On September 13, Iran’s Guidance Patrol (morality police) arrested 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for “improper attire”—failing to wear a hijab. Amini was transferred to a hospital two hours after her arrest and died there three days later. There are reports that she had been badly beaten by the police, although they claim she died of a heart attack. Amini’s death has sparked massive public outrage, setting off a wave of antigovernment protests across the country. Demonstrators have flooded the streets of cities large and small for more than a week, with young people and women on the frontlines and people of all religious, linguistic, and political stripes joining in. Women have been burning their headscarves and cutting off their hair in public to express their anger. The protest slogans have been radical, targeting Iran’s political system as a whole—for example, “Death to dictator!,” “Clerics should get lost!,” and “We will fight, we will die, we will take back Iran!”
Mass protests have been a defining feature of Iranian politics since the 1979 revolution that gave birth to the Islamic Republic. From the 1990s to 2019, there were five major waves of antigovernment protests. In the first half of the 1990s, protests broke out in the outskirts of big cities, largely over economic and administrative issues. Most of these protesters lived in poor neighborhoods and were demanding public services for their communities. The next two waves—the student protests of 1999 and the Green Wave of 2009—by contrast, were dominated by the educated middle class: The former were confined to university students, especially in Tehran, and the latter to the urban middle class in just a few major cities. The fourth and fifth protest waves erupted in 2017–18 and in 2019 over economic issues. These protests were concentrated in small cities and the peripheries of major urban areas, and their participants were mainly low-income young men between the ages of 19 and 26. Middle-class urbanites in large cities did not join in the 2019 protests, which turned deadly. The middle class, after all, had benefited from the domestic and foreign policies of moderate president Hassan Rouhani (2013–2021), which emphasized constructive engagement with the international community.
One of the important differences between the protests happening now and those of 2019 is the greater participation of the middle class. Students, university professors, professionals, actors, and numerous public figures have joined in and supported the protests. This is significant because the middle class has historically been the main engine of political change in modern Iranian history. It played a central role in the 1906 Constitutional Revolution, the 1951 Oil Nationalization Movement, the 1979 Revolution, the 2009 Green Uprising, and the 2013 election of Rouhani.
Not surprisingly, the government has resorted to force to quell the ongoing protests, although security forces have shown more restraint than they did in 2019, when they killed at least 321 citizens in five days. Besides repression, government officials and progovernment media have resorted to all kinds of tactics from an old playbook to discredit the protesters—notably, associating them with foreign countries and opposition figures in the diaspora. But the morality police’s outrageous behavior and the spontaneous nature of the protests have rendered those old-fashioned tactics more ineffective than ever.