Unprecedented Iran Protests Target Islamic Regime, Experts Say

By Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya reports on wide range of issues. Her area of expertise is in Indian and South Asian geopolitics. She has reported from the very volatile India-Pakistan border and has contributed to mainstream print media in India for about a decade. Community media, sustainable development, and leadership remain her key areas of interest.
January 21, 2020Updated: March 10, 2021

Protests in Iran that began after the country’s military shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing all 176 people on board, are unique in that they are opposing the main institutions that constitute Iran’s Islamic regime, experts say.

Pierre Pahlavi, an expert on Iranian foreign policy, told The Epoch Times that the widespread protests that started on Jan. 11—mostly on university campuses across Iran—are unlike other protests the country has seen in recent years because they are targeting the supreme leadership and the military.

“Unlike the November demonstrations, which were motivated by the increase in the cost of living, these demonstrations target the main institutions of the Islamic regime: the Supreme Leader himself [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, whom the street [protesters] blame for their amateurism and incompetence,” Pahlavi, chair of the Department of Security and International Affairs at the Canadian Forces College, said in an email.

Pahlavi, a member of the Pahlavi royal family that ruled the country until the 1979 Islamic revolution put in place the current regime, said the recent protests indicate a reversal of popular support, which was grandly portrayed in favor of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) after the assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani until the regime acknowledged having downed the plane.

Even after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani assured the public that a thorough investigation would be conducted into the military’s “unforgivable error” of shooting down Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752, he couldn’t assuage the widespread feeling of distrust among the people, according to a report by the Atlantic Council.

Iranians students chant slogans
Iranians students chant slogans as they demonstrate following a tribute for the victims of Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 in front of the Amirkabir University in the capital Tehran, on Jan. 11, 2020. (Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)

“So many lives have been lost so tragically, but I don’t think anybody in the upper echelons will pay for it,” Maryam, a 29-year-old teacher who joined protesters in Tehran’s Azadi Square on Jan. 12 and 13, told the author of the report.

The protests in Azadi Square were in themselves symbolic of the “flip” indicated by Pahlavi. The square, which is a popular spot for revolutionary protests, is built around a tower that was commissioned by the last monarch of Iran to celebrate 2,500 years of the establishment of imperial Iran. Before the Islamic revolution, the landmark was called Shahyad Square—meaning a square built in the memory of the Shah.

The square was the venue of many mass protests that led to the revolution, and in its wake was called Azadi, which means freedom in Persian. The Islamic Republic of Iran holds its annual celebrations commemorating its founding in the square.

Last year, crowds streamed in from the capital’s far-flung neighborhoods waving Iranian flags and chanting “Death to America”—standard fare at rallies across Iran that the regime’s critics say are massive propaganda events.

The “flip” of scenarios seen in the most recent protests, though not yet proportional in terms of numbers, appears to showcase a marked change in sentiment toward the regime and its institutions.

“They’ve shown many times over that they latch on to power and their titles at any cost, despite the deaths of so many people, which I think is what has made many like me feel that their lives are not worth much in the eyes of those in power,” Maryam said.

While there have been similar protest movements, previously there have been decade-long gaps between them (1999, 2009–2011), Pahlavi said.

“The fact that recent demonstrations take place at an increasingly closer interval is in itself a significant factor,” he said.

An expert on Iranian politics told The Epoch Times that the protests represent a deep sense of crisis among Iranians.

Muhammad Sahimi attributes the current protests to “the terrible state of the economy,” which he says “suffers from U.S. sanctions, mismanagement, and deep corruption.”

“At the same time, the protests are against the restrictive nature of the Islamic Republic, the press censorship, and at least some aspects of the foreign policy of the government,” Sahimi said.

Epoch Times Photo
Iranian police officers take a position while protesters gather in front of Amir Kabir University in Tehran, Iran, on Jan. 11, 2020, to remember victims of a Ukrainian airplane shot down by an Iranian missile. (AP Photo)

Suppression of Protests

Recently, video footage has been circulating on social media showing violence allegedly perpetrated by the Iranian regime against protesters. Amnesty International has verified incidents of “forces [firing] pointed pellets from airguns, usually used for hunting, at peaceful protesters causing bleeding and painful injuries.”

“Security forces also used rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray to disperse protesters as well as kicking and punching them, beating them with batons and carrying out arbitrary arrests,” the organization wrote.

During last November’s protests in Iran, Reuters citing anonymous officials inside the regime as saying that authorities had killed 1,500 protestors, which would make it the bloodiest suppression of protests since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. A spokesman for Iran’s Supreme National Security Council called the reported death toll “fake news,” according to semi-official Tasnim news agency.

Epoch Times Photo
An Iranian protester prepares to throw a tear gas canister back at police in front of Amir Kabir University in Tehran, Iran, during a demonstration to remember victims of a Ukrainian airplane shot down by an Iranian missile on Jan. 11, 2020. (AP Photo)

“It is appalling that Iran’s security forces have violently crushed peaceful vigils and protests by people demanding justice for the 176 passengers killed on the plane and expressing their anger at the Iranian authorities’ initial cover-up,” said Philip Luther, research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

Amnesty said it has evidence in the form of photos and testimonials from injured protesters, and that it has received a “shocking allegation” of sexual violence committed against a female protester who was arbitrarily arrested by security forces in plain clothes.

