More protests, no progress: The 2018 Iran protests
American Enterprise Institute
- Iran’s protest scene is evolving and has become more complex and demographically encompassing since the late-December 2017 widespread riots known as the Dey Protests.
- Economic problems, government mismanagement, and ethnic, labor, sectarian, and environmental issues have driven distinct and overlapping demonstrations, but they have not cohered into a unified protest movement capable of overthrowing the regime.
- Although the Iranian protest movement does not remotely threaten the regime, an evolved protest scene will undoubtedly shorten the life span of the Islamic Republic.
The Iranian protest movement does not remotely threaten the regime, despite its dramatic expansion this year. The protesters cannot challenge the regime’s security forces until they become more organized, acquire weapons, and garner more support among the middle class and security forces. Defections from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Basij Resistance Organization are a crucial—and thus far absent—indicator that regime survival is seriously at risk. However, the potential for this protest movement to evolve into a threat is real, particularly as reimposed US sanctions begin to bite. The regime’s future depends on whether Iranians become willing to risk and lose their lives in large numbers to protest their governments’ policies. It is still too soon to tell.
As predicted, Iran’s protest scene has become more complex and demographically encompassing since the late-December 2017 widespread riots known as the Dey Protests.1 Many different protest movements with varying objectives have spread across Iran since then (Figure 1). Economic problems, government mismanagement, and ethnic, labor, sectarian, and environmental issues have driven distinct and overlapping demonstrations. These protests have not, however, cohered into a unified movement against the regime.
Protests have been disorganized, unarmed, and generally short-lived. The largest and most violent protests were spontaneous, lacking organization and direction. Protesters are also overwhelmingly reluctant to risk their lives during violent protests and have succumbed to police pressure with relatively few casualties.
No central leadership controls when, where, or over what issues demonstrations occur; how long they last; or what the protesters do. A limited semblance of organization sometimes emerges after the beginning of many protests. Popular social media channels, many of which are run by anti-regime groups based outside Iran, post protest locations and times.2 However, these posts have limited effect, and the channels’ organizers are disconnected from on-the-ground protesters.
This lack of coordination contrasts with the massive Iranian Green Movement protests after the fraudulent 2009 elections. The 2009 protests lasted long enough for organization to develop organically, whereas 2018 protests lasted mere days between periods of inactivity. Activists also rallied around then-presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi in 2009, but no such figurehead exists in 2018.
The 2009 protesters were also ahead of the regime in digital communications,3 but the government has since studied protesters’ communication methods and cracked down on social media without inflaming larger portions of the population. The regime’s ban of Viber after the 2009 protests and the spring 2018 ban of Telegram severely hindered protest organization.4 Regime security forces have also cut off telephone lines, deployed jammers, and temporarily banned popular social media applications such as Instagram.5 Bans on Instagram and WhatsApp may become permanent.6 These bans might spur additional protests as the government stymies Iranians’ civil liberties and freedom of communication—but will make it harder for those protests to become organized.
On the other hand, this lack of organization could pose a long-term threat. Disorganized protests make predicting future flare-ups difficult. There are also no leaders for the regime to target and thus weaken the movement. Protest movements will therefore burn slowly and could explode without warning.
The regime understands that more violent protests will inevitably occur, and security forces are girding for a fight with their own people. The Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL) has equipped local police with armored vehicles and heavy weaponry. Parliament increased the Law Enforcement Forces’ (LEF) current Persian calendar year budget by over 200 percent, including a 400 percent increase for weapons and armaments following the 2018 Dey Protests.7 The MODAFL delivered 12 unmanned aerial vehicles and six helicopters to the LEF on October 9, making good on a March 2018 cooperative agreement to equip the LEF with high-end military equipment.8 The regime may continue militarizing its police during the current Persian calendar year.
However, current trends and disparate reports are promising for Iran’s protest scene. Social media channels unveiling the identities of officials involved in protest suppression have become more popular with tens of thousands of followers. Groups such as Rasuyab (“weasel finder”) frequently disseminate the personal information of IRGC officials, Basij members, and plain-clothes officers.9 Private information such as cell phone numbers, addresses, and social media profiles are publicized so that protesters can defame and publicly shame regime officials.
Iranian protests will continue. The regime’s neglect of its people and inability to address protester grievances will fuel future demonstrations. This ultimately bodes ill for regime security. The reimposition of US sanctions lifted under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) places additional pressure on Iran’s heavily stressed economy. Iranian political leadership, especially those close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the IRGC, have weaponized worsening economic protests to attack reformists and politically destroy President Hassan Rouhani.10
These attacks on Rouhani and his policies will prove self-defeating. Reformists support financial reforms to reintegrate Iran into the global international community, reduce government and IRGC control of the economy, create transparency, and generally create a functioning, undistorted market in Iran. These are the only economic policies likely to improve or even stabilize economic conditions.
