Analysis

Iran's Attempts to Quell Protests Bring Them Closer to the Boiling Point

At the beginning of the week the government still thought it could calm the public, but now the leadership seems to realize that it’s facing the threat of an all-out civil insurrection

Iranian protesters rally amid burning tires during a demonstration, Isfahan, November 16, 2019.
AFP

Less than a week since the Iranian government hiked gasoline prices by dozens of percentage points, the regime is at the lethal phase of quashing the demonstrations. While an internet blackout has greatly impeded the flow of information among protest groups and between them and the outside world, more than 100 people are thought to have been killed, with some reports putting the figure as high as 200, and thousands injured or detained.

Reports relying on sources in the Basij, the volunteer forces of the Revolutionary Guards, tell of training exercises to suppress protests. They also say the Guards are on high alert and might deploy armored vehicles in cities.

At the beginning of the week the government apparently still thought it could calm the public; for example, by handing money directly to the 20 million or so needy Iranians as compensation for price rises. But now the leadership seems to realize that it’s facing the threat of an all-out civil insurrection, as the protests spread to about 100 cities amid the burning of banks and government offices, damage to schools of Islamic studies, and slogans and graffiti demanding “death to Rohani, death to Khamenei.”

While such phenomena happened during the major protests of 2009 and 2017-18, this time the government is having a hard time distinguishing between “reformists” and “conservatives,” and thus separating those it calls loyal to the revolution from those it deems domestic enemies operated by the United States, Israel and the “arrogant forces” of the West.

At the beginning of the protests, demonstrations broke out in Tehran’s neighborhoods that are racked by poverty. But within three days they had spread to north Tehran, Shiraz, Yazd and Isfahan, as students, young people and middle-class folks march together. The head of the Revolutionary Guards has said the response to protests will be “decisive and revolutionary,” while the editor of Kayhan, a daily controlled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has demanded that the regime “execute the protesters.” This reflects the tension, not to say panic, among the regime’s leaders.

Iranian protesters gather around a fire during a demonstration in Tehran, on November 16, 2019.
AFP

In contrast to 2009, when it was clear who was leading the protests and who the protesters were, this time, like last year, there are no known leaders with a cogent ideology or clear political strategy. This means that even if the regime is willing to negotiate with the protesters, as it did with striking teachers, truck drivers and protesting government factory workers, there is currently no clear group that it can neutralize to achieve calm.

And a violent suppression can entangle the regime even more by possibly bringing other sectors of society into the protest. One danger is that the Basij volunteers, many of them from poor neighborhoods and some who were forced to volunteer if they wanted a job, will leave the organization and join the protest.

The regime’s legitimacy is compromised further by the unified front presented by Khamenei, President Hassan Rohani and Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, who have fully backed the government’s decision to raise taxes. In doing so, they have increased the sense of alienation and hostility for the leadership.

In previous protests, Rohani came out against the use of force and said people had the right to nonviolent protest. He even accused certain religious institutions and the Revolutionary Guards of graft. This time, Rohani has remained silent despite the shooting at protesters and the many casualties. The deep economic crisis and the lack of a political will to implement the economic reforms Rohani wanted have trapped him in a dead end where only a dramatic step like a hike in gas prices could help plug the budget deficit that has reached 8 percent of GDP.

Of course, the regime could reverse its decision to raise taxes, or do so gradually over a year, but such a decision would mean not only giving in to the public’s demands, but deviating from the strategy of “resistance economics” that Khamenei has said is the way to overcome the steamroller of sanctions. Thus, suppression of the protests is necessary ideologically, not only politically. Meanwhile, the regime is relying on experience and is certain that this time too it will be able to quash the protests before they become a dangerous civil insurrection.

A motorcycle on fire during a protest in the Iranian city of Isfahan, November 2019.
AFP