The Art of Endurance: The Islamic Republic at 40

The Islamic Republic has reacted to popular protests by acting on legitimate complaints. Special Units effectively manage peaceful demonstrations, but violent counter-measures are used if protesters directly threaten the regime. Those who unconditionally support clerical governance are essential to the regime’s support strategy, as are appeals to nationalism in the face of foreign enemies. As economic pressures and unrest limit government options, harsher reactions to opposition may turn Iran into an impoverished garrison state.

Despite years of revolutionary turmoil, a devastating war with Iraq, near-relentless sanctions and economic tumult punctuated by political upheaval, the Islamic Republic has survived to celebrate its fourth decade. It is, however, facing a convergence of crises and problems—from a multi-pronged challenge by the US administration to widespread dissatisfaction at home and severe environmental challenges. To preserve its grip on power, the leadership is deploying a panoply of tools, ranging from pressure to persuasion. These could in principle guarantee stability in the short run, but are unlikely to provide a long-term solution to the system’s structural defects and inherent contradictions.

The survival toolbox

The ruling elite is fully aware of endemic popular discontent. It has commissioned multiple surveys and studies that clearly demonstrate that society is mostly disillusioned with the revolution’s ideals, broadly disenchanted with all political factions, and tired of economic malaiseFootnote 1 . Over the past four decades, the leadership in Tehran has honed certain tools of self-preservation and acquired new ones. The assessment of the tactics and techniques the political and security establishment has deployed is based on a study of two recent rounds of nation-wide unrest since 2017: protests that started in Mashhad in December 2017 and spread to nearly 100 cities and villages by January 2018, as well as a wave of protests that began in Isfahan and several other cities, including Karaj, Shiraz and Tehran in July and August 2018.

The iron fist

The Islamic Republic has continuously exercised, enhanced and expanded its muscle for social control and suppression of dissent. It has come, however, to increasingly rely on its well-organised, -trained and -equipped anti-riot police, known as Special Units (یگان ویژه ), to quash protest movements. This is in contrast to its deploying the hardline vigilantes known as Ansar-e-Hezbollah (انصار حزب الله ), who crushed the 1999 student uprising, or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Basij militias in the 2009 uprising that followed the controversial re-election of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The anti-riot forces, which operate as part of the Law Enforcement Force of the Islamic Republic (نیروی انتظامی جمهوری اسلامی or NAJA), are more adept at avoiding violence while performing effective crowd control.

After the 2009 revolt, NAJA significantly expanded its capacity. For instance, it established more than 400 new police patrolling forces in 375 municipal districts in TehranFootnote 2 . It also established new branches, like the Cyber Police, to focus on the use of social media and an anti-riot unit comprised of women to disperse female protestors. Interestingly, the Special Units are among the best paid within NAJAFootnote 3 .

NAJA’s heightened (and, by the standards of the Islamic Republic, more subtle) coercive capacity is in large part the reason why, during the recent protests, the IRGC did not intervene in most theatres. This was also partly because the protests were smaller in scale and scope, even if they were geographically wider spread, and because of the lessons the security establishment has drawn from the 2009 revolt and the Arab uprisings. Twenty-two protestors were killed during the unrest that rocked nearly 100 cities last winter. In the words of a senior Iranian official, “The more people are killed on the streets, the more ammunition regime change advocates have to add fuel to the fires of domestic discontentFootnote 4 ”. However, nearly 5000 were arrested, some for several hours, others for days or monthsFootnote 5 . Imprisonment has also been the option of choice in dealing with labour and student protests throughout the yearFootnote 6 .

The regime nevertheless distinguishes between protests and riots, expressing sympathy for the former and condemning the latterFootnote 7 . It has also designated a few stadiums in Tehran as Iranian versions of London’s Hyde Park corner, with the aim of channelling protests into more easily controllable venuesFootnote 8 . The state also continues to brandish its iron fist as a deterrent. For instance, in late October 2018 residents of Shiraz witnessed the transformation of their city into a garrison in the run-up to the anniversary of Cyrus the Great, an ancient Persian king, at his tomb in the outskirts of the cityFootnote 9 .

