With Brutal Sophistication and No Internet, Iran Was Quick to Stamp Out Protests

Tehran fears a mass boycott of upcoming elections that might chip away at its legitimacy even more, Israeli intelligence officials say

Iranian women taking part in a pro-government demonstration in Tehran, November 25, 2019.
AFP

Less than two weeks after Iran’s protest wave began, Western and Israeli intelligence agencies believe that the regime in Tehran is on the verge of containing it. The violence, which is thought to have taken around 300 lives, is considered the strongest uprising in Iran since the Islamic Revolution brought the current regime to power in 1979. Israeli intelligence officials believe that the authorities have combined brutality and sophistication to stifle the unrest.

The rioting in Iran began over the weekend at mid-month after the government’s decision to sharply raise fuel prices. The hike was caused by Iran’s economic woes following the tough international sanctions led by the United States.

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The disturbances expanded to most areas of the country and have included confrontations with the security forces in hundreds of cities and towns across Iran. In addition to the dead (including a few members of the security forces), more than 4,000 people have been wounded and hundreds of bank branches and gas stations have been torched.

The regime blames the intelligence services of the United States, Britain and Israel for inflaming the atmosphere and sparking the disturbances. According to Western intelligence assessments, the Iranians believe a campaign is being waged against them led by the United States as part of a plan to bring down the regime. In their eyes, the U.S. sanctions are part of this process, along with the Israeli strikes against Iran’s efforts to entrench itself militarily in Syria.

Besides the growing impact of the sanctions, regime leaders fear that most Iranians are losing their enthusiasm for Islamic revolutionary values and are increasingly questioning the legitimacy of the regime due to allegations that senior officials are tainted by corruption and their families are living lives of luxury. During the most recent demonstrations there were calls akin to “the revolution was a mistake.” Meanwhile, a parliamentary election is set for February, and Tehran fears a mass boycott of the vote that will further undermine the legitimacy of the election process and the regime.

Iranian pro-government demonstrators gather in the capital Tehran's central Enghelab Square, November 25, 2019.
AFP

During the failed Green Revolution of June 2009 and other demonstrations in later years, most complaints touched on economic demands, corruption and election rigging. But since 2017, the slogans have been more aggressive, including “death to the dictator.” The regime’s swift and violent response to the protests is part of the lesson learned from 2009: Suppress protests as quickly as possible before they spread.

Despite Iranians’ rage over the worsening economy, and despite the severe turmoil that two governments friendly to Iran – Lebanon and Iraq – have faced over the past month, the Iranian regime is apparently coping. Intelligence agencies describe the events in Iran as a deliberate display of brutal repression. Alongside widespread arrests and the violence against protesters, the regime quickly blocked almost the entire population from the internet.

This shutdown, which seemed planned in advance to be implemented during a crisis, cut Iranians off almost totally from the wider world in less than 24 hours. Thus videos could not be uploaded documenting the violence by the security forces, and demonstrators had a hard time coordinating their moves.

But this move had serious economic implications for the regime itself; the damage is estimated at $1.5 billion. At the beginning of the week the internet in Iran returned gradually and by Monday had reached a connection rate of around 80 percent of normal.

It appears the leaders relaxed the crackdown because of the economic fallout and the feeling they had the protests under control. As far as is known, no Western country tried to restore partial service during the demonstrations, even though this would have helped the protesters.

Iranian pro-government demonstrators raise flags and pictures of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as they gather in Tehran's central Enghelab Square, November 25, 2019.
AFP

Although the government has had success curbing the disturbances, we can assume that the public’s rage against the regime is now even greater and that major protests will resume the next time there are grounds for a flare-up. Iran’s economy is still in bad shape. For the next fiscal year, projections show the economy contracting by an unprecedented 9.5 percent. The government isn’t paying salaries and is being forced to dip into its national development fund to try to cover the shortfall. There seems to be no way to avoid more sharp cuts in government spending next year.

Despite the criticism of President Hassan Rohani, a relative moderate, Iran’s leaders have closed ranks against the pressure from abroad. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei hasn’t held Rohani responsible for the situation and has backed all his moves. And despite the demonstrations, the regime isn’t rolling back the planned gasoline price hike that spurred the protests in the first place.