The Iran File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.
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 identified weaknesses in its internal security apparatus during the November gasoline riots. The regime conducted a brutal crackdown and blocked the internet to end the anti-government protests. Regime officials seek greater control over Iran’s information space and security services in anticipation of future unrest. Anti-government protests may resume in response to upcoming political events: parliamentary elections and approval of Iran’s next fiscal budget.
The internet shutdown in November sparked international and domestic criticism of the regime and hurt Iranian businesses. Iran’s rulers will block the internet again if protests reemerge but want to minimize the resulting discontent and cost. Iranian leaders *called for a stronger national intranet after the protests to reduce public reliance on foreign internet services. The regime aims to increase public use of indigenously developed social media platforms and networks to better monitor and control Iran’s information space. However, it is unlikely that the regime could replace foreign internet services in Iran completely.
Regime officials also fear insubordination and dissent among their security services’ less ideologically indoctrinated ranks. Many of Iran’s security personnel are locally recruited, and less ideologically committed personnel could refuse to employ high levels of violence against members of their own communities. The regime reportedly circulated anti-riot units around Iran during the November crackdown likely to mitigate dissent among security forces.
The regime may have arrested some Basij Organization members over insubordination during the November crackdown. On November 27, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei *warned that the “enemy” seeks to infiltrate the Basij, indicating he may perceive dissent within the Basij. Iranian intelligence agents reportedly arrested over ten Basij members tied to the crackdown after Khamenei’s remarks.
Upcoming political events could catalyze the resumption of protests.
- Anti-government protests could begin if the regime allocates more funds to up-gunning security forces for the upcoming Persian calendar year’s fiscal budget. President Hassan Rouhani submitted on December 8 his proposed budget to Parliament, which will amend the bill before submitting it to Iran’s Guardian Council for final approval. Parliament will likely increase funds for the Basij and Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) substantially. Parliament previously *increased the LEF budget by 200 percent after the Dey Protests in late 2017 and early 2018.
- Overt regime influence in Iran’s parliamentary elections in February 2020 could ignite anti-government demonstrations. Many Iranians are disillusioned with Iran’s political system and protested in 2009 after the fraud-plagued election of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The regime’s vetting process for parliamentary candidates and the elections’ results could similarly inflame public frustration. Senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) members recently *called for vetting candidates for commitment to revolutionary ideals, likely hoping the Guardian Council will disqualify less hardline individuals.
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Regime Preparations for Future Protests
The Iranian regime anticipates and is planning to suppress future anti-government protests. Widespread anti-regime protests swept Iran in November after the regime raised gasoline prices by 50 percent. Protests spread to 100 locations across Iran, including major cities such as Tehran, Mashhad, Qom, Esfahan, Shiraz, and Ahvaz. The regime used the Basij and LEF to stage a brutal crackdown and blocked internet access throughout Iran to end the riots.
Regime officials are detaining individuals tied to the protests to discourage dissent and organization among demonstrators. Security forces *have *arrested dozens of individuals and alleged protest leaders since the demonstrations ended in late November.
Khamenei also *called on the Basij to prepare strategies, tactics, and contingencies throughout Iran to defend the regime from further unrest. An unnamed IRGC Intelligence Organization official *warned during a meeting with parliamentarians that protests could reemerge.
Regime officials are also prioritizing the expansion of Iran’s domestic intranet, the National Information Network, to better monitor and control Iran’s information space. Rouhani *announced plans to “strengthen” the National Information Network to reduce public reliance on foreign internet services on December 8. Rouhani suggested Khamenei supports the initiative. The details of this effort are unclear, however.
IRGC officials have similarly called for improving Iran’s intranet. Passive Defense Organization (PDO) Director Gholam Reza Jalali *stated that Parliament should require Rouhani to “complete” the National Information Network by March 2021. The PDO is a quasi-military organization responsible for cyber activities and defending critical infrastructure.
