People stop their cars in a highway to show their protest for increased gas price in Tehran, Iran November 16, 2019. Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY - RC2CCD9DIJOJ

August 25, 2020

Iranian national police force adopts new measures to confront anticipated unrest

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) are preparing to prevent and suppress unrest more effectively as economic conditions worsen. The regime has perceived a growing domestic threat since late 2017 when its core support base, working class and impoverished Iranians, protested poor and worsening economic conditions. Nationwide protests with primarily economic triggers have since erupted intermittently. Protesters criticize systemic corruption and the expenditure of state resources on foreign projects.

The regime showed a growing willingness to use lethal force and violence in November 2019, reportedly killing 1,500 demonstrators, many more than the few dozen killed in 2017–18. The LEF has been acquiring advanced surveillance technology and weapons since the November protest wave. It has also rotated experienced nonlocal commanders into provincial level positions in the past few months after local LEF officials may have disobeyed central orders at the start of the COVID crisis. These activities indicate the regime is readying for another round of nationwide protests and will likely crack down on these protests with greater violence and enhanced surveillance.

 The Iranian economy is experiencing stagflation (recession coupled with high inflation), which could catalyze a new wave of anti-regime protests. Current fiscal policies are unlikely to reverse months of sharp currency devaluation or narrow a widening fiscal deficit. Iran’s currency has hit record lows in recent months as a year of strictly enforced US sanctions compounded the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Iran’s government has vainly tried to combat the devalued currency by periodically injecting hundreds of millions of dollars of its dwindling foreign currency reserves into the economy. Iran’s monetary base and liquidity may lead to hyperinflation in the near term. Inflation has heavily affected the cost of household goods; the cost of meat, for example, has risen 116 percent in recent months. The 2017–18 protests started as demonstrations focused on the high price of eggs, making the rise of the prices of basic goods today potentially ominous for the regime.

The LEF is Iran’s national police and the Islamic Republic’s first line of defense against anti-regime protests. The LEF has a close relationship with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Many high-level LEF leaders—including LEF Commander IRGC Brig. Gen. First Class Hossein Ashtari—are also IRGC officers. The LEF is divided into national and provincial commands. Provincial commanders have historically rotated from province to province, often staying in each position for roughly five years. Below provincial level, city commanders generally *shift from city to city within the same province.

The LEF is acquiring weapons and technology to increase surveillance capacity and lethality. The LEF and Basij successfully suppressed protests in 2017–18 with less overt IRGC intervention than in the 2009 protest wave. The LEF has steadily acquired greater resources from Iran’s government since proving itself in 2018.

The LEF is beginning to implement advanced surveillance technology possibly acquired from China to empower security presence and surveillance in anticipation of possible protests. The regime has used domestic surveillance technology acquired from China to counter internal threats since at least 2009 and may seek to advance these capabilities amid mounting civil unrest. Ashtari *met with the Chinese ambassador to Iran in fall 2019, possibly to facilitate Iran’s acquisition of more advanced tools. The LEF *announced a pilot program to implement facial recognition technology on June 15 a few days after *announcing a new drone surveillance project under the guise of traffic monitoring. Multiple LEF provincial commands have *announced unmanned aerial vehicle programs throughout the summer. The LEF may use facial recognition software processing images from cameras mounted on drones to anticipate and prevent large gatherings and more easily track anti-regime dissidents.

Regime decision makers are empowering an increasingly weaponized LEF. Iran’s Defense Ministry, responsible for planning, logistics, and funding for Iran’s armed forces, *signed an agreement with the LEF to boost its operational capabilities in June. The LEF and Defense Ministry *signed a similar agreement after protests in 2017–18 that likely helped provide the firepower the LEF employed to suppress the November protests. Ashtari *met with the Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee to request updated equipment in July 2020.

The LEF’s Prevention and Operation Police (PPVA), the largest LEF national command, is also extending its outreach to other regime institutions. Recently *appointed PPVA commander Masoum Beigi focused his *first speech on the urgency for PPVA to adopt a mission set by the newly formed Supreme Crime Prevention Council. The council is *chaired by Iran’s powerful Judiciary Chief (and likely successor to the Supreme Leader) Ebrahim Raisi to *facilitate greater collaboration between government bodies and the LEF.

LEF Special Units Commander Karami *outlined the “unique” level of support and equipment the government has provided his unit since March 2020. High-level LEF officials’ greater support from formal government ministries may increase the likelihood that dwindling government resources will be allocated to law enforcement.

The regime rotated experienced nonlocal provincial commanders in May possibly to mitigate the risk that the commanders will sympathize with future protests. The LEF often shifts provincial-level LEF commanders and deputy commanders to a different province after about five years of service. Multiple provincial-level LEF commanders with fewer than five years of service in their areas shifted over the summer, however. The Mazandaran provincial LEF commander, a Lorestan *native, was relocated from Mazandaran to Qom in May. The national-level LEF anti-narcotics commander *took over the Mazandaran provincial command shortly thereafter.

The transfer from national command to provincial command would appear to be a demotion, though the move likely exemplifies the growing importance of trusted provincial leadership in key regions. The number of commanders that reshuffled at the beginning of the summer was atypically high, affecting the Qom, Mazandaran, *Golestan, and *Yazd provincial commands. Each commander had been in his position for less than five years. The unusually high number of provincial-level appointments and the appointment of a national-level commander to a provincial role may indicate national LEF leadership sought experienced commanders, less responsive to local grievances, to ensure loyalty to national leadership.

Nonlocal commanders with less time in their respective provincial command will likely be more loyal to central commands and less sensitive to local demands. Nonlocal commanders may be more likely to execute a violent response to protests and could be better posed to address disloyalty in local LEF ranks. Protesters in 2017–18 called on local LEF forces to join them, and local LEF forces may have defied national orders during Iran’s initial COVID-19 response in March 2020.

This event may have prompted the apparently premature changes of command. The regime has employed nonlocal forces to violently suppress popular protests in the past, ordering Tehrani security forces to Khuzestan province during the November protests when they reportedly killed over 100 protesters with direct fire in the small suburb of Mahshahr, Khuzestan province.

The LEF is simultaneously conducting an ongoing local outreach campaign to improve its public image. Multiple senior *LEF officials, *including Ashtari, have announced *new LEF efforts to engage local communities. The Security Charitable Association, a program that facilitates local charities and civilian volunteers to donate to the LEF, has recently *expanded to new provinces. Beigi additionally *formed a Trusted Police Council in July under the PPVA which *facilitates local citizens’ interactions with LEF officials through public supervision centers. The LEF “meet and greets” with citizens on local grievances may also be designed to help the LEF provincial offices gather intelligence on possible dissidents.

The LEF’s restructuring and commitment to implementing more advanced weapons and technology signal the regime plans to meet a new wave of protests fueled by economic grievances with violence rather than concessions. The regime is fostering an environment that discourages protests through increased militarization of the regime’s first line of defense, the LEF. Increased surveillance technology and greater collaboration between the judiciary and the LEF may lead to increased preventative political arrests that could increase the regime’s ability to disrupt planned large-scale gatherings before they begin. Security technology and information sharing with the Chinese for internal security purposes could provide regime leaders with the tools to do so with less violence and more political arrests.

Greater surveillance technology and militarization of the LEF will not likely quell smaller-scale spontaneous protests and acts of civil disorder that characterized summer 2020, however. It is unlikely that LEF policies and technology can prevent unrest entirely given the regime’s unwillingness and, in some cases, inability to address its people’s core concerns.