Anti-Government Protests Spread In Iran

Anti-government protests are spreading in Iran.

Iran Protests

While it’s been mostly quiet in this time between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Iran has suddenly erupted in protests that appear to be spreading:

Two protesters were reportedly killed and dozens arrested during demonstrations overnight across Iran, as the nation’s interior minister warned on Sunday that protesters would “pay the price” for what he called their unlawful actions.

What began as a protest over rising prices and other economic difficulties in one city on Thursday quickly grew into a nationwide outpouring of anger against the government of President Hassan Rouhani. Protests continued for a third night on Saturday, with news reports and social media posts describing sometimes violent demonstrations in cities including the capital, Tehran.

According to the Agence France-Presse news agency, semiofficial Iranian news outlets showed footage of protesters attacking banks and municipal buildings across the nation, including a local government building in Tehran. It said 80 people were arrested overnight in Arak, a city southwest of Tehran.

“Those who damage public property, disrupt order and break the law must be responsible for their behavior and pay the price,” Iran’s interior minister, Abdolrahman Rahmani Fazli, said on state television Sunday, according to Agence France-Presse.

“The spreading of violence, fear and terror will definitely be confronted,” he said. “The vigilance and intelligence of people has always led any plot to fail.”

Later on Sunday, state television said Iran would temporarily restrict access to some social media and messaging apps, like Instagram and the messaging app Telegram, to to “maintain peace.” On Saturday, Iran successfully pushed Telegram to close the account of the Iranian channel Amad News after government officials complained directly to the company’s chief executive that the channel was encouraging violence.

The unauthorized protests have challenged the authorities, with crowds turning revolutionary slogans against the government of the Islamic Republic, which took power following a revolution in 1979.

Protesters in Tehran and elsewhere have called for the resignation of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as witnesses have described crowds chanting “Death to the dictator” and “Clerics should get lost.”

Postings on social media showed what the posters said were protests in the city of Dorud, including bonfires in the street and graphic images of people with bloody wounds. At least one of the videos was verified by BBC Persian.

The semiofficial Mehr news agency of Iran quoted a local official as saying that two protesters in Dorud were killed during the demonstrations overnight, according to The Associated Press. There had been earlier reports of at least two protesters being shot in that city.

According to The Associated Press, Mehr quoted Habibollah Khojastepour, identified as the security deputy of the governor of Lorestan, the province where Dorud is located, as saying the two were killed in clashes during an illegal gathering on Saturday night.

“Two of our dear Dorodi citizens were killed,” he was quoted as saying, without explaining who killed them or how they died.

Not surprisingly, President Trump has used his Twitter account to chime in on the protests:

Philip Gordon of the Council on Foreign Relations, who previously served in the Obama Administration, argues though that the best way the United States can help the protests is by staying quiet:

One reason to worry that Mr. Trump may try to seize the moment by championing the protesters is that it has become an article of faith among President Barack Obama’s critics than in 2009 he missed a golden opportunity to do just that, when many Iranians took to the streets after a disputed election result. But it was never clear what difference American rhetorical support would have made then, other than allowing the Iranian government to depict the protesters as American lackeys, giving the security services more of a pretext to crack down violently.

Even if Mr. Obama’s support might have somehow been helpful to the Iranian opposition, Mr. Trump’s almost certainly will not be. Whatever Iranians think of their own government, they are unlikely to want as a voice for their grievances an American president who has relentlessly opposed economic relief for their country and banned them from traveling to the United States.

In addition, Mr. Trump is now threatening to “terminate” the nuclear deal (breaking with European allies and the rest of the United Nations Security Council); unconditionally supports Iran’s biggest adversaries, Saudi Arabia and Israel; and recently recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a move rejected by every other country in the region. His policies are dividing the United States from its international partners and giving Iranians reasons to unite against him. A smarter strategy would be designed to do the opposite.