Iranian Escalation in Iraq
The Iranian regime is likely preparing to attack the US or its allies in the Middle East again, possibly in Iraq. The regime has pursued an escalation strategy since May to impose a cost for the US maximum pressure campaign and divide America from its allies. Tehran attacked US drones, international commercial traffic, and oil assets and infrastructure around the Arabian Peninsula. Iran’s attacks culminated for the moment with the September 14 drone and missile attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq crude-processing plant, the world’s largest oil-processing facility.
Iranian proxies in Iraq may kill US service members in the near future as part of Tehran’s escalation strategy. Likely Iranian proxies—likely on the IRGC Quds Forces’ order—have launched consistent rocket attacks near US positions in Iraq since May. The US assesses two Iranian proxies—Asaib Ahl al Haq and Kataib Hezbollah—conducted the attacks and observed that the attacks’ frequency and sophistication are increasing. The recent strikes injured Iraqi counterterrorism forces based around American troops.
Iranian proxies could also attack with ballistic missiles and “suicide drones.” US officials indicated that Iran added to its covert short-range ballistic missile arsenal in Iraq in November. The IRGC began storing missiles in Iraq in 2018 to deter American or Israeli attacks into Iran. American officials also warned that the IRGC Quds Force conducted reconnaissance operations with suicide drones near US troops in the region.
Forecast: Israel may resume its air campaign against Iran in response to the expansion of the IRGC’s missile arsenal in Iraq. Tel Aviv attacked Iranian and Iranian-backed positions in Iraq in July and August to degrade their military capabilities and capacity to threaten Israel from Iraq with ballistic missiles.
International Mediation Efforts
Oman is mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia to reduce tensions and establish a partial cease-fire in Yemen. Omani Foreign Affairs Minister Yusuf bin Alawi discussed regional security and Yemen with senior Iranian officials while visiting Tehran on December 3. Bin Alawi met with *Rouhani, Foreign Affairs Minister *Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary *Ali Shamkhani. Rouhani noted that good relations with Saudi Arabia would facilitate regional security. Oman has hosted meetings between Riyadh and the al Houthi movement since Iran attacked Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq crude-processing plant on September 14.
Bin Alawi also met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington, DC, on November 25. Oman has historically mediated between the US and Iran as well.
Pakistan and Kuwait also mediated between Tehran and Riyadh in recent months. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan discussed Yemen with *Khamenei and *Rouhani in Tehran on October 13. All three called for a resolution to the civil war, and Rouhani advocated for a cease-fire. Kuwaiti Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled al Jarallah *announced on November 5 that Kuwait relayed messages from Iran to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
A component of Iran’s escalation strategy is to divide the US from its Gulf allies to degrade the US maximum pressure campaign. Iran has attacked Gulf State interests since May to impose a cost for supporting US economic pressure and tried to depict America as an unreliable security partner. Iranian officials also proposed a peace plan to Riyadh that includes a “mutual pledge of nonaggression and cooperation.”
Switzerland facilitated a prisoner exchange between the US and Iran. The US released an Iranian university professor, Masoud Soleimani, who the US convicted of helping Iran circumvent sanctions in 2018. The regime released Xiyue Wang, an American doctoral student convicted of espionage charges in Iran in 2016. Iran’s SNSC *approved the prisoner swap. Zarif later tweeted that Iran is ready for a “comprehensive prisoner exchange” and that “the ball is in the US’ court.” The prisoner exchange is unlikely to reduce tensions between the US and Iran.
Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterik (*) for the reader's awareness.
The Iranian regime is taking a harsher approach to ongoing anti-government protests than during the 2017–18 unrest but retains the capacity to escalate more brutally. The current protests are not yet an existential threat to the Islamic Republic. Iranian leaders may nevertheless use a greater degree of force if riots continue or become more violent, potentially creating conditions for greater resistance to the regime in the long term.
The popular protests began on November 15 after the National Iranian Petroleum Products Distribution Company, owned by Iran’s Oil Ministry, increased the price of gasoline by 50 percent. Protests spread to 100 cities and towns across the country. Rioters have clashed with security forces and set fire to government buildings, clerical institutions, and banks.
