On December 28, 2017, protests broke out in Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city, over economic hardships, corruption, and rising food and fuel prices. The initial protests were reportedly sparked by increases of up to 40 percent in staples, including eggs and poultry. Out of a population of 80 million people, about 3.2 million Iranians are jobless, with youth unemployment around 29 percent. The protests quickly morphed into anti-government demonstrations that spread to more than 80 cities. At least 20 people were killed and more than 3,000 arrested. The demonstrations were the largest challenge to the government since the 2009 Green Movement. The following is a timeline.
Source: Human Rights Activists In Iran
Dec. 28 – Protests erupted over economic issues in Mashhad, a city of two million in the northeast Razavi Khorasan Province. Mashhad Governor Mohammad Norouzian told Iranian media the protest was organized via social media by "counter-revolutionary elements." Demonstrators also reportedly chanted “Death to Rouhani” and “Death to the Dictator.” Police used water cannons to disperse the crowds and 52 people were arrested, according to BBC News. Smaller demonstrations were reported in the northeastern cities of Neyshabour and Kashmar.
Thousands of Iranians chanted during demonstrations in #Mashhad slogans against President Rouhani and Ali Khamaeni in protest against unemployment, poverty and the high cost of living pic.twitter.com/awn6WKTK58— Asharq Al-awsat English (@aawsat_eng) December 28, 2017
Dec. 29 – Demonstrations spread to more cities, including Rasht, Qom, Isfahan, Zahedan and Kermanshah. They varied in size, with reports of less than 100 people in some places to more than a thousand in others. The protestors' slogans criticized the regime's foreign policy, including its financial support for allied movements outside Iran. Around 300 people gathered at Freedom Square in the mainly Kurdish city of Kermanshah and chanted "Care for us and leave Palestine." They also shouted “Political prisoners should be freed,” “Death or freedom” and "Leave Syria, think about us!" In Sabzevar, a small group chanted "No to Gaza, No to Lebanon, I will give my life for Iran." A group of about 50 protestors gathered in the capital's city square Tehran's deputy governor-general for security affairs told Iranian media. Gatherings would be firmly dealt with, he added.
Dec. 30 – Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli urged people "not to participate in these illegal gatherings as they will create problems for themselves and other citizens." Despite the warning, protests were held in at least nine cities, including Tehran, Shiraz, Kohrramabad, Zanjan, Ahvaz and Najafabad. Demonstrations turned violent in the western town of Dorud where two protestors were reportedly killed. Protestors hit government buildings and students at Tehran University and hurled rocks at police, chanting "Death to the dictator." Iranian authorities blamed counter-revolutionaries and agents of foreign powers for the anti-government demonstrations.
Pro-government rallies were held simultaneously in some 1,200 Iranian cities and towns, including Tehran and Mashhad, to mark the suppression of the 2009 Green Movement by security forces. Some 4,000 people participated in the annual rally in the capital. Marchers called for criminal trials for the leaders of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, who have been under house arrest since 2011.
Video shows chaotic scene near the University of Tehran where protesters clashed with police during the second day of large protests, throwing rocks and other objects, angry over the country's strained economy and administration. https://t.co/E164a0wTYd pic.twitter.com/FwzpGSWmu2— ABC News (@ABC) December 30, 2017
Dec. 31 – Unrest continued into the fourth night, where 200 people were arrested in Tehran and 80 in Arak. Demonstrations were also reported in Sanadaj, Kermanshah, Shahin Shahr, Chabahar, Ilam and Izeh. In Shahin Shahr, videos showed protestors attacking police, flipping a car and setting it on fire. The Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) warned protestors faced the nation's "iron fist" if demonstrations continued. Brigadier General Esmail Kowsari told Iranian media "If people came into the streets over high prices, they should not have chanted those slogans and burned public property and cars."
In televised remarks, President Hassan Rouhani attempted to calm protestors. “We are a free nation, and based on the Constitution and citizenship rights, people are completely free to express their criticism and even their protest,” Rouhani said. "But the procedure of expressing criticism and protest should be in such a way that would lead to the betterment of public life and country’s situation. ...Solving some problems is not easy and needs time and the Iranian government and people should join hands to resolve the problems." Rouhani also said the government will show no tolerance for those who damage public properties, violate public order and create unrest. Authorities restricted access to Instagram and the messaging app Telegram, used to spread information about the protests.
