Originally published: https://kalam.chathamhouse.org/articles/the-mahsa-jina-amini-case-security-and-ethnic-dimensions

05 May 2023 | Walter Posch, Chatham House

Iranian motives

The suspicious death of the young student Mahsa Jina Amini in Iranian police custody on 16 September 2022 triggered a series of protests in Iran that are ongoing. That said, the display of public discontent was much smaller than the 2009 protests, and some cities in Iran have had no protests at all. Even so, the protests shook the regime in many ways because they revealed tensions and problems, which are partly regime-related but to no small degree related to the nature of the modern Iranian state as created by the two Pahlavi shahs (1921–79). Certainly a problem that is regime-related is how women in Iran are discriminated against. The issue serves as the lynchpin of political activism for Iranians in the country and in exile, but also for a shadowy world of powerful radical Islamist networks called the hezbollahis. The protests also laid bare the state-backed discrimination of Sunni Muslims and ethnic minorities in Iran. As a woman of Sunni denomination and as a Kurd, Mahsa Jina Amini embodied all three dimensions of the Islamic Republic’s systemic discrimination: gender, religious denomination and ethnicity.1

Before detailing the new dynamics of old fault lines within Iranian society, it is worth mentioning the different readings of Iran’s protests in the West and in the Middle East. Iran’s neighbours correctly assessed the Islamic Republic as fully functional, with not a single unit of Iran’s highly competitive security apparatus faltering or showing disloyalty, and with the protests beginning to abate.2 Yet the media and politicians in the West take the exiled Iranian community’s (the ‘diaspora’) dream of a ‘revolution’ almost at face value. This is problematic, for the exiles only speak for one part of Iranian society and hence, have no efficient political platform to reach out to other key elements of society. So while Iranian political activists successfully influence media and politics, they are of little help for Western decision-makers who need sober analysis and realistic assessments of what is happening in Iran. For instance, activists in the West publicly decried the so-called morality police (gasht-e ershad), but usually failed to analyse the power structure behind it.

A heinous attack

It was EU and national bureaucrats, not political activists, who identified and sanctioned the organization responsible for the morality police, namely the ‘Staff of ordering the good and combating vice’.3 This ‘staff’ is the tip of an iceberg of radical Islamist networks, the hezbollahis,4 who are notorious for their brutality and who provide the personnel for the morality police. Both the regular police and Iran’s judiciary dislike the ‘staff’ on institutional, professional and, as it seems, personal grounds (in spite of both being quite radical Islamists in their own right). The hezbollahis were the constituency that was most shocked by the new consensus on women’s veil-wearing in post-revolutionary Iran. After almost half a century of the Islamic Republic, even Islamist women (and even a figure like Iran’s radical former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) reject the compulsory wearing of headscarves, which they regard as a private matter. The logic of the hezbollahis is a revolutionary one: once cultural control is lost, the loss of political power follows suit. For them, a laissez-faire approach as proposed by some in the regime, including some figures in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), was not an option. Their anger became outrage when the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei condoned an easing of headscarf controls in Tehran.5 For the staff and their hezbollahi henchmen this meant Khamenei had gone soft on an imminent threat. Hence, they had to escalate – and the poisoning of girls’ dormitories and classrooms started to occur.6 This action was reminiscent of one in 1999, when likeminded groups attacked university dormitories in order to subdue widespread student protests, leaving many students maimed or dead.7 Then as now, the Supreme Leader criticized the excesses and seemed shocked, as he demanded a thorough inquiry into the perpetrators.

It is hard to tell how seriously he will pursue the recent attack. As far as is known, he has not yet issued a leadership decree (hokm-e hokumati) or a fatwa, instructing certain security agencies to go after their own or other agencies. It is impossible that a countrywide poison attack of such dimensions could take place without anyone noticing or condoning it. The security institution tasked with domestic security is the herasat, a body of the Ministry of Intelligence (or VAJA).8 This omnipresent institution monitors all incidents relevant to state security. It also prepares and initiates necessary countermeasures.

