On the night of Friday, November 15, 2019, a massive uprising broke out in various Iranian cities after regime authorities announced plans to triple the price of gasoline. The protests lasted for about a week and spread to over 190 cities in all 31 provinces of Iran. Although the unrest was sparked by a gasoline price hike, protesters focused on the nature of the regime itself as the source of such disastrous policies. The November 2019 uprising was unprecedented in the past 40 years, particularly due to its breadth, rapid pace, the bravery of protesters, and willingness to risk their lives, and organization.
The protests became markedly organized and immediately called for regime change by chanting “death to [Ali] Khamenei,” “death to [Hassan] Rouhani,” and “death to dictatorship” as they confronted the regime’s suppressive forces. According to the regime’s own officials, dozens of centers of repression, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Bassij, and police headquarters were attacked or torched. Dozens of officials and media outlets in Iran blamed the main opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) for leading the protests through small teams of “Resistance Units,” and providing logistical, tactical, financial, and intelligence support for the demonstrations.
Scope of the protests
All of Iran’s cities with populations of one million or more were scenes of protests and clashes in November 2019. Demonstrations began in cities across Khuzestan Province in western Iran. They quickly spread to dozens of other municipalities in all of Iran’s provinces. Major cities that saw extensive protests and clashes included: Tehran, Karaj, Shahriar, Isfahan, Shiraz, Tabriz, Ardebil, Urmia, Rasht, and Sari, among many others. Regime officials and state-run media outlets have admitted that the uprising encompassed at least 190 cities and towns.
Alireza Adyani, the representative of Tehran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei in the State Security Forces (SSF), said at the time: “The incidents of the past several days were more complex and their catastrophe more palpable than those in 1999, 2008 and 2017. … In one day, 165 cities in 25 provinces and 900 locations in the country became unsafe” (Bassij news, November 21, 2019). Brig. Gen. Salar Abnoush, a commander of the paramilitary Bassij, said: “As someone who was on the ground, I believe that only God saved us” (ISNA, November 21, 2019). The minister of Interior, Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, pointed out: “On Saturday (November 16), there were clashes and incidents in 100 locations in Tehran alone. … More than 50 bases of armed forces were attacked.”
In virtually every location that the protests sprang up, demonstrators targeted the regime’s symbols and institutions. They especially targeted state-affiliated banks. These financial hubs for the regime included Bank Melli, Iran’s largest bank with 3,100 branches, and Bank Mellat (owned by Khamenei’s SETAD), with over 1,500 branches, Ansar Bank (owned by the IRGC) with 1,100 branches, Parsian Bank (main beneficiaries are Khamenei’s SETAD and the IRGC) with 350 branches. All other centers that were torched were affiliated with the IRGC or Khamenei. These included
Extent of financial damages to the regime
The regime’s officials estimated that more than $5B in damages were sustained for its various institutions as a result of popular attacks. Financial damages resulting from the temporary internet shutdown were assessed at roughly $1.5B. In total, over 1,890 centers of suppression, theft, and state propaganda were attacked.
Included in the figures are over 1,000 state-run banks, mostly owned by the regime’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and the IRGC. At least 41 official centers belonging to armed forces like the IRGC, at least 19 offices of clerics and seminaries, at least 182 state-owned institutions, and at least 120 vehicles of suppressive forces were damaged or burnt. The state-run Etemad newspaper wrote that youth in the city of Shiraz alone had set 76 banks on fire.
Regime’s response: Murder, torture
The regime cut off the internet on the second day of the protests to disrupt communications among protesters and to prevent reports of the scale and intensity of the uprising, as well as of the atrocities committed by the IRGC, from being reported to the outside world. The shutdown lasted for several days before service was partially resumed in some areas. The mullahs’ officials admitted early on that even though the State Security Forces (SSF) were on high alert (since the regime anticipated some public backlash regarding fuel price hikes), they were unable to fully control the situation and even deserted some hotspots in fear. Therefore, the regime transferred full command to the IRGC on the next day, Saturday, November 16, at 14:00 local time.
