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Understanding the Unrest in Iran

In recent months, the Middle Eastern country of Iran has been rocked by protests as women have stood up for freedom. 

In September 2022, protests erupted in Iran, a country in the Middle East. People were angry at the oppressive government, which dictates the lifestyle of most Iranians.

Members of the government’s security forces have used brutal measures in response to the protests. Hundreds of people have been killed or imprisoned.

On February 11, the government celebrated the 44th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. In 1979, an uprising led to the overthrow of a monarchy that controlled Iran. But the Islamic regime that replaced it has also been marked by brutality and oppression. As the Islamic government marked the revolution’s anniversary, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Los Angeles, California. They called for basic human rights for the people of Iran.

To learn more about the unrest, I spoke with BBC News reporter Bahman Kalbasi via Zoom. Here are highlights from our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity. 

What is happening in Iran right now?

It has been a very tumultuous four or five months. The protests started in September, after a 22-year-old Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini was arrested by members of the “morality police” for not properly covering her hair. She had broken an Islamic rule that requires women to wear a hijab, or head scarf. Amini was likely beaten, which led to her death. That ignited what had been decades of anger at the morality police and the entire Iranian regime. The government forces women—and men—to dress and behave in a certain way that fits a conservative and restrictive view of what a society should look like. You can go back to 1979 to find the roots of this anger. 

What has the government done to suppress the protests?

Members of the government are scared that they will lose power. Their response has been to use force against the protestors. There have been a variety of extremely brutal, bloody methods used. Security forces started by using pellet guns, in which bullets hurt but didn’t kill people. Some protesters were shot in the eye and lost an eye because of that. Then the forces started to use real guns with real bullets. They killed people on the spot. They also used intimidation tactics by arresting protesters.

At some point, there were 18,000 protesters in jail. Protesters were tortured and beaten up. Some protesters were taken to court and unfairly tried. Some were sentenced to death. To prove that they were not backing down, the government took people sentenced to death and hung them, simply for peacefully protesting. Protests have now died down as a result of the extreme, barbaric government response. But by no means does this mean that the anger has died down.  


After decades of repressive laws, the people of Iran are demanding more freedom. 

Can you describe the Iranian government and its power structure? 

The current government was born from a revolution in 1979. A majority of people were sympathetic or supportive of this revolution against the Shah, which is Persian for King. Iranians opposed his rule because they said he was a dictator who did not allow anyone who disagreed with him to express their opinion. At the same time, there were no restrictions on what women could wear or rules on how people could live. But he didn’t allow for a democratic system, or for people to criticize him.

The Shah was in power for 37 years. The leader of the revolution against him, Ruhollah Khomeini, promised that when he came to power, he would bring democracy. On February 11, 1979, the government of the Shah completely collapsed under massive protests. When Khomeini, the religious leader, came into power, he started to disregard his promises for a free and open society. He slowly began to restrict people’s lives, specifically women, and got rid of anyone who disagreed with him. History repeated itself. After he died, the new and current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, rose to power. For Iranians, it has become more and more meaningless to elect a President, because the Supreme Leader restricts who can run for the presidency, and who can become President. 

What changes do you think need to happen?

I don’t think this government can ever provide for the Iranian people. It is corrupt and dictatorial, and has lost public support. For example, if they asked people to turn off the lights to conserve electricity, nobody would listen. They can’t succeed in making things better. The only way forward is to topple this government and replace it with one that is elected by the people. Unfortunately, they’re not about to let that happen. As you have seen, they’re willing to shoot and hang protesters to stay in power. But that doesn’t mean they will always succeed. 


“The people of Iran are organizing the protests,” says BBC News reporter Bahman Kalbasi, “and they are paying the price.”

How have other countries been involved in the protests?

The government of Iran says that the protesters are organized by foreigners, and that they’re not legitimate. But the people of Iran are organizing the protests, and they are paying the price. Other countries, including the United States, have expressed support for the protesters. But they haven’t done anything that has changed the dynamic on the ground. Some countries have criticized Iran publicly, condemned the Iranian government, and sanctioned them. But that hasn’t made the regime less brutal. It hasn’t given the public any tangible help. For example, the Iranian people need access to the Internet so that they can communicate with each other and post videos of protests for the world to see. But the government has been controlling the Internet and shutting it down. 

What do you see ahead for Iran? 

A lot of people in Iran have finally come to the conclusion that this government has to go. Before you get to the point of bringing down a government, you need a population that believes you have no other alternative. That step has been taken. The state of mind is there, but the hard part of confronting it. I don’t know how long this may take, but what I can say for sure is that a vast majority of Iranians want this government gone as soon as possible. 


Photos © top to bottom: Tuul & Bruno Morandi / Getty Images; fStop Images / Getty Images; FTiare / Getty Images