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How Iran Aims to Crush Protestors and How the World Should Respond

Iran's flag.

Protests continue to sweep Iran after the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, for the crime of showing too much hair. Such morality police detentions are common. When I was a student in an affluent neighborhood in northern Tehran where many women regularly showed “bad hijab,” I had to walk perhaps 15 minutes to a major intersection where I could pick up a shared taxi to the center of town where I lived. On several occasions, hurried passersby would whisper to females walking in the same direction as we passed to take care because there was a “Hezbollah” checkpoint up ahead where morality police were harassing and detaining women. The checkpoints often had less to do with enforcing the ayatollahs’ social code than they did corruption. The morality police, often drawn from poorer segments of society in western Tehran or the city’s southern suburbs, would demand money to prevent detention. They would bundle those who could not or would not pay into a police van and transfer them to a station where the extortion would only increase.

While those not tied diplomatically or financially to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s regime cheer the protestors on, wishful thinking alone will not bring success. The Islamic Republic employs a number of strategies to suppress the popular will.

The Genesis of the Islamic Republic’s Counter-protest Strategy

Iran was among the first states in the Middle East to embrace the internet. When I first traveled to the Islamic Republic in 1996, surveillance was still haphazard. While certainly some electronic means existed, the security services relied instead on human intelligence: Paying internet café employees to glance over their shoulders or managers to record search histories.

That changed in 1999, when the Islamic Republic experienced its first nationwide protest since the Islamic Revolution. The spark for that outburst was a paramilitary attack on a student dormitory in central Tehran. Hours before, the students had protested peacefully against the closure of a popular newspaper. Revolutionary Guardsmen wearing plainclothes stormed the dormitory, stole and smashed student belongings, and defenestrated students, killing at least one.

The outrage and rapidity with which the protests spread shocked the regime and even caught Iranians by surprise. By coincidence, I was again in Tehran at the time. Shutting down the cell phone network did not help. The paramilitary Basij proceeded to bash heads, but that backfired as Iranians fought back. With overwhelming force the regime did pacify the streets, but the entire episode shook the security forces to the core.

The Islamic Republic’s Psychological Warfare

The regime subsequently turned to China to help it with facial recognition. When protests erupted two years later after rumors the regime forced the Iranian football team to throw a World Cup qualifier in order to prevent men and women from celebrating together in the streets, the regime responded by photographing protestors and then arresting them days and sometimes weeks later in the middle of the night when isolated.

The truly malevolent part of the strategy was what the regime did to those arrested. Often, they would impose draconian sentences. Many times, after police took them to Evin Prison, security forces would torture them. Men and women report beatings, sexual assaults, and other tortures like forcing their head into excrement. But the regime would not lock them up and throw away the key. Rather, they would then furlough prisoners for a weekend or perhaps longer. Prisoners would return home where not only their family but also friends and classmates could see that their friends and loved ones were both physically and mentally not those whom they had known just weeks before. The message was clear: cross a line and this could be you. To cap off the evil, the government would then return their example to prison.

Reorganizing the Revolutionary Guard to Crush Dissent

The regime leadership quickly observed that despite their efforts, the rate of protests was increasing. In 2007, Mohammad Ali Jafari took over the leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He assessed security differently than his predecessor Yahya Rahim Safavi, who today serves as Khamenei’s special military advisor. Jafari believed the internal threat to the regime exceeded that of outside powers, especially after the hanging of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Jafari, therefore, reorganized the Revolutionary Guards to put one unit in each province charged with maintaining security in that province. Whether the staff for each unit are native to the provinces in which they serve remains an intelligence hole for Washington, though the answer to that question is especially relevant today for it would indicate if kinship is more important than ideology if given the order to fire on crowds in the street. In 2009, the reorganized counter-protest strategy worked; today, it remains unclear if that will remain true.

The regime has also resorted to a strategy of preemptive arrest of those whose activism could cross social and economic lines. This is the main reason why the regime has targeted environmental activists and trade unionists with such energy.

When it comes to security, the regime has a love-hate relationship with the internet. Slowing the internet and cutting links to social network sites remains crucial to regime strategy, hence the importance of Elon Musk’s ability to establish an alternate communications network. At the same time, beginning with the 2018 economic protests, the regime sought to use twitter to crowdsource identity of protest ringleaders who had obscured their faces to stymie identification.

Countering a Century of Crackdowns

The government’s desire to control information is not simply to deny the ability of protestors to coordinate, but rather to be able to commit crimes against humanity outside the international spotlight. Even as the regime has grown more sophisticated in heading off protests, brute force remains the last arrow in its quiver. There is historic precedent. Reza Khan, then a Persian Cossack officer in the service of Ahmad Shah, rose to prominence by restoring order in the provinces after decades of growing chaos. Ultimately, in 1925, he ousted his patron and took the throne himself. While the British ultimately forced his ouster against the backdrop of World War II because of his alleged German sympathies, his son Mohammad Reza, the shah ousted in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, followed the same playbook to restore order following a series of separatist incidents in the late 1940s.

The nascent Islamic Republic would target Iranian Kurdistan in the years after the Islamic Revolution with even more brutality in order to subjugate the Kurds. The Kurds’ nationalist agitation but also their Sunnis identity were two strikes against them in the minds of Iran’s security state. It is no coincidence today that Kurds have suffered the greatest number of casualties in the ongoing protests.

The Islamic Republic will not go down without a fight. While the fight is Iran’s and the outside cannot impose success from abroad, if the protestors are to succeed, they need both moral and technical support. Musk’s Starlink is a start. International trade unions can support Iranian workers with strike funds so that Iranian workers can paralyze the regime while still feeding their own families. It is also crucial to do no harm: Sanctions relief and ransom payments flow directly to the Revolutionary Guards. It is time for a pause, if not a return to maximum pressure. It is also essential to keep the news flowing from Kurdistan to Kish and from Bushehr to Baluchistan so that protestors see they are part of a far greater movement and their tormentors understand that they will face accountability for any abuses.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).