To the extent that these protests are a sign of the Iranian public’s discontent with its leaders, they also belie Mr. Trump’s argument that the nuclear deal provided “urgently needed relief from the intense domestic pressure the sanctions had created,” as he put it in his October speech. On the contrary, while providing Iran some real economic benefits, the implementation of that deal over the last two years has also taken away the Iranian government’s ability to blame the United States for Iran’s enduring economic woes.

If Mr. Trump blows up the deal and reimposes sanctions, he will not be doing the opposition a favor but instead giving Iranians a reason to rally to — rather than work against — the government they might otherwise despise.

While these protests are only a few days old, they are already causing some politicians and analysts to draw paralells to the so-called Green Revolution of 2009 that occurred in the wake of controversial elections that saw opposition and moderate candidates lose out to more hardline parties and candidates. Those protests went nationwide and prompted some violent responses from the Iranian government that drew worldwide protests. Here in the United States, though, the chief impact of the protests was to become something of a political cudgel used by critics of the Obama Administration. According to these critics, then President Obama failed to speak out forcefully enough on behalf of the protesters and that this somehow undermined the protests themselves, although it’s not clear exactly how those protests would have been helped by anything the President could have said. Instead, as many of President Obama’s supporters and advisers argued at the time, any appearance that the United States was backing the protests would have been used by the Iranian government to discredit them and to justify a more widespread and violent crackdown. Quite arguably, the same concerns should exist today. There’s very little the United States can do on behalf of the protests in terms of material support, and indeed we should avoid trying to do so since that would just provide more evidence for the authorities in Tehran to point to in their effort to discredit the protests and justify a crackdown.

That doesn’tmean the United States should be completely silent, of course. Just as we did during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, the U.S. ought to be among the nations leading the world in some form of solidarity with these protests, and warning the Iranian government that violent crackdowns and human rights violations will only serve to isolate them from the international community. Additionally, there are two steps that the Trump Administration could take that would provide both practical and moral support for the protests. The first would be to reconsider the travel ban that bars anyone from Iran from coming to the United States. It is, to say the least, hypocritical for the Trump Administrati0n to claim support for the people of Iran at the same time that it is singling them out along with a handful of other Muslim nations and barring them from coming to the United States even in humanitarian cases. The second would be to step back from what clearly seems to be a more confrontational posture with Iran that appears to include an effort to reimpose sanctions that were lifted in the wake of the nuclear deal. This is especially true given the fact that the protest themselves appear to be rooted in the state of the economy, something the government in Tehran has long blamed on sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other countries.

In the end, what if anything these protests achieve will be in the hands of the people of Iran and whatever support they may have inside the government. Rather than reflexively trying to intervene recklessly in the process, the best thing the United States can do is let the process play out.


FILED UNDER: Middle East, National Security, Terrorism, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I presume that the next step will be the regime rolling out the Revolutionary Guard and the hired thugs, mostly Arabs, that they did back in 2009. I presume that is the reason behind the anti-Arab slogans chanted by the protesters that have been reported. That will mark the critical stage. It will take more than dissatisfaction to uproot the mullahs from their positions of power.

    Like you, I think that less is more when it comes to our handling of populist demonstrations in Iran. The last thing they need is for the mullahs to be able to claim, reasonably, that the protests are another U. S.-instigated coup. Sadly, subtlety is not President Trump’s strong suit.

  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    The alt right media outlets are already using alleged non-coverage of the Iranian protests as a cudgel to beat on mainstream media. As I write this, there are 10 headline articles on the Iran protests at the link aggregation site Memeorandum, two from right wing outlets fox news and The Tablet, decrying lack of MSM coverage and 8 actually covering or offering analysis of the protests. Among the news sources covering the the protests 7 headlines are to articles published by the New York Times, Washington Post, the BBC, Wall Street Journal and Reuters. All MSM, establishment news sources. The 8th offering coverage, rather than propaganda on the coverage is Gawker.

    Best to the protesters

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Western news media outlets are impeded in covering stories in Iran by the regime and by their own well-founded concerns for their reporters’ safety.

