A wave of antigovernment protests that began in Iran’s southwest 11 days ago has spread to the capital, Tehran, where demonstrators have marched and chanted slogans against their Islamist rulers for the first time in 18 months.
Video clips of Monday’s demonstration in central Tehran were widely shared on social media and acknowledged by the deputy governor of the Iranian capital region, Hamidreza Goudarzi.
The clips showed at least dozens of Iranians marching on Tehran’s Jomhuri Islami Avenue, or “Islamic Republic Avenue,” chanting slogans against Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamist ruling system over which he presides, and his practice of using the recession-plagued nation’s wealth to pay and arm allied Islamist militias in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
Bold chants by protesters
The Tehran protesters’ chants included “Death to the dictator,” “Shame on Khamenei, let go of the country,” "Cannons, tanks, fireworks, mullahs must go,” and “Neither for Gaza nor Lebanon, I sacrifice my life only for Iran.”
Another social media video appeared to show protesters marching and chanting anti-government slogans on the grounds of a hospital in the northern city of Karaj on Monday. VOA could not independently verify the clip because it is barred from reporting inside Iran.
Iranian state media noted the Tehran demonstration but did not reference any of its anti-government chants. They quoted the Tehran official, Goudarzi, as saying the protest was prompted by a power outage at a nearby shopping center.
“Now there is no gathering and the situation is normal,” Goudarzi said, apparently after the march concluded. There were no reports of Iranian security forces taking action to stop it.
Largest display of discontent in months
The streets of the Iranian capital had not seen such a public display of discontent and anti-establishment chants since January 2020, said Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, director of Oslo-based group Iran Human Rights, in a message to VOA Persian.
Tehran last witnessed several days of antigovernment protests in response to Iranian security forces’ January 8, 2020, downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane shortly after it took off from the Iranian capital. The crash killed all 176 people on board, most of them Iranians and Iranian Canadians who were flying to Kyiv en route to Canada.
After three days of blaming the crash on mechanical problems with the plane, Iranian officials admitted that their forces shot down the Ukraine International Airlines jet. They said those forces mistook the plane for an enemy threat hours after launching missiles at an Iraqi base that houses U.S. troops. Iran had attacked the U.S. troops, wounding dozens, in retaliation for a U.S. airstrike that killed top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad five days previously.
Foundation for Defense of Democracies analyst Behnam Ben Taleblu told VOA Persian that Monday’s Tehran protest was the “most significant outpouring” of antigovernment demonstrators in the Iranian capital since early 2020.
Citizens are standing with protesters
“Tehran citizens are standing in unity with protesters who over a week ago bravely took to the streets in southwest Iran’s Khuzestan province over lack of access to water,” Taleblu said. “Shows of unity like these are precisely what the regime fears most, as it relies on divide and conquer to survive.”
Nightly street protests against water shortages began in drought-stricken Khuzestan on July 15 and spread in the following days to several other Iranian provinces, with protesters chanting slogans increasingly critical of the government. Social media videos that VOA also could not verify appeared to show Iranian security forces firing bullets and tear gas to try to clear the streets.
Iranian state media have reported the killings of at least four people in the protests, including a police officer, and blamed the deaths on saboteurs.
London-based rights group Amnesty International said last Friday that video footage and “consistent accounts” from sources in Iran led it to conclude that security forces had killed at least eight protesters and bystanders, including a teenage boy, in seven different cities. It accused Iran of deploying “unlawful force, including by firing live ammunition and birdshot, to crush mostly peaceful protests.”
Khamenei offers warning
In a statement on his official website last Friday, Khamenei expressed sympathy with the water-deprived residents of Khuzestan but warned them against playing into the hands of Iran’s enemies.
Experts have blamed Iran’s drought not only on significantly lower-than-usual rainfall in recent months but also on years of Iranian government mismanagement of water resources.
Taleblu said Iran’s street protests have been slowly growing in momentum, scale and scope.
“If past is prologue, Tehran is likely to employ lethal force once again against protesters. This cycle of protest and crackdown cannot be ignored by the Biden administration,” he said.
U.S. continues to track unrest
Asked by VOA Persian whether the Biden administration believes Iran’s response to the protests has been harsh, State Department spokesperson Jalina Porter repeated a comment issued several times since the unrest began, telling a Friday press briefing that the U.S. was following reports of the protests and fatalities and believes Iranians should be free to assemble and express themselves without fear of violence or arbitrary detention by security forces.
“We’re also monitoring reports of government-imposed internet shutdowns in the region,” Porter added. “We urge the Iranian government to allow its citizens to exercise their universal rights of freedom of expression, as well as [to] freely access information online.”