Protests in Iran spread, including to oil sector, despite violent crackdown
By Farnaz Fassihi and Jane Arraz
Defying a lethal crackdown in cities across Iran, protesters demanding the ouster of Iran’s Islamic Republic have driven their uprising into a fourth week, with workers from the country’s vital oil sector going on strike this week and activists calling for further work stoppages and protests Wednesday.
Despite efforts by Iran’s security forces, including the feared plainclothes Basij militias, to crush the protests, they have only widened. Some have turned into chaotic street battles, with security forces opening fire and protesters fighting back and refusing to give ground, according to witnesses, rights groups and videos of the clashes on social media.
The internet and popular communications applications in Iran have been disrupted for weeks, making it difficult to confirm the true toll of the government’s crackdown on the protests, which have been led and inspired by women from their start in mid-September. But human rights groups said Tuesday that at least 185 people had been killed, including 28 children, with thousands injured or arrested so far. The government said that 24 of its security forces had been killed and about 2,000 wounded.
The protests were sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police after they arrested her under the country’s rule requiring women to wear dress modestly and cover their hair in public. Iran’s security forces claimed she died of a heart attack, but her family said she had been killed by blows to her head and was healthy at the time of her arrest.
The government’s violent crackdown has been intense in many cities across the country, and in recent weeks, it has escalated in the Kurdish region where Amini lived and the protests began.
One city there, Sanandaj, about 250 miles from Iran’s capital of Tehran, came under intense fire over the weekend, according to residents, rights groups and videos posted on social media. Security forces indiscriminately opened fire on residents and homes and threw tear gas into residential buildings, killing at least seven people and injuring more than 400, according to the Kurdish rights group Hengaw.
Since the protests began in September, two teenage girls have joined Amini as the faces of the uprising, appearing on posters and street art across the country, their names chanted as rallying cries and trending on Persian-language Twitter. The girls — Nika Shakarami and Sarina Esmailzadeh, both 16 but from different towns — went missing after they joined the protests in September, their families only learning their fates after authorities suddenly returned their bodies.
The government claimed that the girls had killed themselves by jumping from buildings. But family members immediately rejected those accusations, telling the media and human rights groups that the girls had been beaten to death.
Last week, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, broke weeks of silence over the protests, accusing the United States and Israel of aiding the demonstrators, and voicing support for the security forces’ actions.
But scenes like those this month at the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran — Iran’s most elite academic institution, where authorities shot rubber bullets into crowds of young people and beat and arrested dozens, according to witnesses — have reverberated, outraging even some Iranians who had formerly supported the revolutionary government.
Iran has been rocked by nationwide protest movements before, most notably over contested election results in 2009 and over the economy in 2017 and 2019. Those also brought a swift and deadly reaction from authorities.
But the current uprising has not only been able to survive weeks of crackdown attempts; it has also grown and taken a tone directly threatening the country’s theocratic leadership, with women burning their hijabs, campuses erupting into protest, and marchers chanting, “Death to the dictator!” and “We don’t want an Islamic republic!”
Activists called for another nationwide protest Wednesday and called for workers and businesses to join.
Workers in the oil and energy sector have staged strikes for two days. On Monday, workers from the Abadan and Kangan oil refineries and the Bushehr Petrochemical Project in Asaluyeh went on strike, and a video showed the workers in Asaluyeh blocking a road and chanting, “Death to the dictator!” Eleven workers were arrested Tuesday, but the walkouts continued, according to media reports, and more were expected Wednesday.
Strikes that could further damage the economy, particularly those called by the unions representing the bazaar merchants and the oil and energy sector, carry a heavy weight in Iran’s history. During the 1979 Islamic Revolution, strikes in those sectors were a powerful tool that accelerated the Shah’s collapse.
Amnesty International and rights groups sounded the alarm Tuesday about the violence unfolding in Sanandaj, the city in Iran’s Kurdish region, which has a strong tradition of civil society and organized opposition parties.
Rebin Rahmani, director of the France-based Kurdistan Human Rights Network, said that it had identified four demonstrators killed by security forces in Sanandaj since the protests began, including a man in his 20s who was shot in his car by a plainclothes security officer.
The official response has mostly been dismissive. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on Saturday compared protesters to flies and labeled them enemies during a speech at a university campus. Afterward, university demonstrations took on a new chant: “Raisi, get lost!”
The head of the country’s judiciary, hard-line cleric Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, has played a central role in the crackdown on protesters, officials say. But on Sunday, he appeared to be attempting damage control, saying that he was ready for dialogue with protesters and that the government was willing to make “corrections” to policies.
But many Iranians viewed Mohseni Ejei’s gesture as insincere and instead took it as a sign that the state was realizing that crackdowns alone might not resolve the current crisis.
The government is also facing increasingly vocal criticism for its handling of the crisis from its power base, including some conservative politicians. Mohammad Sadr, a member of the powerful Expediency Council that advises the supreme leader and has oversight over the government, said Tuesday that Amini’s death had ignited “pent-up frustrations, demands and rage, especially among the young generation,” and added that “you cannot rule by force.”