  4. Hal_10000 says:

    I just blogged on how I’m a bit skeptical on the whole “should we, shouldn’t we” debate about supporting the protesters. The world does not revolve around the utterances of the President. If Obama had voiced full-throated support in 2009, it would not have made a difference. And whether Trump is silent or Trumpish, we’ll get blamed for the protests one way or another.

    There’s a secondary debate going on about whether the nuclear deal made this possible by exposing the regime’s incompetence and corruption. I’m sympathetic to that view but, again, think this has way more to do with Iran’s internal politics and culture than anything we do. There’s a huge generation of young people who don’t want to live under an Islamic state. That’s going to matter, sooner or later.

    I’m just glad we ignored the neocons and never bombed them.

  5. Franklin says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Sadly, subtlety is not President Trump’s strong suit.

    But understatement is yours!

  6. Gustopher says:

    @Sleeping Dog: International news in the US is really, really bad — the articles about the protests simply say people are protesting, but don’t give any information about how this happened, why now, what the response of the Iranian government is, or really anything. The only cause I have seen is the very vague “rising prices”, with no examples.

    The far right may be trying to rouse up the rabble in the US with “see how terrible the media is,” but they are aided by how terrible the media actually is.

    Newspapers and television networks have cut their international bureaus to the bone, so they don’t have the capacity to do real reporting in much of the world — that’s the main problem, not the fear of reporters’ safety. Iran isn’t a war zone, and it isn’t particularly dangerous. The government is repressive and will monitor any reporters, so there are some challenges, but nothing half the world doesn’t have.

  7. Gustopher says:

    Trump has twitted.

    Big protests in Iran. The people are finally getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism. Looks like they will not take it any longer. The USA is watching very closely for human rights violations!

    A harmless and ineffective twit, and about the best anyone could hope for. Alas, he will likely twit again.

    It is worth noting that Republicans are far more supportive of protests in Iran than they are here. From the pictures, you can see that they are blocking traffic. There is doubtless some minor property damage. Do the protesters have permits? Likely not. And yet these protesters are to be praised. It’s almost as if there is absolutely no intellectual consistency or honesty.

  8. CSK says:


    As always, it depends on whose ox is getting gored. The same crew will praise the Charlottesville Nazis to the skies.

  9. Sleeping Dog says:


    International news coverage in the US maybe bad, but that can be blamed on news consumers who don’t care about what happens outside the US and media outlets that are struggling to stay in business. Outside of the New York Times, you have a point about lack of eyes/ears on the ground.

    If you are looking for smart analysis of what is happening in a region there are numerous specialist blogs covering what is going on in those countries. All you need to do is do a search.

  10. Chip Daniels says:

    Part of the difficulty in reporting on sudden protests like these, are that the protests may not have a single unifying theme.

    Economic stress, combined with underlying sectarian divisions, corruption, and other issue can all be intertwined, and there may be a dozen different groups involved, each with different and competing agendas.

    Americans tend to want to have these things boiled down to some good gyu- bad guy story, preferably rendered in some variation of our own internal politics.

  11. Dave Schuler says:


    One of my Brit friends has told me that I understate things more than anyone of his acquaintance who wasn’t actually English. 😉

  12. Daryl's other brother Daryll says:


    “…simply say people are protesting, but don’t give any information about how this happened, why now…”

    This…after the Iran deal lifted many of the sanctions.
    Oil prices aren’t high, but not awful.
    So why now?

  13. Daryl's other brother Daryll says:


    “…simply say people are protesting, but don’t give any information about how this happened, why now…”

    This…after the Iran deal lifted many of the sanctions.
    Oil prices aren’t high, but not awful.
    So why now?
    Inscrutable, perhaps…

  14. Daryl's other brother Daryll says:

    Apologies for the duplicate post.

  15. loaded says:

    Good for Trump. Good for Iran.

  16. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    Happy new year guys and gals :-).