Unrecognized, understudied and underreported, the herasat9 is a far more sophisticated and experienced force than the basijis, whose role is just basic surveillance and harassment of the broader population. In addition, the herasat’s network of informers is more widespread and better selected. Thus, they would have noticed security incidents like the recent series of poison attacks – which begs the question, were they willingly looking the other way? In institutional terms, this would only be likely if another equally powerful institution was involved. The only possible such institution is the IRGC’s Intelligence Service (SHE, or sazeman-e hefazat va ettelaat). The service belongs to the IRGC in only a nominal sense and mainly for historic reasons; in fact, it is a service very much in its own right and an old competitor of VAJA, hence of the herasat. Furthermore, hezbollahis capable of a crime like the poisoning are present in all security services as well as in the criminal underworld. In other words, one must assume the relevant security forces know, or at least know where to look for, the perpetrators of these heinous attacks.

One of the places to look is certainly the north Iranian town of Mashhad, home to the prestigious shrine of Emam Reza, where President Ebrahim Raisi’s father-in-law, the leader of the Friday prayers, Ayatollah Alamolhoda, recently encouraged Iranian youth to enforce the wearing of the hijab.10The official line according to which ‘foreign perpetrators’ and spies are responsible for the poisoning simply means that the relevant powerful circles view the case as closed.11 For the perpetrators and for the regime in general, it has already had a positive effect: media coverage has been diverted from the ethno-denominational aspects12 of the protests – especially in Kurdistan and Baluchistan.


Among the Iranian Kurds,13 the following three sources provide the most important threads of contestation: the groups in exile, the (post) Marxist Left inside the country, and the Islamists. The exiles comprise civil society actors in the West and armed groups of radical leftists in the region. Some of these maintain hardened military positions in Iraq close to the Iranian border thus ‘inviting’ the Iranian army to regularly shell their positions with artillery – a fact that attracts frequent complaints from the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). For some years now a splinter group of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Party of a Free Life (PJAK), has challenged other communist Iranian-Kurdish groups, either directly on the ground or, as in this case, in the West via control of narratives and by disparaging all other Kurdish parties and protest movements. This explains how the old PKK slogan ‘jin, jiyan azadi’14 became the Iranian slogan ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ (zan zendegi azadi). At first the slogan was heard among Iranian protesters in the West. Then, in Iran too, the secular and leftist sections of society started to use it before it spread countrywide across class and ethnic divides. In Kurdistan proper, protesters in the town of Mahabad embraced a more leftist and Kurdish nationalist language. In the city of Sanandaj and in Saqez, the home province of Mahsa Jina Amini, outrage prevailed against the regime that killed one of their people – the Aminis are a very well-rooted and established family clan in the region.

Anger was already high in Sanandaj, an entirely Sunni and Kurdish city. In August 2022 the Tehran-appointed (hence non-Kurdish) city council had been drumming up support in favour of a typical Shia holiday, which the local population viewed as provocative. The highest (shafe’i) Sunni cleric in Iran, Kurdistan’s ‘Sharia Judge’ (hakem-e shar’i) Kak Hasan Amini protested vociferously against that provocation. He intensified his critique after the murder of the young student. Other clerics such as Mamosta Loqman Amini of Saqez and several other prayer leaders of Sunni mosques in Kurdistan joined in. Kak Hasan is also very influential within the Naqshibandi network of dervishes and is heir to a political movement called the Maktab-e Qor’an. Founded in 1978 this banned political organization combines political Islam with Kurdish nationalism. Many in Tehran therefore saw the protests in Sanandaj and Saqez as show of force by the Maktab-e Qor’an. At times, Kurdish religious leaders lectured Tehran – that is, Khamenei – on theological matters and, rather surprisingly, combined a secular pro-feminist political language with staunch Sunni Islamism. Not only was Tehran taken by surprise at this but so were Iranian activists in the West, who still struggle with the outspoken Sunni side of the protest movement – as does the regime.


