December 16, 2021
Whatever it takes to end it: Iran's shift toward more oppressive governance
[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 Iranian regime is becoming more authoritarian and repressive, fearing that compounding domestic pressures could threaten its hold on power. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is driving this shift in response to popular protests, the COVID-19 pandemic, US sanctions, and political uncertainty in the lead-up to his succession.
- Iranian state security services, under the supreme leader’s direction, are enhancing their capability to preempt and violently crush domestic unrest to ensure the regime’s continued rule. The regime is increasingly using advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence and domestic surveillance infrastructure, for repression.
- Supreme Leader Khamenei has empowered a cadre of political and military figures who will maintain and possibly intensify this repressive behavior for the foreseeable future—even after Khamenei’s passing.
- Iran’s more repressive governance will affect how it engages the region and Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, requiring the US to recalibrate its policy vis-à-vis Tehran. The US should develop a broader strategy to counter the global spread of digital authoritarianism, manage expectations of the nuclear deal, and highlight the regime’s domestic abuses for the international community to see.
Iran is becoming a more authoritarian and repressive state, which has direct implications for the future of the region and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Iranian regime is intensifying its efforts to control the population and retain the ruling elite’s hold on power amid mounting domestic crises and instability. Regime leadership has always used repression to secure power, but recent trends indicate a change in the political establishment’s relationship with the Iranian people. The security services are building an increasingly adaptive and sophisticated police and surveillance state, improving their capability to violently suppress domestic dissent. US decision makers must recalibrate their policies vis-à-vis Tehran to reflect this new reality.
Restoring the JCPOA would not reverse Iran’s shift toward more repressive governance. A worsening internal security environment, which may intensify in the years ahead, is driving this transition. Popular protests and violence against the regime have swelled throughout the country in recent years, stoking the Iranian leadership’s fear of domestic instability. Civil disorder, largely driven by economic grievances, has become commonplace, testing the state’s defenses against its own people. Factors further exacerbating authorities’ concerns include the COVID-19 pandemic, the possibility that the US will someday resume a maximum-pressure policy, and political uncertainty in the lead-up to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s passing.
The regime is optimizing its internal security apparatus for social control. Iranian authorities have adopted a three-pronged counterprotest strategy, incorporating prevention, force, and censorship. This approach relies on an expansive constellation of neighborhood patrols, paramilitary forces, and security bases—all designed, in part, to forecast when protests will occur and crush them early. The regime is increasingly involving its conventional military—named the Artesh—and possibly foreign proxy fighters in internal security missions.
Advanced technologies are central to this counterprotest strategy. Iranian leadership sees the success of the Chinese Communist Party in controlling and monitoring its own population and seeks to partly emulate this model of social control. Iranian authorities have embraced the concept of internet sovereignty and are increasingly willing to disrupt the internet and telecommunications in Iran to abet their protest crackdowns. They are also investing in domestic surveillance infrastructure and artificial intelligence (AI) to suppress dissent. Iranian officials hope to harness AI’s analytical potential to synthesize a broad range of data streams collected through increasingly diverse digital means to identify and preempt internal security threats in real time.
The regime’s more authoritarian mode of governance could change how it interacts with the region and the JCPOA. Iran’s rulers may come to perceive the success of their counterprotest strategy as a source of leverage and strength. The regime could believe that it can more effectively repress its citizens with little fear of consequence and that it is better prepared to survive without the economic benefits of the nuclear deal. Understanding this evolution from the Iranian leadership’s perspective can help US policymakers address the national security challenge Iran poses to the US and its allies and partners.
Below are three policy recommendations that the US should adopt.
Counter Digital Authoritarianism. The US should integrate its Iran policy into a larger effort to counter the global spread of digital authoritarianism. Iran could become yet another agent for proliferating repressive technologies and methods of social control abroad. Iranian regime leadership has demonstrated its capability and willingness to send its internal security apparatus to Iraq and Syria to support violent crackdowns against protesters and thereby preserve Iranian economic, political, and security interests there. Tehran could increasingly export such capabilities if Iranian authorities conclude such exchanges are in its interest as they refine their repressive tool kit. A broader US strategy to confront the global spread of digital authoritarianism is required, especially if Iran advances further along this trajectory.