Security forces have resorted to lethal means against protesters more rapidly and with greater force than during the 2017–18 Dey Protests. Low-end estimates of the protester death toll range between 106 and 140, and the actual number is likely much higher. The Dey Protests’ reported death toll was at least 22 casualties. At that time, officials promised to address the Dey protesters’ legitimate grievances. Today, Iranian leaders are *standing by the gasoline price hike and *emphasizing they will identify and punish rioters.
The regime will likely deploy its professional military services if the demonstrations continue, leading to a much heavier-handed crackdown. The regime has so far used the Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) and Basij Organization to suppress the unrest. Iranian leaders could order units of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or the Artesh—Iran’s conventional military—to intervene and crush the protests, similar to the IRGC’s role in suppressing the 2009 Green Movement protests. The IRGC *warned that it would take “decisive action” to restore order if the unrest continues in a public statement on November 18. The Artesh also *emphasized the need to defend against “enemy sedition” on November 19.
The unrest is not yet an existential threat to the regime but could become so if certain conditions emerge: the organization of an internal opposition and resistance from within Iran’s security organs to a brutal crackdown. The regime will likely reflexively impose greater domestic surveillance and communications restrictions to prevent future protests. Expanding authoritarianism paired with the high number of protester deaths and the government’s general dismissal of their grievances could cause dissidents to organize into a more coherent anti-regime front. Less indoctrinated members of the regime’s security services could become increasingly reluctant to kill their fellow citizens. This may further reinforce the regime’s inclination toward authoritarianism to mitigate these risks.
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Regime Response to the Protests
Widespread anti-regime protests are sweeping Iran. The popular protests began on November 15 after the National Iranian Petroleum Products Distribution Company, owned by Iran’s Oil Ministry, increased the price of gasoline by 50 percent and imposed a 60 liter monthly gasoline limit on private automobiles. Protests spread to 100 locations across Iran, including major cities such as Tehran, Mashhad, Qom, Esfahan, Shiraz, and Ahvaz. Iran last experienced widespread anti-regime demonstrations during the Dey Protests in late 2017 and early 2018, during which citizens protested against economic issues and government mismanagement. Officials’ promises to address the public’s grievances contributed to quelling the protests.
The regime has used the LEF and Basij Organization to violently crack down on the riots. The regime is killing and injuring scores of protesters, intimidating citizens, and restricting internet access. Amnesty International confirmed at least 106 protester deaths, while US-funded broadcasting service Radio Farda is estimating at least 140 demonstrators have died. The actual number is likely much higher. Security forces *have arrested at least another 1,000 citizens.
The violence appears to be particularly deadly in Iran’s disenfranchised border regions. Amnesty International reported that the most confirmed protester deaths occurred in Khuzestan and Kurdistan provinces. Khuzestan has long been a tinderbox for anti-regime protests due to economic and environmental issues and ethnic discrimination against local Iranian Arabs. Iranian Kurdistan is home to a low-level, anti-regime insurgency. The Artesh *conducted a military exercise in northwestern Iran on November 19 to highlight its ground forces’ rapid reaction capabilities, likely to signal the armed forces’ preparedness to crush dissent.
Unconfirmed reports claim that the regime sent security forces from Tehran to Khuzestan to crush protests. The regime may be concerned that locally recruited security personnel will not use high levels of force against members of their own communities.
Iranian leaders tacitly condoned brutal suppression in their public statements. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the protesters as “villains” and *emphasized that the unrest is not popular. Khamenei described the protests as a security issue. President Hassan Rouhani *described the demonstrations as an American conspiracy to foment instability. Supreme National Security Council Secretary Artesh Vice Admiral Ali Shamkhani *suggested that supporters of regime opposition groups such as the Mojahedin-e Khalq and the Pahlavis instigated protests.
Protesters have escalated against the regime in turn. Rioters have clashed with security forces and set fire to government buildings, clerical institutions, and banks. Protesters reportedly *tried to attack the home of Supreme Leader Representative to Yazd Province Ayatollah Nasseri Yazdi. One IRGC member, two Basij members, two LEF officers, and one former parliamentarian *died in the protests.