One man in particular infuriates Khamenei personally and leaves Western observers and secular feminists rather confused: Sheikh al-Islam Moulana Abdolhamid Esmailzahi from Zahedan in Baluchistan.15 Abdolhamid is a long-standing supporter of the Taliban and leader of the (hanefi) Sunni community in the east of Iran. He and his followers adhere to the fundamentalist Deobandi School of Islamic thought, dominant in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan and they maintain strong contacts to one of their offshoots, the worldwide active Tablighi Jamaat16. Abdolhamid also heads a network of mosques and educational institutions (the Makki mosque, the Daro l-Olum complex, media) and, he too maintains close ties to the Naqshibandi order of dervishes. It is this that connects the cities of Zahedan and Sanandaj. It was quite logical therefore for Abdolhamid to quote the case of Mahsa Jina Amini as an example of police violence during a sermon and to be one of the first to express his condolences for her family. Perhaps auguring change in the political philosophy of radical Sunni Islam, he based his critique of the Islamic Republic on the secular ground of human rights and citizens’ rights. Women’s rights, denominational rights and ethnic rights were combined into one civic argument: framing the problem as police brutality and institutionalized discrimination, not as secularism or religion (in doing so, Abdolhamid also side-lined the secular Baluchi opposition).

However, two other reasons made Abdolhamid speak out in late September 2022. First, a few months earlier, an Iranian officer had raped and murdered a Baluchi girl, so Abdolhamid was addressing widespread anger against the security forces. Second, he had to mend fences with Kurdish religious leaders after his endorsement of Raisi for president backfired. Disappointed with the reformists’ lack of accomplishments regarding Sunni rights, Abdolhamid supported the radical Raisi in the 2021 presidential elections and urged others to do so. Following his advice, Iran’s eastern Sunnis voted for the first time for a radical candidate, instead of a reformist, and split the Sunni vote.17 This prompted Kurdish religious leaders to round on Abdolhamid. He assumed that helping the new president with the Taliban in Afghanistan would in turn generate enough goodwill from Raisi to help Iran’s Sunnis – for instance, regarding job opportunities and inclusion in the police force. Once elected, Raisi did ponder the idea of more leniency towards the Sunnis. But in order to satisfy his radical supporters, he balanced any promise of leniency (which was never in fact fulfilled) with aggressive morality controls against the secular sections of society – ultimately resulting in the Mahsa Jina Amini case.

Two weeks after the young student’s death, on 30 September, undercover forces of the IRGC SHE killed about 100 Sunni Muslims, who were almost exclusively Baluchi faithful, as they left Friday prayers.18 After that ‘Bloody Friday of Zahedan’, the confrontation with Tehran reached new heights. For instance, Abdolhamid asserted that no Iranian security forces were needed in Baluchistan, as the Baluchi were well capable of maintaining security in the province themselves. Tehran responded by alleging that Jaysh al-Adl or similar radical Sunni jihadist groups were active and responsible for the insecurity in the province. Abdolhamid rejected these allegations and in the following weeks gathered all relevant leaders of Baluchi society, including secularists but especially religious leaders, who in most cases are also tribal leaders. All pledged allegiance and recognized him as speaker or even leader of their community. Since then, Tehran and Zahedan have been at loggerheads – but both sides are at pains not to speak out about the sectarian and ethnic facts underlying this conflict situation. Meanwhile, a media team of the Makki institution monitors media coverage of events in Iran; they understand Western media as portraying the protests in a way that favours secular, middle-class victims of repression in Tehran over poorer, lower-class fundamentalist people in Baluchistan.19

Khamenei is well aware of Abdolhamid’s popularity. He does not allow direct attacks on the Baluchi leader, but instead pursues a patient campaign of character assassination, which until now has not yielded results. However, Abdolhamid’s relations with the Taliban and other fundamentalist groups remain an irritant for the secular segment of Iranian society. On the other hand, Abdolhamid’s embrace of women’s rights (at least rhetorically) did not land well with fellow Deobandis and Tablighis in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Deobandis in Pakistan were already frustrated about the success of Abdolhamid’s Daro l-Olum institution, which attracts hundreds if not thousands of students from Iran, who in previous times would have flocked to similar establishments in Karachi, providing an essential part of the Deobandis’ income there. Abdolhamid cannot therefore expect too much solidarity from either Pakistan or Afghanistan, or any other Sunni country for that matter.

