North Carolina Journal of International Law

"Connecting North Carolina to the World of International Law"

UN Response to Iranian Protests

By: Hannah Manning

On December 28, 2017, protests broke out in Mashhad, in Northern Iran.[1] The protests originated as a response to the country’s economic situation and “the high prices of basic goods like eggs, which saw a 40 percent jump in price.” [2] Though the protests began fairly peacefully, violence quickly escalated.[3] Over the next week, protests erupted in two dozen more Iranian towns, which then evolved into rebellion against the Islamic leadership of Iran. The protests resulted in 21 deaths and 450 arrests.[4] More than 1000 protestors were apparently detained.[5]  The emergency meeting.[6] The debate was contentious, both in response to the protests as well as criticism that the Security Council was not the appropriate forum to consider the matter.[7]


Background of Protests

The recent Iranian protests are the largest public demonstration since the 2009 Green Movement.[8]  Tens of thousands of Iranians have engaged in the protests.[9]  Though the protests initially broke out over prices of basic necessities, the initial fuel seems to have been the leak of President Rouhani’s proposed government budget.[10]  The budget called for significantly cutting cash subsidies for the poor, raising fuel prices, imposing fees for car registration, as well as a departure tax.[11] A lack of jobs and economic opportunities has made young Iranians turn out for the protest in droves. The deep set anger also stems from the fact that the Iranian government has spent billions on foreign policy, supplying weapons, financing, and soldiers to Syria and Palestine, while the country itself is struggling.[12] “The government is viewed as highly corrupt, increasing inequality is seen by the population as really a form of injustice.”[13] Truly, the protests have been building over “years of  political, economic, and social grievances have driven . . . Iranians to the streets . . . .”[14]

Though initially peaceful, the protests turned violent as security forces clashed with protesters.[15] A semi-official Iranian media site has reported that 450 people have been arrested, though other numbers put the total number of arrests at over 1000.[16] The Iranian government, which controls all media and prohibits free speech, has shut down access to social media and there is no real international press presence on the ground.[17]  The story the rest of the world is hearing is dependent on citizen journalists posting videos and updates via virtual private networks (VPNS).[18]  The Iranian media has not given coverage to the protests but have heavily featured pro-government protests meant to counter the anti-government demonstrations.[19]

The Iranian government, aside from shutting down access to social media, has stated that arrested protestors could potentially face the death penalty.[20] Supreme Leader Khamenei, without specially naming any nations or organizations,  has also accused Iran’s enemies of collaborating with and supporting the protestors.[21]  Iran’s Prosecutor General, has accused an American CIA official as the orchestrator of the protests and Iran’s U.N. envoy wrote a letter targeting U.S. President Donald Trump’s “absurd tweets” as “incit[ing] Iranians to engage in disruptive acts.”[22]


Debate in the U.N. Security Council

The United Nations has an extremely limited presence in Iran and cannot At the Unites States’ urging, the U.N. Security Council convened in an emergency meeting on January 5th, 2018, just a week after the initial protests erupted.[23]  U.S. envoy Nikki Haley urged the meeting, saying that “This is a matter of fundamental human rights for the Iranian people, but it is also a matter of international peace and security.”[24] But calling the security council meeting was not universally supported within the U.N.[25] Several countries, including Iran, Russia, and Bolivia, have raised objections that the Security Council was an inappropriate forum for this human rights debate, as well as accusing the U.S. of “abusing the Security Council platform.”[26]  Iran’s representative claimed that the protests were a purely internal affair in which the United States was needlessly interfering.

Unease over the appropriateness of the Security Council being called in response to the Iranian protests arises from Article 34 of the Charter of the United Nations which states that “[t]he Security Council may investigate any dispute, or any situation which might lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute, in order to determine whether the continuance of the dispute or situation is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security.”[27] Ambassador Haley claimed that human rights are inalienable, not gifts from reigning governments, and that the Iranian regime’s “contempt of the rights of its people” required international notice. The U. K’s representative agreed, asserting that the Security Council has authority under Article 34 to consider “any dispute that might give rise to international friction” and that Iran’s regional security interests were often pursued in a manner that caused threat to international security and stability.[28]

Iran and Russia were not so easily convinced.[29]  Both nations claimed that the Iranian protests were not an issue of international security and there was thus no Article 34 basis for calling an emergency session of the Security Council.[30] Both nations were heavily critical of the United States, with Russia bringing up the United States’ own history of dispersing protest rallies and claiming that if the issues in Iran were truly an international affair, a U.N. security council meeting should have been held in relation to the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri.[31] Further, Russia’s ambassador claimed that the U.S. was not concerned with human rights whatsoever, but rather with derailing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a plan to settle issues surrounding Iran’s nuclear program.[32]

Ambassadors “from China, Sweden, Bolivia and other countries also expressed reservations” about the Security Council having jurisdiction over such a situation.[33] Even some patent U.S. European allies, like France, were supportive of the protests but not convinced that they posed a threat to international security, preferring to consider this a purely domestic issue that for Iran to handle.[34]  Only the U.K’s ambassador expressed total agreement with the U.S. [35]



The U.N. Security Council would benefit from making a decision on what constitutes and international incident, as well as what place human rights debates have within the Security Council. The contentious debate within the U.N. belie inherently different beliefs as to how to deal with anti-government protests. The U.S. seems prepared to intervene in support of protestors in the name of free speech and inalienable rights. The majority of the U.S.’s European allies seems content to allow the protests to run their course, perhaps addressing them if they truly rise to the level of threatening international security but otherwise leaving the issue alone. But without resolving whether or not the Security Council has any jurisdiction over such an issue, there is no clear rule as to how to handle anti-government protests. Questions of when anti-government protests escalate to an international security issue and under what circumstances the U.N. can or should intervene remain.


[1] Marwa Eltagouri, Tens of Thousands of People Have Protested in Iran. Here’s Why. Wash. Post. (Jan. 3, 2018), [].

[2] Id.

[3] Press Release, Security Council, Security Council Discusses Deadly Protests Across Iran Amid Accusations of Abusing Entity’s Platform to Meddle in States’ Internal Affair, U.N. Press Relsease  SC/13152 (Jan. 5, 2018).

[4] Phil Gast, Dakin Andone, & Kara Fox, Here’s Why the Iran Protests Are Significant, CNN, (Jan. 3, 2018)., [].

[5] Supra note 1.

[6] Supra note 3.

[7] Id.

[8] Supra note 4.

[9] Supra note 1.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Supra note 4.

[14] Id.

[15] Supra note 1.

[16] Id.; Carol Morello, Iran Accuses U.S. of Bullying Tactics at Security Council Meeting Called to Discuss Unrest in Iran, Wash. Post (Jan. 5, 2018),

[17] Supra note 4.

[18] Id.

[19] Supra note 1.

[20] Kim Hjelmgaard, Everything You Need to Know About the Iran Protests, USA Today, (Jan. 2, 2018),, [].

[21] Id.

[22] Jennifer Peltz, U.N. Security Council is Meeting to Discuss Iran After U.S. Requested Support for Anti-Government Protestors, TIME (Jan. 4, 2018),, [].

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] U.N. Charter art. 34.

[28] Supra note 3.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] U.S. Call for Support For Iranian Protestors Gets Mixed Response at UN, RFERL, (Jan. 6, 2018),, [].

[33] Id.

[34] Id.; Zachary Cohen & Richard Coth, Haley Declares Iran ‘On Notice,’ but Cracks Show in US, European Approaches to Protests, CNN (Jan. 5, 2018),, [].

[35] Id.

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