Timeline of Iranian Protests: 1978-2023

This timeline is indebted to the writing of Abbas Milani, Director of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University, and Karim Sadjapour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

1963-1978: Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had ruled Iran since 1941, institutes the White Revolution, an aggressive urbanization program that took land from the rural populations and disproportionately distributed benefits to the upper class. Under the rule of the Shah, Iranians were free to wear whatever styles they wished; many women in the larger cities dressed and wore their hair in Western styles.

1978:   A broad coalition of secular and religious groups come together to overthrow the Shah’s rule through months of nonviolent demonstrations and national strikes. Some of these protestors objected to his economic policies, others objected to what they saw as the westernization of Iran’s society.

1979:   Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini secures power in the wake of the Revolution. He proposes a new constitution, creating the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), and names himself the Supreme Leader.  The IRI is run by a mix of elected parliamentary representatives and an Islamized judicial system with certain public offices reserved for clerics. Instead of promoting civil liberties, as he’d promised during the 1978 Revolution, he formalizes Islamization programs—including enforced veiling for women, state control of media, and outlawing movies and other popular culture from the West.

1989:   Following Khomeini’s death, he is succeeded by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Like his predecessor, Khamenei adhered strictly to fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic ideals and enacted policies that silenced dissenting voices and reinforced conservative values. From his position, Khamenei vetted electoral candidates, screened parliamentary decisions, decided how oil revenue was spent, and maintained a state-controlled media.

1997:   A Reformist movement made legislative gains under President Mohammad Khatami, passing laws to shift more power toward popularly elected offices.

2005:   Iranians elect hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the country’s President. Ahmadinejad ran on a platform to return to the core values of the Iranian Revolution; under his rule, the nation saw a critical rise in the arrests of peaceful protesters. According to the 2009 World Report from Human Rights Watch, in 2005, Iran saw “a dramatic rise in arrests of political activists, academics, and others for peacefully exercising their rights of free expression and association in Iran.” 

2005-2008: In response to government violence, Iranian activists and the educated middle-class alike began to flee the country en masse to avoid imprisonment. Students who stayed were prevented from class registration; educators who remained were forced to retire early. For those without the privilege of higher education, unemployment rates skyrocketed, causing many to leave the country as well. Simultaneously, the international community tightened sanctions on Iran for pursuing a nuclear weapons program. By March 2008, inflation had risen to 30% while the income of the top 20% quadrupled. 

Spring 2009: This production of English is set in spring 2009, during the campaign of reform candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, and its action ends just after the June 2009 election.

June 12, 2009: Incumbent conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims a landslide victory. Mousavi supporters protest on the street chanting, “Where’s my vote?” despite the Islamic Republic of Iran’s longstanding ban on mass protests.

June 2009-February 2010: Ongoing protests across Iran, calling for civil rights and the democratic process many sought in the 1978-79 Revolution. These protests, which came to be known as the Green Movement after the color Mousavi used during his campaign, reach 3 million people at their height and were the most significant protest movement since the Revolution.

As the protests continue, the IRI take control of internet use and shut down Facebook (most Iranians maintained access through proxy servers). The IRI also arrest, torture, and force public confessions from members of the Green Movement. In February 2010, leaders of the Green Movement call off a planned protest after a violent crackdown from the state police, marking the end of the active phase of their protests.

September 16, 2022: 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman Zhina Mahsa Amini dies from injuries inflicted by the IRI’s morality police for improperly wearing her headscarf; although she and others thought she was in compliance.

Throughout the fall, protests of her death spread across Iran—led by women and girls—and encompass calls for democracy, freedom of speech, an end to gender apartheid, and civil rights for women, religious and ethnic minorities and LGBTQ people in Iran. They are the largest sustained protest movement since the 1978-79 Revolution, with many calling for regime change.

December 16, 2022 As of this date, the IRI has arrested more than 18,000 protestors, killed at least 475, sentenced 11 people to death, and executed at least two protestors after trials widely denounced for their lack of due process. Several of the actors in Studio’s production of English are amplifying the voices of Iranians without the same freedoms to protest.

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