Iran’s 2019 Gasoline Protests: What Happens Next?

Iran’s leaders have survived yet another challenge to their rule from an increasingly restive population.  The November demonstrations protesting an increase in gasoline prices were the largest since 2009.  Iran’s officials – who tend to downplay unrest – have claimed that as many as 200,000 people took to the streets.. According to reports, 7,000 were arrested and at least 140 died in protests, although the actual figures are likely larger.  At no time did the regime appear to be  in danger, but the scale and intensity of social discontent likely signals that episodic eruptions of rage and protest  will continue. Iran’s response to this latest crisis drew from an old playbook.  Regime voices blamed protests on Western powers and called for punishment of those detained.  Iran’s Chief Justice Ebrahim Raesi – currently the most likely successor to Iran’s current Supreme Leader – has declared protestors “enemies of God” and called for their execution. This call was echoed by Iran’s hardline newspaper -which carries the views of the Supreme Leader.

The events of the last few weeks should be considered from several perspectives.  First, in a broad context, the events in Iran can be seen as part of a wave of anger which is coursing throughout the Middle East.  The region’s population is young, unemployed, and unwilling to tolerate the corruption, mismanagement, and sterile political ideologies the past.  In the face of such anger governments in the region are realizing that their survival requires either dramatic social and economic change or repression.

Second, the regime’s response demonstrates  how Iran will handle the inevitable next eruption of protests.  Despite sanctions, Tehran’s heavy investment in its security sector since 2009 has resulted in an effective system to protect the regime from its own people.  Components of this system include layered security (involving militias, cyber experts, intelligence personnel, police, and the military), massive arrests, a willingness to use deadly force, and the isolation of protestors within Iran and from the outside world by choking Internet access.  Iran is likely encouraging its proxies in Iraq and Lebanon to employ similar tools and methods.

Finally, the crackdown tells us what kind of country Iran hopes to be.  Certainly, millions within Iran would choose a different path for their country, if they could.  But it also needs to be recognized that millions of Iranians continue to support the regime.  Likewise, Iran’s leadership remains unified in the belief that the Islamic Republic must be sustained.  Iran’s security leadership - selected or approved by Iran’s Supreme Leader - appear unified in its endorsement of a hardline future for Iran. 

Although some may question the wisdom of the regime’s efforts to reduce gasoline subsidies, Tehran had little choice in the matter.  Sanctions are biting heavily, and Iran’s economy has contracted by around ten per cent in the last year.  Iran’s leaders routinely blame U.S. sanctions for their inability to provide better social services.  Certainly, sanctions have dug deep into Iran’s coffers, but Tehran seems to have little problem diverting massive funds to sustain its security forces.  It took more than USD 400 million in public and private funds to create a national intranet to isolate its population from the world.  This technology augments the equally heavy investments Iran makes to jam foreign television broadcasts.  No doubt from a security perspective, such funding makes sense.  Iran’s security chiefs surely understand that the next phase of the revolution will represent the greatest challenge since the war with Iraq.  Indeed, it may be that they have also felt that a harsh crackdown now might neutralize protest organizers before Iran’s economic and political stability erodes further.  Iran’s approach to security increasingly resembles that found in North Korea and China.

The West’s collective response – or rather non-response – to Tehran’s domestic and foreign aggressions shows that Iran risks little with a hardline approach to any issue.  The list of Iranian actions that would be expected to generate an international reaction is as alarming as the absence of an international response is unsettling.  Evidence of Iran’s role in attacks on a global energy hub in Saudi Arabia and the mining of tankers in the Persian Gulf elicited the same reaction as tons of Iranian missile and UAV equipment salvaged from Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and the millions of non-Saudis who live in the Kingdom.  Weak statements from the United Nations and the European Union following Tehran’s brutal crackdown on largely peaceful protestors likely further reassured the regime that aggressive policies face little pushback.  Similarly, little is heard from international voices in response to Iran’s involvement in the suppression of protests in Iraq and Syria. 

The next phase of Iran’s history will be crucial, and lives are now on the line in Iran and abroad.  The international community’s response will also be watched by revisionist actors in Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, and elsewhere.  Until Iran’s own leaders believe they must moderate, it is hard to argue that economic engagement with the regime will not further entrench forces who represent principles the West has traditionally opposed.

Elements of a possible diplomatic approach could include the following:

  • Washington and Europe should agree on the need to address Iran’s nuclear and regional adventurism, although Europe frames its policy almost solely in actions designed to restore the nuclear deal.  Europe must acknowledge the priority of regional issues to convince Washington of the utility of partnership.  Together this partnership must identify measurable actions Iran could take to warrant sanctions relief.
  • Washington and key European allies should partner to develop technical solutions to ensure Internet access to Iran’s people as well as how to provide humanitarian assistance to Iran without enriching the Revolutionary Guards.
  • Unless there is evidence Iran will take negotiations seriously, sanctions relief should be not offered simply to bring Iran to the table for discussions.  However, engagement with Iran must be sufficiently robust to convince Tehran that a change in its behavior will produce regime sustaining economic benefits.

Unfortunately, none of the actors in this process seem positioned for a smooth diplomatic process.  Future historians will assert that the bitter partisan divide over Iran among Washington policymakers prevented development of an effective policy approach.  Europe shows little interest in Iran’s regional activity and missile activity.  The latest unrest in Iran offers an opportunity for the West to consider how best to end this debate and develop a policy which improves regional stability and helps the Iranian people realize their ambitions.  The time may have come to consider the deal as beyond repair, but that is all the more reason that the U.S. and its partners should work together to develop a unified approach to its successor.

Norman Roule is a Senior Advisor to United Against Nuclear Iran and a 34-year veteran of the CIA. Before leaving the intelligence community, Roule served as the National Intelligence Manager for Iran at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence from November 2008 to September 2017. Here he was the principal Intelligence Community official responsible for overseeing all aspects of national intelligence policy and activities related to Iran.