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Iran's Unprecedented 2022 Protests: 15 Key Differences from Past Unrest

October 9, 2022
6 min read
The 2022 protests in Iran have fundamental differences with previous uprisings under the Islamic Republic, from being leaderless, universally supported, driven by women and emboldened by the Islamic Republic's loss of legitimacy
The 2022 protests in Iran have fundamental differences with previous uprisings under the Islamic Republic, from being leaderless, universally supported, driven by women and emboldened by the Islamic Republic's loss of legitimacy

The 2022 protests in Iran have fundamental differences with previous uprisings under the Islamic Republic. One is the fact that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is 83 years old and, unlike in 2009, he is no longer able to effectively deploy the forces of suppression. Iranians are aware of this and they know that he does not have much time left. But there are at least 15 key differences between today and the past.

The new protests have no leaders

The protests that were first an angry response to the death of the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, from Saqqez, Iranian Kurdistan, started in the city of her birth and nearby Sanandaj, but quickly spread to other cities and grew into an anti-forced hijab movement. The feminist dimension then incorporated other demands by Iranians of the past 40 years.

This movement, however, has no leaders. Iran’s political reformists (who are nevertheless within the Islamic Republic system) have lost their credibility, and other groups which traditionally guided such protests are now either silent or cannot offer solutions to the demands of protesters.

The new protests are everywhere

Protest rallies are held in many cities but, unlike in the past, they are not concentrated in a specific neighborhood or street and this has made the job of suppressing them more difficult.

The demands go back 40 years

Even though people much younger than 18 are participating in the protests, their demands have been around for 40 years or perhaps more. The demands revolve around social and political freedoms, freedom from forced hijab and opposition to dictatorship and authoritarianism.

Protesters’ demands are universal and even women in full hijab support them

Slogans chanted by protesters have a universal appeal. “Woman, life, freedom” has a simple and universal meaning that appeals to people from cities in Iran and countries across the world. The response by famous artists and social and political figures, inside and outside Iran, or by anonymous citizens who have joined rallies abroad, shows the universality and the depth of this slogan.

Even Iranian women who wear full hijab voluntarily and as a personal choice support it and this has given this movement unprecedented power.

The protesters respect each other’s choices

Iranian protesters whose primary demand is the end of forced hijab nevertheless respect women who wear hijab as a choice and accept them as their partners. The protesters ask others to respect each other’s religious beliefs – this has put a dent in the armor of the usual government tactic of calling protesters “anti-religion” and their actions “religious insults”. In his first response to the protests, Ali Khamenei claimed that protesters “have burned the Quran” but, at least this time, his vilifying of protesters was unsuccessful.

The protesters have learned to live without the internet

During previous widespread protests, especially the nationwide protests of November 2019, the Islamic Republic disrupted internet access to undermine demonstrations. But this time the protesters are shrugging it off and the cuts in internet service have not limited the protests to a great degree. Protesters have reminded other that there was no internet during the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The world learned that Iranians and the Islamic Republic are not the same

Politicians and leaders around the world have grasped the fact that Iranian citizens are different from officials of the Islamic Republic. Protest rallies in 150 cities and their stories that have been seen internationally and this has helped the international community to understand the new generation of Iranians and their demands. The violent suppression of protesters by the armed forces of the Islamic Republic has undermined the legitimacy of the regime in the world.

Khamenei has claimed that the protesters have taken to the streets at the behest of the United Stated and Israel. But world leaders have denounced such claims and want the regime to take protesters’ demands seriously.

Iranians no longer believe the regime’s narrative

Time and again Islamic Republic officials have lied about events and, as result, public trust in their narratives has evaporated. Many Iranians now view statements by officials, their promises and their reports, including those aired by the state radio and tv, with extreme suspicion, or do not believe them at all.

One of the high points of official mendacity was reached with downing of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 on January 8, 2020, by the Revolutionary Guard. For three days the government denied the truth until the evidence forced it to confess. Now government propaganda that in the past was used as a tactic to extinguish the protests not only no longer works but it makes citizens even angrier.

Iranians are no longer afraid of the regime

Since its beginning, the Islamic Republic has violated the rights of major groups of Iranian citizens and has violently suppressed numerous and ever-growing protests over the past 40 years. But the protests that started in September 2022 show that the fear of protesters has subsided, and in some cases, people have even clashed with the armed forces of the regime.

During one recent protest, a large poster could be seen on a Tehran street that said: “We are no longer afraid of you, and we shall fight you.” This diminishing of fear can only undermine the confidence of the forces of suppression.

The belief that the Islamic Republic is not eternal has spread

The protesters have found new strength in the belief that the Islamic Republic is unable to satisfy the people’s demands and, as a result, is close to its downfall. The many pictures of escaping armed agents and plainclothes officers have convinced protesters that they can defeat the formidable forces of suppression.

“At last, our anger is more powerful than your might,” has been a slogan of protesters in this latest round of demonstrations.

Women are at the forefront

A picture posted on social media shows a woman without hijab on a street in Tehran, standing in front of riot police and security agents who are trying to disburse protesters. “The real power is unarmed, against an armed occupying force,” was a caption that accompanied this picture. Women and girls of every age have been the driving force in these protests and are the core promoters of values that this new movement in Iran demands.

Even schoolgirls have joined the protests

For the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic, the protests have spread to schools. Many pictures show schoolgirls removing their headscarves, pulling down pictures of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Revolution, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, from the walls of their classrooms, or tearing their pictures from their schoolbooks.

Iranian emigrants are supporting Iranians in Iran

Rallies by Iranian expatriates in 150 cities outside Iran show their solidarity with their compatriots inside the country. This is one of the few times that Iranians in Iran and across the diaspora have united in voicing their demands.

Ali Khamenei is now 83 years old

Rumors of Khamenei’s death have circulated since the protests began and when, after three weeks, he first he spoke about them from inside a garrison, protesters did not cower in fear. The 2009 protests, by contrast, were suppressed when the Supreme Leader was 13 years younger. Khamenei’s advanced age now has apparently made the new generation of protesters optimistic that, no matter what, Khamenei’s rule is ending.

The government is more incompetent than ever

The Islamic Republic government is more incompetent and hollowed-out than any time in the past 43 years and it appears to be close to a precipice. Its inability to satisfy people’s demands, its culpability for major environmental and economic disasters, grave social divisions, pervasive corruption and a loss of legitimacy, even among its former supporters, have convinced protesters that it is dying. The legitimacy of the Islamic Republic is at is lowest point since February 1979: this is an unprecedented moment.



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