Iranian Officials Direct Blame Toward Rouhani
Senior regime officials maintain their support for increasing the cost of gasoline in Iran but are trying to deflect accountability for the popular backlash. The Supreme Economic Coordination Council, which includes Rouhani, Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi, and Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, approved the price hike. Khamenei *voiced support for the decision but emphatically repeated his lack of relevant economic expertise. Khamenei has historically distanced himself from controversial or unpopular policy decisions.
IRGC Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, who leads the IRGC propaganda headquarters, *blamed the unrest on the Rouhani administration and stated that the executive branch surprised citizens with the price hike.
The protests heightened internal tensions over supreme leader successorship. Raisi, seen as a potential successor to Khamenei, tried to divert public frustration toward Rouhani, another potential successor, as part of a larger effort to discredit his political rivals. Raisi *stated that Rouhani made the proposal to increase gasoline prices at the Supreme Economic Coordination Council meeting. Raisi aimed to portray himself as having a minimal role in the price hike despite his role in approving the decision. Raisi suggested that the Rouhani administration poorly communicated the reason for the increase to the public.
Raisi has also led an anti-corruption campaign largely targeting other potential Khamenei successors since becoming judiciary chief in March. These candidates include Rouhani and Expediency Discernment Council Chairman Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli Larijani.
Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.
Widespread anti-regime protests erupted across Iran. The popular protests began on November 15 after the National Iranian Petroleum Products Distribution Company, owned by Iran’s Oil Ministry, increased the price of gasoline by 50 percent and imposed a 60 liter monthly gasoline limit on private automobiles. The Supreme Economic Coordination Council, which includes President Hassan Rouhani, Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi, and Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, approved the decision. Protests have spread to dozens of locations in Iran, including major cities such as Tehran, Mashhad, Qom, Esfahan, Shiraz, and Ahvaz, and continue as of November 18. (See Figure 1.) Iran last experienced widespread anti-regime protests during the Dey Protests in late 2017 and early 2018.
Figure 1. November 2019: Anti-Regime Protests Sweep Iran
As of November 18, 2019
Source: Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute; Map data: Google
Regime security services cracked down violently on protests. Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) units deployed throughout Iran and have used lethal and nonlethal force against demonstrators. Reporting on protester casualties is inconsistent, but the death toll could be as high as 200. The regime has arrested over 1,000 people. Protesters have used anti–Islamic Republic rhetoric, blocked roads, and set fire to stores, banks, vehicles, and a Friday prayer leader office. Three Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) members *died in protests in Tehran province, and two LEF officers died in *Kermanshah and Mahshahr.
The regime will likely deploy IRGC military forces if protests do not subside. The IRGC *warned that it will take “decisive action” if demonstrations continue in a November 18 statement. The IRGC would likely use greater force than the LEF to quash demonstrations, resembling the IRGC’s involvement in suppressing the 2009 protests.
The regime is conducting information operations to discourage protests and limit the amount of information leaving Iran. Rouhani and Interior Minister Abdol Reza Rahmani Fazli emphasized the need to maintain internal security. Rouhani stated that the regime has surveillance systems and cameras that can identify cars, their license plates, and drivers. Fazli *warned that regime security services will intervene to restore order. Judicial and security officials sent text messages to citizens warning them against participating in the protests in Alborz, Bushehr, Kerman, and Khuzestan provinces.
The regime has also heavily limited internet access in Iran. Cybersecurity website NetBlocks described this as “a near-total national internet shutdown” and reported that internet connectivity in Iran is at around 5 percent of ordinary levels.
Regime officials maintain their support for increasing the cost of gasoline but are trying to deflect accountability. Raisi *stated that the Rouhani administration offered the proposal to raise gasoline prices at the meeting of the Supreme Economic Coordination Council. Raisi defended the decision but suggested that the administration did not effectively communicate to the public the reasoning for the increase. Raisi and Rouhani are staunch political rivals and considered potential successors to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Raisi may seek to direct pubic anger toward Rouhani to further reduce the president’s public support. Khamenei also *voiced support for the decision to increase gasoline prices but emphasized his lack of relevant economic expertise.