October 11, 2022

IntelBrief: Iran Protests Prove Resilient, Posing a Dilemma for the Regime

AP Photo

Bottom Line up Front

  • Iran’s Islamic regime has been unable to quell the uprising that has gripped Iran since mid-September, sparked by the death of a young woman held in custody and accused of violating the regime’s public dress codes for women.
  • The government is resisting reforms or changes to laws governing public dress and behavior, but leaders appear divided over how much force to unleash on protesters.
  • Iran has attacked targets in Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq, in part to prevent any arms from flowing to Iranian protesters.
  • The uprising occurs against a backdrop of speculation about the succession to Iran’s Supreme Leader.

The protests that broke out on September 16 and expanded nationwide after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while she was held in custody are still showing significant strength. At times, the uprising has waned briefly in response to regime repression, only to flare up again as uprising leaders adjust their tactics and sense new opportunities to challenge the regime. Amini’s death while in the custody of the “morality police,” after what her family alleges was a beating by her captors, has galvanized more than 40 years of grievances against the repression of women’s rights by the Islamic regime. The protests stem from a long history of women’s rights movements and activism in and outside Iran, with Iranian women strategizing for years on how to challenge gender discrimination in both politics and society. Led by women and cutting across gender, class, and ethnic divisions, some have argued that the recent protests represent the most serious popular challenge to Iran’s theocratic leaders since the Green Revolution of 2009. Several women, who have led protests in part by publicly burning their required head coverings, have died at the hands of security forces but, in so doing, have sustained the uprising’s energy.

Demonstrators have frequently challenged security forces, often forcing them to retreat. In some cities, particularly in the Kurdish northwest where Mahsa Amini is from, demonstrators have captured and burned local government offices or the local headquarters of the Basij internal security force - a militia, under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that spearheads the regime response to significant riots. On October 8, women at the all-female Al Zahra University in Tehran demonstrated against Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who was meeting there with students who support the regime. The demonstration was among the most direct challenge to senior leaders in any recent Iranian uprising. A U.S. State Department spokesperson has said that, as of October 5, regime forces had killed more than 100 protesters - a death toll that reflects the intensity of the uprising - but some human rights groups put the death toll above 180. U.S. leaders have publicly supported the demonstrators and have loosened U.S. sanctions to facilitate the sale of Internet equipment to Iran that protesters can use to organize and evade regime monitoring of their communications.

The unrest has presented Iran’s leadership with a dilemma as they seek to restore order, in the process exposing differences within the regime. The uprising started as a response to the restrictions on women’s dress and behavior in public - restrictions that Raisi tightened after his 2021 election - but has evolved into a campaign to overthrow the regime outright. Senior leaders recognize that the longer the protests continue, the more likely additional groups will join them, including those concerned primarily about the poor economic situation, government corruption, mismanagement of lands and waters, or other issues. Yet, some Iranian leaders apparently fear that an expanded use of force against demonstrators will increase, rather than reduce, the intensity of the protest movement. There are some tentative indications that security force commanders might be reluctant to use the amount of force that would be needed to quell the uprising, as the violent repression has only served to fuel the protests thus far. There are also concerns that, with protesters more willing to combat security officers than in past uprisings, casualties among riot police, Basij, IRGC units, and other forces could continue to rise. Yet, the regime leadership appears unified in refusing protester demands to reform or relax enforcement of the laws governing women’s dress in public. Some regime leaders appear to believe that offering concessions on that issue will stimulate demands for additional concessions on a broad range of unrelated issues. Still, there are no indications that the uprising is sufficiently organized to cause the regime to collapse, as of now.

The regional and domestic political environment presents additional challenges to the regime. When the protests broke out, Iran’s 83-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had been out of public view for two weeks with a reported illness, although he apparently recovered and has appeared publicly since. Following a standard playbook that Khamenei has used during past periods of unrest, the Supreme Leader has accused demonstrators of being tools of Iran’s foreign adversaries, particularly the United States and Israel. Even though he has resumed his duties, the illness sparked a debate among regime insiders over the succession, exposing divisions between those supporting his son, Mojtaba, who runs the day-to-day affairs of Khamenei's office, and supporters of Raisi or other potential candidates. On the external front, Iranian leaders are seeking to prevent regional factions outside Iran from providing material support to the demonstrators, reflecting fears that outside parties opposed to the Islamic Republic want to interfere in Iran’s domestic unrest to further their agendas. Observing widespread support for the uprising on social media among Iraq’s Kurdish population, partly due to Mahsa Amini’s Kurdish ethnicity, Iranian leaders have sought to ensure that organized Kurdish opposition groups based in northern Iraq do not provide arms or other armed assistance to the uprising. On several occasions since late September, the IRGC has shelled and launched missiles and armed drones against positions of anti-Iranian Kurdish guerrilla fighters over the border in Iraq. One Iranian strike killed a U.S. citizen, and, on September 28, a U.S. combat jet downed an Iranian armed drone as it approached Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish-controlled government in northern Iraq. U.S. military officials asserted that the armed drone posed a threat to U.S. forces. Tehran’s actions have tentatively produced results in the form of pledges by the Kurdish government in northern Iraq to prevent armed Kurdish opposition groups on its territory from operating. Even if the current demonstrations lose their momentum, the compounding grievances and structural issues fueling the unrest will persist and undoubtedly set the stage for an even more forceful uprising in the future.