High unemployment and inflation rates have only worsened since the May 8 US withdrawal from the JCPOA and reimplemented sanctions.11 The Iranian rial has devalued from 35,000 rials to the dollar in September 2017 to 150,000 today.12 Most wages and salaries have not increased at the same pace against the rial’s plummeting value and growing inflation rates.13 Protests will therefore persist and likely expand.
Regime hard-liners will gain only a limited reprieve by their attempts to redirect popular anger against the US and Rouhani. Their own policies of empowering the IRGC economically, pursuing autarky, and hoping to replace Western economic interactions with agreements with China, Russia, and third world countries will fail, significantly increasing the basis for popular grievances over time while making themselves the only ones the people have left to blame.
The Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute has analyzed social media posts and videos from major protest movements since the Dey Protests. The most noteworthy protests are detailed below. CTP will continue to closely follow Iran’s turbulent protest scene and offer analysis as it evolves.
- Mike Saidi, “Iranian Anti-Regime Protests and Security Flaws: A Dataset,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, January 12, 2018, https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/2017-2018-iranian-anti-regime-protests-and-security-flaws-a-dataset.
- Sedaiemardom, Telegram post, August 2, 2018, https://t.me/sedaiemardom/19640.
- For example, protesters sent mass text messages to Tehran cell phone users during the Iranian Green Movement. See Golnaz Esfandiari, “The Twitter Devolution,” Foreign Policy, June 8, 2010, https://foreignpolicy.com/2010/06/08/the-twitter-devolution/.
- Entekhab, “Viber ham belakhareh filter shod” [Viber has finally been blocked too], May 14, 2014, http://www.entekhab.ir/fa/ news/161368; and Mizan Online, “Dastour-e Ghazaayi-e dar khoosoos-e masdood saazi-e payaam resaan-e Telegram saader shod” [Judiciary order was issued regarding the blocking of the Telegram messenger], April 30, 2018, www.mizanonline.com/fa/news/ 416168.
- Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), “Masdood kardan-e Telegram va Instagram maghtaee ast. Ehtemaalan jomeh-ye een hafteh rafe-e ensedaad me shavad” [Telegram and Instagram’s block is temporary. The block will likely be removed Friday of this week], January 3, 2018, http://www.irna.ir/fa/News/82784430.
- Mike Saidi, “Iranian Regime Officials Prepare to Ban Telegram,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, April 25, 2018, https://www.criticalthreats.org/briefs/threat-update/iranian-regime-officials-prepare-to-ban-telegram.
- Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, “Iran News Round Up,” March 27, 2018, https://www. criticalthreats.org/briefs/iran-news-round-up/iran-news-round-up-march-27-2018.
- Tasnim News Agency, “Vezaarat-e Defaa 12 farvand-e pahpaad va 6 farvand-e baalgard beh nirouy-e entezami tahveel daad” [The Ministry of Defense delivered 12 drones and six helicopters to the Law Enforcement Forces], October 8, 2017, https://www. tasnimnews.com/fa/news/1397/07/16/1847844; and Tasnim News Agency, “Emzaay-e tafaahom nameh-ye hamkaaree beyn-e vezaarat-e defaa va nirouy-e entezami” [Ministry of Defense and Law Enforcement Forces sign a cooperative agreement], March 3, 2018, https://www.tasnimnews.com/fa/news/1396/12/12/1670919.
- Rasuyab, Telegram channel, https://t.me/rasuyab.
- Mike Saidi, “Iran’s Hardliners Are Going After the Entire Rouhani Administration,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, August 28, 2018, https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/irans-hardliners-are-going-after-the-entire-rouhani-administration.
- International Monetary Fund, “Chapter 1: Global Prospects and Policies,” in World Economic Outlook: Challenges to Steady Growth, October 2018, https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2018/09/24/world-economic-outlook-october-2018.
- Radio Farda, “Rial Problems,” August 17, 2018, https://en.radiofarda.com/a/rial-problems/29438780.html; Bonbast, https:// www.bonbast.com/; and Reuters, “As Iran Rial Hits Record Low, Police Crack Down on Money Changers,” February 14, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-economy-rial/as-iran-rial-hits-record-low-police-crack-down-on-moneychangers-idUSKCN1FY1YJ?il=0.
- Alef, “Joziyaati az afzaayesh-e mojaddad hooghoogh-e kaarkonaan dar saal-e jaary” [Details on the renewed increase to workers’ wages in the current year], August 23, 2018, https://www.alef.ir/news/3970616124.html.