More videos have surfaced that allege that the families of the air crash victims have been harassed by authorities, and haven’t yet received compensation.

“The victims’ families are very upset for obvious reasons,” Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, chair in Middle East Studies at Northwestern University, told The Epoch Times. “The fact that the government initially tried to cover up its role in the crash has laid bare the frustrations and fear of many Iranians who feel that the government is not working in the interest of the people.”

Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist and an activist who has been posting on Twitter about the aftermath of the plane crash and the protests, wrote Jan. 16 about allegations that the Iranian authorities “extracted forced statements” from the families of the victims for its state TV propaganda.

“Iran has extracted forced statements from Amir-Hossein Saeed-Nia’s parents on state TV,” Alinejad wrote in a tweet to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “Before being forced to appear on TV, Amir-Hossein’s mum had said his son was Canadian and that only Canada could help them.”

In the statement, Saeed-Nia’s father was made to praise Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Alinejad later shared that after the parents were forced to give statements, Saeedi-Nia’s grandmother sought accountability from the authorities.

“They killed my kid,” the grandmother said in a video shared by Alinejad. “God didn’t kill him; they killed him. They killed him. When God kills him, they’ll say it is an accident. The airplane exploded in the air. But they killed my son. Muslims, hear us: They killed our Amir-Hossein. Whoever did this, I hope suffers the worse end.”

In reaction to the video, Hurd said, “It is important to listen to women like this grandmother and understand that there is a space occupied by many Iranians who are critical of the regime and also fiercely opposed to U.S. interference in Iran’s affairs and in the region more generally.”

Hurd believes that the protests represent people’s wish for a “democratic third way” and that the United States “needs to understand this better, and act accordingly with more respect.”

Alinejad also shared a video of a wailing mother whose son was killed in the crash and who was prevented from mourning him because the authorities built a fence around his grave. The woman is heard screaming in the video: “Leave us alone! Leave us alone!”

“My brother died for this country 30 years ago. I have been proud he died for his country, but our rulers are bloodsuckers,” the woman says in the video.

To highlight the kind of anger Iranians are feeling toward the regime, Hurd talked about Kimia Alizadeh, the Iranian Olympic athlete who recently defected.

“How do I start? With a hello, a goodbye or to offer my condolences? Hello to the oppressed people of Iran, goodbye to the noble people of Iran, and my condolences to the perpetually mourning people of Iran,” Alizadeh said on Instagram.

Where Is Iran Heading?

Hurd believes the protests represent a new phase in the history of dissent inside Iran.

“The Iranian government is getting nervous and, unfortunately, the repression of these protests may become even more violent,” she said.

Amir Taheri, a former editor-in-chief of Kayhan, Iran’s main newspaper, said reports of protests from four Iranian cities indicate it’s the first time that regime change is being demanded at the grassroots level by young Iranians.

“I receive[d] reports from Ahvaz, Tabriz, Mash’had & Kashan of protests against ‘Supreme Guide’ Ali Khamenei with more & more clear demands for regime change.

“This is first-time regime change is demanded at a grassroot level, especially by young Iranians. No cosmetic reform will do!” said Taheri, the author of 13 books, in a message on Twitter.

Sahimi said that if the Iranian regime neglects protesters’ demands, “then, obviously, the protests will grow more and moves toward replacing the political system by a better and more representative government.”

Sam Bazzi, a Lebanese expert on the Middle East, told The Epoch Times that the protests, while small in number compared to the volume of crowds that the Iranian regime gathered for Soleimani’s funeral, are an embarrassment for the regime on the international stage.

Epoch Times Photo
Worshippers chant slogans during a Friday prayers ceremony at Imam Khomeini Grand Mosque in Tehran, Iran, on Jan. 17, 2020, as a banner shows Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, left, and Iraqi Shiite senior militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed in Iraq in a U.S. drone attack on Jan. 3, and a banner which reads in Persian: “Death To America.” (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

“There are millions of silent regime opponents who have been cowed by the brutality of the IRGC and the Basij mobilization militia,” Bazzi said. “The regime monitors opposition activists and, ever since the 2009 Green Revolution, the IRGC deploys snipers to take out protest organizers and zealot activists. Therefore, most Iranians prefer to avoid the regime’s wrath and killing machine.”

Pahlavi says the political influence of the IRGC, the most powerful institution in the regime, has been constantly increasing inside Iran and “a significant part of Iranian leadership is now held, directly or indirectly, by its members.” As a result, it’s possible the IRGC has deepened its roots in Iranian society, with the country’s regime increasingly becoming a military dictatorship with a “theocratic facade.”

He said that while the newest wave of grievances has conjured a “new test for the solidity of the Islamic regime,” but any rumors about the irreversible deterioration of the regime “may still be greatly exaggerated.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Correction: This article has been updated to correctly attribute a statement made by Pierre Pahlavi. The Epoch Times regrets the error.