Iran's Tactics During Protests

In September 2022, Iran deployed diverse tactics–killings, beatings, surveillance, internet restrictions, and military operations–to contain the most significant unrest in more than a decade. Protests over the price of eggs and poultry in 2017 and the gas price hike in 2019 lasted just days, while the protests after the death of Mahsa Amini lingered on for weeks. But security forces were more restrained, partly because the demonstrations were small and often spontaneous.

The regime mobilized police, riot control teams, plainclothes officers as well as Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Basij paramilitary. It relied more heavily on drones, tracking social media, and street security cameras. It also severely restricted internet access. Security forces raided universities and schools across the country. They opened fire on crowds, used tear gas, and beat people with batons. Security forces shot at protesters chanting from windows and reportedly sent children to institutions for reeducation. Hundreds of protestors were reportedly killed, including dozens of children. And hundreds more were injured, human rights groups reported in October 2022. 

 

Government Actions

Arrests and Detentions: At least 14,000 people were detained as of early November, according to Javaid Rehman, U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Detainees included human rights and civil society activists, students, lawyers, and journalists, Rehman said. In late October, the judiciary announced that it would place 1,000 people on public trial in Tehran for their participation in the protests. Detainees faced a range of charges, including collaborating with foreign governments and propaganda against the state. Several faced the death penalty on charges of “corruption on Earth,” and “enmity against God.” In early November, parliament—with support from judiciary chief Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei—called for further use of the death penalty on protesters.

Internet Restrictions: The government also disrupted the internet—imposing curfews during certain hours—to block news about either new protests or the government’s crackdown, according to Netblocks, a global internet monitor. It reportedly created a “kill-switch” to cut off the internet faster than during the 2019 protests. It also targeted specifical social media outlets, notably Instagram and WhatsApp, two of the few accessible apps for posting content. Other platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, had long been blocked without a VPN. 

The following graphic illustrates the fluctuating disruption over five days in mid-October 2022. 

Attack on Kurds in Iraq: On September 24, the IRGC launched a two-week military operation–including artillery fire, drones, and ballistic missiles on Kurdish opposition groups based in northern Iraq that it blamed for the protests.  It targeted four groups—the Komala Party, the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI), the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), and the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK)—that have long sought autonomy or independence from Iran. 

The IRGC launched dozens of ballistic missiles and drones that reportedly hit 42 targets on September 28, the most intensive day of the operation. The strikes killed at least 16 people and injured dozens. Iran will not tolerate “the continuation of aggression and terrorist acts by groups that have taken refuge in the Kurdistan region of Iraq and target Iran’s national security,” the Iranian Foreign Ministry said

 

Government Narrative

Senior officials scrambled to respond and contain the unrest. The government also mobilized women, most dressed in the traditional black chadors, to hold counter-protests. State-controlled television broadcast videos of women in conservative chadors chanting, “We stand behind the Supreme Leader” and waving Iranian flags and posters of the Supreme Leader. It also aired apologies from woman who had removed their headscarves or cut their hair. The following are statements by Iranian officials.

President Ebrahim Raisi: Raisi called Amini’s family on September 18–two days after her death–and said, “Your daughter is like my own daughter, and I feel that this incident happened to one of my loved ones.” Yet, one week later, he lauded security forces in a conversation with the family of a security official who reportedly died during a demonstration. He described the large funeral as “a sign of the people’s gratitude towards the defenders of security and their disgust with rioters and disrupters of public order and security.” 

After violent clashes at Tehran’s Sharif University on October 2, he called for national cooperation and solidarity. “Today the country’s determination is aimed at cooperation to reduce people’s problems,” he said during a parliament session. “Unity and national integrity are necessities that render our enemy hopeless.”

In a speech to parliament on October 4, Raisi acknowledged “weaknesses and shortcomings” in the theocracy, but charged that the protests were “treasonous” and fueled by foreign enemies, including the United States and Israel. Raisi referred to protesters as flies while accusing the enemy of orchestrating the protests. “The enemy seeks to confuse the public mind with psychological warfare and spreading rumours and create fear and despair in the society,” he said on October 9. 

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: “These riots were planned," Supreme Leader Khamenei said at a graduation ceremony for military cadets on October 3. “If the incident with the young girl had not taken place, they would have found another excuse to create insecurity and riots in the country,” he said. Khamenei told the Expediency Council on October 12 that the enemy clumsily attempted to interfere with Iran. “In fact, the initiative is in the hands of the Iranian nation and the enemy was forced to react in a clumsy and foolish manner and so they started planning the riots,” he said. He did not acknowledge the protesters’ demands or Amini’s death during the speech but prescribed “cultural-educational programs” for demonstrators who had been “incited” by foreign powers. 

Judiciary chief Mohseni Ejei: During the first week of protests, Ejei ordered the cases of detained protesters to fast-tracked. But he later said he was willing to negotiate and “make the corrections” based on protesters’ criticism. “If political factions, groups, or individuals have any questions, criticism, ambiguity, or protest, I declare my readiness to talk to them,” he said on October 10. In contradictory comments on October 13, he then called for strict sentencing of protesters. “I have instructed our judges to avoid showing unnecessary sympathy to main elements of these riots and issue tough sentences for them while separating the less guilty people,” he said

On October 17, Mohseni-Ejei blamed Iran’s enemies for the fire at Tehran’s Evin Prison that killed eight detainees and injured dozens. “What happened in Evin prison was a crime perpetrated by few of the enemy’s agents,” he said. He also demanded public trials for “main instigators” of recent protests. Trials “should be held publicly, upon the decision of the judges and in compliance with legal regulations, so that the public are apprised of the crimes of these rabble-rousing elements,” Mohseni-Ejei said. 

IRGC Commander Hossein Salami: On October 2, Salami said that foreign enemies were tricking protesters. “They want to lure young people into the streets,” he said. “We say to our dear young people, when you come to the street, look behind you to see who the path you are on reaches. You are the children of this country. We defend for all, even for those who do not like us because of the deception and seduction of the enemy.” Addressing protesters, he said “We consider you our friends and we will not allow the enemy to attack you.”

In mid-October, Salami said that the United States and Britain were invading classrooms to impose Western lifestyles. “The riots are a path that has come from strategic think tanks in America and England which has spread to our classrooms,” he said. “Today the enemy has opened a new area of cultural, political and security invasion … This is the most complex and mysterious battlefield where the enemy has a serious presence.” 

Updated