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.