Within Iran’s Sunni communities, coordination and cooperation are quite difficult. As in many other Muslim countries, in Iran travelling from one ‘problematic’ province, like Kurdistan, to another is restricted. Thus, the value of the Naqshibandi and other dervish networks is symbolic rather than organizational or political. Other Sunni communities are much more careful in their public statements. This holds true for the Persian-Sunni community of Khorasan, the Sunni Turkomans in Golestan province, the Arab Sunnis from the Persian Gulf region and other, minor groups such as the Taleshi or the Lar – all of them maintain a low profile. Such was the context when Iranian authorities started to detain prominent Baluchi and Kurdish Sunni leaders from December 2022 onwards, forcing them to close down their media channels such as the Telegram messaging system, and limiting internet access. Tehran successfully warned Sunni leaders in Baluchistan and Kurdistan against contact with Western media and immediately detains those who do not obey (the Arab media incidentally would not cover the issue).


However, there are good reasons to think these crises too will abate. To begin with, although Iranians largely embraced the unified human rights and civil rights-based slogans, they will not be able to create a stable political outlet for these inside the country. In the months ahead, the Iranian authorities will try to destroy the narrative of a common human and civil rights-based struggle that draws together secular and Islamist, Persian and non-Persian activists. Instead, they will seek to replace this with their own Islamist and Iranian nationalist narratives. The fear of the girls’ parents after the poison attacks fits into this strategy, as it will silence yet another politically active generation rather than lead to an organized and powerful uprising. Even once the regime has quelled this crisis, it would be a pyrrhic victory of sorts. For once traditional quietist layers of society have been thoroughly politicized and found a common narrative, due to the tragic death of Mahsa Jina Amini. Another reason is the nature of the system. In the end it all depends on the Supreme Leader personally, as he is the main element balancing the forces within the regime. But once he dies, who will be in control of the security apparatus (i.e. army, IRGC, police, intelligence forces)?

For now, the security apparatus holds firm. For instance, ordinary border troops (marzbani) and special police forces (both formally in the ranks of the IRGC) were able to contain protests in Kurdish and Baluchi border towns. Yet, institutional infighting is ongoing and the current crisis forces all security-related institutions to consider their positions for the period after the Supreme Leader. Currently bitter turf wars exist between the VAJA/herasat and IRGC-intelligence. It was also telling to see how President Raisi turned to the regular army’s chief of staff when riots in the Kurdish cities of Sanandaj, Saqez and Mahabad broke out, ignoring the IRGC, which is usually tasked with quelling domestic unrest. The reason however is simple: Raisi hails from the Mashhadi networks, whose economic interests compete with those of the IRGC.

By way of conclusion, the human rights-based narrative against triple discrimination by the Islamic Republic could be said to offer the only framework for a common, countrywide platform to challenge the regime. Furthermore, ongoing institutional infighting in the security apparatus will become much harder to contain once Khamenei has died, and will be a problem in the future transition.

This research is supported by the Peace and Conflict Resolution Evidence Platform (PeaceRep), funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) for the benefit of developing countries. The information and views set out in this publication are those of the authors. Nothing herein constitutes the views of FCDO. Any use of this work should acknowledge the authors and the Peace and Conflict Resolution Evidence Platform.

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Consortium members include: Conciliation Resources, Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations (CTPSR) at Coventry University, Dialectiq, Edinburgh Law School, International IDEA, LSE Conflict and Civicness Research Group, LSE Middle East Centre, Queens University Belfast, University of St Andrews, University of Stirling, and the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University. PeaceRep is funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), UK.

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[1] This argument is also explored in: Posch, W. (2022), ‘A Regime Unveiled: Social and Ethno-Sectarian Tensions and Democratic Evolution in Iran’, Istituto Affari Internazionali Papers, 22(26), https://www.iai.it/sites/default/files/iaip2226.pdf.

[2] This is the conclusion this author draws from a field trip to the Gulf region, after meetings with think tanks, diplomats, business people and political advisers.

[3] The principle of ‘Enjoying what is right and forbidding what is evil’ (al-amr bi-l-maruf wa-n-nahy ani-l-munkar (ٱلْأَمْرْ بِٱلْمَعْرُوفْ وَٱلنَّهْيْ عَنِ ٱلْمُنْكَرْ) is based on several surahs of the Qur’an. In contemporary times several states like Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Nigeria maintain state or parastatal bodies overseeing public morals based on said principles. In Iran this function is fulfilled by the ‘Staff’; see its homepage: https://www.setad-abm.ir/

[4] Not much has been published about the hezbollahis, their predecessors and their current set-up or the tug of war with Rouḥani; see Posch, W. (2021), ‘Iran’s Hezbollah: A Radical and Decisive Political Current’, in Jalilvand, D. and Vogt, A. (eds) (2021), Radicalisation under the Rouhani Years. Iran’s Political Shifts and their Implications, Berlin: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, pp. 15-22, https://library.fes.de/pdf-files/iez/17699.pdf.

