On 27 October 2022, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following topical question for short debate:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans to ask His Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the government of Iran concerning the recent demonstrations in that country.

1. What are the protests about?

The protests began following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was arrested by Iran’s morality police in Tehran on 13 September 2022. It was alleged that she had violated strict rules requiring women to cover their hair when in public. Three days later, Ms Amini died in hospital after falling into a coma hours after her arrest.

Iranian authorities have claimed that Ms Amini died of a heart attack. A state coroner’s report has supported the claim that she died of natural causes. However, it has been alleged that she was beaten by police and died as a result of her injuries. Her parents have denied that she had any health problems and said that she had bruises on her legs.

The first protests took place following Ms Amini’s funeral in Saqqez in western Iran. These protests saw many women remove their headscarves in solidarity. These were not the first protests seen in Iran this year; for example, in May, there were demonstrations about the rising cost of living.

2. How have the protests developed?

Independent media is heavily censored in Iran. Reporters Without Borders have said that it is one of the world’s 10 worst countries for press freedom. Despite this, social media, activists and human rights groups have helped to provide a picture of the latest developments. The reports show that since Ms Amini’s funeral the protests have spread across the country to all of Iran’s 31 provinces. Demonstrations have been seen in schools and universities, as well as on the streets.

Many reports have highlighted the prominent role women are playing in the protests. Videos have shown women in the streets with their hair uncovered and, in some cases, burning their headscarves. Anti-government chants, including “woman, life, freedom” and “death to the dictator”, have also been a feature of the demonstrations.

Schoolchildren have also been involved. Photos have been posted on social media showing schoolgirls protesting in classrooms. A senior member of the Iranian armed forces said that the average age of those arrested in recent riots was 15 years old, while the education minister has also acknowledged the involvement of school-aged students. Tara Sepehri Far, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that the demonstrations in schools are “unprecedented” for Iran. She noted that authorities had been finding it difficult to police the protests by schoolchildren due to concerns that violent crackdowns could risk “full-blown anger throughout the country”.

There have been several flashpoints in the protests which have been widely reported. These include unrest and a fire at the Evin prison in Tehran, which is known for housing political prisoners and anti-government activists, and clashes between security forces and students at Sharif University in Tehran. There have also been reports that young women have been killed by authorities for taking part in the protests. These include reports that:

In addition, protests have been held at Iranian embassies around the world, including in London and Paris. Protests have also taken place in Afghanistan, where the Taliban used gunfire to disperse a demonstration.

3. How has the Iranian government reacted?

It is reported that the Iranian government has taken extreme measures to stop the protests, including using live ammunition on protestors. The Norway-based Iran Human Rights NGO has estimated that, as of 17 October 2022, at least 215 people, including 27 children, had been killed by security forces due to their involvement in protests. It has also warned that several thousand people have been arrested, with individuals’ rights to due process being systematically breached. There have also been reports of people disappearing after being arrested.

To disrupt the planning and reporting of protests, the Iranian government has reportedly introduced restrictions on the internet and telecommunications. The internet monitor Net Blocks has reported disruption to internet services, as well as national restrictions to Instagram and WhatsApp (these were two of the remaining international platforms in the country—other platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been banned for several years). Net Blocks also said there had been shutdowns of mobile networks, with curfew-style mobile internet disruptions occurring daily.

Iranian journalists have been arrested in an apparent attempt to stop them from reporting on the protests, and celebrities who have shown support for the protesters have also been reportedly targeted. For example, an Iranian footballer has been arrested and there have been reports of strict conditions being imposed on the national football team in the lead-up to the world cup. There were also concerns raised about Elnaz Rekabi, a climber who competed without a headscarf in a competition in South Korea.

In addition, authorities have taken action against schoolchildren involved in the protests. There have been reports that security forces have arrested children while they are in school, with some students sent to mental health centres. Iran’s education minister, Yousef Nouri, spoke about this in an interview, stating that students were being detained and sent to mental health facilities that would “reform them” and get rid of their antisocial behaviours.

The Iranian government has sought to settle the unrest and shift blame for the protests onto external forces. Responding to the allegations that Ms Amini was killed by the police, the Iranian government pledged to investigate her death. It has also organised counterprotests to show support for the regime. In addition, the government has publicly blamed the protests on foreign interference, arguing that they have been engineered by the US and Israel.

