How Iran Protests Compare to the 1979 Revolution

Clashes across Iran have led to at least six people being killed on Wednesday as the Islamic Republic's leadership faces its biggest threat since the revolution of 1979.

Anger has been building across the country following the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman who had been arrested three days earlier by Iran's morality police and accused of improperly wearing a hijab.

Iran protesters in New York
People shout slogans during a protest for children of Iran at UNICEF headquarters on November 10, 2022 in New York City. According to news-agency reports, 43 children have been killed during the ongoing protests. Leonardo Munoz/Getty Images

Tuesday saw the first day of a three-day strike in Iran by shopkeepers that coincided with the third anniversary of a brutal crackdown against a protest against fuel-price rises.

Khosro Kalbasi Isfahani, a journalist with BBC Monitoring, tweeted that shops were shuttered in Tehran's Grand Bazaar, which played a "key role" in the 1979 revolution that overthrew Iran's previous regime, ruled by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

As one of the most important markets in the country, the Grand Bazaar of Tehran was a center for pro-revolutionary sentiment and finance and a link between the clergy and the middle-class traders who backed the 1979 Revolution.

"When you compare 2022 to 1979, there is definitely the role of the bazaar and its symbolism and what it represents joining the movement, but what's as important as well is the virtual one," said Nazenin Ansari, referring to the role that social media is playing in trying to put into effect change, compared with 43 years ago.

Ansari is editor of the publications for the global Iranian community Kayhan London and KayhanLife.com. She said there had been "the element of fear" that deterred dissent against the regime.

"This time, you can attribute [the protests] to the importance of social media," she told Newsweek. "People are really connecting and finding their voice and taking it to the streets of Iran."

Communications restrictions have affected landline and mobile usage, as well as the internet. However, video and images still manage to make their way to platforms such as WhatsApp, showing the defiance of those opposing the regime.

One clip on Wednesday, shared by Khosro Kalbasi Isfahani on Twitter, showed a woman throwing her hijab into the flames of a bonfire. Demonstrations initially against restrictive rules for women have shifted into full-throttle anger at the regime.

Ansari said that young people aged between 15 and 30 were "the engine" for the unrest. They had "morphed into freethinkers" who managed to use social media to plan and organize. "Now they're on the streets protesting, and their vigor and tenacity has really inspired the rest of the age groups," added Ansari.

"These children learned the language of the Islamic Republic and the revolutionary passion, but now they're saying, 'This we do for ourselves, not for you anymore.'"

The success of the 1979 revolution was partly attributed to the military's declaration of neutrality, with the Iranian army refusing to quash the protests. The creation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a parallel security institution to the national army offers protection to the regime and its leaders.

"In 1979, the regime of the shah didn't want to use violence," said Ansari. "The clerics all these years have said this has been their narrative, 'We're not going to do like them so we will crack down on you.'"

Tuesday saw protests in dozens of universities and bazaars across the country and, notably, steel workers in the city of Isfahan, central Iran, also downed tools.

Ansari said the participation of the steel workers in Isfahan, and the shopkeepers in Tehran's Grand Bazaar, showed that, "this time with the strikes, it is the business owners" who are opposing the regime.

"While various aspects of this uprising are different from the 1979 revolution, there are also striking similarities," said Shahin Gobadi. He is press spokesman of the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK), based in Paris, which is seeking to overthrow the regime.

"People from different age groups, from all walks of life and different ethnicities are unprecedentedly united with one objective—overthrowing the ruling theocracy and establishing a democratic republic."

The rights-activist HRANA news agency said on Wednesday at least 344 people, including 43 minors, have been killed in the unrest, which is in its 10th week. More than 15,000 people are estimated to have been arrested.

At least 20 protesters are facing charges punishable by death, Norway-based Iran Human Rights said, citing official reports.

Hana Yazdanpana, spokesperson for the Kurdistan Freedom Party [PAK], a nationalist and separatist militant group of Kurds in Iran, said that "in the urban uprising... the number of participants was higher than ever.

"It is true that, in 1979, the Tehran market went on strike and had a major impact on the fall of the shah's regime and the victory of the 1979 uprising," she told Newsweek.

"However, Khomeini and the akhunds (spiritual and religious leaders) occupied this victory because they did not change the principles of the state and did not recognize the rights of nations," Yazdanpana said.

"If Tehran continues to strike, it will accelerate the process of defeat and collapse of Khamenei's regime."

Newsweek has contacted the Iranian foreign ministry for comment.