The Iran File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.
Iran File: Hardliners Promote Greater Authoritarianism Amidst Mounting Crises
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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 Rouhani later rescinded MSF’s authorization to deploy into Iran after hardliners criticized the initial approval.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.