[5] In fact, the Supreme Leader said nothing on the headscarves; alas, silence denotes consent.

[6] Bland, A. (2023), ‘What do we know about suspected poisonings of schoolgirls in Iran?’, The Guardian, 6 March 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/mar/06/what-do-we-know-suspected-poisonings-schoolgirls-iran.

[7] Maloney, S. (2013), ‘Remembering Iran’s Student Protests, Fourteen Years Later’, Brookings Markaz Blog, 9 July 2023, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2013/07/09/remembering-irans-student-protests-fourteen-years-later/.

[8] At the National Defence Academy in Vienna, we are preparing a study on the Iranian security apparatus from 1920 to 2020. For a short overview, see: Posch, W. (2017), ‘Der Sicherheitsapparat der Islamischen Republik Iran’ [The security apparatus of the Islamic Republic of Iran] in Paul, L. (ed.), Handbuch der Iranistik (2017), Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, and sources given therein. See the Intelligence Ministry’s homepage: https://vaja.ir/

[9] There are some basic articles on the herasat. This one deals with the security of public institutions: ISNA News Agency (2020), ‘Ḥerasat-e sazemanha che vaẓifei darand?’ [What are the duties of the Security of institutions], 23 December 2020, https://www.isna.ir/news/99100302604/.

[10] Shomalnews (2023), ‘Vakonesh-e Alam al-Hoda dar barre-ye hejab’ [Alam al-Hoda’s reaction on un-veiling], 18 March 2023, http://www.shomalnews.com/view/241099/.

[11] Entekhab (2023), ‘Gen.Maj. Salami: … Doshman ba tammam-e qodrat be sahneh amadeh…’ [Gen. Maj. Salami…The enemy has entered with all his might the stage…], 9 March 2023, https://www.entekhab.ir/fa/news/718266/.

[12] Salehi-Amiri, S. R. (2012) Modiriyat-e monazeat-e qoumi dar Iran [Ethnic conflict management in Iran], Tehran: Center for Strategic Research. For western readers, see Elling, R. C. (2013), Minorities in Iran. Nationalism and Ethnicity after Khomeini, New York: Palgrave Macmillan. For recent developments within the Sunni communities of Iran, see Habibi-Doroh, H. (2023), Sunni Communities in the Islamic Republic of Iran 2013-2021, Leiden: Brill.

[13] See Posch, W. (2017), ‘Fellow Arians and Muslim Brothers. Iranian Narratives on the Kurds’, in Stansfield, G. and Shareef, M. (eds) (2017), The Kurdish Question Revisited, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 331–352.

[14] On the background to how this slogan developed, see Posch, (2022) ‘A Regime Unveiled’, p. 6.

[15] See Dudoignon, S. A. (2017), The Baloch, Sunnism and the State in Iran: From Tribal to Global, London: Oxford University Press. Dudoignon is Europe’s foremost scholar on Baluchistan and the Baluchi people; he published a dozen monographs and several articles on the topic, mostly in French; see http://cetobac.ehess.fr/index.php?154. Moulana Abdolhamid maintains an internet site, www.abdolhamid.net, and several channels on the Telegram and Instagram messaging services.

[16] Founded in 1926 in India, the Tablighi Jamaat is a Sunni revivalist movement famous for its proselytising. It is banned in many Central Asian countries, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

[17] Habibi-Doroh, H. (2022), ‘Iranian Sunni Muslims and the 2021 Presidential Election: Paradigm Shift or Political Compromise?’, Christian World Politics, 26, pp. 319–339. https://doi.org/10.21697/CSP.2022.26.1.14

[18] Posch (2022), ‘A Regime Unveiled’, p. 7.

[19] Personal information, Vienna, February 2023.