By Majid Mohammadi

To fully understand the different aspects of the recent wave of civil unrest which quickly spread throughout the country after the Iranian government increased the price of fuel in late October, we must first study the genesis, history and evolution of opposition movements in the Islamic Republic since its inception four decades ago.

Except for the nationwide rallies against the mandatory hijab in February 1979, no other protests between 1978 and 1981 opposed the Islamic Republic regime itself, because the main political forces operating in the country at the time — including the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI, MKO or MEK), the Fadaiyan-e-Khalq (Marxist-Leninist underground guerrilla), the Tudeh Party (Iranian communist party) and the Islamists — did not question the legitimacy of the regime.

Although some members of these groups disagreed on a variety of issues with the founder of the Islamic Republic, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and several people within his inner circle, they did not oppose theocratic rule. These elements and the Islamists all held strong anti-American, anti-Israeli, and right-wing extremist views. They also shared a complete disregard for the human rights of citizens and harbored disdain for a free press and the rule of law. Also, they routinely persecuted their political opponents.

A genuine movement against the Islamic Republic regime must oppose the fundamental principles of this theocratic system, including political Islam, absolute power, velayat-e faqih (the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist), Sharia law and anti-Western sentiments.

The First Wave: The Rafsanjani Era

Opposition groups were conspicuously silent during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). However, they became active again at the end of the war and after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1990.

During the presidency of the late Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (in office 1989-1997), opposition movements mostly comprised the economically disadvantaged segment of the Iranian society, who protested in Mashhad, capital of the northwestern province of Khorasan Razavi in 1993, Arak, capital of the central province of Markazi in 1993, Qazvin, the capital of the northwestern province of Qazvin in 1995 and Eslamshahr, in the northern province of Tehran in 1996.

These were not well-coordinated and well-organized protests with clear objectives. They did not enjoy the support of prominent political figures, intellectuals, academics, artists, and sports and entertainment celebrities. Their focus was the high cost of living, lack of social services, and shortage of goods. The state crushed these movements with not much effort. No one paid that much attention to these movements.

The Second Wave: The Khatami Era

In 1997, renewed hope for non-violent and sweeping political, social, and cultural change had blinded many activists to the ever-presence of the theocratic rule in the country. Those hopes and dreams were, however, dashed after the brutal and violent crackdowns on student protesters in Tehran and Tabriz, the capital of the northeastern province of Western Azerbaijan in 1999.

In subsequent years, the Islamic Republic systematically persecuted, imprisoned, and executed intellectuals, academics, political dissidents, human rights activists, and ordinary Iranians. It also shut down several independent newspapers. The regime tightened its grip on the country and prevented the opposition forces from gaining strength during this period.

The reformist elements in the government of President Seyyed Mohammad Khatami (in office 1997-2005), who also controlled the Judiciary and the Majlis (Iranian Parliament), did not create a political climate that would allow opposition forces to take part in the political process.

The reformists dissuaded many people in the opposition camp from joining those who believed the regime was not reformable. Mr. Khatami’s government tried to promote its progressive ideology, address political and social injustices in the country while protecting the “sacred principles” of the Islamic Republic regime.

The Third Wave: The Ahmadinejad Era

The first real opposition movement took shape during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (in office 2005-13) after the government rationed gasoline and increased prices in 2007. Millions of people took part in the nationwide civil unrest that year. Protesters stormed government buildings, vandalized chain supermarkets, and set fire to gas stations.

In the summer of 2009, people from all walks of life took part in massive nationwide marches, protesting the results of the elections, which handed a victory to the incumbent President Ahmadinejad. The protests led to the creation of the pro-democracy Green Movement. The authorities, however, crushed the civil unrest, killing 150 people and arresting thousands of others, including the leaders of the Green Movement.

Fourth Wave: The Rouhani Era

It took another eight years before the critics, and the opponents of the Islamic Republic realized that the conservatives and the reformists were cut from the same cloth. Iranian authorities restricted access to the internet and social media, including WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, and Telegram, following nationwide civil unrest, which started on December 28, 2017, in Mashhad, capital of the northeastern province of Khorasan Razavi, and spread to other parts of the country.

Although security forces and antiriot police were quick to crush the unrest, teachers, truck drivers, workers, pensioners, and people of all walks of life have continued to hold rallies and protests in the past two years.

The Evolution of Opposition Movements 

We can draw four conclusions by juxtaposing these four eras in recent Iranian history.

  1. The protests have increased in number and broadened in scope since the inception of the Islamic Republic. There was a 14-year gap between the nationwide rallies against the mandatory hijab in February 1979 and protests in Mashhad and Arak in 1993. There were, however, several spells of civil unrest in large cities in the subsequent three years.


Most protest marches between 1979 and 1999 occurred in Tehran. In June 1999, two significant protests took place in Tehran and Tabriz. The nationwide protests in 2007 were not well coordinated and well organized. Two years later, the “Where Is My Vote” campaign morphed into the Green Movement, which was confined to Tehran. It took another eight years before Iranians came into streets in massive numbers again, calling for a regime change.

Protests have continued in some form or other around the country since December 2017, with the latest one taking place in October after the government raised the price of gasoline. The protests have not been, however, confined to one or two regions. They have been massive and nationwide. Opposition groups have gained greater national recognition and visibility as they have gradually distanced themselves from the reformists in the past two 20 years.


  1. Opposition movements inside Iran have slowly become less religious and more secular in the past 40 years. Protesters do not shout religious slogans any longer. Political Islam has lost its appeal given that the regime has used it in the past four decades to oppress Iranian citizens. Although marchers chanted “Allahu Akbar” and “Ya Hossein” during the 2009 Green Movement, in recent years, protesters have not used religious slogans.


  1. In the 1990s and the early 2000s, protesters did not attack religious institutions. Rioters have, however, targeted seminaries and other religious schools in the past nine years. That means the public has finally realized that its real enemies are the clerics and Shia Islam. Recent protests have also shown that people consider the Islamic Republic regime and not the West as their real enemy.


  1. While various factions inside Iran have moved closer together and aligned their manifestos with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s vision, others who want a free and open society have distanced themselves from the Islamic Republic and openly called for a regime change. Protesters did not attack the regime’s ideological institutions in the summer of 2009. During the most recent civil unrest, however, crowds have set fire to pictures of Khamenei, Rouhani, and public monuments glorifying the Islamic Republic.

As Masih Mohajeri, the editor of the Tehran-based hardline Jomhuri-e Eslami newspaper has said, the real power in the country rests with the 5 percent of the population who control Iran. They communicate with foreign embassies, keep billions of dollars in overseas bank accounts, run massive smuggling operations to and from Iran, use influential lobbying groups in Europe and the U.S., and have a military presence in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon.

It is difficult to destroy this monster, but it is not impossible. The opposition forces know the specific challenges facing them in their fight against the regime.

The 2017 nationwide civil unrest set a new strategic and tactical approach for opposing the regime, which has continued ever since and was evident in the protests that took place after the fuel price hike in October.

[Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi]