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 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.
Iran File: November 12, 2019Co-Authors:
Nicholas Carl, Kyra Rauschenbach
Sean Withington, Leah Silinsky, Benjamin O'Hara
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 facilitating a violent crackdown to contain and end the ongoing anti-government protests in Iraq. Tehran fears that the popular demonstrations could diminish Iranian influence there and spread instability to Iran. Meanwhile, the regime is escalating in the nuclear domain to pressure Europe into trading with Iran. Iran considers its military intervention in Iraq and nuclear escalation components of its strategy to degrade the US maximum pressure campaign and preserve Iran’s regional influence.
Iran deployed forces to Iraq to violently suppress protests and preserve the Iraqi government. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force is working with its proxies to attack and intimidate demonstrators. IRGC Quds Force Commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani has inserted himself into the Iraqi government’s protest suppression efforts and intervened to keep Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi in office. Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) may also be advising and assisting Iraqi security forces, mirroring how the LEF aided the Assad regime at the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011.
The regime fears that the ongoing demonstrations, which have adopted an anti-Iran slant, could deprive Tehran of strategic depth and deterrent power in Iraq. Iraqi protesters have adopted anti-Iran messages and criticized the regime for its heavy-handed intervention and pervasive influence in Iraq. The unrest could also become an existential threat to the Islamic Republic if large-scale demonstrations spread into Iran.
Iranian leaders—including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—have accused the US of fomenting the unrest and likely consider the protests a component of the US maximum pressure campaign against Iran. Senior regime officials *alleged the protests are America’s latest plot to curtail Iranian influence in the Middle East. Tehran likely considers its violent suppression of the Iraqi protests as the latest form of its military escalation against perceived American aggression.
Iranian leaders are also mitigating the risk of similar protests erupting in Iran. Tehran fears that the Iraqi protests’ anti–Iranian regime messaging may resonate in Iran and has tried to minimize Iranians’ exposure to the riots. The regime has canceled flights to Baghdad and Najaf and *advised against traveling to Iraq for the Shia Islamic pilgrimage, Arbaeen. The regime organ responsible for coordinating pilgrimage logistics also *stopped sending pilgrim caravans to Iraq, citing poor security conditions and road closures.
The regime is meanwhile preparing to suppress potential large-scale protests in Iran. IRGC Brig. Gen. First Class Gholam Hossein Gheyb Parvar *traveled to Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan province on November 4. Gheyb Parvar was the former Basij Organization commander and now leads the IRGC’s Imam Ali Battalions, which specialize in suppressing protests in urban environments. Small-scale protests reportedly erupted in Khuzestan over the regime’s alleged killing of a popular local poet. Social media accounts also reported that some Iranians expressed solidarity with the Iraqi demonstrators during a soccer match in Khuzestan. Iranian security forces allegedly teargassed bystanders at the game.
These conditions could cause large-scale anti-regime protests to emerge in southwestern Iran. Khuzestan has long been a tinderbox for anti-regime protests due to severe economic and environmental issues and ethnic discrimination against the local Iranian Arabs.
Iran also continues escalating in the nuclear realm to pressure Europe to defy US sanctions. The regime began enriching uranium at its Fordow nuclear facility as Iran’s fourth violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran seeks to pressure Europe to offer economic deliverables in exchange for Iran’s compliance with the nuclear accord. French President Emmanuel Macron described the escalation as Iran deciding to leave the JCPOA. Iran also briefly detained an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector and accused her of carrying explosive materials into an Iranian nuclear facility. Iran has not previously detained inspectors at its nuclear sites. The IAEA said the regime then refused IAEA requests to allow the inspector to leave Iran. The regime may harass IAEA inspectors again or prohibit their access to nuclear sites as Iran continues escalating in the nuclear domain.
Tehran likely considers its intervention into Iraq and nuclear escalation a continuation of the escalation pattern against the US and its allies, which Iran has pursued since May 2019. Iran previously attacked regional oil assets, US drones, and American positions in Iraq while incrementally violating the JCPOA. The regime seeks to impose a cost on the US for its maximum pressure campaign and coerce Europe into helping Iran circumvent US sanctions.
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Iran’s Intervention in Iraq
Iran is intervening in Iraq because the protests could become an existential threat to the Islamic Republic. Tehran fears that the anti–Iranian regime sentiments in Iraq could reignite similar protests within Iran. Iran has invested significant resources in Iraq to expand its influence and propagate Iranian proxies. The instability could deprive the regime of its gains and diminish its strategic depth and deterrent power.
Iran sent forces to Iraq to suppress the popular protests and preserve the Iraqi government. The regime has deployed the IRGC Quds Force, and possibly the LEF, to facilitate the Iraqi government’s violent crackdown on the ongoing protests. IRGC Quds Force Commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani has reportedly visited Iraq on at least three separate occasions since the protests began in early October.
- October 2: Soleimani chaired a meeting of senior Iraqi security officials in place of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi in Baghdad. Soleimani stated, “We in Iran know how to deal with protests.” Iraqi security services have killed hundreds of protesters in a violent crackdown to end the riots. Some Iranian proxy militias in the Iraqi security structure have likely participated in the crackdown on Soleimani’s orders.
- October 30: Soleimani met with Iraqi politician and Iranian proxy Hadi al Amiri in Baghdad. Soleimani called on Amiri to continue supporting Abdul Mehdi. Prominent Iraqi politician and cleric Moqtada al Sadr had previously urged Amiri to support Abdul Mehdi’s removal from office. Amiri reportedly rejected Sadr’s calls for Abdul Mehdi’s removal after his meeting with Soleimani.
