Iranian Regime Has No Solutions, Just Repression

The Iranian regime’s failures at governance are triggering an intense backlash both at home and in Iraq, where Iran serves as a key power broker. In both countries, what began as demonstrations against economic privation coalesced into outpourings of anger at Iran’s revolutionary government, correctly seen as the root cause behind the protestors’ grievances.  Protests are also rocking Lebanon, where Iran maintains a vested interest in preserving the status quo. The three crises have set Iran’s leadership on edge. Rather than offering even incremental reforms, Iran has instead returned to its tried-and-true playbook: repression.

Domestic Protests Break Out: On November 15, the Iranian regime announced it was hiking government-set gasoline prices and implementing rationing measures, triggering the outbreak of street protests that rapidly spread to cities across the country. The Iranian protests occurred while the regime was busy directing the suppression of widespread Iraqi protests, which have been ongoing since October 1. Additionally, Lebanon, where Iran projects considerable influence through its primary terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, has been roiled by widespread protests against the incompetence of political elites since mid-October. These protests have been less explicitly anti-Iranian, but are still a cause for concern for Tehran as they risk destabilizing its investment in a weak central government unwilling to disarm or curtail Hezbollah.

The chaotic demonstrations currently gripping Iran are the latest manifestation of an Iranian protest movement that sprang up in late December 2017 in response to economic mismanagement and corruption. Even after those mass protests died down, the regime still faced sporadic protests and general strikes by various constituencies around the country in response to the regime’s handling of labor issues, discrimination against women and ethnic/religious minorities, and ecological mismanagement. With increasing numbers of Iranians facing hardship due to the regime’s mishandling of the economy and the expansion of sanctions as part of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy, the current protests appear more expansive than previous iterations.

Already facing intense, anti-regime protests in Iraq, which serves as an economic lifeline in the “maximum pressure” sanctions environment, the Iranian regime has felt increasingly isolated and besieged. This mounting pressure has altered the Iranian regime’s calculus, leading it to treat the latest outbreak of domestic protests with seemingly existential urgency. Almost immediately, the regime took the drastic and unprecedented step of restricting internet access for most Iranians, impeding their ability to organize and to disseminate information to the world of the regime’s abuses. The government has previously blocked social media applications such as Telegram, but the logistically complex shutdown of the full internet shows the extent of Tehran’s fear of unrest.

Despite the regime’s efforts to prevent the exposure of its malfeasance, Amnesty International reports the regime has killed at least 115 protestors, although that number is likely to grow with thousands more likely injured. By the regime’s own admission, it has arrested at least 1,000 demonstrators, which is also surely a low estimate.

The regime’s response to the domestic protests shows that it has abandoned any pretenses of “moderation” or “reform.” Ostensibly “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani has joined Supreme Leader Khamenei in characterizing the protests as the machinations of “foreign enemies,” denying the existence of a broad-based popular movement opposed to the regime.

Impact of Domestic Unrest on Iraq Response: The outbreak of domestic protests in Iran is likely to increase the urgency with which Iran views the unrest in neighboring Iraq, increasing the odds that the regime misfires in its handling of the protests there. Before the outbreak of the domestic protests, it appeared Iran had a plan to weather the storm posed by burgeoning Iraqi protest movement. But now, it is likely to forego strategic patience in favor of outright repression.

In recent weeks, Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s point-man on Iraq, had worked with various Iraqi factions and government leaders to come up with an incremental reform package in the hope it would mollify protestors’ demands for sweeping changes. The plan would leave Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in power until new elections next year, buying Iran time to figure out how to retain its influence and thwart meaningful reform.

With Iran now preoccupied by protests closer to home, this plan is now imperiled, as Iraqi protestors have effectively been encouraged to stick to their demands and continue protesting. Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a rival source of Shi’a emulation to Supreme Leader Khamenei, has backed the protestor’s demands and called for Iraqi security forces to refrain from force. Muqtada al-Sadr, another countervailing figure to Iranian influence in Iraq, backed the removal of Abdul Mahdi several weeks ago until Iran interceded to keep him in power. The troubles Iran faces at home give al-Sadr and Sistani space to continue to egg on the Iraqi protests, and provide Tehran even more impetus to crackdown harder on Iraqi dissent. The key factor to monitor is whether Iraq’s security forces will continue to do Iran’s bidding in quelling protests, or whether they will side with their people instead.

This past weekend, Iraqi security forces clashed with protestors in Baghdad, Basra, and Nasiriyah, killing six and wounding nearly 150. In Lebanon, Hezbollah supporters clashed with protestors as well, marking a new phase in the protests there. The uptick in violence shows that Iran will likely face continued unrest on three fronts, significantly straining the regime’s crisis management capabilities. Iran faces a massively contracting economy as its influence is challenged abroad and its legitimacy at home is at a nadir. Bereft of solutions, the regime will continue to rely on repression to navigate out of the morass.

Jordan Steckler is a research analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).