September 26, 2022

IntelBrief: Rioting Grips Iran After Woman Dies in Custody

AP Photo

Bottom Line up Front

  • The most serious unrest in Iran since 2019 continues to escalate, prompting an increasingly aggressive regime crackdown.
  • Rioters in some locations have successfully challenged local security forces, but the government has sufficient resources to retain its grip on power.
  • Women’s rights, and government enforcement of the Islamic dress code, have constituted a significant component of most uprisings during the Islamic Republic.
  • Despite the uprising and international criticism, the regime is unlikely to lift or substantially amend restrictions on women’s rights.

In mid-September, Iran’s “morality police,” a force that monitors public adherence to the Islamic dress codes enacted in 1981, arrested and took 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish Iranian visiting family in Tehran, to a government-run “re-education center.” Authorities accused her of “improper” adherence to the law requiring that a woman’s head be fully covered by a garment called a hijab. A few days after her detention, Amini died at a hospital of what the regime claimed was a heart attack. The family asserted that Amini had no pre-existing health condition and that her death was undoubtedly a result of mistreatment by authorities during and after her arrest. The morality police and staff of the re-education center are mostly members of the Basij mobilization force, a unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that monitors the population for loyalty and suppresses major demonstrations.

On September 17, protests broke out over Amini’s death and the broader issue of regime enforcement of restrictions on women and on citizen behavior in public. Virtually since the inception of the Islamic Republic, women have demanded the relaxation of the dress code laws and an end to the limitations of their rights in property and family matters. In the September 2022 unrest, many women led the demonstrations and have drawn public support by burning or removing their hijabs. Most of the past uprisings, including in 2009, 2017, and 2019, as well as smaller episodes of unrest, were sparked primarily by perceived regime corruption, electoral misfeasance, or by economic conditions that have been made worse by U.S.-led economic sanctions - all of which have become factors in the latest uprising. And, even though the current uprising has focused on women’s rights, many demonstrators are calling for the outright fall of the regime.

As protests expanded, representatives of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamene’i, reportedly offered condolences and apologies to Amini’s family, and President Ibrahim Raisi claimed that the death would be fully investigated. However, the Iranian leadership’s steps did not prevent protests from expanding to over 130 small and large cities, or from escalating into riots against Basij and other law enforcement officers. As of September 25, human rights organizations claim that at least 41 protesters, as well as some members of the security forces, have been killed in clashes. About half of the protester deaths, and the most intense violence, have occurred in mostly Kurdish-inhabited provinces of northwestern Iran - consistent with reports that Iran’s Kurds view Amini’s death as emblematic of regime repression of their community. In some smaller locations, demonstrators have outnumbered security forces and attacked and forced them to retreat. In most locations, however, the regime has been able to follow its familiar playbook - the deployment of overwhelming force against protesters. The regime appears to have sufficient resources - as well as a reservoir of support among an older generation and rural Iranians - to prevent the uprising from shaking its grip on power. In addition to the use of force, the government, as it has in recent cycles of unrest, cut Internet access to prevent protesters from organizing. It also has begun accusing the demonstrators of being instigated by “foreign powers” and of constituting a threat to Iran’s national security - an accusation that carries heavy penalties on those convicted. Consistent with past practices, the regime organized a pro-government protests on September 23 that criticized the demonstrators for disloyalty and called for the execution of “rioters.” The regime has also reportedly pressured and threatened journalists and Amini family members who have sought to document her death or refused to back the government’s explanation of it.

Still, the regime remained defiant, giving no indication that it would change any laws to ease the restrictions on the public dress code or relax enforcement of these laws. Iranian leaders lashed out at its international critics, particularly the United States, that Iranian leaders perceive as hoping that the unrest might produce the downfall of the regime. At his U.N. General Assembly speech on September 21, Raisi did not specifically reference Amini’s death but instead accused the United States of upholding a “double standard” by criticizing the human rights practices of its adversaries while downplaying abuses in the United States itself. He also accused the United States, more broadly, of pursuing a “militaristic” foreign policy through its past military interventions in the region and its impositions of economic sanctions on Iran and other countries. During his speech to the Assembly, also on September 21, President Joseph Biden directly challenged the Iranian leadership on the Amini death and subsequent uprising, stating that: “Today we stand with the brave citizens and the brave women of Iran who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights.” Yet, neither the United States, its partners, the United Nations, or other outside actors appear to have sufficient leverage to compel the regime to change its policies on the dress code or other domestic issues. In all past and current negotiations with major powers to limit Iran’s nuclear program, Iranian leaders have consistently refused to incorporate human rights concessions - or any aspects of its behavior beyond Iran’s nuclear program - into the discussions. The United States has imposed sanctions on Iranian officials and institutions, such as prisons, for significant human rights abuses, but the government has not offered the United States or other actors any concessions on domestic policy issues. Still, the extent of the September 2022 uprising indicates that broad grievances exist within the population, possibly widespread enough to pose a significant threat to the regime over the longer term.