The Future of Protests in Iran

ByArif Nasr

There seems to be commonalities between the Arab anqa (phoenix) legend and the Persian simorgh (bird) legend and the events that followed the killing of Mahsa Amini. The Kurdish Iranian young woman was brutally killed by Iran’s morality police on September 16, 2022. This event led to protests erupting which have entered their third month and are likely to continue. According to the anqa legend, hope is pinned on the process of rebirth, something that all Iranian social segments are aspiring for, however, the burning process that precedes this rebirth is a matter of concern not only in Iran but also in the region and the world.   

In the context of the Iranian supreme leader and senior revolutionary officials threatening the Gulf countries, Washington’s national security spokesperson expressed his country’s concern about Iran threatening Saudi Arabia. The aforementioned makes us ask whether the Iranian phoenix will burn itself before its rebirth, or whether it will also burn its neighborhood? Especially since Iran’s IRGC targeted Iraqi Kurdistan with ballistic missiles and suicide drones several times during the few last months. The IRGC also conducted huge maneuvers on the borders of Azerbaijan and is believed to be behind an attack on a ship owned by an Israeli businessman in the Sea of Oman.  

It is true that Iran’s belligerent behavior is not a consequence of the recent protests in the country, in fact, since1979, the ruling system of Wilayat al-Faqih has threatened regional security through attempting to export the revolution which is stipulated in the Iranian Constitution.   This dangerous Iranian behavior has been directly responsible for killing thousands of people, especially in conflict-riven countries like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Nevertheless, it is important to analyze the recent attacks in the region in the context of the recent protests in Iran. It is also important to forecast scenarios for the Iranian protests, especially at this time of accelerating international developments that are likely to cause a change in the rules that govern the regional and global order.

A Revolution or an Engineered War?

So far, the Iranian government has chosen not to recognize the protest movement, despite the fact that the death toll has risen to 458, including 44 children. The number of detainees is estimated at 20,000, 80 of which have been sentenced to death for moharebeh (waging war against God) according to the leaks revealed by an Iranian hacktivist group.

Despite the aforementioned, the Iranian government insists on demonizing the protesters by accusing them of being “supported by foreign enemies” such as the UK, the United States and Israel.  This is in addition to designating the unarmed protestors from non-Persian provinces as “separatists” or “terrorists” who are affiliated with ISIS.

The remarks of Iran’s supreme leader and top IRGC commanders, especially in private meetings, revealed by hacktivist group Black Reward, indicate that the Iranian leadership believes it is facing an engineered war that necessitates a “complex response” internally and externally, otherwise, the political system could collapse, especially if the response is defective.  

Therefore, Iran’s supreme leader and security-military establishment believe, according to the leaked information, that they must lower the threat posed by the protest movement that is directly targeting the supreme leader and aims to overthrow the political system.  The Iranian government plans to meet “protester demands” through a limited framework based on parliamentary legislation that will respond to economic demands while neglecting the political ones. Thus, the Iranian government is willing to show flexibility on economic demands, especially those related to the salaries of teachers and employees in vital sectors, especially in the oil and petrochemical industries, in addition to the pensions of retirees and the salaries of the security and military forces.

According to the aforementioned leaks, the dead protesters will be classified into three categories: “Martyrs,” “unknown,” and “executed.” Those proven to have been killed or wounded without direct participation in the protests will receive compensation from the government’s Martyr’s Foundation.

Internal Disputes Without Taking a Coherent Decision

In light of the internal dispute in Iran, it seems that the Iranian government has a plan to put an end to the protests or at least discourage large segments of society from joining the protests. It aims to embrace a “nail-biting” approach with the protesters in the short run.  However, it seems that it lacks an effective plan on the external level, in the short and medium run. These protests clearly prove that the supreme leader has failed to politically attract the “hardline” current to its approach of quelling the protests let alone the “reformist” current. This was evident when some key representatives of Wilayat al-Faqih did not make statements condemning the protests, as hoped for by the supreme leader. On the contrary, his closest confidante, his sister, called him “despotic.” In an open letter published in early December, Badri Khamenei wrote, “Many mothers have become bereaved during the past four decades, so I see it is appropriate to stand by them by declaring my brother’s innocence and expressing my sympathy to all grieving mothers following the crimes of the Islamic Republic regime, from the time of its founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to the current era of the despotic caliphate of Ali Khamenei.”