Still, demonstrations grew at an unprecedented pace. Officials became so terrified of the intensity of the protests that on Sunday, November 17, barely two days after the protests first broke out, the regime’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei felt the need to personally intervene and order his forces to fire at will. He publicly ordered officials to more actively suppress the protesters. After the order, IRGC forces began targeting protesters’ heads to kill them on the spot and inflict maximum casualties to scare the population.
In the end, at least 1,500 protesters were massacred on the streets. Over 4,000 were wounded and at least 12,000 were arrested in some 190 towns and cities. This death toll is 60 times the number of people killed during the previous mass uprising in December 2017, signifying both the increasing willingness of the population to risk their lives to oppose the regime and the state’s fear and diminishing ability to control the situation without having to resort to brute violence.
Security forces used an array of weaponry against the defenceless civilians, including batons, tear gas, handguns, automatic weapons, snipers, water cannons, helicopters, and even machine guns as was the case in the city of Mahshahr. According to The New York Times, “In the southwest city of Mahshahr alone, witnesses and medical personnel said, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps members surrounded, shot and killed 40 to 100 demonstrators — mostly unarmed young men — in a marsh where they had sought refuge.”
On December 6, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet issued a report stating, “Verified video footage indicates severe violence was used against protesters, including armed members of security forces shooting from the roof of a justice department building in one city, and from helicopters in another… We have also received footage which appears to show security forces shooting unarmed demonstrators from behind while they were running away, and shooting others directly in the face and vital organs – in other words shooting to kill. These are clear violations of international norms and standards on the use of force, and serious violations of human rights.”
Amnesty International said: “Extensive video footage verified and analysed by Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps shows security forces shooting at unarmed protesters.” “This alarming death toll is further evidence that Iran’s security forces went on a horrific killing spree,” said Philip Luther, Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
According to information gathered by Amnesty International, “Families of victims have been threatened and warned not to speak to the media, or to hold funeral ceremonies for their loved ones. Some families are also being forced to make extortionate payments to have the bodies of their loved ones returned to them.”
The martyrs are predominantly young. Among the murdered protesters were even teenagers as young as 13. They include, for example, 13-year-old Amir-Reza Abdollahi in Eslamshahr, 14-year-old teenage girl Nikta Esfandani in Tehran, and 15-year-old Armin Qaderi in Kermanshah. In many cases, the suppressive forces did not hand over the bodies of the dead to their families and even refused taking them to the coroner’s office, instead burying them in unknown locations.
Those detained have been brutally tortured. In September 2020, Amnesty published a harrowing account of how thousands of people detained in November 2019 were undergoing medieval torture in prisons across Iran. The report pointed to “widespread torture including beatings, floggings, electric shocks, stress positions, mock executions, waterboarding, sexual violence, forced administration of chemical substances, and deprivation of medical care.” It added that hundreds are subjected to grossly unfair trials on baseless national security charges and the regime has issued death sentences for many of them.
Fearful that the protests have not stopped, the regime has resorted to executing detained November 2019 protesters even a year after the uprising. In September 2020, a wrestling champion and detained protester, Navid Afkari, was viciously executed despite international calls to prevent the 27-year-old’s execution. The regime uses such barbaric acts to instil fear in the population and to prevent further protests.
The role of the organized democratic opposition
A cursory look at what the regime’s leaders and state-run media have said regarding the November 2019 uprising clearly shows that Resistance Units of the main opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) were at the center of leading the uprising. These Resistance Units were formed several years ago and have spread throughout the country. They have a wealth of experience gained on the ground through thousands of acts of protest.
Just two days after the onset of the uprising, the regime’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, dedicated a main portion of his speech to characterizing the activists as “thugs” and “foreign mercenaries.” Highlighting the role of the MEK, Khamenei said: “The wicked and criminal collective of the hypocrites (the regime’s derogatory reference to the MEK) are constantly encouraging and inviting people on social networks and elsewhere to conduct these evil acts.”
