An Iranian protester throws a stone at riot police as protesters set their motorbikes on fire during fierce clashes in central Tehran December 27, 2009. REUTERS

July 02, 2018

Iran's Hardliners Will Be the First Winners of the Protest Movement

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

The expansion of Iran's protest movement to include urban merchants increases the internal security challenge facing the regime’s security forces, but does not now threaten the Islamic Republic’s survival. Regime leaders retain the will and the ability to suppress internal threats. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, leaders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and hardline parliamentarians are redirecting public anger against President Hassan Rouhani and his moderate cabinet.  This maneuver will likely undermine Rouhani while weakening the protests' threat to regime survival for some time—possibly through the next presidential election in 2021.

Economic unrest will persist due to the regime’s inability and unwillingness to enact necessary economic reforms. Rouhani cannot improve the Iranian economy because of structural flaws including widespread corruption and the economic domination of regime organizations such as the bonyads ("charitable" foundations acting as vast holding companies for regime organs) and the Supreme Leader's business empire. The forthcoming reimposition of U.S. sanctions is exacerbating these flaws.  It has encouraged European firms to leave Iran, depriving it of much-needed trade, intellectual property, and hard currency. Rouhani had sought to address all of these problems in economic reforms now being undone and discredited by the hardliners.  A hardliner triumph over Rouhani will commit Iran to wrong-headed economic policy for the foreseeable future.  Protests triggered by these structural flaws will continue, particularly if the Iranian rial continues its devaluation.

The expansion of the protest movement to include merchants in major cities will strain the security forces more than any previous internal unrest. The late-December 2017 riots brought out unemployed youth in many locations across Iran, but particularly in rural areas. The recent merchants’ demonstrations occurred in major cities, by contrast. The deadly clashes in southwest Iran on June 29 highlight the rise of ethnic grievances.  Demonstrators in all areas now frequently chant anti-regime slogans rather than focusing only on their specific complaints.  Iran's security forces will have difficulty controlling large protests in major cities simultaneously with smaller demonstrations spread throughout the countryside.

The regime retains the will and ability to suppress internal threats, however. Iran's security organs killed, arrested, and tortured protesters during 2009 Green Movement and the 2011-2012 protests. The violent suppression of the June 29 demonstration shows that regime forces remain willing to kill protesters.

Security forces are improving their ability to suppress this more challenging movement, learning lessons from the December 2017 protests. They are militarizing their front-line police units and improving cooperation between them and the IRGC-controlled Basij forces.

Protests will likely simmer rather than boil over unless the regime miscalculates badly.  The size and scope of the 2009 Green Movement resulted from the mass outrage over the obviously-rigged election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Structural economic problems generate no such galvanizing events.  Protests will likely therefore flare and die away rather than catching fire and expanding as long as the regime keeps suppressing them judiciously.  Bazaaris aggravated by the collapsing rial and other problems will not likely risk their lives as long as the regime shows its continued willingness to kill, arrest, and torture protesters judiciously.  Poorer people in rural areas are more likely to risk death and imprisonment, but they will find it hard to coalesce into a coherent anti-regime movement in the face of the regime's control of communications and the pervasiveness of its security forces.  The regime could strike a spark igniting larger and more protracted and dangerous resistance if it killed many innocent people at one time, but its security forces are laboring to avoid making such a mistake.

Khamenei and the hardliners are redirecting public anger against Rouhani and the moderates, meanwhile. Senior *clerics and IRGC officials blamed the Rouhani administration’s economic mismanagement for the demonstrators' grievances. Hardliner attacks on Rouhani will likely increase as the IRGC, the clerical establishment, and conservative politicians seize an opportunity to weaken or destroy the reformist political movement they have long hated. Their pressure will damage the moderates and may cause the resignation of administration officials. The political destruction of the only people pressing for change that might improve Iran's economy will paradoxically appease for a time demonstrators who have directed their ire at Rouhani as much as at the regime.

Rouhani's political castration this early in his term may empower hardliner policies beyond Iran's borders. The IRGC and clerics will expand their influence and control in Iran’s political space without accepting the responsibility for the economy that comes with formal control of the elected government. This influence could well drive more resources to the IRGC’s ballistic missile program, its proxies and partners abroad, and to security services’ anti-protest capabilities despite the electoral successes of moderates in 2017. The IRGC could gain a greater capacity to export arms, funds, and equipment to its forces and partners in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Yemen under cover of a supposedly reformist government.

A widespread, anti-government uprising could nevertheless threaten the Islamic Republic’s survival under certain circumstances. The following developments would indicate the emergence of such a threat, which does not appear imminent:

  • Senior security forces’ commanders expressing sympathy for or solidarity with protesters. Low-level Basij Organization members posted pictures and videos of themselves burning their membership cards in December 2017, but no senior officers or members of the more professionalized security organs have defected. Such defections were critical inflections in most Arab Spring uprisings and many successful protest-movements-cum-insurgencies in the past.
  • Regime officials outside Rouhani's circle criticizing Khamenei, the clerics, or the IRGC. Tensions between regime organs and Rouhani's elected government are dangerous in the face of a widespread protest movement, but also offer advantages considered above. Iran's conservatives are famously fractious, but also tend to coalesce during threats to regime survival.  Fracturing of the hardline opposition to Rouhani at this time could become fatal. 
  • Demonstrators employing advanced weapons or fighting techniques against security forces would indicate a new degree of organization and determination to fight that would make the opposition a much more formidable threat to the regime than it is currently.

Expanding protests may make Iran more rather than less aggressive throughout the Middle East over the coming months and even years. The U.S. may confront a crypto-conservative Iran, headed ostensibly by the moderate Rouhani but actually controlled even more than in the past by hardliners.  The U.S. will have to work to demonstrate to its partners that Rouhani is becoming a mere figurehead even as he tries to leverage Western support to retain domestic influence.

The Iranian regime is going nowhere fast.  Protests remain far below the level at which they would likely pose a threat to the regime's survival.  Current trends do not suggest that they will rise to such a level any time soon.  The U.S. and its allies must gird themselves for a long, hard struggle and dismiss hopes of a rapid regime collapse.