“People have the right to criticize and protest,” Major papers in Tehran highlight @HassanRouhani’s remarks in reaction to the recent #Iranprotests. There is a widespread consensus that the government should acknowledge & address ppl’s grievances and avoid escalation. pic.twitter.com/iN9hGIj9Mv— Omid Memarian (@Omid_M) December 31, 2017
Jan. 1 – Ten people were reportedly killed overnight during anti-government protests around Iran, bringing the total number of deaths to 12. Shootings were responsible for eight deaths. In the central city of Najafabad, a demonstrator opened fire on police, killing one officer and injuring three others. Other clashes with police and attacks on police stations were reported in the central town of Qahderijan and the western city of Kermanshah. Iran's judicial chief Sadegh Larijani demanded "all prosecutors across the country get involved" and said their "approach should be strong." President Rouhani said the protests were an opportunity, not a threat. "Our nation will deal with this minority who chant slogans against the law and people's wishes, and insult the sanctities and values of the revolution," he added.
The scenes of the people here in Khomeini Shahr near Isfahan are incredible. These are ordinary working class people long believed to be the regime’s base. “Honorable Iranians! Support us!” If middle class join with these folks, it will be historic. pic.twitter.com/JI2oTU6oSC— Borzou Daragahi 🖊🗒 (@borzou) January 1, 2018
Jan. 2 – Protests spread to northwestern Tabriz and were also reported in Gohardasht and Eslamabad-e-Gharb. Demonstrations turned violent elsewhere, as police used tear gas to disperse protests in Ahvaz. Videos showed flash bombs and grenades being thrown in the cities of Rasht and Karaj. Since December 31, more than 450 people had been arrested.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei charged enemies of Iran stirred unrest in the Islamic Republic. "In recent events, enemies of Iran have allied and used the various means they possess, including money, weapons, politics and intellgience services, to trouble the Islamic Republic," he told a group of women related to war veterans. "The enemy is always looking for an opportunity and any crevice to infilitrate and strike the Iranian nation. ...What prevents the enemies and their hostile actions is the spirit of courage, self-sacrifice, and faith among the people," Khamenei added.
Iran’s Leader: Enemies using all means available to harm Islamic establishment pic.twitter.com/934xKbzZ41— Press TV (@PressTV) January 2, 2018
In a telephone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, President Hassan Rouhani claimed the oppposition group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK) was responsible for inciting violence and called on France to stop hosting the exiled faction. Iran's Prosecutor General Mohammad Jaafar Montazeri said the CIA and Mossad were behind the riots. "The enemies are using the dollars allocated by Saudis who clearly expressed their wish to destabilize inside Iran to take revenge of the blows they have conceded from Iran." Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also blamed foreign infiltrators for sabotaging demonstrations. He chastised the Trump Administration for supporting regimes, implicitly the Gulf sheikhdoms, that do not tolerate demonstrations.
Iran's security and stability depend on its own people, who — unlike the peoples of Trumps regional "bffs”—have the right to vote and to protest. These hard-earned rights will be protected, and infiltrators will not be allowed to sabotage them through violence and destruction.— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) January 2, 2018
Jan. 3 - Protests continued across the country, including in Tehran and Ahvaz. But they had generally diminished. IRGC forces were deployed to Hamadan, Isfahan and Lorestan provinces to deal with the anti-government demonstrations. IRGC commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari claimed that a seditious plot had been foiled. "Our security system’s readiness and people’s vigilance made the enemy taste yet another defeat." The largest gatherings “were a maximum of 1,500 people in each place, and the number of troublemakers did not exceed 15,000 people nationwide,” Jafari added. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Iranians participated in state-sponsored rallies in several cities, including Kermanshah, Ilam, Ahvaz, Gorgan and Qom. Marchers chanted, "The blood in our veins is a gift to our leader," and "We will not leave our leader alone."
In a letter to the United Nations, Iran charged the United States with "grotesque" interference in internal affairs of the Islamic Republic. "In the past several days, the US administration, led by the US President, has stepped up its acts of intervention in a grotesque way in Iran’s internal affairs under the pretext of providing support for sporadic protests," the letter said. "The President and Vice-President of the United States, in their numerous absurd tweets, incited Iranians to engage in disruptive acts." The U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also issued a statement about the protests, expressing his concern over the loss of life. "The secretary-general ... deplores the loss of life in the protests," his spokesman said. "He urges respect for the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, and that any demonstrations take place in a peaceful manner." Six prominent Iranian human rights lawyers, including Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi, called for the prosecution of state officials who encouraged violence against demonstrators. "We demand the immediate termination and independent prosecution of officials whose statements have had a critical impact on inciting emotions and violence during the people’s lawful and peaceful demonstrations," the laywers said in a joint statement.
