Explainer: Iran's University Protests

Students were the trigger and sustaining force behind protests that erupted on September 16. During the first two months, young Iranians demonstrated against the government at some 143 universities in all 31 provinces, which led to government crackdowns and hundreds of deaths. The initial demonstrations—shortly after the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurd—broke out in the capital and Kurdish cities. They spread more widely in October. The largest protests were in major cities—on roughly 28 campuses in Tehran, nine in Mashhad, and six in Isfahan—although they spread among students from disparate ethnicities, classes, and regions.

The pattern of protests varied. They gradually gained momentum during the last two weeks of September. More students turned out in early October as the regime cracked down and outrage spread. Demonstrations spiked on October 26—40 days after Amini’s death. (In Shiite Islam, the final commemoration of a death is marked with a ceremony 40 days later.) By the end of the first two months, student protests had exploded nationwide, from northwestern Kurdish and Azeri provinces to southeastern Baluchestan, from Arab cities near the Persian Gulf coast to conservative Mashhad in the northeast.

Amir Kabir University protest
Protest at Amirkabir University of Technology on Sept. 20, 2022

“The fact that students throughout the higher education system, all over the country, are protesting is an indication of the depth of the protest movement,” Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, told The Iran Primer. In the past, student protests took place mainly at elite universities, he said. But in 2022, they also played out on campuses with a broader cross-section of students. Protests erupted at Islamic Azad University, which has a network of hundreds of campuses that reach into smaller towns. Students demonstrated at some 34 Islamic Azad branches—including in Tehran, Mashhad, and Shiraz as well as in the less-populated provinces of Yazd and Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province.

Iran’s first student protests emerged at University of Tehran in 1999—two decades after the revolution—over the banning of a popular reformist newspaper. Students next joined the Green Movement protests over alleged election fraud in 2009. The student movement has been reinvigorated by the protests of 2022, Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East North Africa program at Chatham House in London, told The Iran Primer.

For four decades, the government has regularly quashed all opposition networks, civil society, and non-government organizations, she said. “What is striking, however, is that universities are proving to be effective entities to facilitate organization and mobilization.” Students also have links through social media that are harder to break.  “Outside universities, public spaces for such gatherings are not available to citizens and it is much harder for them to safely meet and plan protests due to the extreme state violence and repression,” Ghaemi said. Universities soon became “the fulcrum” of the 2022 protests and were “essential in keeping the protests alive on a daily basis.”

But Iran’s student body is not monolithic, and the government exploited political divisions among students. Student members of the Basij paramilitary, a branch under the Revolutionary Guards, were critical players in the government crackdown, Skylar Thompson, head of global advocacy at Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRA), told The Iran Primer. The following is an interactive map. (Hover over a city for names of universities where protests took place. Zoom in to see more sites.)

 

Key Campuses

The following are examples of protests in 13 of Iran’s 31 provinces and how they started.

Tehran province

Tehran

  • Al Zahra University: On October 8, students at Al Zahra University for women challenged President Ebrahim Raisi during his campus visit. In a speech, he compared protesters to flies and lauded students for resisting “the enemy.” Outside the auditorium, students chanted “Get lost.”

 

  • Sharif University of Technology: Students at the prestigious university, often compared to MIT, first protested at a sit-in on October 1. Security forces subsequently fired paintballs, rubber bullets, and tear gas at students, fueling more demonstrations on other campuses. The university temporarily moved classes online on October 3.
  • University of Tehran: On September 18, hundreds of students gathered on campus and chanted “Woman, life, freedom.” The university quickly became a protest epicenter in the capital. It temporarily moved classes online on September 23; the government demanded that students return to classrooms by October 1. 

 

Alborz province

Karaj

  • Islamic Azad University, Karaj Branch: Thousands of protesters gathered at the university campus on October 1. In late October, they set fire to a statue of legendary Qods Force General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a 2020 U.S. drone strike. They chanted, “This is no longer protest, it’s the beginning of revolution.”

 

Bushehr province

Bushehr

  • Bushehr Persian Gulf University: On October 17, students chanted, “Oil workers are our invincible leaders” in support of oil worker strikes along the Persian Gulf coast. “Students, workers, unite, strike.”

 

East Azerbaijan province

Tabriz

  • University of Tabriz: Students began protesting on September 20. They chanted, “From Kurdistan to Tabriz, our patience is exhausted” and “Freedom is our right, Mahsa is our symbol.” On October 1, security forces beat and shot students, sparking days of additional unrest. Security forces interrupted internet access and detained at least 300 students during a raid.

