Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters

For the past several days, Iranians have protested in some 90 cities around the country. While this has been noted as a rare event, which it is, a modicum of protest has been a recurring feature of the Islamic Republic’s recent past. I wanted to understand how the current round of demonstrations lines up with the country’s history of dissent, so I spoke to experts in Iranian political history and democratic movements. What I found is that the tensions that have allowed protests to erupt regularly in Iran’s theocratic autocracy go back to the founding of the Islamic Republic.

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Iranians Have Been Protesting Since 1979

It would be wrong to think that just because Iran is a restrictive culture that protests and popular revolts haven’t happened, even since the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah. The revolution in 1979 rejected American interference, but also saw Iranians demand freedom from a corrupt ruling class that flaunted its wealth. The theocracy created on the back of that revolution produced dissent from the very beginning. “There were protests throughout the country,” recounted Misagh Parsa, a professor of sociology at Dartmouth University, and acts of passive resistance like not attending mosques became widespread almost immediately.

The 1979 revolution had strong leftist influences, and Iran’s supreme leader today still talks about a “resistance economy.” But the failure to deliver a more equitable society is motivating some protesters to take to the streets. “It's interesting to see that 40 years after revolution, a new class has been created that has the same characteristic of the ruling class that the revolution happened against,” said Tara Sepehri Far, an Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch. Because protesters’ grievances were at least initially about economic concerns, the regime may have let the protests go further than it otherwise would have. (Protests are in principle allowed in Iran, but only with permits that are rarely issued in practice.)

Before the current eruption began in Mashhad, the country’s second-largest city, demonstrators had complained about the failure of financial instruments that many pension funds depended on. “Those protests were tolerated in front of the judiciary in Mashhad and Tehran,” said Sepehri Far. Pensioners like that, she said, “can get in front of the parliament in an ordinary situation and protest in small groups. Those are tolerated. As opposed to a bunch of student activists gathered in front of the University of Tehran and protesting political repression.”

Many of the current protesters are now demanding radical political change, and hundreds have been arrested. But the challenge to the government’s economic narrative has made it more difficult for the security forces to simply sweep the protesters into prison, as they did during the 2009 Green Movement. “The crackdown doesn't seem like full-force and organized the way that it was in 2009,” said Sepehri Far. “It looks like they're just recognizing at least the economic components of it, but also trying to deflect attention.”

How a Civil Rights Movement Took Root in a Theocracy

In 2009, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected under suspicious circumstances. Millions of protesters marched in the streets, creating an existential challenge for Khamenei and his allies. The security forces put the protests down brutally, killing more than 100 and arresting thousands. But while Khamenei secured his control of the state, the 2009 Green Movement had a lasting effect. “If we consider Iran’s pro-democracy ‘green movement’ not as a revolution but as a civil rights movement—as the leaders of the movement do—then a ‘win’ must be measured over time,” wrote the Iranian journalist Hooman Majd in 2010. “Elections in the Islamic state can never be held as they were in 2009,” he continued, “nor can the authorities completely silence opposition politicians and their supporters or ignore their demands over the long term.”

To understand how a civil rights movement can take root in a theocracy, just look at the rights of women. Iran’s legal system has empowered women, argues Arzoo Osanloo, a legal anthropologist at the University of Washington. “You have this Islamist legal system that espouses principles that are very liberal,” she said. Iranian law allows women, for instance, to go before courts to dissolve a marriage. “Over the years, women became very savvy. They learned the law, they figured out how to write a claim, make a statement. In order to do that, you have to be a liberal subject. You have to see yourself as an individual who has agency and is endowed with rights.”

Iranian women are empowered, she said, not because they are inspired by Western notions of human rights, but because their own legal system has for years treated them as empowered individuals—unwittingly so, according to Osanloo. Nonetheless, when leaders like President Hassan Rouhani are challenged by hard-liners, “These are always the first concessions that they make: The civil rights of women, of minority groups, of religious groups. Ultimately, this is what feeds into some of the protests.”

Iran’s Rulers Have Learned How to Repress Effectively

The question now is how far dissent will be allowed to go. By not tightly repressing it—at least until now—the administration “has created space for dissent,” Sepehri Far said. And since 2009, mobile internet has become widespread. “In 2009, you had to film something with your phone, come home, hope that dial-up Internet is good enough that you could upload something.” Now, she said, the ability to express opinion has moved online. “People can just film as they walk and upload.”

The regime has learned from this technological change, too. “They might have even learned a lesson that if they want to be effective in their repression they have to be active in forming the narrative,” said Sepehri Far. The government has restricted access to messaging apps like Telegram, but has been communicating more information itself, she explained. “They announced the number of arrests,” she said, in a marked contrast to the information blackout of 2009. And if shifts like this, along with the arrests and deaths of protesters, don’t quell the dissent, the Islamic Republic can resort to extreme measures. In 1988, it executed at least 5,000 political prisoners.

In his research, Parsa has looked around the world at factors that tipped authoritarian states over into democratic revolutions. “Whenever I saw a coalition between workers and students, students and workers, in Indonesia, South Korea—and now in Iran—this is a very radical coalition. Students are often the most radical, and now workers have joined them.” A broad-based protest movement like this poses a grave threat to the Islamic Republic.

The regime’s quick response, including its shut down of Telegram, may already have blunted the effectiveness of this round of protests, Parsa said. “This looks like the end of a protest movement that often ends up in revolution,” he said on Tuesday. Assuming this doesn’t tip over into all-out revolt, the fundamental conflicts between the Islamic Republic and its people will remain, producing lasting friction. “Every few years at least, this is going to be a regular event.”

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