Khamenei, again on January 8, 2020, said: “In the sphere of security matters, several days prior to the November incidents … in a small country in Europe, a small but evil and truly wicked country in Europe, an American element met a number of Iranian mercenaries and traitors and began planning against the Islamic Republic. Their plan was what happened several days later during the incidents around gasoline.” The “evil country” referenced by Khamenei is Albania, where the MEK has built its headquarters at Ashraf-3. Khamenei was referring to a visit by General James Jones, the first National Security Advisor to President Barack, to Ashraf-3, in Albania, where he met with Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).
Other senior officials have also highlighted the MEK’s organizational prowess and widespread presence inside Iran. Hossein Ashtari, the Commander of State Security Forces (SSF), said: “Our investigations show that behind the scenes, anti-revolutionary organizations and the MEK led these movements” (Fars, November 17). The speaker of the regime’s Majlis (parliament), Ali Larijani, said: “After hearing the profound and expedient words of Your Excellency (Khamenei), members of the Majlis consider it imperative to follow the path directed by Your Excellency, and we must coordinate more in order to deprive America, the MEK and antirevolutionary stooges the opportunity to create chaos in the country” (Farhang Radio, November 18). Hassan Rouhani’s spokesperson, Ali Rabei, said: “The behavior of the protestors is wholly consistent with the policies of old terrorists that we had in our country (i.e. MEK)” (Khabar News TV, November 18).
A member of the regime’s Assembly of Experts and former Intelligence Minister, Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri, said: “The torching of the people’s belongings and the destruction that happened were done by the MEK and anti-revolutionaries. People do not set fire to their own assets. The MEK was planning for riots for several months” (Defa Press, November 18). Hassan Rouhani said: “It became clear that the rioters were small in numbers. However, the rioters were organized, had plans, and were armed” (Rouhani’s official website, November 20). The spokesperson for the Majlis Presiding Board, Assadollah Abbasi, said: “Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, said at a closed door meeting of the Majlis that a number of individuals who provoked people in the streets had been identified. It has become clear that they are in contact with the MEK” (ILNA, November 17).
The head of the IRGC’s paramilitary Bassij force, Gholamreza Soleimani, said: “The MEK have cells (units) in our country. And in other countries, too, agents and the MEK who are tied to America damage the public’s interests” (Tabnak website, November 18). The state-run daily Jomhouri Eslami reported on November 18 that “the commander of the IRGC Fajr Corps in Fars province says that the leaders of the riots had ties to the MEK.”
Jomhouri Eslami daily wrote in its editorial on November 20: “The scale of the destruction was so vast and the actions were carried out so professionally that it was obvious that a well-trained and well-equipped network was at work, which had financial and strong intelligence support.”
Ali Shamkhani, Secretary for the Supreme National Security Council, said: “I believe 34 MEK members have been arrested so far. A vast network of individuals, operating not under the MEK’s name, but pursuing their line and modus operandi, were also identified” (Defa’ Press, November 24).”
The key characteristics of the nationwide uprising in 2019 that shook the regime’s foundations are:
- The protests spread at an unprecedented rate, catching even the regime by surprise and revealing deep-seated public rage against it that is ready to burst at a moment’s notice;
- The slogans and acts of protest quickly targeted the regime in its entirety;
- The leading role played by women and youth was visible and impactful;
- The uprising showed that overthrow of the regime is attainable;
- The public targeted the main symbols of repression, theft, and corruption. No destruction or looting of private homes or places of business took place by the protesters;
- The people consider the regime and all its factions as illegitimate; that is why the so-called “reformist” elements joined “hardliners” to call for the uprising’s suppression;
- The weakness and fragility of the regime, manifested by its barbaric and rampant use of brute force, was made even clearer to the people;
- The protests were highly organized and the role of the organized opposition was key to deepening and prolonging the uprising.
The November 2019 uprising put on display the ongoing conflict between the Iranian people and the ruling theocracy. That conflict has become much more intense and widespread. The regime is clearly fearful and on its last leg. Its overthrow is within reach and confident of that outcome, the Iranian people are pursuing a democratic future through more protests and nationwide uprisings against the theocracy.