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  • Writer's pictureLeah Tyler

The Evolution of Protests in Iran: From 2009 - Present Day

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

Photo by Artin Bakhan on Unsplash

Social media has helped spread waves of protests throughout several nations in the 20th century. Iran is one country that has been plagued by explosive protests and an even stricter regime. Indeed, in the country, some of the most significant protests to date have been the 2009 Green Movement, Bloody Aban (November) in 2019, and the current protests stemming from the death of Masha Amini. From the surface, these protests look very different, but when you dig deeper, the similarities behind the uprisings and how information spreads are very telling of the population and authoritarian regime in Iran. As many know, social media has played a crucial role in rolling out information about the brutalities facing Iranian citizens today; however, few know that social media has dramatically impacted Iran's 2009 revolutions. As the Iranian regime places restrictions on internet use and the spread of information, the population becomes more resourceful and relentless in their fight for freedom.

2009 Protests

The Green Movement in Iran stemmed from the presidential run-off between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Ahmadinejad, described as a hardliner for his strict Islamic views, was elected president in 2005 and sought to solidify his power with a win in 2009. Despite Mousavi's campaign to create an opaque vote-counting system, Ahmadinejad's sweeping victory on 12 June 2009 made it clear that the election was sabotaged and votes were counted unfairly (Daragahi, 2019). Mousavi and three other candidates immediately rejected the results; the Speaker of Parliament also expressed doubts about the transparency of the election. In anticipation of upset from the public, the regime shut down mobile phone and texting services hours before the polls opened and kept them off for days afterwards (Elson et al., 2022, p. 14). Their anticipation was correct as millions of Iranians, wearing green in support of Mousavi's campaign, filled the streets during the following days. The "Green Movement" was born (Dabashi, 2013). Slogans started with "Where is my vote" but quickly escalated to opposition for the entire republic following Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's Friday prayer on 18 June, where he endorsed the election results and stated that the Green Movement would no longer be tolerated (Milani, 2010). Rage from citizens intensified following the death of Nada Agha Soltan, a 26-year-old female, who was shot by a sniper while standing on the edge of a Green Movement protest. Protestors turned to Facebook and Twitter to post news about upcoming protests and share with the world what was happening behind the closed doors of the country. Protestors used tactics such as fake names to create anonymity, computer proxy servers to bypass the internet blackouts, and even convinced Twitter users in other countries to change their location to Tehran to confuse the regime (Elson et al., 2022, pp. 15-16). Social media use proved to be a more considerable challenge for the regime than previously foreseen. Nevertheless, protests fizzled out by February 2010 due to the increased internet restrictions and lack of solid organisation efforts.

2019 Protests

The protests that erupted in 2019 have origins far from the Green Movement but soon turned into the same anti-regime sentiment as previously. Problems started in 2018 when former United States President Donald Trump pulled out of the Joint Compression Plan of Action (JCPOA), a plan to regulate Iran's nuclear program (Aurelle, 2022). The end of this plan meant sanctions imposed on fuel and imported goods, a calamity that only affected the working class and not the elites. On 19 November 2019, the country experienced a 200 per cent fuel price hike, a decision the Iranian regime made to curb the economic sanctions. The public responded the next day, with protests in over 100 cities. "By the second and third day of the Aban (November) demonstrations, the intense anger directed at the hike in fuel prices quickly turned into outrage towards authorities and government policy, with people calling out for regime change". The regime responded with live ammunition, intense crackdowns, and an internet blackout. According to reporters, at least 1,500 people were killed in the first two weeks, giving the revolution the name "The Bloody Aban (November)". Tensions escalated when authorities shot down a Ukrainian International Airline flight and killed all 176 passengers, a tragedy Iran claims was caused by human error and high tensions with the United States. (Motamedi, 2022). Despite continuing into 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak quickly put an end to the demonstrations.

Background on the 2021 Protests

The spark for the current anti-regime protests in Iran began with the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old female, who was arrested for improperly wearing a hijab. The hashtag #MashaAmini has circulated the internet on various social media platforms, including Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. The news has even made it to the United Nations, which recently voted to remove Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women, a commission established to protect women's rights and shape the global standard on gender equality (UN, 2022). The trending hashtag is far from the beginning of the fight for women's rights in Iran. The government has enforced a strict dress code since the republic's creation in 1979, but this decade has brought about strict rules and even stricter morality police. Growing rage over the morality police and proper dress attire heated up following the pandemic, beginning in June and August of 2021 when several videos were posted online of girls outside their houses without hijabs. Following these posts, the government imposed a nationwide clampdown on appropriate dress attire (Dagres, 2022). One month later, Masha Amini was walking out of a subway station with her parents when the morality police arrested her, and she later died. Public upset surrounding her death soon took over the country and eventually the world. With the power of TikTok, Iranian users have been able to reach millions of people outside of Iran to share information on what is happening inside the country (May, 2022). Unlike the anonymity factor in 2009, young women and men in Iran today are posting videos burning their hijabs, cutting their hair, and raising their middle fingers to the Islamic Republic (Dagres, 2022). Both men and women, young and old, have taken to the streets to express their discontent with the Iranian government.

The evolution of the Protests

While similar in sentiment and similar in tactics, the protests in Iran have evolved in many ways since 2009. To begin with, the violent response by the regime continues to increase each year. In 2009 about 110 people were killed, and thousands were arrested during the Green Movement (Sahimi, 2010). In 2019, the number of citizens killed increased sharply to over 1,500, with thousands more arrested. According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency, at least 500 protestors, including over 60 children, died during the 2022 protests (Ghobadi, 2022). As the regime becomes harsher in comparison, young people feel they have no choice but to put their life on the line and fight for a better future.

There are also differences in the people protesting. In 2019, poorer sections of society protested fuel price rise, while unrest in 2009 centred on more "middle-class issues" of vote rigging" (Askew, 2022). Current protests are being led by Iran's younger generation, which makes up over 60 per cent of the population. This generation, known as Gen Z, grew up under severe repression, lived through the 2009 and 2019 protests, and survived a global pandemic as they listened to their government deny western vaccines while thousands died (Dagres, 2022). On top of that, they also watched the rest of the world live freely on what limited internet access the regime and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) allow. Hence, they are willing to take more considerable risks and "they also have a deep sense of individualism and aversion towards anything that would intrude on their privacy or personal freedoms" (Dagres, 2022). While life in Iran has not been easy since 1979, Gen Z has grown up watching their peers express freedom while they stay home over the fear of their government. Social media has made a resilient generation of young people who are internet savvy and desire a better life than the one they currently live. Despite many calling social media a waste of time, it has proven to be one of the most practical tools in spreading information to spark revolutions, particularly in Iran. The protests today have lasted longer than those in 2009 and 2019 and do not seem to be fizzling out anytime soon.

About the Writer

Leah Tyler is a recent graduate from the University of Colorado Boulder. She graduated with a Major in International Affairs, a minor in Political Science and a certificate in Peace, Conflict, and Security Studies. She spent part of her time studying sustainable development as well as politics and religious and ethnics divides across the Middle East and Africa.

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