Iranian Protests: Confrontation Methods

BySaad Al Shahrani

Popular ire recently erupted following the killing of Mahsa Amini, 22, an Iranian Kurdish girl in Tehran by the morality police because of her allegedly inappropriate hijab in violation of the country’s draconian hijab codes. The unrest has snowballed into a massive wave of protests across Iran. The popular discontent has been fueled by the violent treatment of Amini following her arrest by the morality police for merely not wearing the hijab appropriately; an infraction that does not warrant such levels of violence. Iranians were further outraged because the family’s narrative of the brutality inflicted on Amini is vehemently denied by police officers. The protests have expanded from Tehran, extending to Iranian cities and governorate, especially Kurdish majority areas. Iran has witnessed protests and growing agitation against the obligatory hijab before; however, the current protests seem quite different from previous ones, which were often factional and against poverty, unemployment, and deteriorating living conditions. The main cause of the current protests is women’s rights and expressing popular condemnation over the mistreatment women face in Iran. Women’s issues have become the main driver for public discontent against the ruling system. The major difference this time is that Iran has never witnessed such massive protests since the nationwide protests following Khomeini’s announcement of obligatory hijab, which resulted in a harsh crackdown and numerous arrests.

Just like the measures employed to counter previous protests, security forces along with riot police rushed directly to suppress the protests. At a meeting, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers claimed that the protests were still within the “orange stage” referring to a mid-risk security situation which is handled by the Basij forces or volunteers wearing civilian clothes. It has not reached the “red stage” referring to a critical security situation which requires the direct intervention of the IRGC to confront the protests.

The questions then arises: what are the security and military apparatuses that manage the crackdown on protests? What are their roles, methods and tools for addressing the protests? What are the potential consequences of escalating security measures?

Iranian security and military apparatuses have always handled protests over the past years, and have resorted to reshuffling their roles according to the realities on the ground and the measures needed to confront protesters. The Iranian political establishment has identified and allocated tasks and preventive measures to security forces and the IRGC units. The 2009 protests were the bedrock on which tasks were distributed for larger-scale protests. The management of security responses to address protests has evolved since then as illustrated by the establishment of security and military groups such as the Thar Allah (Vengeance of God) group which was tasked with protecting the capital Tehran and sub-cities as well as to coordinate between the police forces, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and the Basij and its military headquarters across Iran. These forces control and monitor the security situation during protests.

To suppress the protests, these forces fired live ammunition and tear gas at the crowds and arrested protesters. In addition, access to the already-monitored internet was further restricted in cities and governorates in order to prevent the mass mobilization of protestors.

In addition to the aforementioned methods, the government has recently used psychological warfare to suppress the protests through spreading rumors that there are security operatives among the protesters and that the leaders of the protests have been detained. The government has also launched campaigns that undermine the demands of protesters and coerce protest leaders into retracting their demands and condemning their actions. The government is eager to use all measures possible to frighten protesters and deceive opposition groups or their leaders who organize the protests. It has also spread misinformation to confuse protesters and deflect their attention from their basic demands and primary motivations that made them take to the street. The security forces claim that they have arrested foreign agents who are plotting to target vital national interests.

The government is almost using the same tactics; it blamed “foreign enemies” for stirring the protests and violence in the country. In a statement, the IRCG claimed that the protests are ignited by “enemies” seeking to take “revenge” for the strategic successes the Iranian political system has achieved. Protests used to be described as “sedition,” this time the protesters are called “Daesh” militants.

Despite taking repressive measures, the government is still concerned about the mounting public discontent. The protests are expected to unleash further consequences amid the increasing number of detentions and causalities as well as the behavior and measures of Iranian officials to address the crisis; they adopted violence and harsh rhetoric against protesters — namely Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

It is likely that the Iranian political establishment will use all means and strategies available to affirm its ability to control the situation. It may resort to carrying out wide-ranging dismissals of security and military officials and leaders and revise the obligatory hijab law. If the protests become more intense and signs of anti-regime revolution become more evident, the establishment may opt to deploy the IRGC to directly confront the protesters in order to protect the theocracy from any attempts to topple it.

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

Saad Al Shahrani
Saad Al Shahrani
researcher at International Institute for Iranian Studies