The Iran File is an analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.
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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
Iranian Officials Direct Blame Toward Rouhani
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.