 

Fars province

Shiraz

  • Islamic Azad University, Shiraz Branch: Students demonstrated on October 26 as protesters throughout the country commemorated the 40th day after Amini’s death. In late November, students chanted against members of the paramilitary Basij.
  • Shiraz University of Medical Sciences: Students began protesting in late September. During September 28 protests, they chanted, “We will fight. We will die. We will take Iran back.” Several were detained.

 

Hamedan province

Hamedan

  • Buali Sina University: Protests escalated on October 24, when a student sit-in defied gender segregation.

 

Isfahan province

Isfahan

  • University of Isfahan: Student protests began in early October and escalated in late October.

 

Khuzestan province

Ahvaz

  • Jondishapur University of Medical Sciences: Security forces reportedly raided student dormitories on October 28. Several students were detained, sparking more protests.

 

  • Shahid Chamran University of Ahvaz: Student protests began in late September. Students chanted, “A student may die but will not accept humiliation” on October 25.

 

Kurdistan province

Sanandaj

  • University of Kurdistan: Students began protesting on October 1. Professors and university staff reportedly clashed with security forces trying to detain female students in late October.

 

Mazandaran province 

Babol

  • Babol Noshirvani University of Technology: During protests on October 26, security forces raided a dormitory and reportedly used tear gas and opened fire on students. Dozens of students were detained.

Babolsar

  • University of Mazandaran: Hundreds of students protested in October. Students chanted, “If we do not stand together, we are killed one by one.”

 

Razavi Khorasan province

Mashhad

  • Ferdowsi University of Mashhad: Protests began on October 1, as female students chanted “Freedom” and waved their headscarves.

 

  • Islamic Azad University, Mashhad Branch: Protests began October 1 and escalated in late October. Security forces reportedly locked the university gates and clashed with protesters on October 29. Several students were reportedly detained.

 

Sistan and Baluchistan province

Zahedan

  • Zahedan University of Medical Sciences: Security forces killed more than 80 protesters by early October—66 in a single day on September 30. At a demonstration on October 23, they shouted, “Our dollars are in Lebanon. Our youth are in prison.”

 

Yazd province

Yazd

  • Yazd University: Students began protesting on September 20. They tore down a banner on mandatory headscarf on October 4. Security forces reportedly used drones to surveil student protesters in late October.

 

List of Campuses

The following is a complete list—by province—of where protests erupted on 143 university campuses, based on data from Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRA) and American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats Project.

Alborz

Ardabil

•Alborz University of Medical Sciences

•Ardabil University of Medical Sciences

•Islamic Azad University, Karaj Branch

•University of Mohagegh Ardabil

•Karaj Girls Technical and Vocational University

 

•Kharazmi University

 

•Rasam Institute of Higher Education

 

 

Bushehr

Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari

•Bushehr University of Medical Sciences

•Islamic Azad University, Shahrekord Branch

•Persian Gulf University

•Shahr-e Kord University

 

East Azerbaijan

Fars

•Azarbaijan Shahid Madani University

•Fazel Farhikhteh Applied Scientific University of Culture and Art - Shiraz

•Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism - Tabriz Islamic Art University

•Islamic Azad University, Shiraz Branch

•Sahand University of Technology

•Jahrom University

•Tabriz University

•Jahrom University of Medical Sciences

•Tabriz University of Medical Sciences

•Shiraz University

•University College of Nabi Akram (UCNA)

•Shiraz University of Medical Sciences

•University of Maragheh

 

•Zand Institute of Higher Education

 

 

Gilan

Golestan

•Guilan University of Medical Sciences

•Golestan University of Medical Sciences

•Islamic Azad University, Rasht Branch

 

•University of Guilan

 

 

 

Hamadan

Hormozgan

•Bu-Ali Sina University

•Hormozgan University of Medical Sciences

•Hamadan University of Medical Sciences

•Islamic Azad University, Bandar Abbas Branch

•Hamadan University of Technology

•University of Hormozgan

•Islamic Azad University, Hamadan Branch

 

•Malayer University

 

 

Ilam

Isfahan

•University of Ilam

•Ashrafi Esfahani University

 

•Isfahan University of Art

 

•Isfahan University of Medical Sciences

 

•Isfahan University of Technology (IUT)

 

•Islamic Azad University Najafabad Branch

 

•Islamic Azad University of Isfahan (Khorasgan) Branch

 

•Islamic Azad University of Khomeini Shahr

 

