Pouya Bakhtiari could barely contain his excitement as he sat in gridlocked traffic on the motorway between Tehran and his home city of Karaj.
The 27-year-old Iranian engineer filmed on his mobile as motorists parked their cars in the middle of the busy roadway to protest a sudden hike in petrol prices pushed through by the government.
Other drivers may have been frustrated but Pouya was thrilled by the open display of defiance against Iran’s rulers. “People, don’t miss this opportunity. Once and for all let’s destroy this criminal and corrupt regime,” he told the camera.
As the minutes dragged on and the traffic did not budge, Pouya turned his phone towards the setting sun. “Here is a gorgeous sunset. I wish a better sunrise for the people of Iran,” he said happily.
Pouya would never see another sunrise. Hours after filming the video on November 16, he joined a protest in the streets of Karaj with his mother and sister. The family was separated in the crowd and as his mother searched for him she saw a group of men lifting a body from the street.
Pouya had been struck in the head with a bullet fired by a member of Iran’s security forces. He died soon after.
“His mind was filled with love for Iran but this regime is against this type of mind,” Pouya’s father, Manouchehr Bakhtiari, told The Daily Telegraph. “They do not want these minds to work for our country. They want them destroyed by bullets.”
Pouya was one of more than 200 people killed in four days of intense violence from November 15-18 as Iran’s government brutally suppressed protests in almost every corner of the country. The unrest was the deadliest in the 40-year history of the Islamic Republic and saw security forces move far more aggressively than other recent protests.
When protesters took to the streets in 2009 over a rigged election, 72 people were killed over the course of seven months. Approximately two dozen were killed in 2017-2018 during mass demonstrations over the economy. This time Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and its allies resorted to far greater bloodshed in far less time.
Yet the world knew little of what was going on as Iranian forces opened fire. Beginning on November 16, Iran’s government imposed a plan years in the making to cut off the internet. Protesters could no longer use services like WhatsApp to coordinate with each other or share information with the outside world.
اینجا جوانرود؛ ماموران امنیتی از بالای ساختمان دادگستری به معترضان شلیک کردند. کاوه رضایی یکی از معترضانی است که با تیر مستقیم این ماموران مقابل دادگستری کشته شده. منابع محلی میگویند دستکم ۷ نفر در اعتراضهای ۲۵ آبان در #جوانرود کشته شدهاند. #بنزینpic.twitter.com/9SsLz729AV— POOYA JAHANDAR (@POOYAJAHANDAR) November 17, 2019
It was only when the internet restrictions were eased a week later that the scale of the killings started to become apparent. “When the internet came back I was bombarded with videos of shootings and killings in the streets. They’re heartbreaking,” said Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist and opposition activist living in exile.
The exact death toll remains unknown but Amnesty International says it has verified the deaths of 208 people and the final tally is likely higher. Iran’s government is working hard to obscure the details of what happened. It has released no official death toll and threatened Iranians who speak to international media.
Families are told they will only get their loved ones’ bodies back if they promise to hold private funerals that cannot escalate into fresh protests. Some families have been forced to pay what is known as “bullet money” - a fee that authorities charge before returning the bodies.
Around 7,000 people are believed to have been arrested and remain in detention. The interior ministry has acknowledged protests broke out in all but two of Iran’s 31 provinces.
The Iranian regime is under intense pressure from US sanctions which have choked off oil sales and severely damaged the economy. Hardliners and relative moderates within the regime appear united behind the crackdown and the belief that the protests were part of a covert American-led effort to overthrow the Islamic Republic.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, justified the violence with the familiar accusation that protests were a “dangerous deep conspiracy” by foreign powers. Hassan Rouhani, the president, struck the same note by calling protesters “mercenaries” and “hooligans” backed by the US.
“This is a system that perceives itself to be under siege,” said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group. “They don’t see Trump’s maximum pressure strategy as just economic warfare, they believe it also has a covert dimension. At the end of the day they are all in the same boat and preserving the Islamic Republic is a common goal among both the hardliners and the moderates.”
