Analysis: Iran cracks down on protestors following young woman’s death

Ayatollah Khamenei. Image Credit: Tasnim News, CC BY 4.0.

Less than three weeks into September, the Iranian regime is experiencing a self-inflicted autumn of discontent, with domestic protests, uncertainty over the future of ongoing nuclear negotiations, and continued antisemitic threats against Israel emerging from the country in a matter of weeks.

Trouble at home

  • Domestic unrest in Iran began on Friday, when a young women died following her arrest in Tehran by the regime’s morality police.
  • Mahsa Amini, 22, was on a family visit to the capital last Tuesday when she was detained by the police unit responsible for enforcing the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code for women.
  • Amini was arrested by the police after officers reportedly found fault with her headscarf, or hijab. The headscarf has been compulsory for women in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
  • Following an unclear series of events, Amini was taken to hospital on Thursday, where she died the next day. Iranian police reported that she had suffered a heart attack, though activists claim she suffered a blow to the head while in custody.
  • On Saturday, hundreds of people gathered during Amini’s funeral in the city of Sadez in northwestern Iran, with social media footage showing people chanting “death to the dictator”. Other footage appeared to show protestors hurling stones at a banner of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
  • Social media footage appears to show Iranian security forces opening fire and launching tear gas at the protestors. Iran International, a UK-based opposition outlet, reported that several people were wounded in these confrontations.
  • Amini’s case has drawn condemnation from Iranian celebrities, athletes and other public figures, as well as US national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

Deal or no deal

Iran’s domestic unrest has been matched by its precarious international circumstances, as efforts to resurrect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreed in 2015 to restrict the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme have stalled in recent months. Emmanuel Macron, the president of France – one of the European signatories of the deal – will this week meet with Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi on the side lines of the UN General Assembly in New York, with a warning that Iran will not get a better proposal to revive the deal than that currently being offered. “We’ll see what this week brings”, French foreign minister Catherine Colonna told reporters on Monday. “The window of opportunity seems ready to close again.” She added: “We are repeatedly saying […] there is no better offer for Iran. It’s up to them to make a decision”.

The Biden administration has consistently asserted that the deal remains the best way to restrict Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but has become increasingly pessimistic about Iran’s sincerity in the negotiations. Such pessimism follows broader scepticism in Washington and elsewhere about the negotiations, which, even if successful, would leave many aspects of malign Iranian activity – including its ballistic missile programme and support for terrorist proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas – untouched.

For the avoidance of doubt

The past week has also witnessed a number of reminders from the Iranian regime about its place in the international order.

  • In an interview with CBS in Tehran, Raisi refused to confirm that he believed the Holocaust was historical fact, responding to the question “Do you believe the Holocaust happened? That six million Jews were slaughtered?” by saying “There are some signs that it happened”.
  • He went on to say that the Holocaust was an example of a “historical event” which should be “investigated by researchers and historians”. When pressed to confirm that he was “not sure” about the Holocaust’s veracity, he did not challenge the journalist’s conclusion.
  • When questioned later as to whether he supported Israel’s right to exist, Raisi described Israel as a “false regime” and asserted that “the people of Palestine are the reality”.
  • Last week also saw Raisi among human rights-abusing friends, including Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, at the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, where Iran was granted membership of the SCO – nicknamed the “autocrats club”.
  • Iran’s observer membership of the SCO follows Putin’s visit to Tehran in June, which prompted Iran to begin supplying drones for use by Russian forces against Ukraine.


As a further reminder of Iran’s malign presence on the world stage, Israel on Monday issued a travel alert ahead of the Jewish High Holidays, warning that Iran and Islamist terror groups are seeking to carry out attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets. “We estimate that in the near future Iran will continue to promote harm to Israeli targets around the world, both in countries close to Iran and countries in the West and Europe”, Israel’s National Security Council said. In particular, security officials warned of attacks in Europe by existing Iranian assets on the continent, following several recently uncovered Iranian attempts to attack dissidents in Europe. The warnings followed similar notices regarding travel to Turkey in May this year, including a thwarted Iranian cell operation to kidnap and murder a former Israeli ambassador to Turkey and his wife.

To the UN

Amid this context of internal unrest, uncertainty over the nuclear negotiations, and stark reminders of Iran’s malign role in international relations, the UN General Assembly will meet in New York this week. Israeli prime minister Yair Lapid is due to address the UN and is expected to focus on the nuclear talks, with a growing view in Jerusalem that the likelihood of a renewed deal before the US congressional midterm elections in November increasingly small. Raisi is also headed to New York, apparently in the hope – perhaps naively in light of the past week’s events – that addressing the UN will allow him to refute allegations of “malice” against his regime.