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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.

This research briefing was updated on 26 May 2023 with information on sanctions, Iran’s use of the death penalty, and new Iranian Government laws on hijab. 

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 rejected claims she died from blows to her head and limbs.

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

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 Government’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 were detained and 537 protesters killed (as of 4 April 2023, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency).

In February 2023, the Iranian Government said it would pardon or commute the sentences of “tens of thousands” of prisoners, including some detained during the recent protests. From December to May 2023, seven protesters have been executed. 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 was 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. Iran has also conducted drone and missile strikes against Kurdish groups in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, who it accused 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 to the regime

Analysts were cautious about how far the protests threatened the survival of the Islamic Republic. This is because the opposition was not unified, and security forces 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 Iranian regime is struggling for legitimacy. The regime’s response also reflects fears of a separatist movement among the Kurdish minority.

While there were initial signs the enforcement of the dress code would alter, in January 2023 Iran’s judiciary issued new guidance banning the removal of headscarves in public. The Government continues to enforce the restrictions, with new measures such as use of surveillance cameras introduced in March.

International response

Talks are stalled on restoring the nuclear agreement with Iran. Any talks, concessions or proposals for sanctions relief are likely to struggle in the context of the protests 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, including the Opposition Labour Party, 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

26 May 2023: Updated information on IRGC, the Iranian Government response, and sanctions in place against Iran. 

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