A spokesman for the Iranian embassy in London sent links to several articles in pro-government media alleging that the protesters had been killed by foreign adversaries and suggested that the internet blackout was the work of the US.
Petrol then protest
Iran’s petrol is among the cheapest in the world. Motorists paid just 10,000 rials (6 pence) per litre at the pump - one-twentieth the price in the UK. The tiny cost encouraged smugglers to buy petrol in Iran and sell it for a handsome profit in neighbouring Turkey or Afghanistan.
The government had been weighing whether to raise prices but the issue took on a fresh urgency as tax revenues shrank and US sanctions drove down oil sales. At the stroke of midnight on Friday, November 15 authorities announced a price hike of 50 per cent to 15,000 rials a litre.
Fuel price rises have led to demonstrations many times in the past and the government was expecting public anger. But none could have predicted the scale of the backlash.
Protests broke out Friday night in several cities including Mashad, Ahvaz and Sirjan. Demonstrators blocked streets and in some cases attempted to set fire to petrol stations. “Petrol prices went up, the poor just got poorer,” crowds chanted.
By Saturday morning the demonstrations had reached Tehran and protesters had a new tactic. They parked cars in the middle of the road to grind traffic to a halt. The Imam Ali motorway, a major road in eastern Tehran, was paralysed as motorists got out from behind the wheel and chatted in the street. Blocs of traffic were appearing across the country and demonstrators used Waze to find the protest nearest to them.
Police were flummoxed as to how to re-open the roads. One video verified by Amnesty International shows police in riot gear smashing car windows and wing mirrors to try to force the drivers to get moving.
It was quickly becoming clear that what started as a protest over fuel was spilling into a general outpouring of anger against the Iranian government.
Standing on a bridge overlooking one of the traffic protests, a woman ripped off the white hijab she is forced to wear under Iranian law. “Because of dishonourable Khamenei we have lost everything,” she cried, waving the hijab over her head. “We have have suffered for 40 years. Death to Khamenei.” Drivers in the road below broke into applause next to their parked cars.
On the third day of #IranProtests, watch this brave Iranian woman remove her compulsory hijab on a bridge & challenge Iran's dictators.— Masih Alinejad ��️ (@AlinejadMasih) November 18, 2019
"We've suffered for 40 years" amid a crowd of protesting drivers and their applause.
Iranian women are at the forefront of #IranProtests. pic.twitter.com/fDPm3LqKLd
As the sun went down on Saturday, the same sunset that Pouya Bakhtiari watched from a traffic jam west of Tehran, two things changed: the protests became bloodier and the internet was almost entirely shut off.
“We know they shut the internet down because they didn’t want the world to see what they were doing,” said Nassim Papayianni, senior campaigner on Iran at Amnesty International.
The crackdown that followed was captured in a collage of horror on mobile phone videos. Pouya’s body lying on a slab in a Karaj morgue with part of his skull blown off. A government sniper firing at protesters from the roof of a justice ministry building in the western city of Javanroud. Soldiers shooting out of a helicopter as it flew over a crowd in Shiraz.
The youngest person known to have been killed was Nikta Esfandani, a 14-year-old girl shot in the head in Tehran on November 16. Friends said she loved music and joined a theatre club at school. Authorities reportedly waived the “bullet money” for her family because she was so young.
While protesters attacked government buildings and hurled rocks at police, there is little evidence they used weapons or posed any serious threat to heavily-armed security forces.
“There are conflicting reports about whether or not there were one or more armed people among the protestors,” said Michelle Bachelet, the UN human rights chief. “But this does not in any way justify such an indiscriminate, horrifying and deadly reaction by the security forces.”
Leila Vaseghi, one of Iran’s only female governors, said at a press conference that she had ordered security forces to kill anyone who approached her offices, regardless of whether they were armed. “I ordered the guards that if any protester attempted to enter the building they must shoot them,” she said.
