The largest anti-government protests in Iran since 2009 gathered strength Saturday, spreading to as many as 80 cities, even as authorities escalated a crackdown that has reportedly killed dozens of people and brought the arrests of prominent activists and journalists, according to rights groups and news media reports.
Internet access – especially on cellphone apps widely used for communication – continued to be disrupted or fully blocked, affecting Iranians’ ability to communicate with one another and the outside world. News from Iran has trickled out with many hours of delay.
While the 2009 protests erupted over an election widely condemned as fraudulent, the current demonstrations seemed focused on the Iranian security forces, with reports of vicious beatings of security officers and firebombings of the local headquarters of the notorious morality police.
In many cities, including Tehran, the capital, security forces responded by opening fire on the crowds. On Boulevard Ferdous and at the Shahrak Ekbatan apartment complex in Tehran, officers fired at windows; in the city of Rasht, they threw tear gas into apartments, according to witnesses and videos on social media.
Iranian state media said Friday that at least 35 people had been killed in the unrest, but human rights groups said Saturday that the number is likely to be much higher. A previous death toll of 17 issued by the state news media included at least five members of the security services.
The videos posted online and the scale of the response from the authorities are difficult to independently verify, but video and photographs sent by witnesses known to The New York Times were broadly in line with the images being posted widely online.
Deep resentments and anger have been building for months, analysts say, particularly among young Iranians, in response to a crackdown ordered by the country’s hard-line president, Ebrahim Raisi, that has targeted women.
That comes on top of a litany of complaints over the years over corruption, mismanagement of the economy, inept handling of COVID-19 and widespread political repression. The problems have persisted under Raisi, who came to power in an election in which any potential contenders were eliminated before the vote, particularly those from the reformist faction.
During the tenure of Raisi’s predecessor, the moderate Hassan Rouhani, the morality police had been discouraged from enforcing Iran’s often draconian laws against women, particularly the requirement that they wear the hijab in public in the “proper” fashion.
But Iran’s powerful supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is now said to be resting in bed after emergency surgery, engineered the ascent of Raisi, eliminating an important outlet for the frustrations of Iran’s younger generation.
Those frustrations are now boiling over. The small Kurdish city of Oshnavieh reportedly fell to protesters when local security forces retreated after days of intense fighting, the editor of a Kurdish news site said.
“Since last night, Oshnavieh has been governed by the people,” a Kurdish official, Hussein Yazdanpana, said in an interview, adding that women had thrown off their mandatory headscarves in celebration.
“The liberation has far-reaching consequences for other cities,” he said, describing the town as a gateway to other Kurdish areas of Iran.
Ammar Golie, an Iranian Kurd based in Germany who edits the news site NNS Roj, has been in regular contact with residents of Oshnavieh, which is in West Azerbaijan province and has a population of 40,000 ethnic Kurds. He said the residents had set up roadblocks at the gateway to the city’s only two roads.
Videos posted on social media show large crowds marching in the streets of Oshnavieh, many wearing traditional Kurdish garb, and chanting, “Freedom.” Another video shows intense gunfights over control of the city’s police headquarters.
Golie said local contacts had told him that an army battalion and a unit of the Revolutionary Guard from the nearest city, Oroumiyeh, had been deployed to crush the protests and take Oshnavieh back.
“We are expecting blood to be spilled,” Golie said. “It’s an extremely tense situation.”
The nationwide uprising was ignited by the death of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, in the custody of the morality police on Sept. 16. Amini was arrested on accusations of violating the hijab mandate. Women have led the past week’s demonstrations, some ripping off their headscarves, waving them and burning them as men have cheered them on.
For seven days and nights, Iranians have taken to the streets, facing bullets, tear gas, beatings and arrests to send a message to the clerics who have led the nation for 43 years. They have chanted for an end to the Islamic Republic’s rule, according to witnesses and videos shared on social media.
In Tehran, protests have changed shape from large gatherings at designated landmarks to smaller cells spread in most neighborhoods, including the affluent northern section and the working-class southern parts.
In the religious city of Qom, the power center of the Shiite faith and the government’s power base, videos posted on social media show scenes never seen before: young women stripping off their hijabs and crowds chanting against Ayatollah Khamenei, and calling him the nation’s “shame.”
Raisi, upon returning to Iran from New York, where he addressed the U.N. General Assembly, warned Friday in a speech at Tehran’s airport that the government would “not allow, under any circumstances, for the security of the country and public to be jeopardized.”
The Ministry of Intelligence sent a text message to all cellphone users warning that anyone participating in the demonstrations, which it said were organized by Iran’s enemies, would be punished according to Shariah law. Copies of the texts were shared with the Times and also posted on social media.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said at least 11 journalists, including Niloofar Hamedi, the reporter from the daily newspaper Shargh who was the first to report on Amini’s case and interviewed her family in the hospital, had been arrested.
Among the activists arrested were Majid Tavakoli and sociologist Mohammadreza Jalaeipour, the organization said.