Analysis - Political Transformations


How did the Iranian Regime deal with the Protests?

Writer : Mohamed Mohsen Abo El-Nour

Tuesday, January 16, 2018


The rapid spread of protests forced the Iranian regime to adopt concurrent strict measures to contain them. After protests expanded, the regime sought to overcome the imbalance resulting from the shocking developments. The regime’s adopted measures varied between escalating and calming the situation.

It called on protestors to calm and vowed to carry out economic reforms, reconsider the budget and respond to social demands. On the other hand, it also adopted strict security measures, which entailed accusing protestors of being agents to foreign parties and inciting violence. It also threatened to resort to relying on its affiliated militias. This is in addition to deploying security forces to besiege the protests.

Confrontation Measures

The Iranian regime took several measures to end the escalating protests such as detaining protestors, violently confronting them, threatening to suppress them, and resorting to armed militias. Simultaneously, the regime sought to reconsider the budget, which President Rouhani submitted and made promises to improve the economic situation. The most prominent mechanisms for confronting the protests are as follows:

1. Accusing protestors of being agents: On January 2, 2018, Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused protestors of being agents and saboteurs. Such accusations are perceived as tantamount to an order to judicial and security apparatuses to take immediate measures to end what he described as a “conspiracy.”

2. Threatening protestors: The Iranian Revolutionary Guards threatened anti-regime protestors of responding with an iron fist, if protests escalated. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s deputy commander for security, Brigadier General Esmail Kowsari said, “Protesters must certainly know that improper behavior will be to their detriment, and the nation will come out and stand against these actions and throw a hard punch in their faces.”

On December 31, 2017, the Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said, “Those who damage the public property and create disorder are accountable to the law…they should be responsible for their misbehavior.” He further added, “Such behavior will be smashed.” 

Head of the judicial system Sadeq Larijani said in the beginning of 2018, “Some opportunists may take advantage of the situation, resorting to vandalizing and turmoil.” These statements are tantamount to a legal mandate to suppress protests. 

3. Violent confrontation: In the light of the statements and remarks made by the head of the state, minister of interior and the head of the judicial authority, security forces justified their measures to crush protests. Security forces used tear gas bombs, water hoses and batons to disperse protests, especially in Tabriz, Kermanshah, Mashhad, Qom and Isfahan. As protests escalated, security forces killed around 22, according to official sources. The Iranian opposition, however, confirms that the number of those killed is much higher.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guards also intervened in the chaotic situation. On December 30, 2017, they attacked a protest in Durood killing four protestors.

4. Destructive acts: Videos published by protestors on Twitter revealed that security forces destroyed public property, and looted shops, while the authorities accused protestors of inciting violence and being saboteurs. The aim is to distort the protestors’ image as part of the media propaganda, which the Iranian regime has launched to justify its violence and excessive use of force.

5. Besieging protestors: Security forces tried to besiege protestors to end their protests. This was seen when security forces, Revolutionary Guards’ forces and Basij members besieged students protesting at Tehran’s University. Then, they opened fire on them as shown in one of the videos posted on social media on December 30, 2017.

6. Blocking social media: Iranian authorities blocked social media networks including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The block included Telegram especially after users were able to share the location of some protests and reported their news, but the ban was lifted on January 13. Other channels, like Amad News, which is managed by exiled journalist Ruhollah Zam, broadcast videos of protests. Iran also decreased internet speed, a move it once resorted to during the 2009 protests.

7. Attempts to calm the situation: Although the regime reacted violently towards protestors, there were some attempts to calm and ease the situation. President Rouhani called on Iranians to voice their opinions without resorting to violence. He also acknowledged the harsh economic circumstances, which pushed citizens to protest. His speech, however, also included threats to take decisive measures.

The Iranian government spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nobakht announced having plans to improve the economic situation in Iran, and dedicate a portion of the 2018 budget to provide job opportunities. He further stated that the government would work on amending the state budget, which was submitted to the Shura Council in December 2017.

Within this context, Ali Asghar Yousefnejad, the spokesperson of the parliamentary committee tasked with reviewing the budget, said on January 1, 2018, “Any decision to be made about the country’s budget will be aligned with serving the public interests, particularly low-income people.” The committee agreed on not increasing electricity, gas and water prices in next year’s budget. These measures came in late after a number of people were killed in protests, and they do not address the protestors’ economic demands yet.

Decreased Control

Attempts to contain protestors came in late, as protests had greatly expanded to many cities. Some analyses concluded that the Iranian regime’s resorting to violent suppressive measures contributed to igniting protests, which at first economic and social demands and that could have been politically contained.

Protests were limited at the beginning as people voiced their rejection of the budget for the new fiscal year, which President Hassan Rouhani submitted to the Islamic Consultative Assembly in December 2017. However, when security forces suppressed these protests, the protests directly escalated the next day extending to three big cities.

These protests expanded in the next few days and attracted non-Persian ethnicities like the Azeris in cities like Urmia and Tabriz, the Kurds in Kermanshah and Arabs in Ahwaz. Protests, thus, shifted to being political resembling the model of the Arab Spring revolutions.

Some clerics’ incitement in Razavi Khorasan Province legitimized oppressing protestors. One example is Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, the guide’s representative in Mashhad who told the Iranian news agency on December 30, 2017 that, "If the security and law enforcement agencies leave the rioters to themselves, enemies will publish films and pictures in their media and say that the Islamic Republic system has lost its revolutionary base in Mashhad." 

If one observe how protests spread across a number of provinces and cities on a daily basis, it can be argued that attempts to oppress protests led to opposite results, especially after a number of people were killed, further enraging protestors against the regime. After the first two people were killed by security forces, protests gradually expanded and on January 1, 2018 protestors went from the center of Tehran to Pasteur Street, where Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei lives.

Perhaps this violence created some sort of compassion towards protestors as some social media users said some security forces were empathetic towards protestors and refused to open fire on them. The account Iranian-American Youth said an Iranian officer resigned on December 31, 2017 objecting to how protestors were being dealt with. Iran’s religious reference in Qom Noori Hamedani said on December 30, 2017 that he supports popular protests. “People are demanding their rights, and we must support them,” he said.

In general, the oppression policy that the Iranian regime adopted escalated protests and helped them gain political momentum that is far more than what Iran witnessed during the 2009 protests. This is happening amid changes in circumstances and increased popular discontent from the government’s foreign policy that led to an economic crisis and deterioration of social conditions.  

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