One of the bloodiest incidents took place on November 18 in Mahshahr, a predominantly Arab city near the border with Iraq. According to the New York Times, Revolutionary Guard forces exchanged fire with armed Arab residents and then pushed them back into a marsh area.
Up to 100 people may have been killed as the Guardsmen raked the marsh with bullets. Mobile phone footage from the scene shows government forces in pickup trucks with mounted machine guns and captures long bursts of automatic gunfire. Onlookers called out to the soldiers to stop shooting.
A national internet
For the last ten years Iran has been developing what it calls “a national internet”.
This meant building digital infrastructure so Iranian websites, messaging services, and banking platforms could be hosted on servers inside Iran rather in the US - giving Tehran far more control over their content.
Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher at the Article 19 human rights group, said Iranian authorities have given different explanations of why the national internet was needed.
Some said it would help in enforcing Iran’s strict morality codes - including a ban on pornography - earning it the nickname “the halal internet”. Others said that an internet largely hosted in Iran would be less vulnerable to US sanctions, therefore reducing Washington’s economic leverage over the country.
The full power of the national internet as a tool of government control became clear on November 16 when Tehran ordered Iranian internet service providers to shut down.
Soon the country’s internet connectivity was down to just 5 per cent of normal levels, according to Netblocks, a digital freedom group. Most of Iran’s 81 million people were cut off from the outside world.
Yet the blackout did not mean no internet at all. Foreign-hosted sites like BBC Persian and Iran International, which were reporting extensively on the protests, were inaccessible. But Iranian-hosted banking sites were still carrying out transactions and national hospitals were sending information.
The government was able to block the international sites it found threatening but keep its own critical digital infrastructure up and running. “It meant Iranians couldn’t use Whatsapp but they could connect to their bank accounts,” said Ms Alimardani.
Netblocks and the Internet Society estimate that the internet shutdown cost Iran’s economy $370 million a day, a steep price for a country already on its economic knees. But the national internet had served its purpose: it stopped word of the violence getting out; it prevented protesters from coordinating on messaging apps; and it kept the economy from coming to a complete stop.
When authorities finally restored access on November 23, the killing was over and the protests had been crushed. Iranians joked darkly that “God freed the internet”, a play on a famous phrase from Ayatollah Khomenei who said “God freed Khorramshahr” from Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.
More to come
In the days that followed the crackdown, families searched for their loved ones in government morgues.
Masih Alinjad, the opposition activist, said several families told her that authorities made them sign agreements in return for the corpses. They were ordered not to hold funerals or else to hold small ceremonies at night under the supervision of the security forces.
“The Islamic Republic knows that funerals can easily turn into protests and they will do anything to prevent that from happening,” Ms Alinejad. As she tracked the dead she realised that at least three of the young people who were killed had followed her on Instagram.
While this round of protests has been crushed, none of the underlying sources of public anger have been addressed.
“Without the implementation of major economic and political reforms I think there will be more frequent and more violent confrontations between the state and the society in coming months,” said Mr Vaez.
“In the context of growing tensions between Iran and the US, the Iranian leadership is in no mood to demonstrate any flexibility at home that could be interpreted as a sign of weakness abroad.
Pouya Bakhtiari’s grieving family have taken over his Instagram page where he once posted song lyrics and pictures of nature. They have turned it into a shrine for their son and a digital rallying point for other protesters.
In defiance of the government, Mr Bakhtiari used an Instagram post to announce a traditional memorial service on January 5, 40 days after his son’s death.
Was Mr Bakhtiari, an army veteran who fought for his country in the Iran-Iraq war, worried that he would face reprisals from his government for speaking out? “What more damage could they do to me? They have killed my son and have left me and my family with nothing left in our lives,” he replied.
“But I will not remain silent. I am the voice of Pouya and his young Iranian compatriots. I will cry out for justice and freedom on his behalf and on behalf of the young people of Iran, on behalf of all the people of my beloved country, who will eventually bring these people to their defeat.”