Protests: Overview and Timeline

November 18, 2019
Updated

In a surprise overnight announcement on November 15, Iran hiked gas prices—by up to 300 percent—and introduced a new rationing system. The government’s goal was to raise funds to help the poor, but it backfired. Protests erupted across the country. The sudden move followed rising inflation and biting U.S. sanctions, which had already raised the prices on basic goods.

By November 17, at least 87,000 people had joined demonstrations across some 100 towns and cities, according to semi-official Fars News Agency. Iranian officials said at least 12 people died, but reports suggested the count could be higher. In some towns and cities, protestors clashed with police. 

Protests first broke out in oil-rich Khuzestan province, in Iran’s southwest. But they quickly spread to other regions, including Mashhad, a conservative stronghold and Iran’s second largest city, in the northwest. Demonstrators reportedly chanted anti-government slogans, including, "Have shame Rouhani, Leave the country alone!" Protests in the central city of Sirjan, in Iran’s largest province of Kerman, turned violent when a gas station was set ablaze. In Tehran, protestors blocked a central highway.

On November 27, Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said that up to 200,000 people had participated in the protests. He outlined the scale of the damage to property:

•    731 banks burned
•    140 government sites burned
•    70 gas stations burned
•    50 security force bases attacked
 

By December 2, at least 208 protesters had been killed, according to Amnesty International. The Center for Human Rights in Iran estimated that 4,000 people were arrested. Iran rejected reports by outside groups.

 

Internet Blackout

The situation in Iran became difficult to monitor on November 16, when the government appeared to nearly shut down internet connections for the general populace, according to NetBlocks. The Supreme National Security Council reportedly ordered providers to switch over to the nationwide “intranet,” which only allows access to certain websites. In January 2018, the government also shut down the internet for a day or two during protests sparked by economic woes. The new protests appeared to be the most serious since the sporadic demonstrations in December 2017 and January 2018, in which 22 people died.

 

Videos and images of demonstrations were widely circulated on social media, although many were difficult to verify. Footage on social media included police firing tear gas to disperse crowds. A government spokesperson accused protestors of wielding knives and guns.

 

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed the unrest on Iran’s enemies, both foreign and domestic. “Thugs” and “hooligans” were responsible for damaging property, he said on November 17. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) warned that it would take “decisive” action if the protests did not end. The government called out the IRGC and the Basij paramilitary to repress the Green Movement protests over allegations of voter fraud in the 2009 presidential election.

 

Government Plan

The Supreme Council of Economic Coordination, which includes President Hassan Rouhani, Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi and Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani, had approved the plan to increase fuel prices. The new rules stipulated:

  • Each private vehicle will be limited to 60 liters of fuel per month at 15,000 rials (about $0.13) per liter — a 50 percent increase from the previous price
  • Taxis and ambulances would be limited to 500 liters per month at 15,000 rials ($0.13) per liter 
  • Any purchases beyond the 60-liter ration will cost 30,000 rials ($0.26) per liter — a 300 percent increase

On November 15, President Rouhani told his cabinet that the fuel price increase would help those under the most economic pressure. “No one should imagine that the government has done this because it is economically struggling; not at all, not a rial of this will go to the treasury,” he said. The increase was projected to raise some $2.55 billion per year that would increase subsidies for 18 million families, or about 60 million Iranians with lower incomes. More than 70 percent of Iran’s 83 million people were eligible for assistance. Between mid-2018 and mid-2019, the cost of red meat and poultry rose 57 percent, dairy and eggs by 37 percent, and vegetables by 47 percent.

Rouhani
President Rouhani

Even with the hike, fuel was still cheaper in Iran than almost anywhere else in the world, due to government subsidies. After decades of low prices and use of inefficient vehicles, consumption of fuel has soared in Iran. In 2019, state media reported that Iranians were buying 90 million liters per day on average. During the cabinet meeting, Rouhani stressed that Iran's fuel consumption was too high but that it could be curtailed by “changing the culture and manufacturing good cars.”

 

Previous Attempts at Rationing and Price Hikes

The government first introduced rationing in 2007, under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At the time, Iran was under U.S. and U.N. sanctions for work on its controversial nuclear program. Domestic demand for fuel was also rising. That change in policy also triggered rioting.

Rationing ended in 2015, after a landmark nuclear deal, which included sanctions relief, was brokered between Iran and six world powers.

In December 2017, President Rouhani proposed increasing fuel prices by 50 percent as part of his administration’s budget. But parliament blocked it after protests broke out nation-wide due to deteriorating economic conditions.