Jan 4. - The strength of demonstrations declined after a week of unrest. It was unclear if fewer protests were reported due to the continued blocking of social media apps, like Instagram and Telegram, or if they were simply subsiding. Iran's army chief Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi said Iranian police had already subdued the national unrest, but offered his forces to help, if needed. “Although this blind sedition was so small that a portion of the police force was able to nip it in the bud ... you can rest assured that your comrades in the Islamic Republic’s army would be ready to confront the dupes of the Great Satan (United States)," Mousavi said. Interior minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said around 42,000 people at most participated in demonstrations in the last week. Thousands of Iranians rallied in support of the government for the second day in a row in cities across country, including Mashhad, where the anti-government protests started last week.
In a tweet, foreign minister Javad Zarif called out U.S. President Trump for his support of the protests, which Zarif implied contrasts heavily with Trump's Iran policies. Iran's prosecutor general Mohammad Jaafar Montazeri named a CIA official as the "main designer" of the protests. “The mastermind of the project was an American named Michael D’Andrea, former Chief of the CIA's Counter Terrorism Center, and an operations room composed of three sides, namely the United States, Zionist regime and Al Saud, was formed for leading the unrest.” The United States denied any involvement in the Iranian unrest. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned the United States not to interfere in Iranian affairs and suggested Washington wanted to use the protests to undermine the Iran nuclear agreement.
Trump has an odd way of showing “such respect” for Iranians: from labeling them a "terrorist nation" & banning them from visiting the US, to petty insults on the name of the Persian Gulf. But best of all, "helping them" by depriving them of the economic dividends from the #JCPOA.— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) January 4, 2018
Jan. 5 - New videos showed overnight demonstrations in Tehran with chants against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, according to the Associated Press. But streets calmed ahead of noon prayers. Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami called on the Islamic Republic to create its own social media apps, which he blamed for the unrest, during prayers in Tehran. "You saw that when cyberspace was restricted and shut down, the sedition collapsed," Khatami said. "As the Leader has repeatedly warned, the cyberspace today is like an artillery which is permanently shelling the Iranian nation, so that artillery should be dismantled." Khatami claimed that the people had been deceived by U.S.-backed rioters, but also called on the Iranian government to "pay more attention to people's economic problems." To calm the unrest, the government suspended its plans to cut cash handouts and increase fuel prices. Thousands took to the streets after Friday prayers to rally in support of the government for a third straight day. Marchers carried pictures of the Supreme Leader and chanted "Death to America" and "Death to Israel."
In New York, the U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting, called for by the United States, about Iran. "The Iranian regime’s contempt for the rights of its people has been widely documented for many years," said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. "We will not be quiet. No dishonest attempt to call the protesters 'puppets of foreign powers' will change that." The United States was met with heavy criticism for calling the meeting. "However worrying the events of the last few days in Iran may be, they do not constitute per se a threat to inernational peace and security," France's UN envoy stated. "It is unfortunate that despite the resistance on the part of some of its members, this council has allowed itself to be abused by the current U.S. administration in holding a meeting on an issue that falls outside the scope of its mandate," Iran's UN Ambassador Gholamali Khoshroo said. Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia echoed Khoshroo's remarks. "The United States is abusing the platform of the Security Council," Nebenzia proclaimed. "Let Iran deal with its own problems."
Jan. 6 - Anti-government demonstrations had mostly diminished after IRGC forces were dispatched to several provinces on January 3. In northeast Mashhad, where the protests began, around 85 percent of detainees had been released after pledging not to re-offend, according to provincial governor Alireza Rashidian. "Those with criminal record, or those charged with sabotage such as setting fire to motorcycles or damaging public buildings have been referred to judicial authorities," Rashidian told Iranian media. Of the thousand plus arrested in the demonstrations, ninety were students, 10 of whom were still not accounted for, according to Parliament member Mahmoud Sadeghi. Many of the students arrested were not actually involved in the protests, but were preventative arrests, Sadeghi told Iranian media. To track the fate of students, Tehran University formed a committee, vice-president Majid Sarsangi said. "Our efforts at the university are aimed at cooperating with the relevant authorities to create the conditions for the return of the detained students to the university and their families in the shortest possible time."
Pro-government rallies continued for a fouth day, as thousands gathered in the streets across Iran, including in Amol, Semnan and Shadegan. Supporters chanted "Death to America," "Death to Israel" and "Death to Britain." The government also unblocked Instagram, which was suspended during protests, but the messaging app Telegram remained blocked.
