling tens of thousands of Iranians without any clear previous political or activist affiliations to show how fed up they are and to demand to be heard—now.
There might be a reason why these protests have no identifiable leaders or groups. Since the student demonstrations in 1999, Iran’s security apparatus has sought to silence any organized mobilization and activism. Students, human rights defenders, women’s rights promoters, labor leaders, and ethnic minority rights activists immediately become targets and walk into a minefield of legal and extra-legal restrictions on their rights to free expression and assembly.
In 2009, the security forces went so far as to arrest members of legal political parties. Hundreds of activists left the country, and dozens served harsh prison sentences. Journalists and activists have since resumed their efforts to rebuild civil society only to face similar obstructions. Narges Mohmmadi, vice president of the banned Defenders of Human Rights Center, stayed behind when her family left Iran to continue her activism, including against Iran’s extremely high number of executions. She is now serving a ten-year prison sentence. Reza Shahabi, a prominent labor rights activist, was sent to prison for the “crime” of attempting to organize independent labor unions. Even those who simply shine a spotlight on endemic corruption pay a price: Yashar Soltani, a journalist who exposed officials’ financial misconduct in the Tehran municipality, is on trial for his efforts.
Due to the stranglehold Iran’s repressive system has on organized civil society, it is business as usual for the authorities to cancel meetings and deny requests for independent groups to peacefully assemble for events such as Labor Day or National Student’s Day. Many political activists cannot remember ever considering seeking a license for peaceful assembly as a practical option.
Iran in large part considers peaceful activism a “threat to national security,” and those who warn about festering popular grievances and rampant corruption are treated as seditionists. Without the safety valve of civil society and political activism, it is not surprising that many people are taking to the streets in pure frustration and anger.
Will the authorities learn from these events that the right to association and peaceful assembly is a healthy and necessary part of a functioning society? The government response so far has been disappointing—dusting off the well-worn playbook of claiming a foreign conspiracy while immediately detaining known student activists, the very people who are best placed to voice the demands through organized peaceful channels.