Criticising the coverage of the protests outside of Iran, the government summoned the UK’s ambassador to complain about “hostile propaganda” by London-based media. It has also complained about the UK’s “interference” in Iran’s internal affairs, accusing the UK government of issuing “unilateral and selective statements”.

4. How are these protests different?

In a report on the protests, the Human Rights Activists News Agency set out what it considers to be unique about the current protests. Among other factors, the report argued that the protests were focused on political and human rights demands rather than economic grievances, and involved Iranian youth playing a key role. In addition, it highlighted that Ms Amini was a young, Kurdish and Sunni woman, arguing that these factors were generally grounds for discrimination in Iran. However, it noted that despite this the Iranian public had showed “a united front”.

Despite these factors, analysts have been cautious about the long-term impact the protests will have on Iran. It has been noted that the protests are not as organised as those seen in 2009 that followed the disputed presidential election. In addition, analysts have stated that the lack of organised opposition limits the threat to the regime from the protests and that security forces are continuing to back the government.

5. How has the UK government reacted?

The UK government has condemned the Iranian authorities’ response to the protests and called for the right to peaceful protest to be respected. It has also taken diplomatic action against the regime.

In early October 2022, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office summoned Iran’s Chargé d’Affaires in the UK over the Iranian government’s “worsening crackdown on protests”. Foreign Secretary James Cleverley said:

The violence levelled at protestors in Iran by the security forces is truly shocking.

Today we have made our view clear to the Iranian authorities—instead of blaming external actors for the unrest, they should take responsibility for their actions and listen to the concerns of their people.

We will continue to work with our partners to hold the Iranian authorities to account for their flagrant human rights violations.

On 10 October 2022, the UK government announced that it was imposing sanctions on “senior security and political figures in Iran and the so-called ‘morality police’”. In a press release, it said that the morality police have used the threat of detention and violence to control what Iranian women wear and how they behave in public. It also noted reports of live ammunition being used against protestors and the bodies of protesters killed by security forces being buried without their families’ knowledge.

It said that it had therefore sanctioned the entirety of the morality police, including its chief, Mohammed Rostami Cheshmeh, and the head of the Tehran division, Haj Ahmed Mirzaei. In addition, it explained that the government had imposed sanctions on “five leading political and security officials” for committing serious human rights violations. These included:

  • Gholamreza Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Basij force, responsible for internal security in Iran
  • Hassan Karami, the commander of the NAJA Special Forces Unit of the Iranian police
  • Hossein Ashtari, the commander-in-chief of the Iranian police

It explained that the sanctions would prevent those individuals travelling to the UK and that any of their assets held in the UK, or by UK persons anywhere, would be frozen.

The UK’s human rights ambassador, Rita French, has also signed a joint statement on the human rights situation in Iran, along with 10 of her European counterparts.

In response to the UK’s actions, Iran has imposed sanctions on 16 institutions and individuals. These sanctions involve visa bans and the seizure of property and assets in Iran. BBC Persian, the intelligence service GCHQ and several politicians, including Conservative MPs Stephen Crabb and Tom Tugendhat, were among those sanctioned.

6. How has the international community responded?

The UN has raised concerns about the Iranian government’s response to the protests. It has called on security forces to stop using “unnecessary or disproportionate force” and said that they should respect the rights of protestors. The UN has also appealed for restraint to avoid further escalation and called for a prompt, impartial and effective investigation into Ms Amini’s death by an independent competent authority. In addition, the UN highlighted concerns about the deaths and arrests of protestors and the disruption caused to communication services.

The US has also criticised the response to the unrest. In October 2022, President Biden said that he was concerned about the “intensifying violent crackdown on peaceful protestors”. He noted that the US was making it easier for Iranians to access the internet and was holding the Iranian officials and entities responsible for the violence to account. President Biden also stated that the US would be imposing “further costs” on those suppressing the protests.

The EU has also been critical of the Iranian authorities and has sanctioned a number of individuals and entities linked to the regime. In its press release, the EU and its member states condemned the “widespread and disproportionate use of force against peaceful protestors”. It said that it expects Iran to stop the violent crackdown against the protestors; free those detained; ensure the free flow of information; and clarify the number of those killed and arrested. It said that its list of those subject to restrictive measures for serious human rights violations comprised 97 individuals and eight entities.

There have been calls to ban Iran from competing in the upcoming men’s football world cup in Qatar. The rights group Open Stadiums has argued that Iran should not be allowed to compete in the tournament due to its treatment of women.

7. Read more

Cover image by Albert Stoynov on Unsplash