Equally deterring have been the mass arrest of protestors, the ill treatment of detainees, and the mysterious death of others at prisons. Human rights groups have reported the deaths of protesters either in street confrontations or in custody, the intensified crackdown on human rights lawyers, and the heavy sentences handed out to protestorsFootnote 10 . Accusing several environmentalists in October 2018 of “sowing corruption on earth”, which could entail capital punishment, has had a chilling effect on civil-society actors across the boardFootnote 11 . In June, the judiciary released a list of twenty lawyers in Tehran province permitted to represent prisoners facing national security charges during investigations. None were human rights lawyersFootnote 12 .

In the same vein, in August 2018 the Supreme Leader called for establishing a special court for economic crimes. One month later, those courts sentenced three people to death, including a controversial gold trader known as the ‘Sultan of Coins’Footnote 13 . The harsh legal actions seem aimed at warning speculators against exploiting the country's current financial predicaments, while also showing the government’s seriousness in combatting endemic corruption. Under pressure from hardliners, the Iranian government banned access in May 2018 to the most popular messaging application in Iran, Telegram, which was used by protestor to coordinate slogans and share informationFootnote 14 .

Reaction to instability in the border areas has been much harsher. Perceiving the hand of its regional rivals and the CIA behind ethno-sectarian dissident groups in its border provinces, Iran has resorted to brute force to deter attacks stemming from the peripheries. In September 2018, the IRGC retaliated against attacks carried out by the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) by firing a dozen missiles towards the groups’ bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, killing 11 and wounding 30Footnote 15 . Tehran’s retaliation, in October 2018, against alleged ringleaders of the terrorist attack on a military parade in Ahvaz on 22 September, claimed by both DaeshFootnote 16  and an Arab separatist group, also took the form of missile strikes in eastern SyriaFootnote 17 . Iranian security forces have threatened that they would not hesitate to cross into neighbouring countries in pursuit of armed dissident groupsFootnote 18 .

The velvet glove

The Iranian leadership has adopted a more ‘kid-glove’ strategy when addressing some of the drivers of local protests lest they snowball into a country-wide crisis. For instance, one of the factors that fuelled anti-government protests in late 2017 was the bankruptcy of several unlicensed credit unions that resulted in hundreds of thousands of depositors witnessing their savings disappear into thin airFootnote 19 . The government intervened and repaid billions of dollars to the depositorsFootnote 20 . Likewise, when Iran’s southwest regions experienced a shortage of drinking water during the summer of 2018, prompting protests throughout Khuzestan province, the government quickly dispatched the IRGC to build a new pipeline for potable waterFootnote 21 .

In an effort to cushion the impact of renewed US sanctions, the administration of President Hassan Rouhani has started to distribute food stamps and baskets containing items such as rice, chicken and dairy productsFootnote 22 . It has also announced a 20 per cent increase in wages of government employees for 2019Footnote 23 , and agreed to increase transportation fees by 20 per cent and provide subsidies for tires and spare parts to satisfy truck drivers who had organised nation-wide strikesFootnote 24 . In an unprecedented move, the government has even gone so far as to apologise for the economic shortcomingsFootnote 25 . For its part, the judiciary has shown its seriousness in stemming corruption and the IRGC has started to roll back its footprint in the country’s economyFootnote 26 .

But the system’s main focus remains on co-opting its core constituents. In the words of a senior Iranian official, “it is the depth of our support that is key to preserving the Islamic Republic, not its breadth. We are now focused on that 15-20 per cent to make sure they remain steadfast in their supportFootnote 27 ”. Some of the protection rackets aimed at ensuring that this stratum of society remains satisfied will see a 14 per cent increase in monthly donations to families covered by the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation, a charitable organisation supporting the most vulnerable (and loyal) segments of the Iranian populationFootnote 28 . The government has also allocated approximately USD 2 billion to poverty reduction programsFootnote 29 .

