But activists, international organizations and local journalists have pieced together a startling portrait of what took place: an unprecedented wave of state-sanctioned violence against unarmed protesters that may have led to as many as 450 deaths in the first four days after protests flared on Nov. 15. Based on its collation of reports and video footage — thousands of clips recorded on mobile phones have still made their way out of the country — Amnesty International estimated the death toll to be at least 208 people, with “the real figure likely to be higher.”
Though Tehran was affected by disturbances, the most dramatic scenes came from poorer towns and working-class suburbs elsewhere in the country. A piece by New York Times reporters Farnaz Fassihi and Rick Gladstone looked at a grisly massacre in the southwest city of Mahshahr, where members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard allegedly gunned down some 40 to 100 unarmed protesters who had fled to a marsh.
The Times quoted an unemployed 24-year-old college graduate who participated in protests blocking roads in the city and who said his best friend and older cousin were among those killed. “He said they both had been shot in the chest and their bodies were returned to the families five days later, only after they had signed paperwork promising not to hold funerals or memorial services and not to give interviews to media,” reported the Times.
The events of the past month revealed a deep well of discontent among ordinary Iranians. Officials in the Trump administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have hailed the uprising as the result of the administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy, which has choked off the oil revenue the regime desperately needs to help subsidize sectors of the country’s flagging economy. But ordinary Iranians have been bitterly affected by the bite of U.S. sanctions, too, which have raised the price of food and threatened access to key medicines.
Hard-liners at odds with President Hassan Rouhani’s administration sought to piggy back off the discontent and distance themselves from the government’s decision to cut subsidies, but they were also caught off guard by the scale of the protest movement. The protesters’ anger over the economy dovetailed with long-standing frustrations over mismanagement and the corruption of political elites and in some places prompted calls for the exit of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The stunning death toll from just a few days of unrest makes clear that Khamenei and his allies are worried. A decade ago, 72 people were killed in months of protests after an election widely seen as fraudulent. This time, with hundreds dead in the span of a few days, something more seismic seemed to be at work.
“The recent protests are different than the protests of 2009, when people took to the streets after Reformist presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi declared that the ballots were rigged. Those protests had leaders and political goals,” explained Rohollah Faghihi in Al-Monitor. “The 2019 events have no leader or specific goal. … [They] are an expression of deep-rooted anger and pain.”
Mousavi, who remains under house arrest, issued a warning to the regime over the weekend, likening the crackdown last month to a massacre in 1978 that preceded the downfall of Iran’s shah and the rise of the Islamic Republic. “The killers of the year 1978 were the representatives of a nonreligious regime and the agents and shooters of November 2019 are the representatives of a religious government,” read an online post attributed to Mousavi. “Then the commander in chief was the shah and today, here, the supreme leader with absolute authority.”
Other analysts suggest a more apt analogue may lie slightly further back in history. Vali Nasr, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, pointed to large-scale protests that broke out in 1963 in reaction to the shah’s reform plans. Thousands may have been slaughtered by security forces, including an infamous crackdown in Tehran on June 5 of that year.
“The gang leaders responsible for the Tehran uprising were tried and hanged, and all physical signs of destruction in Tehran were quickly removed,” Yale historian Abbas Amanat wrote in his 2017 tome on Iran’s modern history. “Yet the psychological wounds inflicted by the revolt remained unhealed.”
Nasr told Today’s WorldView that the moment “marked a turning point” for Iran, which “radicalized the opposition and united it against the monarchy” and set Iran on its way to the 1979 revolution. “The lesson of 1963 is that we cannot always expect this sort of bloodletting to lead to a bigger conflagration immediately, but it could ultimately manifest itself in politics down the road,” he said.