 

Timeline of Protests 

Nov. 15: Iran imposed rationing and raised the price of fuel. It announced the change overnight, which caught many citizens by surprise. The National Petroleum Products Distribution company set new rules for fuel sales: 

  • Each private vehicle will be limited to 60 liters of fuel per month at 15,000 rials (about $0.13) per liter — a 50 percent increase from the previous price
  • Taxis and ambulances would be limited to 500 liters per month at 15,000 rials ($0.13) per liter 
  • Any purchases beyond the 60-liter ration will cost 30,000 rials ($0.26) per liter — a 300 percent increase

The government’s goal was to raise funds to help the poor, but it backfired. Hundreds of people filled the streets in multiple cities including Mashhad, Ahvaz, BehbahanMahshahr, and Omidiyeh to protest the overnight increase in fuel prices. In the city of Ahvaz, protestors blocked the roads and chanted, “Honourable Ahvazis, turn off your engines!” In Mashhad, protestors directed their anger at the regime. “Have shame Rouhani, Leave the country alone!" and "have shame dictator, Leave the country alone!” protestors reportedly chanted. 

Nov. 16: Protests reportedly devolved into violence in several cities. In video posted on social media, protestors set fires and police forces used tear gas and water cannons to disperse them. Mohammad Mahmoudabadi, an official in the city of Sirjan, reported that one person was killed when protestors tried to set fire to an oil depot.  

 

NetBlocks, a cyber monitoring firm, reported widespread internet disruptions and outages in Iran. The company said internet connectivity had dropped to just seven percent of ordinary levels before protests began. “The ongoing disruption is the most severe recorded in Iran since President Rouhani came to power, and the most severe disconnection tracked by NetBlocks in any country in terms of its technical complexity and breadth,” it reported. 

 

Nov. 17: At least 87,000 people had joined demonstrations across some 100 towns and cities, according to semi-official Fars News Agency. Security officials said protestors had ransacked nearly 100 banks and stores across the country. Some 1,000 people were reportedly arrested by security forces.  

The Intelligence Ministry said that it had identified protest leaders. “The main elements behind the disturbances of the past two days have been identified and appropriate action is being taken,” the ministry told Tasnim news agency.  

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei backed the government’s decision to raise fuel prices and blamed “hooligans” for the unrest. Some people are no doubt worried by this decision ... but sabotage and arson is done by hooligans, not our people. The counter-revolution and Iran’s enemies have always supported sabotage and breaches of security and continue to do so.” 

President Hassan Rouhani said the Iranian people were entitled to protest. But he warned that unrest would not be tolerated. “The government will not allow anyone at all to [create] chaos and insecurity, but all have the right to protest, speak and criticize, Rouhani said in a cabinet meeting. 

The Trump administration offered support to the Iranian protestors. “We condemn the lethal force and severe communications restrictions used against demonstrators. Tehran has fanatically pursued nuclear weapons and missile programs, and supported terrorism, turning a proud nation into another cautionary tale of what happens when a ruling class abandons its people and embarks on a crusade for personal power and riches," said a White House statement. 

Nov. 18: The government announced that 12 protestors had been killed in clashes with security forces. But activists claimed that at least 40 people had died.  

Government Spokesman Ali Rabiei said that violent protestors had taken police hostage during demonstrations. He also announced that the government would soon unblock internet access across the country. Rabiei noted that attendance in demonstrations had dropped by 80 percent compared to the previous day.  

But videos of demonstrations were still circulated on social media.

 

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) warned that they would take “decisive action” against protestors if the unrest continued. “If necessary we will take decisive and revolutionary action against any continued moves to disturb the people’s peace and security,” the IRGC said in a statement. 

Nov. 19: Iran’s judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili told a news conference that protests had subsided. “Calm has been restored in the country,” he reported. But videos posted to social media showed that protests continued in several cities. Three members of the security forces were reportedly stabbed to death near Tehran overnight, according to ISNA news agency.  

Hard-line newspaper Kayhan published an article suggesting that protest leaders would face capital punishment. “Some reports say that the judiciary considers execution by hanging for the riot leaders a definite punishment,” it said.  

The U.N. human rights office condemned violence against protestors and urged the government to reign in security forces. The United Nations estimated that dozens of demonstrators had been killed. U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville also called on Iran to restore internet service across the country, which had been cut off since November 16.

 

The State Department’s special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, issued a statement in support of the protestors. “The United States hears you, and we support your struggle for a better future,” he said. 

 

Nov. 20: President Hassan Rouhani claimed victory over protestors during a cabinet meeting. He said that the “spontaneous” pro-government rallies held throughout the country were the “greatest sign” of the power of the Iranian people. State media aired footage of rallies in several cities. “The Iranian people have again succeeded in an historic test and shown they will not let enemies benefit from the situation, even though they might have complaints about the country’s management,” Rouhani said. 

Foreign nationals were among protestors detained, according to a report by Fars news agency. Security sources claimed that German, Turkish and Afghan dual nationals were trained by foreign intelligence agencies to infiltrate the protests and create instability in the country.  

Iran summoned Swiss ambassador Mark Leitner, who represents U.S. interests in Tehran, to the foreign ministry to protest Washington’s support for the demonstrations. The ministry accused the United States of encouraging rioters.

Nov. 21: Iran began to restore internet access across the country after a near-complete shutdown that began November 16. Officials said that the internet was restored in “some areas and, according to reports so far, fixed line internet has been restored in Hormozgan, Kermanshah, Arak, Mashhad, Qom, Tabriz, Hamadan and Bushehr provinces, and parts of Tehran.” 