Despite this lack of preparedness on the external front, the Iranian government is unlikely to stand by idle. It is reported that Iran will enhance its military cooperation with Russia and continue to provide it with drones and ballistic missiles. It is also expected to continue to enrich uranium at a 60 percent purity rate, launch cyberattacks, and kidnap or assassinate opponents abroad. It is likely that the Iranian government will continue to conduct limited attacks on the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, and target international waters; it could employ its proxies for the latter.   

Despite this external escalation scenario, it seems that the diplomatic option  will remain on the table if Iran expresses  a readiness to continue the nuclear talks or allow the IAEA to carry out inspections.

Commander-in-Chief of the IRGC Hossein Salami’s threatening remarks to directly attack the Gulf states  are unlikely to materialize on the ground  for the following reasons:

  • -Fear of creating an international consensus to punish the Iranian government
  • -Any attack against the Gulf states would cause Iran to lose Russian-Chinese support, as the two countries have a strategic partnership with the Gulf governments.
  • -The absence of Iranian public support for any open war
  • -The supreme leader is gravely ill and unable to make a political decision unilaterally, especially in light of the differences between Iran’s political currents.
  • -The IRGC aspires  to lead the country after the supreme leader’s death and perhaps this explains why it is not intervening to  violently quell the protesters

What Awaits Iran?

Based on the aforementioned, it can be said that the Iranian government believes more than ever before that it is walking through a minefield.  The longer the protests continue, the less effective the security approach will be as further crackdowns will eventually lead to a national consensus for the system to end.  In this scenario, the protests will start to take a formal shape, with the protestors representing a nucleus of the political leadership for the next stage.  

By looking at the history of the major political movements in Iran, particularly the 1905 Constitutional Revolution and the 1979 revolution, the current protest movement will need to go through  four crucial stages, as follows:

  1. 1-Public protests at universities and schools, and on Iranian streets  
  2. 2-General strikes, including in bazaars and  industrial sectors
  3. 3-Prominent  officials and clerics joining the protests
  4. 4-Military defections

A quick glance at the protests in Iran shows that they have passed the first two stages. The protests have also attracted a large segment of Sunni clerics, however, so far, they have failed to attract government officials. Owing to their “conservative” positions, their participation in the protests is low. They are only likely to take a more active role in the protests if the crackdowns escalate on the protestors or if more are executed under charges of “moharebeh”.  

If the third stage is completed, it is very likely that Iran will witness military defections, whether in the ranks of the army or the IRGC. This scenario is based on the fact that more than half of the army and the IRGC are made up of temporary recruits. About 10 percent of the current senior military leaders joined the IRGC based on ideological reasons after the revolution or during the Iran-Iraq War. However, current data shows that most military officers in the army and the IRGC enrolled after 1990. This means that ideology is likely to be less of a factor in their joining compared to patriotic reasons. Therefore, it is expected that middle-ranking military officers in the Iranian army will have a critical role in the future direction of the protest movement in Iran.  This is based on several reasons, including:

-The spread of financial corruption in the ranks of the IRGC as revealed by a leaked audio clip of the former IRGC Commander-in-Chief Mohammad Ali Jafari

-The deliberate and systematic marginalization of Iranian army officers since the 1979 revolution

-Fear of IRGC officers being targeted with international sanctions for human rights violations and terrorism. These matters cannot be settled politically as is the case with the sanctions over the Iranian nuclear program

-This is in addition to some factors deemed significant by the West. For example, military officials could assume leadership positions in government if the current political system is dismantled in Iran. Another factor is Europe’s fear of the possibility of a surge of Iranian migrants. And finally, Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 60 percent poses a threat to global security and stability as well as Iran’s significance in terms of global oil and petrochemical supplies.

   Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Arif Nasr
Arif Nasr
Political analyst specializing in Iranian affairs