- November 2–3: Soleimani met with senior Shia clerics in Najaf.
Senior Iranian security officials blame the Iraqi protests on the US and compared the unrest to ISIS. Supreme Leader Senior Military Adviser IRGC Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi *accused the US, the UK, Israel, and Saudi Arabia of creating ISIS to destabilize the region and provide security for Israel on November 4. Safavi described the protests in Iraq and Lebanon as the “new sedition after the ISIS sedition.” Supreme National Security Council Secretary Artesh Rear Adm. Ali Shamkhani *stated that the US attempt to create insecurity will fail “like the ISIS sedition.” The regime will use this characterization of the Iraqi protests as the new sedition to justify its intervention and violent suppression of Iraqi demonstrators.
Forecast: Iranian forces and proxies in Iraq may choose to escalate against the US or its partners in response to the US’s perceived role in fomenting the protests. Iranian officials—including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—have accused the US of stoking the unrest. The Israel Defense Forces *went on high alert in late October, anticipating a potential Iranian cruise missile or drone attack. Iran also warned that international shipping in the Red Sea is unsafe, potentially setting conditions for an attack there.
Iran Braces for Potential Protests
The Iranian regime seeks to prevent the Iraqi protests from spreading to Iran. Tehran fears that the Iraqi protests’ anti–Iranian regime messaging may resonate in Iran and has tried to minimize Iranians’ exposure to the riots. The Iranian Foreign Affairs Ministry *advised Iranians traveling to Iraq for the Shia Islamic pilgrimage, Arbaeen, to suspend their travel on October 29. Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization *stopped sending caravans to Iraq, and the regime suspended flights to Baghdad and Najaf. The regime has attributed the advisory and travel suspensions to the unrest in Iraq.
The regime is particularly concerned with preventing unrest in Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan province. Khuzestan, which borders Iraq, is poor, and its population is predominantly Iranian Arab. Southwestern Iran was the location of some of the country’s most violent and sustained protest movements in 2018.
Iran is also preparing to confront potential large-scale unrest in southwestern Iran. IRGC Imam Ali Central Security Headquarters Commander Brig. Gen. First Class Gholam Hossein Gheyb Parvar *met with Supreme Leader Representative to Khuzestan Province Hojjat ol Eslam Mohammad Nabi Mousavi Fard in Ahvaz, Khuzestan province on November 4. Other unnamed IRGC and LEF officials participated in the meeting. Gheyb Parvar was previously the Basij Organization commander and now leads the IRGC’s Imam Ali Battalions, which specialize in suppressing protests in urban environments.
Small-scale protests began in Khuzestan province on November 10 in response to the regime’s alleged poisoning of popular Iranian Arab poet, Hassan Heydari. Social media accounts accused Intelligence and Security Ministry agents of killing Heydari. Khuzestan Provincial Security and Law Enforcement Managing Director Reza Najafi claimed that Heydari died of a stroke and that the protests were actually mourning ceremonies. Unconfirmed reports suggested that thousands of protesters participated, took down Islamic Republic flags, and blocked roads.
Social media accounts also reported that a small group of Iranians expressed solidarity with the Iraqi protests during a soccer match in Ahvaz. Other uncorroborated reports alleged that Iranian security forces used tear gas against some of the bystanders at the game.
Forecast: Anti–Islamic Republic sentiments in Khuzestan and sympathy for the Iraqi protesters could catalyze the reemergence of large-scale anti-regime protests. A heavy-handed regime response to any emerging demonstrations could further encourage Iranians to take to the streets.
Nuclear Deal Developments
Iran began enriching uranium at the Fordow nuclear facility as its fourth JCPOA violation. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) began injecting uranium gas into centrifuges at the Fordow facility in Qom province on November 7. President Hassan Rouhani previously *announced this intention on November 5. The facility’s location inside a fortified mountain limits the ability of conventional military strikes on the site to disrupt its nuclear activities.
This is the fourth Iranian violation intended to pressure Europe to defy US sanctions. The regime has given Europe a series of 60-day deadlines since May 2019 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.
Rouhani reiterated Iran’s commitment to dialogue and stated that Iran would comply with the JCPOA if Europe offers economic incentives. American and European officials expressed concern over Rouhani’s announcement. US State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus stated, “Iran has no credible reason to expand its uranium enrichment program” and described the decision as “nuclear extortion.” French President Emmanuel Macron stated, “Iran has decided in an explicit and blunt manner to leave the JCPOA.”
The escalation occurred amid heightened tensions between Iran and the IAEA. Iran *accused an IAEA inspector of carrying explosive materials into the AEOI’s Natanz nuclear facility on October 28 and briefly detained her. The regime has not previously detained inspectors at its nuclear sites. Iran’s harassment of the inspector is likely part of its larger escalation in the nuclear realm. The IAEA disagreed with Iran’s “characterization of the situation” and accused the regime of refusing IAEA requests to allow the inspector to leave Iran.
IAEA Deputy Director General Massimo Aparo also accused Iran of failing to cooperate with a probe investigating uranium particles found in a warehouse in Tehran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued in April 2018 that Iran covertly stored files and materials related to its old nuclear weapons development at the site. The IAEA reportedly has satellite imagery indicating that Iran cleared out the site following Netanyahu’s accusations.
Forecast: Tensions between Iran and the IAEA could flare up in the coming months as Rafael Grossi assumes office as IAEA director general in early December. Grossi has signaled a stricter approach to monitoring Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran may harass inspectors again or prevent them from accessing nuclear sites as Iran further reduces its adherence to the JCPOA.