As the Death Toll Mounts, Iran’s People Have Left the Reformists Behind

The government cannot move its forces from one city to another because the protests have spread everywhere. It has no effective means to suppress the people.

Hamed Malekpour/Getty

The spark that ignited nationwide protests in Iran was lit on Thursday Dec. 28 in Mashhad — but in just days the flame spread to many cities and provinces across the country. On Jan. 1, the state-run news agency reported that at least 10 people were killed on Sunday alone and there were reports that hundreds had been arrested. By Monday, more than 20 people had died.

But for almost three full days the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) was silent about the events, as were the Islamic Republic authorities themselves. One reason for this silence may be that, this time, the slogans were not the same as those shouted by (occasional) protesters ever since the disputed 2009 presidential election. This new wave of protesters are radically different from those that former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had called “dirt and dust” during the 2009 unrest.

Ghasem Sholeh-Saadi, a human rights activist, former member of parliament from Shiraz and a professor of international law at the University of Tehran, believes that with their recent protests, Iranians have gone beyond the borders of reformism and their demands can no longer be met within the confines of the reformist political agenda.

In a new interview with IranWire, Sholeh-Saadi explains how he came to this conclusion.

Why do you believe that people have gone beyond the confines of reformism?

Notice that in this unrest they do not even use the slogan “O Hossein, Mir Hossein!” [the slogan — with religious connotations — chanted by the supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist candidate in the 2009 presidential election]. I believe people have gone beyond that, and their demands, which until a few days ago were not very clear, are now cohesive and widespread. Now the government cannot move its forces from one city to another because the protests have spread everywhere. It has no effective means to suppress [the people] and, even if it could, cracking down would not solve their problem.

How do you think the government can extricate itself from this crisis?

It is now time for Mr. Khamenei [Iran’s Supreme Leader] to make some fundamental decisions. I have no idea why in the past few days he has kept silent. In a letter that I had written to Mr. Khamenei, I had predicted such events and I pointed to the collapse of the Soviet Union as an example. I wrote that in 1978, US President Jimmy Carter described Iran as “an island of stability” in the unstable sea of the Middle East. But the 1979 Revolution began only a day later. One assumes that such a declaration by the US president must have been based on an accurate analysis and information but it did not last more than a couple of days.

I wrote to Mr. Khamenei that the Soviet Union collapsed because a bunch of fossils like Mr. Brezhnev, and others, who did not have a shred of innovation and flexibility in them, had stayed in power for too long. I wrote that Iran needs innovation.

What do you mean by “innovation”?

In Iran, many of our officials must die before they are dismissed from their jobs. Nothing changes and there is no flexibility. There is no retirement for these gentlemen, either. Mr. Ahmad Jannati [91 years old, Chairman of the Assembly of Experts, Chairman of the Guardian Council and Tehran’s Acting Friday Prayers Leader] has been in his position for years and years.

Iran is a country of diverse ethnicities and beliefs and is a symbol of peaceful coexistence. Why must it be the prisoner of such narrow confines? They say we have elections — but the people do not have the right to vote for those whom they want. They must vote for someone picked by a handful of people like Mr. Jannati in the Guardian Council. A country of 80 million must vote for the choices made by Mr. Jannati and a few others.

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In the meantime, things are happening and changing almost moment to moment in the global village. Even Saudi Arabia, with all its reactionary traditions, has seen what they need today and has started implementing reforms. But in Iran, women cannot go to stadiums. Or people cannot listen to the music that they want. They must buy air tickets and travel to Dubai or Iraq or some other neighboring country to see their favorite artists. These policies are archaic and are no longer acceptable.

Where do you think these protests are going?

Unfortunately, in several cities the protests have led to violence. In Karaj, the building of the Justice Ministry was set on fire. In Arak, the governor’s office was occupied. In other towns like Malayer the offices of the Friday Prayers leaders were set on fire. Things are getting out of hand. And I believe that this will continue because the government cannot satisfy people’s demands and, with the present structure, our rulers are not ready for change. For the moment, we are at a political impasse.

Was it only rising prices that triggered these protests?

IRIB and other unelected bodies are trying to present economic problems as the cause of these protests. IRIB talks nonstop about “the rightful demands of the people for their livelihood” but what they mean to say is that the shortcomings are the fault of [President Hassan Rouhani’s] government — and that it’s the government’s duty to provide for people, which it has not.

In my view, there is no truth to these claims. There is an accumulation of frustrated demands — political, economic or professional — among the people. Credit institutions have even frozen and blocked assets that belong to some people. And many are especially angry at the justice system.

In 2009, too, at a certain juncture, people’s demands grew into challenges to the system itself. In the beginning, they shouted slogans about lost votes and fraud in the election result and people were addressing Mr. Ahmadinejad. But three months later their slogans turned to calling for “independence and Iranian Republic” and called for “Death to the dictator!” It was here that Messrs. Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi hit the brakes because they had no issues with the system itself. They had problems with Mr. Khamenei personally, but not with the system as a whole. Even then, they did not have issues with all his positions but only with some of them.