Jan. 7 - As anti-government protests waned, more than 100 people gathered outside of Evin Prison to call for the release of political prisoners. Participants set up a make-shift camp with tents, wood and a fire and chanted "The political prisoners must be freed." The small protest occurred as the IRGC declared victory over the wave of Iranian unrest. In a statement, the IRGC blamed the demonstrations on the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, exiled opposition group Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) and supporters of the former monarchy that was overthrown in the 1979 revolution. Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi also announced that 70 of the detained protestors had been released on bail in the last 48 hours and more would be released soon, except for the main instigators, who he said would be "dealt with seriously."
In a statement, 16 prominent Iranian Reformists, including Saeed Hajjarian, Mostafa Tajzadeh, Feizollah Arabsorkhi and Mohammad Reza Khatami, urged support for protestors and called for the release of university students arrested during the demonstrations. “The discontent among the people continues and unless fundamental steps are taken to resolve the issues of the protests and the rightful complaints are not addressed appropriately, these events, with even more costs, will be repeated," the statement said. “The existing problems and discontent in society have various dimensions. A significant portion of the people are in pain over economic shortcomings, unemployment and low wages. Some are also protesting against political and social restrictions.”
Lawmakers were briefed on protests and conditions of detainees in a closed door session with security officials. "It was emphasized that foreign elements, and in particular the United States, played a basic role in forming and manipulating the recent unrest," lawmaker Jalal Mirzaeia told Iranian media. Later in the day, head of the High Education Council Mehdi Navid-Adham announced the ban on the teaching of English in primary schools, as learning the language opened the way to a Western "cultural invasion." "That does not mean opposition to learning a foreign language, but (this is the) promotion of a foreign culture in the country and among children, young adults and youths," Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said in a speech to teachers. It was unclear if the ban was connected to recent protests, but many Iranian officials have claimed U.S. involvement in the unrest.
Jan. 8 - A 22-year-old man arrested during the protests died in Evin Prison in Tehran, according to two Iranian Parliament members. A group of social media users launched a campaign calling for clarity on the conditions that led to the protestor's death, which was reported as a suicide. A total of 22 people died and more than one thousand were arrested in the anti-government demonstrations. In a meeting with the economy minister and ministry deputies, President Hassan Rouhani said young protestors were unhappy about far more than just the economy. "It would be a misrepresentation and also an insult to Iranian people to say they only had economic demands,” Rouhani said. "People had economic, political and social demands. ... We cannot pick a lifestyle and tell two generations after us to live like that. It is impossible... The views of the young generation about life and the word is different than ours." Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also commented on the anti-government protests at a security conference in Tehran. "Some countries tried to misuse the recent incidents," Zarif said. "No country can create a secure enviornment for itself at the expense of creating insecurity among its neighbors."
Pro-government rallies were held for a sixth consecutive day in the cities of Sanandaj and Qazvin as well as a number of cities in the northern Province of Golestan.
Jan. 9 - Security forces arrested around 3,700 people during the protests, reformist lawmaker Mahmoud Sadeghi said. The original number given by authorities was around 1,000. Authorities in Tehran also released another 70 people on bail. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei addressed the recent unrest and pro-government rallies on the anniversary of the January 9, 1978 uprising in Qom. "The vast manifestations arising from millions of Iranians against recent riots is no ordinary event. Nowhere, in this world, have we witnessed the same exact phenomena. I am well informed on this. This great, coherent people’s movement against the enemies’ conspiracy, with such organization, awareness, and enthusiasm is unique among the world, and it continues for forty years now." Khamenei blamed the unrest on foreign enemies, specifically the United Sttaes and the United Kingdom. He added, "That a person is deprived of a right and objects to it: or that protesters – hundreds of people — come together and gather to express their concerns, is one thing; and that a number of the people from this gathering misuse this motive--to insult the Quran, to insult Islam, to insult the flag, to burn the Mosque, commit sabotage or set the country on fire--is another thing. The two should not be mixed."
U.S. officials should know that, firstly, they have missed their target: and if they target Iran again, they will fail. Secondly, they have inflicted damage upon Iran in recent days, and they should know this won't be left without a response.— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) January 9, 2018
Jan. 10 - At a cabinet meeting, President Hassan Rouhani tasked interior minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli to compile a report on the violence and the individuals arrested, injured or killed during the nearly two weeks of protests. Rouhani also assured that tackling economic problems and restoring the rights of the people were top priority. "The main approach of the government in the budget bill of year 1397 is boosting employment and eliminating poverty."
Click here for Iranian officials' reactions to the protests.
Click here for U.S. leaders' statements on the demonstrations.
Photo Credit: Ahvaz Pro-Government Protests (Main Thumbnail) By Morteza Jaberian [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Mattisan Rowan, a program assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace, contributed to this report.