  17. Tyrell says:

    The best policy for the US is to continue to keep their ears on the ground and get a handle on just what is going on in there and keep our options close to the vest, that is if we have any viable options. The president of Iran seems like a reasonable person; compared to what they had in 1980*. While many people want some changes in there, you have to be careful what we wish for. The US has already been burnt in there enough.
    Trump needs to be wise with any actions and comments.
    The last thing the world needs is another crazy leader with nuclear weapons in their hands
    *1980: “Ayatollah Assahola”

  18. Mister Bluster says:

    Trump needs to be wise with any actions and comments.
    Impossible! Impossible!

  19. Slugger says:

    I wonder what any of this means to the US. I tried reading the English language Iranian media but was not enlightened. The nonIranian media attributes the unrest to domestic issues. I doubt that the protesters are chanting proUSA slogans. In that part of the world there is a rivalry between Iran and its allies and Saudi Arabia and its allies. For reasons that are not clear to me, we are firmly on the Saud side having fought wars in Iraq and giving real support with materiel and special forces to Saud led conflicts in Syria and Yemen. The process of regime change would likely weaken the Iranian efforts, but that weakness might just be temporary. A more democratic government in Tehran might be a stronger, more efficient opponent than the Ayatollahs.
    I have long thought that it is in the interests of America to rethink our policies in the Levant and to take strong steps to wean ourselves off their petroleum. A thriving electric car business will safeguard America more than a hundred thousand F-35s.

  20. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:


    The last thing the world needs is another crazy leader with nuclear weapons in their hands

    I agree. Trump is already one too many.

  21. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Slugger: You’re forgetting the most important part of the formula–a more democratic Iran would never do anything that didn’t coincide with US interests.

    It didn’t sound as idiotic as it looks, really.

  22. Kathy says:

    Democracy did not stop the US from grabbing half of Mexico, nor meddling in the internal affairs of countries in the Western hemisphere, nor from launching an unprovoked war against Spain.

  23. JohnMcC says:

    @Kathy: Actually, democracy pretty much made it happen if you’re talking about western expansion from the Atlantic seacoast. Nothing more beloved by the American people than Manifest Destiny! One of the reasons for the original Revolution in ’76 was to break free of the British Crown’s treaties & guarantees to Native Americans. It was downhill after that all the way to Manila Bay, Sandwich Islands and Puerto Rico.

    Not much stops wars. Busy international trade? Nope. Ruling families all inbred and friendly? Nope.

    Most successful war and aggression stopper I know of was the Congress of Vienna. Damn shame that Metternich isn’t around when we need him.

  24. JohnMcC says:

    @Slugger: My thoughts run along similar lanes. The Iranians are at least out in the streets but Saudi subjects (surely we can’t think of them as ‘citizens’!) know much better than to do that. The Iranians hold elections and the winner gets to serve as head of legislative government. When will any elections bless the Gulf Arab states?

    The enmity toward us from Iran goes back to the British Petroleum interests, to Lend-Lease material going through Iran to Russia to fight Nazis, and to the 1953 coup in which we (and our British cousins) overthrew Mosaddegh who was an elected, popular leader with the peculiar idea that Iran actually could do what it wished with it’s oil.

    We earned the hatred of the Iranians. And we deserve every bit of grief that the Saudi’s cause us.

  25. Kathy says:

    @JohnMcC: Conquest has always been popular in rising empires.

    Metternich was a bastard with deep authoritarian feelings. He may not have liked war, but he liked liberty even less.Still, if I knew how to prevent war, I’d let you know.

  26. Tyrell says:

    Twenty people killed in these protests. Something needs to be done. The other nations need to stand united against Iran and these outrages. There should be an investigation.

  27. al-Ameda says:


    Twenty people killed in these protests. Something needs to be done. The other nations need to stand united against Iran and these outrages. There should be an investigation.

    The easiest way to get a congressional investigation of this is to suggest that Hillary Clinton, The Clinton Foundation, or Barack Obama are to directly blame for these killings.

    To be sure, they’d have to shift resources from one of their many Benghazi investigations, but, I’m sure it could be done.