Signposts of Struggle: Iran’s Enduring Protest Movement
January 24, 2020
The U.S. strike against Qasem Soleimani inspired nationalist and anti-Western sentiment in Iran. But Tehran’s mishandling of the Ukraine International Airlines crash on January 8, 2020 reinvigorated widespread protests against the Iranian government. While these protests are unlikely to threaten regime survival—at least for now—the underlying economic and political grievances pose a long-term challenge for the government. The regime would likely face more serious problems if there were defections from key units within Iran’s security forces and if the protest movement became more centralized and better organized.
The January 2020 U.S. strike that killed Major General Qasem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), gave the Iranian regime a temporary reprieve following months of domestic protests. Between January 4 and 7, 2020, there were funeral processions in Iraq and Iran, including in Baghdad, Najaf, Ahvaz, Mashhad, Tehran, Qom, and Soleimani’s hometown of Kerman. The January 7 procession at Kerman was so large and unwieldy that a stampede killed at least 56 mourners and wounded over 200 others.1 Some individuals warned that the strike would rejuvenate support for the regime. According to one assessment, for instance, U.S. actions against Soleimani helped bring together Iranians, even those that strongly opposed the regime.2
But this did not happen. As this analysis argues, there was no meaningful rally-around-the-flag effect from the death of Soleimani—a strong indication that Iran’s theocratic regime remains deeply unpopular. In fact, Iran’s errant mishandling of the shootdown of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 triggered protests in multiple cities across Iran. After initially announcing that Iran did not shoot down the airline, Iranian leaders quickly did an about-face. As President Hassan Rouhani tweeted, the “Armed Forces’ internal investigation has concluded that regrettably missiles fired due to human error caused the horrific crash of the Ukrainian plane & death of 176 innocent people.”3 The government’s attempted cover-up only served to anger Iranians, including several notable public figures. For example, Kimia Alizadeh, a taekwondo athlete who is Iran’s only female Olympic medalist, defected because of what she called “hypocrisy, lies, injustice and flattery.”4
This CSIS Brief puts recent Iranian mobilization into historical context. The rest of the brief is divided into three sections. The first section examines the November 2019 anti-regime protests. The second examines the protests today. The third section highlights signposts that might indicate the broader protest movement is becoming more dangerous to the Iranian regime.
NOVEMBER 2019 ANTI-REGIME PROTESTS
Though Iran has a long history of resistance, the protests that swept the country in November 2019 posed one of the greatest challenges to the regime in decades. Unrest had been simmering since the conclusion of the widespread Dey Protests in January 2018. They were initially sparked by economic grievances but expanded to incorporate broad anti-regime sentiment and concerns about corruption, environmental degradation, and other issues.5 Though the regime was able to stifle the Dey Protests without significant violence, Iran’s economy continued to deteriorate, thanks in large part to the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions as part of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign. Iran’s GDP growth declined by 3.9 percent in 2018 and an estimated 9.5 percent in 2019, which resulted in continuing protests.6 Over 4,200 demonstrations took place from January 2018 through October 2019, in nearly every province of Iran, though most were relatively small in scale and lacked centralized leadership and cohesion.7
Tensions reached a breaking point on November 15, 2019, however, when the Supreme Council of Economic Coordination announced a plan to increase fuel prices by 50 percent and ration fuel consumption for both private and commercial vehicles. Though President Hassan Rouhani claimed the new policy was “to the people’s benefit,” as proceeds would go toward subsidies for low-income families, the surprise announcement backfired dramatically.8 That same night, protesters filled the streets in multiple cities, including Ahvaz, Mashhad, and Sirjan, with fuel-related chants quickly giving way to anti-regime slogans.9 By November 16, protests had spread to at least 95 cities and towns—including at least 13 separate protests within the capital city of Tehran alone—and had become increasingly political, with chants like “death to the dictator” emerging across the country.10 Protests also devolved into violence in multiple cities. On November 15, protesters burned vehicles as a direct counter to the fuel price hikes. But as the demonstrations became more overtly anti-regime, so too did protesters’ targets. According to the regime, from November 15-19, protesters set on fire 731 banks, 140 “government sites,” 50 bases used by security forces, and 70 gas stations.11
Figure 1: Map of Iranian Protests, November 15–19, 2019