Nov. 22: The IRGC arrested around 100 protest leaders, who could face “severe punishment,” according to the head the judiciary, Ebrahimi Raisi.  “Approximately 100 leaders, heads and main figures of the recent unrest were identified and arrested in various parts of the country by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps,” said judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili.

Nov. 23: Tehran warned that there would be consequences for countries in the region that allegedly helped foment unrest in Iran the previous week. “Some countries in the region should know that they will not have an easy life in the region if clues are found that show they intervened to create unrest in Iran,” said Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri.

Nov. 24: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps called for the judiciary to give harsh prison sentences to “mercenaries” who led protests the previous week. “We caught all the mercenaries who openly confessed they were doing mercenary work for America and, God willing, the judicial system of the country will give them maximum punishments,” said Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi. He claimed that demonstrators were killed by thugs shooting from within the crowds. Citizens had, however, posted videos of snipers on rooftops. 

Nov. 25: Thousands of Iranians reportedly held rallies across the country in support of the government. Crowds chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” in the demonstrations, which were widely covered by state television. They accused the United States and Israel for stoking unrest following the increase in fuel prices. The protests had turned violent. Demonstrators burned banks while security forces used tear gas and live ammunition to disperse crowds. More than 100 people were reportedly killed. 

General Hossein Salami, head the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, accused the United States, Britain, Israel, and Saudi Arabia for instigating protests that began on November 15. The demonstrations were sparked by a sudden increase in fuel prices by as much as 300 percent. Salami threatened to “destroy” the enemies of the state. “If you cross our red line, we will destroy you,” Salami said. “We will not leave any move unanswered.” 

Nov. 26: Former President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) described the protests as “breathtaking” and "deeply rooted.” In a speech to political and student rights' activists, he called for a fair investigation into the underlying causes of the demonstrations but also cautioned that “foreigners” could exploit the unrest.  

Nov. 27: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed the unrest on the United States and Israel. “The grave, extensive and very dangerous conspiracy that Global Arrogance and Zionism spent so much on and worked for so that they could cause this destruction, villainy, and murder in Iran at a crucial time was quashed by the presence of the people,” he told members of the Basij military. He thanked the security forces Iranians who participated in pro-government demonstrations for helping to restore calm. 

Nov. 30: Mir Hossein Mousavi, an opposition leader under house arrest since 2011, compared the government’s crackdown on protesters to a massacre of anti-government demonstrators under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. “It shows people’s frustration with the country’s situation. It has a complete resemblance to the brutal killing of people on the bloody date Sept. 8, 1978,” Mousavi said. “The assassins of the year of 1978 were representatives of a non-religious regime, but the agents and shooters in November 2019 were representatives of a religious government.” Mousavi ran for president against incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2009 election. He and Mehdi Karroubi became symbolic leaders of the Iranians who staged mass protests to dispute the results. Hardliners labeled them “traitors” and “seditionists.”  

Dec. 1: Security forces killed 4to 100 protesters who had fled to a marsh outside the city of Mahshahr, according to witnesses. The victims, who were mostly young, unarmed men, sought refuge in the marsh after the IRGC stormed their low-income suburb. Security personnel reportedly took the bodies away in a truck and refused to return the dead to their families until they agreed not to have funeral services or discuss the events with the media.   

Dec. 2: At least 208 people had been killed by security forces since protests began on November 15, according to Amnesty International. The report said that families of victims were warned not to hold funeral ceremonies or talk to the media. Amnesty also reported that some families were forced to pay the government a fee to receive the bodies of their loved ones.

Dec. 3: Iranian state television said that security forces killed “rioters who have attacked sensitive or military centers with firearms or knives or have taken hostages in some areas.” It was the first time that the government admitted to shooting protesters since the unrest began on November 15. Mahshahr police chief Colonel Reza Papi acknowledged that “hostiles groups” with “semi-heavy weapons” were killed in a marsh outside the city after firing at police. The New York Times had reported that 40 to 100 protesters, mostly unarmed young men, fled to the marsh and were shot. 

Dec. 4: President Hassan Rouhani urged the judiciary to free any unarmed protesters arrested during demonstrations, which began on November 15. “Religious and Islamic clemency should be shown and those innocent people who protested against petrol price hikes and were not armed ... should be released,” he said.  

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on the government to quickly process cases. “The faster these cases are considered, the better and those who are suspected of being close to any group should be dealt with in a way that is closer to Islamic mercy,” he said.

Dec. 5: U.S. Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, said that Iran may have killed over 1,000 protesters in the regime’s violent crackdown on demonstrations over fuel prices since November 15. He added that “many thousands of Iranians” and an estimated 7,000 were detained. 

Dec. 6: U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet accused Iran of “shooting to kill” protesters during government crackdowns on protestors. She said that her office received video evidence of security forces shooting unarmed demonstrators “directly in the face and vital organs.” She added that the government forced confessions from many of the protesters it arrested. 

 

Updated