In several cities the protests have led to violence. ... Things are getting out of hand. And I believe that this will continue because the government cannot satisfy people’s demands.
Ghasem Sholeh-Saadi

Now the accumulation of unmet demands, the complicated economic issues and the security atmosphere has made it so that in only three days and with unbelievable speed, the slogans have turned radical and are voicing open opposition to Mr. Khamenei and Mr. Rouhani. Protesters are now openly throwing insults at their leaders. Today, the students were chanting “Reformists, Principlists: It’s over!” [“Principlists” is another term for Iran’s hardliners.]

All these, in my view, show that people have left the reformists behind.


The protests in Iran have now entered their sixth day and have spread to at least 16 out of 31 provinces in the country. Unlike 2009, the last time Iran witnessed mass demonstrations, the recent unrest has not been centered in big cities, but has instead rocked the country’s smaller cities. This makes it more difficult to keep abreast of all the arrests, but IranWire will continue to monitor events and arrests as much as possible.

Kashan Prosecutor Threatens Protesters with Capital Punishment

In the central city of Kashan, 50 to 60 people have been arrested and the city’s prosecutor, Mohammad Takbirgoo, has gone as far as threatening the protesters with capital punishment.

“Based on the law, those who intend to fight the regime are considered to be ‘corrupt on Earth’ and we will deal with them accordingly,” Takbirgoo said. According to Iranian law, people convicted of “corruption on Earth” and “fighting the regime” should face the death penalty.  

Students in Tehran

According to the authorities, more than 450 people have been arrested in Tehran despite the capital city not being a main epicenter for the protests. Leila Hosseinzadeh, a student of social sciences at Tehran University who is well known for her social activism, is among more than a dozen students who have been arrested. On December 31 and January 1, 15 students were arrested as they left the university. When the student union held a meeting with the university’s chancellor to follow up on their situation, authorities arrested four union members. The student union announced that it holds the minister for higher education responsible for any arrests of students.

Some reports indicate that these four people have now been released.

Mohammad Sharifi Moghadam, a student at Sharif University, was also arrested on December 30 and is being kept at Evin Prison’s Ward 209. He has reportedly started a hunger strike.

Other Arrests in Tehran Province

Tehran’s prosecutor, Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, said the people who had been arrested had become “excited.” He compared them with people involved in “the sedition of 2009,” the name the Iranian regime uses to refer to the Green Movement that emerged after the disputed presidential election that year.

Reports indicate that Evin Prison is being made ready for new political prisoners. At the same time, all political prisoners in Evin and Karaj’s Rajai Shahr prison have been told that their previously-approved request for parole has now been denied.

Tohid Alinasab and Nayeb Rezayi were among the first people to be arrested in Tehran, on December 30 near Ferdowsi Square. They have not been heard from since.

Gohar Eshghi, the mother of Sattar Beheshti, a working-class blogger who was killed in 2012, had wanted to join the protests but has been barred from leaving her house by security forces.

Colonel Abdollahzadeh Pashaki, the police commander of Rabat Karim county in Tehran’s province, said a man and a woman, respectively referred to as R.A and F.Gh, had been arrested. R.A had published a call for demonstrations on Instagram and authorities found him after tracking his mobile phone. F.Gh, a 47-year old bank employee who is originally from Sarab, was arrested for being an alleged “ringleader” of the Rabat Karim protests.

In Karaj, Haji Reza Shakarami, the city’s prosecutor, said “a number of ringleaders” had been arrested and more arrests would take place in the coming days.

Other provinces

Three of the “ringleaders” of a gathering in Hamedan have been arrested, according to Fars News Agency.

More than 100 people have been arrested in Arak, according to Ali Aghazadeh, the provincial governor-general.

Authorities have arrested many people in the city of Khoy in Iran’s Markazi province. IranWire has been given the details of four of those arrested: Rohollah Hossseinzadeh, age 22; Mohammad Gholanji, 18; Yahya Zeinali, 28; Alireza Jabari, 20.

According to the Iranian Labor News Agency, a “number of protesters” were arrested in the city of Takestan on Sunday, December 31. Protesters in the city had attacked the seminary.

Four have been arrested in the county of Azadshahr in Golestan province, according to the county’s police commander.

The last few days have also seen the arrest of Gonabadi Dervish citizens, a religious community that regularly faces discrimination and oppression at the hands of the Iranian authorities. Kasra Nouri, a student of human rights in Tehran University and a manager for the Majzooban-e Noor website, Mohammad Sharifi Moghadam, Mohammad Reza Dervish and Faeze Abdipoor were at Dey Hospital to visit their colleague who is a patient there when they were violently arrested and sent to the Intelligence Ministry’s unit at Ward 209 at Evin Prison. According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency, they’ve started a hunger strike.

Adapted from two articles in IranWire, a partner of The Daily Beast. The first is by Mahrokh Gholamhosseinpour, the second by Arash Azizi.