Mass mobilisation

The Islamic Republic, itself a product of a popular uprising and a referendum, has always valued mass mobilization—be it in the form of voter-turnout or rallies to commemorate a specific occasion—as a means of showcasing its broad support and legitimacy. It uses religious and revolutionary rhetoric to portray mass rallies as the population’s renewal of allegiance (the Islamic concept of bay’at) to its rulers. Images of these state-sponsored demonstrations are projected to both friends and foes as a show of force, using circular propaganda. In fact, staging pro-government protests was the tool that the state employed in the aftermath of the 2009 uprising to discredit and quash the anti-government Green movementFootnote 30 . The 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, celebrated on 11 February 2019, is likely to be a critical opportunity for the state to demonstrate its resilience in the face of crippling US sanctions, an upsurge of internal disgruntlement, and increasing pressure from regional rivals.

One nation indivisible

A relatively new and perhaps surprising element in the state’s efforts to preserve its grip on power is its use of nationalism. The political elite has been warning for a while that the hostile US administration is not targeting the Islamic Republic, but Iran as a polityFootnote 31 . The discourse revolves around the concept of Iran’s ‘Syria-cization’ (سوریه سازی ), an alleged ploy by the US and its allies to fragment Iran along its ethnic and sectarian fault lines. Propagating a siege mentality could help change the subject domestically from complaints over mounting economic troubles to a nationalistic rallying around the flag to preserve the country’s territorial integrity, which by definition requires a strong central government. Recent instability in some of the border provinces, from Kurdistan to Sistan-Balouchestan and Khuzestan, in addition to attacks staged by Daesh on Iranian soil have given more credence to this narrative and the state’s discourse justifying its regional interventionism: if Iran does not fight extremists abroad, it will have to fight them on its streets.

In pursuing this narrative, the government is already pushing on an open door. During the January 2018 protests, which unlike the 2009 uprising did not enjoy the support of Iran’s middle class, who seem loath to sacrifice their security in the absence of a viable alternative to the Islamic Republic, the highest trending hashtag in Iranian social media was #Iran_Isn’t_Syria (ایران_سوریه_نیست #). In general, as an Iranian sociologist explained, “All ideologies in Iran, from Islamism to leftist schools of thought, have proven to be an abject failure. The only organizing principle than remains is nationalism, which the system is trying to mobilize in the face of external threatsFootnote 32 ”.

Dark clouds gathering

As US sanctions take their toll and Iran’s economic situation worsens from the fall of 2018, discontent is likely to grow and result in a renewed wave of protests. This is bound to deepen concerns among the leadership in Tehran that the US and its regional allies are seeking to destabilize the country at home as a means of curbing its influence in the region or prompting regime change. As a result, it is expected that the regime’s tolerance for dissent will wear thinner to address real threats and dissuade new ones. In parallel, it is likely that the system’s capacity to co-opt its constituents could start to dwindle over time, forcing it to increasingly rely on its coercive apparatus.

In this crisis there is, theoretically, an opportunity to implement overdue structural reforms that would completely overhaul the Iranian banking system, cut out the hands of semi-governmental institutions and the IRGC from the economy and restore the central bank’s independence. This would not fully mitigate the impact of US sanctions, but it would at least address some of the systemic ills that are in Tehran’s ability to remedy. The current circumstances could also offer a chance for national reconciliation, ending the house arrest of the 2009 presidential candidates and leaders of the Green Movement, thereby ensuring that external pressure is not being furthered from within. None of this, however, is in accord with the world-view of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who believes that compromise under pressure will not alleviate, but invite more pressure from the US or domestic critics. A reform agenda could also undercut the support of the system’s core (and more conservative) constituents at a critical moment.

In fact, to circumvent US sanctions, precedent suggests that the government may end up relying on the IRGC and a shadowy network of sanctions-busting insiders who see Iran’s isolation as an opportunity for preserving and expanding their vested interest. By the same token, the more Iran’s security is threatened, the more the ruling elite will rely on its security forces for self-preservation. The net outcome is likely to be an impoverished and radicalised garrison state which is unlikely to pursue more moderate policies at home and abroad.

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