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This provides an update to an earlier Commons Library Insight on the protests Mahsa Amini protests in Iran 2022, published 7 October 2022.

In September 2022, Mahsa Jina Amini, an Iranian Kurdish woman, was arrested by Iran’s morality police for her alleged noncompliance with the country’s Islamic dress code. Three days later, she died in police custody. The Iranian coroner rejects claims she died from blows to her head and limbs.

Amini’s death has sparked widespread protests for over 100 days. This briefing describes the background to the protests, including the rights of women and minority ethnic groups, the extent of the protests, and the response of the Iranian Government. It also sets out the international response, including new sanctions and UN proceedings.

Protests and response by Iranian authorities

Continuing protests in December saw reported shop-closures and strikes.

UN officials, the UK, and other G7 Governments have criticised the Iranian regime’s response, including its use of force against protesters and suppression of the internet. While the numbers are uncertain, activists report that at least 19,200 people have been detained and 516 protesters killed (as of 3 January 2023, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency).

In December 2022 and January 2023, Iran executed four people linked to the protests. UN experts have called for Iran to cease employing the death penalty, citing its similar use in 2019 and 2020. Rights groups estimate between 26 and 100 protesters are at risk of facing the death penalty.

According to one Iranian official, the average age of those arrested is 15. UN experts are concerned that children have been subject to force and that minority groups including the Sunni Baloch community have been targeted by authorities.

Iran argues that outside condemnation is hypocritical and that foreign governments, including Israel and the United States, have been spreading misinformation and supporting protesters.

Several foreign nationals have also been arrested for their alleged involvement, including seven UK-linked individuals in December 2022, and Iran has conducted drone and missile strikes against Kurdish groups in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, who it accuses of supporting the protests.

Iran has also accused the UK of internal interference. Iranian officials in the UK have been summoned by the UK Government to criticise the Iranian Government’s response. In November, the UK Foreign Secretary summoned Iran’s Chargé d’Affaires to raise alleged death threats against some UK-based journalists. The Government has also summoned Iranian diplomats to condemn the use of the death penalty against protesters.

The significance of the protests on the regime

Analysts have been cautious about how far the protests threaten the survival of the Islamic Republic. This is because the opposition is not unified, and security forces have remained loyal to the regime.

However, combined with the lowest turnouts since 1979 for the recent presidential and parliamentary elections (around 40-50% of the electorate voted) the protests suggest the state is struggling for legitimacy.

The regime’s response also reflects fears of a separatist movement among the Kurdish minority. The most likely short-term change may be the enforcement of the dress code, with President Raisi hinting at change.

International response

Talks are stalled on restoring the nuclear agreement with Iran. Any talks, concessions or proposals for sanctions relief are likely to struggle while the protests are ongoing and many of the parties to the negotiation, including the UK and EU, are critical of Iran’s response to the protesters.

Some analysts have suggested now is not the time for sanctions relief, regardless of the outcome of the nuclear talks, in order to maintain pressure on the regime. The international response has focused on three elements:

In 2022, some MPs called for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to be proscribed a terrorist organisation in the UK in response to its actions in Iran and potentially the UK. This would make it illegal to be a member of the group.

The Government says it will not speculate on future actions and the IRGC is already subject to sanctions “in its entirety.”

It reiterated this position in response to a Telegraph story in January 2023 that the organisation will be proscribed “within weeks.”

Update log

16 December 2022: Updated information on regime response and UN proceedings

6 January 2023: Added information on IRGC and regime response. 

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