Protest Movement in Iran: The Regime in Crisis?

Status: 19.11.2022 12:03 p.m

The protests against the authoritarian government in Iran continue – despite the death sentences and brutal treatment of the demonstrators. The only way for the regime to stay in power is violence.

A good two months after Mahsa Amini’s death, the situation in Iran is unclear. The question of whether and – if so – to what extent the protests have already caused disagreements or even cracks within the regime can hardly be answered. It is noteworthy, however, that the demonstrations have continued since then, although General Hossein Salami, commander of the Revolutionary Guards, unequivocally demanded that they stop immediately three weeks ago. Apparently, some of the mostly young Iranians are no longer deterred by threats and want to permanently take their pent-up anger and dissatisfaction with the system of the Islamic Republic onto the streets.

With the demonstrations taking place across the country and the protest movement lacking a leader, the government is having serious difficulties in containing and strategically weakening it. Statements such as those made by Parliament President Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf that the country was capable of certain reforms went unheeded. On the one hand, the majority of the Iranian power elite see reforms as a sign of weakness. On the other hand, many demonstrators are not only calling for a reform of the Islamic Republic, but for a change of system. And the Islamists in power today know only too well that the Shah’s regime began to falter in the late 1970s, when the monarch gave in to street demands.

The regime relies on violence

That is why the regime relies on the violent suppression of the protests. The figures given by human rights groups of around 360 dead and more than 16,000 arrests speak for themselves. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has not yet publicly demanded that the unrest be put down. Nevertheless, there are rumors that the most recent excesses in the south-eastern province of Sistan-Balochistan were a kind of test run for the revolutionary leader: here security forces had repeatedly shot at mostly Sunni demonstrators, including clerics, killing dozens of people. However, the protests could not be stopped.

The fact that courts have now issued several death sentences against demonstrators in summary proceedings is therefore only logical for those in power: the regime is looking for deterrents. Even if he doesn’t want to say so publicly, only brute force helps him to survive. The regime hides behind low-level security forces to cover up the truly brutal forces. It is officially emphasized that fighting the current protests is the responsibility of the police and the paramilitary volunteer groups of the Basij militias. But there are increasing reports that the Revolutionary Guards, who ruthlessly silenced the protests of the “Green Movement” in 2009, are also active – camouflaged in the uniforms of the police and Basij militias.

In addition, the human rights organization Amnesty International reports on secret documents in which the general staff of the armed forces called on all regional commanders to take “tough measures” against the demonstrators. It is doubtful that this approach is really of use to those in government. As a reminder, on “Black Friday” in 1978, the Shah had unarmed demonstrators shot at in Tehran’s Jaleh Square, unleashing an even stronger protest against his regime.

Will the protests continue?

In view of the steadily increasing violence against them, it is not certain whether the demonstrators will continue to take to the streets. But there is a lot to be said for it: the obviously lower fear threshold among some of them, the increase in unrest this week on the anniversary of the suppressed protests of 2019 and also the displeasure with the latest economic data. At the end of last week, Masoud Mirkazemi, president of the state organization for planning and state budgets, reported a budget deficit of 34 percent for the current year, which lasts until March 20 in Iran. There are also rumors that the rial’s 20 percent drop in value over the past two weeks is due to the government’s massive spending on security forces.

So far, Iran’s rulers have refrained from going to extremes. Instead, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian is warning of a “civil war” that he believes is being organized by Western countries in the country. The demonstrators will probably take his words as an indication that the hardliners are now admitting that they are afraid of the end of “their” Islamic Republic. Either way: If the protests continue and also permanently affect important areas of public life such as the bazaars and the transport system or even the petro industry, another bloodbath is likely to be unavoidable. The house where Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was born was reportedly set on fire on Thursday. The property, in the central Iranian city of Khomein, had been a museum for 30 years.

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