Iranian revolutionary guard corps pray after Friday prayers in Tehran May 26, 2006. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

January 12, 2018

Iranian Anti-Regime Protests and Security Flaws: A Dataset

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The recent wave of protests in Iran highlighted weaknesses in the readiness of Iranian security forces in some cities to deal with demonstrations. The regime may find it harder to suppress future widespread protests, particularly if they become organized or armed. Future protests are likely because the regime quelled this round partly by suggesting a willingness to address the underlying economic grievances. Those grievances--high unemployment, widespread corruption, and the expenditure of resources on religious institutions and foreign wars--result from structural factors in the regime and the Iranian economy itself. The regime cannot make rapid progress on redressing them even if it chose to do so. Regime officials will probably use the current relative calm to audit local forces and increase security force numbers in preparation. They will not likely be able to make significant improvements rapidly given the scale of the challenge. Iran could well thus face more dangerous protests to which the regime will have to respond with more professional forces and greater violence. It will likely be able to do so, but at a much higher cost in lives, money, and legitimacy than it paid this time.

Protester-provided videos show that the regime relied primarily on Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) and limited numbers of Basij Organization members to suppress the protests. Protesters in a handful of smaller cities temporarily overpowered local police forces. A group of demonstrators raided and set fire to a Basij base in Shahin Shahr, Esfahan. A group in Izeh, Khuzestan reportedly seized their Friday Prayer Leader’s office as well as a local IRGC base briefly. The poor performance of LEF anti-riot forces in smaller towns likely resulted from inadequate manpower, training, and high-end anti-riot gear. Tehran’s police forces dispatched several water cannon-equipped trucks to dissuade protesters from rioting in some of the city’s major thoroughfares. Tehran’s LEF anti-riot personnel suppressed rioters much more effectively than the police forces in some of the smaller cities.

The regime’s decision to rely primarily on the LEF and, to a much lesser extent, the Basij, demonstrates that the regime did not see the protests as an existential threat to its security. The lack of significant IRGC involvement in the majority of the recent protests is further evidence. This regime restraint contrasts with its behavior during the 2009 protests, which saw Basijis and IRGC elements engaged much more rapidly and in larger numbers--and using more force. The regime met the recent demonstrations instead with a deliberately-restrained security response combined with promises to address the legitimate grievances of the protesters.

As the protests begin to subside, the LEF has maintained a heavily securitized atmosphere all across the country presumably to deter their re-emergence (although reports continue to suggest that small protests, strikes, and other forms of civil disobedience are continuing even so).

Iran-watchers should be prepared for the re-emergence of protests in response to a number of predictable upcoming events:

  • Former presidential candidate and popular reformist Mehdi Karroubi, who is under house arrest following the 2009 Green Movement protests, is in poor health. His death could mobilize some Green Movement protesters, many of whom did not participate in the most recent protests, or re-galvanize the most recent protests despite their apparent lack of sympathy with the Green Movement itself.
  • A possible prosecution of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose antics Ayatollah Khamenei likened to that of a child, could mobilize his base of populists and rural conservatives. The demographics of Ahmadinejad’s base appear to track closely with the makeup of crowds in the poorer and remote cities and neighborhoods, although the demonstrators gave no indication of any support or sympathy for Ahmadinejad.
  • The forthcoming sentencing of the nearly 4,000 Iranians detained since the start of the protests could spark new protests in Tehran. Hundreds continue to gather to demand  the release of innocent prisoners. At least three detainees have committed suicide.
  • Rouhani tasked Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, who oversees the LEF, to prepare a report by January 17 on protest-related deaths, injuries, and arrests. The publication of such a report, or a refusal to make it public, could set off additional protests, especially if it seemed like an attempt to whitewash security force behavior or conceal regime misdeeds.
  • The Iranian parliament must pass a new budget before the start of the new Persian Calendar year (mid-March 2018). The Rouhani Administration had proposed increases in security service budgets at the expense of subsidies in December, which appears to have contributed to the resentment fueling the protests. If the parliament retains or--as it often does--increases Rouhani’s requests for security services, it could reignite demonstrations. Would-be protest organizers and leaders could also attempt to incite crowds based on the appropriations for religious institutions, another focus of complaint in the recent demonstrations. Rouhani’s proposed reductions in gasoline subsidies, which will raise the price of gas significantly, could be another trigger.

The Iranian regime suppressed these protests relatively quickly and with much less force than most Iran-watchers expected. They may not be able to repeat that performance in the future, however, since it relied heavily on their willingness and ability to suggest that they will try to address grievances. If the crowds become more disillusioned or the regime more intransigent, new and more violent protests could arise. Such protests could challenge the regime more seriously, since even these limited demonstrations highlighted important problems with the regime’s front-line internal security forces. Regime collapse remains very unlikely in the near term, but more expansive and dangerous internal unrest is quite possible.

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