"I can't be a mute spectator anymore. The deaths of men and women in the 2019 uprising broke my faith in the regime. Mahsa's death is just the final nail in the coffin," a 46-year-old Iranian woman named Mehjabin told The Quint as protests catalysed by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini continue to rock the country.
Amini was whisked away by the "morality police" for not donning her hijab properly. She died in their custody, with a CT scan theorising that the cause of her death was a blow to the head.
As word about her custodial death spread, angry Iranians started to protest, burning their hijabs and chopping off their hair, with videos of both going viral on social media. Other viral clips show huge crowds of women shouting "death to the dictator."
These protests, which have been caused by the death of a single woman surrounding an extremely sensitive religious issue, are unprecedented. They are still not, however, the only time when the Iranian people have risen in anger.
The 2019 anti-government uprisings were the last time Iran saw protests of the scale that is being witnessed in 2022. What had triggered those protests? How did Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's theocratic government deal with them, and how is his autocratic regime perceived in the international system?
'Do Whatever It Takes to End It': The 2019 Protests
About 1,500 people, according to Reuters, were killed in the less than two weeks of protests that rocked Iran in November 2019. These numbers are much higher than what the Interior Ministry of Iran (225) and Human Rights Watch along with Amnesty (305+) had reported. The US Department of State had estimated 1,000 people to have died in the protests.
During the early hours of 15 November, the government announced an increase in the prices of gasoline (by as much as 200 percent), sparking protests in different parts of the country. By the second day, however, the unrest had reached Tehran, with Iranians calling for the toppling of the Islamic regime.
Pictures of Khamenei were burned as protestors demanded the return of Reza Pahlavi, the oldest son of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was the last Shah of Iran before the 1979 revolution. Reza Pahlavi was the crown prince when the revolution happened, forcing him into exile.
What had started out as demonstrations against fuel hikes escalated into hostility against the regime overall. High inflation, unemployment, and an autocratic style of governance led protesters to demand that Islamic scholars and clerics step down from the government. "They live like kings, people get poorer," was a popular cry, as seen in viral videos.
Khamenei did not listen to anyone. Angered by the burning of his pictures and the destruction of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's statue, the man who founded the Islamic Republic in 1979, Ali Khamenei ordered a brutal crackdown. "The Islamic Republic is in danger. Do whatever it takes to end it. You have my order," the supreme leader told his inner circle, according to a Reuters Special Report.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, a Brief Look
80-year-old Khamenei became Supreme Leader of Iran in 1989, succeeding Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The former joined the latter's religious opposition movement against Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the pro-West Shah of Iran who sought to "modernise" Iranian society. While protesting against the Shah, he was sent to jail a couple of times as well.
After the 1979 revolution, Ali Khamenei served on the Revolutionary Council, after which he became the deputy defence minister and helped organise the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC), which is one of the most powerful institutions in the country today. He serves as president from 1981-1989, after which he became the Supreme Leader due to Ruhollah Khomeini's demise.
Even before Mahsa Amini's death, Khamenei's long reign witnessed many huge protests, including the 1994 Qazvin Protests (after the president's motion to form a new province with the city of Qazvin as its capital was defeated), the 1999 student protests (sparked by the closure of the reformist newspaper, Salam), the 2009 presidential election protests (due to allegations of rigging), the 2011–2012 protests (sparked by the Arab Springs), the 2017–2018 Iranian protests (because of a sudden jump in food prices), the 2018–2019 Iranian strikes and protests (against the overall economic situation) and the 2019–2020 protests (due to the hike in fuel prices).
The Khamenei regime has dealt with all these protests with an iron hand, characterised by widespread arrests and police killings. In most of these protests, the Supreme Leader blames "enemies of the revolution" and "foreign conspirators" for the ensuing chaos.
As the Supreme Leader of Iran, he has the ultimate authority on pretty much everything, being the head of state, and also then commander-in-chief of its armed forces. Additionally, he can issue decrees (fatwas) and reverse or make the final decisions on the many of parliament's policies.
How International Institutions Perceive the Khamenei Regime
International institutions concerned with human rights and civil liberties have been scathing in their verdict of the Khamenei regime.
In a 2020 report on the "Situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran", Javaid Rehman, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran stated that he is "alarmed by the unprecedented violent crackdown against protesters across the Islamic Republic of Iran in November 2019."
"Excessive force by State security forces has led to hundreds of deaths and injuries and thousands of arrests. Detained protesters have faced torture and ill-treatment, with some receiving harsh sentences, including the death penalty, after unfair trials," he added.
Another 2020 report, this one by Human Rights Watch, asserted, "Iranian authorities continued to repress their own people. The country’s security and intelligence apparatus, in partnership with Iran’s judiciary, harshly cracked down on dissent (in 2020), including through excessive and lethal force against protesters and reported abuse and torture in detention."
Additionally, Freedom House, a non-profit that does research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights, in its 2022 report, gave Iran a score of 14/100 and characterised it as "not free."
While the country holds regular elections, the report argued, "They fall short of democratic standards due in part to the influence of the hard-line Guardian Council, an unelected body that disqualifies all candidates it deems insufficiently loyal to the clerical establishment."
"Ultimate power rests in the hands of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the unelected institutions under his control. These institutions, including the security forces and the judiciary, play a major role in the suppression of dissent and other restrictions on civil liberties," the report added.