•Islamic Azad University, Falavarjan Branch

 

•Kashan University of Medical Sciences and Health Services

 

•Mohajer Technical University of Isfahan

 

•University of Isfahan

 

•University of Kashan

 

Kerman

Kermanshah

•Islamic Azad University, Kerman Branch

•Islamic Azad University, Kermanshah Branch

•Shahid Bahonar University of Kerman

•Junior College of Kermanshahian Girls

•Vali-e-Asr University of Rafsanjan

•Kermanshah University of Medical Sciences

 

•Razi University

 

Khuzestan

Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad

•Islamic Azad University, Ahvaz Branch

•Yasouj University

•Islamic Azad University, Dezful Branch

 

•Jondishapour University of Medical Science

 

•Petroleum University of Technology

 

•Shahid Chamran University of Ahvaz

 

 

Kurdistan

Lorestan

•Islamic Azad University, Sanandaj Branch

•Lorestan University

•Kurdistan University of Medical Sciences

 

•Payam Noor University, Marivan Branch

 

•Technical and Vocational School for Girls Sanandaj

 

•University of Kurdistan

 

•Yazdanpanah University of Sanandaj

 

 

 

Markazi

Mazandaran

•Islamic Azad University, Arak Branch

•Babol Noshirvani University of Technology

•Tafresh University

•Babol University of Medical Sciences

•University of Arak

•University of Mazandaran

 

North Khorasan

Qazvin

•North Khorasan University of Medical Sciences

•Imam Khomeini International University

•University of Bojnord

•Islamic Azad University, Qazvin Branch

 

•Qazvin University of Medical Sciences

 

Qom

Razavi Khorasan

•University of Qom

•Al Zahra University of Mashhad

 

•Ferdows Institute of Higher Education

 

•Ferdowsi University of Mashhad

 

•Hakim Sabzevari University

 

•Imam Reza International University

 

•Islamic Azad University, Mashhad Branch

 

•Islamic Azad University, Neyshabur Branch

 

•Khayyam University

 

•Mashhad University of Medical Sciences

 

•Montazeri Technical College of Mashhad

 

•Quchan University of Technology

 

•Sabzevar University of Medical Sciences

 

•Sajjad University

 

Semnan

Sistan and Baluchestan

•Damghan University

•University of Sistan & Baluchestan

•Semnan University

•University of Zabol

•Shahrood University of Technology

•Zahedan University of Medical Sciences

 

South Khorasan

Tehran

•University of Birjand

•Al Zahra University

 

•Allameh Tabataba'i University

 

•Amirkabir University of Technology

 

•Iran University of Medical Sciences

 

•Iran University of Science and Technology

 

•Islamic Azad University Central Tehran Branch (Velayat Campus)

 

•Islamic Azad University, Islamshahr Branch

 

•Islamic Azad University, Qods City Branch

 

•Islamic Azad University of Tehran, Varamin Pishva Branch

 

•Islamic Azad University, Science and Research Branch

 

•Islamic Azad University, Tehran North Branch

 

•Islamic Azad University, Parand Branch

 

•Islamic Azad University, Pardis Branch

 

•Islamic Azad University, South Tehran Branch

 

•Islamic Azad University, Tehran Medical Branch

 

•Islamic Azad University, West Tehran Branch

 

•Islamic Azad University, Yadegar Imam Khomeini Branch

 

•K. N. Toosi University of Technology

 

•Pars Higher Education Institute of Art and Architecture

 

•Islamic Azad University, Central Tehran Branch

 

•Shahid Beheshti University

 

•Shahid Beheshti University of Medical Sciences

 

•Shahid Rajaee Teacher Training University

 

•Shariati Technical and Vocational College

 

•Sharif University of Technology

 

•Soore University

 

•Tarbiat Modares University

 

•Tehran University of Art, Practical Art

 

•Tehran University of Medical Sciences

 

•University of Science and Culture

 

•University of Social Welfare and Rehabilitation Sciences

 

•University of Tehran

 

West Azerbaijan

Yazd

•Urmia University

•Imam Javad University

 

•Islamic Azad University, Yazd Branch

 

•University of Science and Arts of Yazd

 

•Yazd Shahid Sadoughi University of Medical Sciences Campus

 

•Yazd University

 

Zanjan

 

•University of Zanjan

 

•Zanjan University of Medical Sciences

 

 

 

 

Connor Bradbury is a senior program assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Garrett Nada is the managing editor of "The Iran Primer."

 
Photo Credit: Darafsh, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons