Iran File

The Iran File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.{{authorBox.message}}



Iran File: Civil Disorder Adopts New Forms in Iran during Pandemic

[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 government’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 outbreak may spark new civil disorder that undermines regime stability. Civil disorder during the pandemic could take a new form, different from the one for which the regime is best prepared. Nationwide protests erupted in late 2017 and again in 2019, with smaller street protests breaking out intermittently. Regime security forces have proved they are able to crack down on mainstream street protests quickly and violently.

As high COVID-19 infection rates keep many Iranians inside, mainstream protests will not likely break out in the same way. Small anti-regime groups may commit targeted acts of violence and vigilante activity may increase, stressing local law enforcement officers who may become alienated by central government policies they oppose. Regime collapse or serious destabilization in the next 12 months remains very unlikely but has become more plausible.

The Iranian judiciary is struggling to respond to Iran’s rebelling prison population. Prisoners around the country have protested, *rioted and even broken out en masse over fears of contracting COVID-19. Security forces and prison officials used live fire to quell prison protests at the end of March, killing 36 prisoners. The judiciary temporarily *freed nearly 100,000 prisoners but did not address the health concerns causing the unrest. Many newly freed prisoners are gathering on the streets with nowhere to go, stressing local communities and the Law Enforcement Forces (LEF). Tehran Province LEF Commander Hossein Rahimi claimed that crime has doubled since the prisoners were released. Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi *denied Rahimi’s claim.

The national government’s mismanaged coronavirus policy will burden local law enforcement. Local LEF likely helped to prevent travel to vacation destinations outside Tehran at the beginning of March, defying an Interior Ministry official who *ordered roads to reopen. The Rouhani administration decided to reopen low-risk economic activity on April 11 and high-risk economic activity—such as schools and social clubs—as soon as April 18. The government’s decision may exacerbate tensions between local and national officials. Local LEF may defy orders again to permit travel to their regions, particularly if a second wave of coronavirus cases emerges.

Small groups have targeted regime symbols. Targeted violence is harder for regime security forces to track and prevent. Multiple gunmen on motorbikes *shot and killed a Friday Prayer leader in Mahshahr, Khuzestan province on April 5. Friday Prayer leaders are Khamenei’s local deputies and a symbol of the Imams’ political control of Iran. Mahshahr was one of the bloodiest cities during the November 2019 protests. Iranian dissidents may be more likely to conduct targeted attacks as newly unemployed Iranians have more time to develop anti-regime groups yet are reluctant to participate in mass gatherings in the short term. 

Iranians may still protest in the streets during the pandemic if they consider their grievances greater than the risk of COVID-19. Families of prisoners killed during the prison uprising in the southwestern city of Ahvaz gathered on April 1 to protest the excessive violence. Iraqis are showing that large-scale protests are possible even in the midst of the pandemic.  Protesters in predominantly Shia Sadr City and Nasiriyah, Iraq continue to risk exposure to the virus to attend anti-government demonstrations. The previous Iraqi anti-government protest wave that began in October 2019  likely inspired Iranians, particularly near the ethnically Arab southwestern border, to participate in a November 2019 protest wave in Iran. Lower-income Iranians may gather despite coronavirus risk like their Iraqi neighbors. If Iranian security forces use the harsh crackdown tactics they applied in November on smaller scale protests, they could spark broader demonstrations.

Initial anti-regime activity related to the COVID-19 outbreak exposes weak points in the regime’s ability to respond to dissidence. Iranian security forces cannot quell civil disorder during coronavirus with the same tactics they used to crack down on mass street protests in the past. The swift November 2019 crackdown shows that the regime has a successful contingency plan for mass street protests. That plan relied heavily on the LEF, however.  The regime will struggle to use a similar approach in the face of defiant local LEF, which are the regime’s first line of defense. Dissatisfied LEF will inhibit, possibly severely, the regime’s ability to put down street protests. Managing the virus not only stresses Iran’s growing principlist-reformist divide but also puts new stress on local-national cleavages. Civil disorder during the COVID-19 pandemic could therefore have an unprecedented and unanticipated effect on regime stability.

Iran File: Hardliners Promote Greater Authoritarianism Amidst Mounting Crises

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

Iranian hardliners are promoting increasingly authoritarian policies to manage internal pressures as they gain power. Iran has experienced several significant challenges since late 2019, including anti-regime protests, parliamentary elections, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The regime oppressed its people and restricted individual liberties more than previously in each instance. This indicates hardliners’ growing influence and potentially Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s waning confidence in relative moderates such as President Hassan Rouhani. Hardliners—who call themselves “principlists”—generally support significant state involvement in society and limiting political freedoms.

Principlists appear to have led the regime response to recent internal stressors. The regime conducted the most brutal crackdown in its history against anti-government demonstrators in November 2019. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) intervened more so than they did in past protest waves and employed much higher levels of violence. Principlists later interfered in February’s legislative elections and disqualified an unprecedentedly high number of moderate candidates. Principlists sought to limit Iranians’ choices in candidates and replace the moderate majority with a far-right parliament.

Principlists are also likely controlling the regime’s coronavirus response. The IRGC *supported imposing travel restrictions and closing businesses—measures that Rouhani opposed. The government nevertheless implemented the guards’ preferred containment strategy after Khamenei empowered the IRGC to play a greater role in pandemic management. Principlists’ success in implementing their preferred policies during recent protests, elections, and the health crisis indicates their growing influence in addressing compounding internal pressures.

Principlists are also prioritizing controlling the population over treating COVID-19 victims. An intra-regime debate began after Rouhani approved the international humanitarian organization, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), to help Iran manage the disease. Rouhani later rescinded MSF’s authorization to deploy into Iran after hardliners criticized the initial approval.

Principlists—possibly with Khamenei’s backing—likely forced Rouhani to revoke MSF’s license to enter Iran. The IRGC Intelligence Organization reportedly approves foreign entities visiting Iran. Rouhani’s administration continued advocating for MSF’s help and presence.

Principlists did not want MSF reporting accurate statistics on the virus. Transparent reporting would damage regime efforts to downplay the outbreak’s severity and control Iran’s information space. IRGC commanders have *emphasized Iran does not need foreign help and even offered to send medical assistance to the US.

The regime will increasingly censor, abuse, and neglect its people as hardliner influence grows. Hardliners will control all three branches of government if a principlist wins the presidency next year. This scenario is likely, particularly because the COVID-19 outbreak exacerbated economic turmoil and domestic frustrations that further undermine Rouhani and his fellow moderates.

Growing internal discontent makes anti-regime protests more likely in the coming months as the outbreak recedes. Hardliners’ paranoia and fear of their population will grow, too, as they assume power. A hardliner-led regime will increasingly adopt oppressive and inhumane measures to control Iran’s population under US economic pressure.

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

Hardliners will likely control Iran’s parliament after legislative elections on February 21 and promote increasingly aggressive and authoritarian policies. Iranian hardliners—who call themselves “principlists”—generally oppose close ties with the West and support significant state involvement in Iranian society. A parliament dominated by hardliners will increasingly prioritize funding the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps under US sanctions and further enable brutal crackdowns against protesters.

Principlists are interfering in the election to replace so-called “moderates” with more hardline figures. Iran’s ultraconservative Guardian Council disqualified an unusually high number of moderates from the elections. The council is responsible for vetting and approving electoral candidates and includes six clerics appointed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and six legislators elected by parliament. The council historically disqualifies large numbers of candidates, but its most recent disapprovals are abnormally high. The Supreme Reformist Council for Policy-Making is not running candidates in Tehran because the Guardian Council disapproved its major nominees.

The Guardian Council’s criteria for disqualifying candidates was likely subjective and unequally enforced. The council *claimed most disapprovals were due to corruption—which is endemic in parliament—and a lack of commitment to the Islamic Republic.

This is part of a hardliner effort to leverage domestic economic grievances to remove moderates from power since the Dey Protests in 2017–18. Anti-regime demonstrators decried government mismanagement and corruption and protested again in November 2019. Hardliners argued President Hassan Rouhani’s government could not manage the economy and impeached senior administration officials in mid-2018 in response to the protests. Hardliners—led by Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi—later arrested political opponents in 2019, ostensibly to combat corruption.

A hardliner-dominated legislature would likely elect a hardline parliament speaker. The current moderate parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, has held office since 2008 and *announced in November 2019 he is not running for reelection. Larijani has been an ally to Rouhani and supported the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Parliament is institutionally weak, but the parliament speaker is an ex officio member of Iran’s top security and economic decision-making bodies—the Supreme National Security Council and Supreme Economic Coordination Council. Parliament does, however, influence key processes such as approving the fiscal budget and international accords such as the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Non-Proliferation Treaty.


Read Further On:

Parliamentary Elections

Iran-EU Nuclear Talks


Parliamentary Elections

The Guardian Council disqualified an unusually high number of moderate and reformist candidates from competing in the parliamentary elections on February 21. The Supreme Reformist Council for Policy-Making is not running candidates in Tehran because the Guardian Council disapproved its major nominees. The council also barred 90 incumbents, including some conservatives who have broken from hardliner positions. The council disqualified conservative Ali Motahari, who Radio Farda described as “known for challenging hardliners including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s views.”

The Guardian Council’s criteria for disqualifying candidates was likely subjective and unequally enforced. The council *attributed disapprovals primarily to “economic corruption, moral corruption, and opposition to sovereignty” on January 12. Expediency Discernment Council member Ahmad Tavakkoli *argued the Guardian Council’s disapproval of candidates was arbitrary on January 30.

Moderate leaders—including President Hassan Rouhani—attacked the Guardian Council in response and seek to curb its powers. Rouhani *stated the council was preventing competition among candidates and likened the elections to an “appointment” on January 27. Rouhani *ordered First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri to draft legislation to limit the council’s authorities over candidate vetting.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei supports the disqualifications and defended the Guardian Council. Khamenei implicitly *criticized Rouhani on February 5, saying comparing the elections to appointments reduced public confidence. Khamenei also called for high voter turnout. Khamenei likely aims to install a new hardline cohort into the political establishment while maintaining the façade of democracy in Iran. Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi stated questioning the electoral process aided Iran’s “enemies” and reduced public trust.

Hardliners also tried to persuade the public that the elections would still be competitive. Guardian Council Spokesperson Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei *stated the council approved over 7,000 candidates. Tabnak—a media outlet owned by hardliner and former IRGC Commander Maj. Gen. Mohsen Rezaei—*reported more reformists are participating in the elections than in previous cycles.

Forecast: Hardliners will likely take control of Iran’s parliament from the current moderate majority after the elections on February 21. The cyclical nature of Iranian elections further increases the likelihood moderates will perform poorly. Rouhani has failed to achieve many campaign promises, and the economy is in severe recession.

The regime’s heavy-handed interference will nonetheless fuel anti-regime sentiment in Iran but not likely cause the Islamic Republic’s collapse. Overt regime influence in the elections could catalyze anti-government protests, but the regime maintains the will to kill protesters and is seeking greater control over Iran’s information space and security services in anticipation of future unrest.


Iran-EU Nuclear Talks

The EU is stalling bringing Iran’s nuclear deal violations to the UN Security Council. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell *met with Rouhani in Tehran on February 3 and later stated the EU will indefinitely extend the time limit to resolve the regime’s JCPOA breaches. Rouhani expressed Iran’s commitment to cooperating with the EU to preserve the JCPOA. Borrell stipulated this extension is contingent on Iran’s continued cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Borrell separately *met with Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

France, Germany, and the UK activated the JCPOA’s dispute resolution mechanism on January 14 in response to Iran’s violations. The regime gave Europe a series of 60-day deadlines from May 2019 to January 2020 to offer Tehran economic deliverables in exchange for compliance with the JCPOA. Iran violated a different aspect of the JCPOA at the end of each deadline. France, Germany, and the UK agreed to “continuously postpone” imposing a time limit to resolve the dispute. The EU seeks to avoid bringing the dispute to the UN Security Council, which could lead to the reimposition of sanctions on Iran.

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Apr '20