Iranian police forces said in a July 17th statement that they will “deal decisively” with further anti-government protests over economic turmoil, according to both Al Jazeera and Reuters. The statement comes only a day after using tear gas to disperse protestors in the southwestern city of Behbahan. This follows a demonstration last November which saw hundreds of deaths, injuries, and arrests.
In November 2019, thousands of people across Iran protested the greater economic hardship resulting from the government’s decision to raise the price of gasoline by 50%. The unrest swiftly became political as demonstrators called for the resignations of senior government officials.
The official death toll of the November protest varies from source to source, though all concur that at least multiple hundred people were killed. According to Al Jazeera, officials in Tehran reported a death toll of 225 people, including police officers. Human rights group Amnesty International stated that at least 304 people were killed, thousands were wounded, and thousands more were arbitrarily detained. According to Reuters, over one thousand people may have been killed, which would make the protest the bloodiest instance of street violence since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Ever since the protest, Iranian clerical rulers have attempted to prevent a resurgence of civil unrest.
Over the coming months, the economy – which had already been devastated by sanctions from the United States on the exportation of oil – continued to worsen with the spread of COVID-19. It was in this heightened state of national deprivation that the Supreme Court of Iran, on July 14th, upheld the death sentences of three men involved in the November protests: Amirhossein Moradi, Mohammad Rajabi, and Saeed Tamjidi. This decision provoked enormous resistance on social media, which saw the Persian hashtag #do_not_execute used seven million times.
This virtual uproar paved the way for the July 16th protest in Behbahan. The anger behind the demonstration comes directly from growing frustration with Iran’s economy, weakened by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the campaign of sanctions from the United States. “People are angry. The economy is so bad that we cannot survive,” an Iranian man told Reuters over the phone on the day of the protest, asking that he not be identified for the sake of his own safety. Later that day, the police “firmly dispersed” the protestors using tear gas. Behbahan’s chief of police, Colonel Mohammad Azizi, stated that there were no injuries. This was consistent with reports from Iranian media.
Demonstrators published a number of videos of the event online during the protest. One video, verified by The Associated Press, displays a crowd of dozens of protestors in a public square in Behbahan. The crowd chants, “An Iranian will die, but will never accept humiliation.” Other videos show demonstrators shouting slogans against government officials while others chant, “Fear not, fear not, we are in this together!” Still other videos from Twitter display a significant police presence in multiple cities. These videos could not be verified by Reuters.
On July 17th, a day after the protest, Behbahan police released a statement that not only urged people to “vigilantly refrain from any gathering that could provide a pretext for the counter-revolutionary movement,” but also accused “enemies” of instigating civil unrest. In addition, the statement affirmed that “the police force has an inherent and legal duty to deal decisively with these desperate moves.”
On the same day, calls for further demonstrations against the death sentences of Moradi, Rajabi, and Tamjidi intensified on social media throughout Iran. By the end of the week, the three men’s executions had been halted, as the Supreme Court accepted a request for retrial from one of the men’s lawyers. This comes after United Nations experts concluded that the three men confessed under torture and endured “unfair trials.” The Supreme Court’s acceptance marks a significant victory for human rights in Iran, as many activists believe that the government employs death sentences and executions of protestors as means to quell further protests.
Still, the Behbahan police force’s alarmingly hostile official reaction to Iran’s latest anti-government protest does not bode well for the future of peace and democracy in the country. There is evidently much to be done to move away from conflict and destruction as a means to handle civil unrest in Iran.
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