Adjust the Approach to the JCPOA. The US should not allow Iran to exploit the JCPOA to deter the US from pursuing other matters of interest to American foreign policy and national security. Ascendant hard-liners will promote aggressive and authoritarian behavior in Iran and the region in the years ahead while refusing to compromise with the West on Tehran’s missile program and regional activities. Given the opportunity, they would use funds derived from the revival of the JCPOA to abet such efforts. Khamenei and these hard-liners do not consider the nuclear agreement sustainable and may abandon, delay, and reverse its implementation to pressure the US on other matters. Prioritizing the JCPOA above all else will damage the United States’ capacity to address the range of issues it faces vis-à-vis Iran.
Shine a Spotlight on Repression. The US should broadcast publicly when the regime conducts harsh crackdowns on its citizens. Iranian leadership seeks to hide its repression through internet shutdowns. The US can draw international attention to the regime’s abuses and impose a cost on the Iranian leadership if it continues such behavior. The US should especially highlight Iran’s use of foreign proxies for domestic crackdowns, if it occurs. Iraqi and Lebanese citizens should see where the allegiances of these proxies lie. The regime’s use of foreign fighters for domestic missions in Iran could erode political support for Iranian proxies in their respective home countries or deter Tehran from co-opting them to hurt its own people.
The Iranian regime is optimizing its domestic security services and policies to preempt and violently suppress internal dissent. This effort is partly a continuation of decades-long trends within Iran’s security establishment but also marks an inflection in the regime’s perception of its own population. Iranian leadership is behaving as if it increasingly regards its own people as threats and potential enemies rather than willing constituents. This change has profound implications for the policies and, indeed, survival of the postrevolutionary state.
Iran’s move toward a more overtly authoritarian and repressive model of governance is the regime’s response to its worsening domestic security environment. The clerical state has experienced some of the most violent and widespread anti-regime protests in its history in the past four years. Poor economic conditions exacerbated by US sanctions have fueled these protests, which have challenged the ruling elite’s control in new ways. Disaffected citizens condemn regime leadership and periodically clash with state security forces.
This civil disorder will likely continue in the years ahead at varying levels of intensity and has stoked the political establishment’s paranoia and fear for the regime’s future. The looming succession of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the COVID-19 pandemic, the increasingly obvious and ostentatious Israeli penetration of the Iranian security sphere, and other flaws in the defense apparatus have compounded these stressors, further exacerbating authorities’ concerns. Iranian leaders are therefore unlikely to reverse this shift toward greater repression, regardless of whether a renewed nuclear deal eases some of the economic pressure.
The regime accuses Washington of directly fomenting the domestic upheaval—not just of exacerbating the economic conditions actually fueling it. Tehran maintains that American presidents have waged a soft war (jang-e narm) against it for over a decade. Iranian authorities define soft war as the use of nonmilitary means, such as economic and psychological pressure and information operations, to erode the regime’s legitimacy, cultivate domestic opposition, and propagate Western values. Iranian officials consider the recent protests a manifestation of this ideological conflict. They see Iran’s streets as a battle space. Khamenei sharply enunciated this view in his first speech of 2021, accusing the US of having sought to start a civil war in Iran.1
The regime’s brutality has grown along with its concerns over its stability. Iranian officials conducted the most brutal crackdown in the regime’s history on nationwide protests—triggered by a sudden and poorly managed cut in fuel subsidies—in November 2019. Protests spread to around 100 cities across Iran.2 Rioters set fire to public buildings in some locations, and Western media described parts of one major city as a “war zone.”3 Khamenei reportedly told his inner circle that the regime was in danger and ordered them to “do whatever it takes to end” the unrest.4
Security forces, responding to Khamenei’s instruction, started firing live ammunition at protesters almost immediately, aiming for heads and torsos.5 Estimates of civilians killed by the state range from 304 to 1,500.6 In one instance in southwestern Iran, military snipers and armored vehicles with machine guns killed as many as 148 demonstrators, including some who retreated into a marsh.7 The government arrested at least another 8,600 people and completely shut off internet access throughout Iran—for the first time—for over a week to restrict the free flow of information within and out of the country.8
This unprecedented crackdown underscores the Iranian leadership’s uncompromising resolve and increasing readiness to use extreme measures to control its population. The regime had used lethal force against its people many times previously—but not to the same extent. The suppression of the gasoline protests far surpassed state violence during previous protests, including the 2009 Green Movement, which was the largest protest wave in the regime’s history.
In that instance, Iranians took to the streets to protest the fraud-plagued reelection of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. State security services killed around 70 and arrested another 4,000 people, significantly fewer than in 2019.9 This contrast suggests that Iranian authorities view large-scale protests—even those triggered by economic stressors rather than political motives—as an inherently existential threat and have decided to kill protesters to retain power.
The securitized and militarized nature of the state’s response to protests makes its armed forces the fulcrum on which its survival rests. Iranian leadership’s apparent willingness to sacrifice high voter turnout to obtain its desired electoral outcomes in the 2020 parliamentary elections and 2021 presidential election suggests that the regime no longer sees the facade of democracy as an essential or sufficient relief valve for popular dissatisfaction.10 Iran’s rulers are doubling down on their effort to ideologize the population and presenting anyone who dissents with an ultimatum: submit or be punished.11
If this trend continues, the Islamic Republic of Iran will survive or fall based on the performance of its security services against its own people—more specifically, whether these forces retain the capability and willingness to crack down on disaffected Iranians. They have struggled with both in the past. The continuation and evolution of Iran’s protest scene in the coming years will further test the regime’s defenses against its own population. The political establishment is therefore building an increasingly adaptive and sophisticated police and surveillance state to meet this challenge and prevent the collapse of its clerical system. Trends in Iranian political and military decision-making indicate that the country’s leaders will exercise little restraint for the foreseeable future against citizens they consider a threat.
The regime’s adaptations to crush internal unrest have implications for President Joe Biden’s administration and the international community. Iranian leadership is sharpening its repressive tool kit to secure both its own domestic power and that of its allies abroad. The US and its own allies must prepare for the consequences of an increasingly autocratic Iran unwilling to temper its behavior.
1. Ali Khamenei, “Payaanaat dar Sokhanraani-e Televiziouni dar Saalrouz-e Gheyaam Nouzdah Dey” [Statement in a Televised Speech on Anniversary of Dey 19th Uprising], Khamenei.ir, January 8, 2021, *https://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=47066.
2. Reuters, “Special Report: Iran’s Leader Ordered Crackdown on Unrest—‘Do Whatever It Takes to End It,’” December 23, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-protests-specialreport/special-report-irans-leader-ordered-crackdown-on-unrest-do-whatever-it-takes-to-end-it-idUSKBN1YR0QR.
3. Michael Safi, “Blocked Roads Then Bullets: Iran’s Brutal Crackdown in Its City of Roses,” Guardian, December 1, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/dec/01/iran-fuel-protest-crackdowns-revealed-on-social-media.
4. Reuters, “Special Report: Iran’s Leader Ordered Crackdown on Unrest.”
5. Amnesty International, “Iran: Details Released of 304 Deaths During Protests Six Months After Security Forces’ Killing Spree,” May 20, 2020, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/05/iran-details-released-of-304-deaths-during-protests-six-months-after-security-forces-killing-spree.
6. Amnesty International, “Iran: Details Released of 304 Deaths During Protests Six Months After Security Forces’ Killing Spree”; and Reuters, “Special Report: Iran’s Leader Ordered Crackdown on Unrest.”
7. Michael R. Pompeo, “Commemoration of the Massacre of Mahshahr and Designation of Iranian Officials Due to Involvement in Gross Violations of Human Rights,” US Department of State, November 18, 2020, https://2017-2021.state.gov/commemoration-of-the-massacre-of-mahshahr-and-designation-of-iranian-officials-due-to-involvement-in-gross-violations-of-human-rights/index.html.
8. Radio Farda, “A Tehran Police Chief Says Eight More People Arrested for Fomenting ‘Riots,’” December 29, 2019, https://en.radiofarda.com/a/a-tehran-police-chief-says-eight-more-people-arrested-for-fomenting-riots-/30350190.html; and NetBlocks, “Internet Being Restored in Iran After Week-Long Shutdown,” November 23, 2019, https://netblocks.org/reports/internet-restored-in-iran-after-protest-shutdown-dAmqddA9.
9. Ali Alfoneh, “Iran’s November Protests in Perspective,” Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, December 6, 2019, https://agsiw.org/irans-november-protests-in-perspective.
10. Nicholas Carl and Kyra Rauschenbach, “Iran File,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, February 19, 2020, https://www.criticalthreats.org/briefs/iran-file/iran-file-february-18-2020; and Nicholas Carl, “Iranian Presidential Election Tracker: The Coronation of Ebrahim Raisi,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, May 28, 2021, https://www.criticalthreats.org/briefs/iran-file/iranian-presidential-election-tracker-the-coronation-of-ebrahim-raisi.
11. Kyra Rauschenbach, “The Second Step of Iran’s Islamic Revolution: Exploring the Supreme Leader’s Worldview,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, May 10, 2021, https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/the-second-step-of-irans-islamic-revolution-exploring-the-supreme-leaders-worldview.