The total number of protesters is difficult to gauge for several reasons. Contemporaneous reporting from protest events was extremely limited, as the regime implemented a near-total internet shutdown across the country from November 15 (when internet connectivity fell to 7 percent of ordinary levels) through at least November 21.12 Images and videos from protesters’ cell phones emerged on social media once the demonstrations waned, but their quality was rarely sufficient to make accurate assessments of crowd sizes or even exact locations of protests. Additionally, there is little publicly available satellite imagery covering the locations of the protests during the November 15-19 time period, which limits ex post facto geospatial analysis. As a result, most reporting on the protests is retrospective and relies on Iranian government estimates, which are likely low given the regime’s desire to minimize dissent in order to appear strong and in control of the situation. Still, on November 17, Fars News reported that the number of protesters totaled 87,000, and on November 27, Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli revised the total to “up to 200,000.”13
The Iranian government has also downplayed the number of protesters who were killed or detained by security forces during this time. By November 18, the third full day of protests, the regime had deployed the IRGC and Basij militia to the cities and towns with the highest concentrations of protesters—a notable escalation in repression which did not happen during the 2017-2018 protests.14 Video footage obtained by the United Nations shows security forces attacking unarmed protesters with water cannons, tear gas, batons, and in many cases “shooting to kill” by using live ammunition.15 The level of lethal force used to quash protests was virtually unprecedented for Iran, and the statistics tell a gruesome story.16 According to the United Nations, at least 208 people were confirmed killed, while other unverified reports suggest a number closer to 450.17 An investigation by Reuters several weeks later placed the death toll significantly higher: approximately 1,500 people were killed, according to unnamed Iranian officials, after the Supreme Leader told them to do “whatever it takes” to end the protests.18 Additionally, some 2,000 other protesters were wounded, and at least 7,000 others were arbitrarily arrested and subjected to harsh prison conditions, denied medical treatment, and occasionally tortured by security forces in order to extract forced confessions.19
Top Iranian officials—including IRGC commander General Hossein Salami and Ayatollah Khamenei himself—quickly embarked on an information campaign to frame the protests as a “conspiracy” undertaken by the United States, Britain, Israel, and Saudi Arabia in order to drum up support for the regime’s harsh response.20 On November 25, the Iranian government sponsored rallies across the country, with crowds chanting “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.”21 But unrest continued. Information from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) shows 150 protests taking place between November 26 and January 2. Approximately 21 of those protests were explicitly anti- government, with demonstrators objecting to the regime’s treatment of those arrested and standing in solidarity with protesters who were killed. Another 81 protests were economic in nature, focusing on ongoing labor concerns as well as continuing the original protests against the November 15 fuel price hike.22 The underlying grievances of the November protesters had not been resolved, and the regime’s response appeared to be exacerbating tensions further.
All that seemed to change, however, after the United States killed IRGC-QF commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad on January 3, 2020. Anti-U.S. protests broke out nearly immediately across Iran—including a large-scale demonstration in Tehran following Friday prayers—as well as among Shia populations in neighboring countries, including multiple cities in Iraq, Pakistan, Bahrain, and the Indian-controlled regions of Jammu and Kashmir.23 When Soleimani’s body was returned to Iran, millions of people marched across the country for his funeral procession, including in Ahvaz, Mashhad, Qom, and Tehran, where Ayatollah Khamenei himself presided over an emotional service in Soleimani’s honor. Figures 2a and 2b below show satellite imagery of the full procession in Tehran on January 6. Demonstrations stretched at least 6.7 kilometers through the middle of the city, from slightly west of Azadi Square to several blocks east of Enghelab Square, where the participants were packed the most densely. Analysis of this imagery suggests a crowd of approximately 1.3 million people.24 Throughout the procession, mourners chanted “No compromise, no surrender, in the battle against America!” and implored Khamenei to avenge Soleimani’s death.25
The massive scale of Soleimani-related demonstrations can be at least partially attributed to the efforts of government organizers, who provided transportation to willing participants (as depicted in Figure 2b below) and utilized the IRGC and Basij to coerce others into attending. But there was an organic sentiment at play as well.26 Many Iranians viewed General Soleimani as a national hero and a “patriot” who guarded the Iranian people from the various threats faced by adversaries like the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, as well as by terrorist groups like the Islamic State.27 Polling data suggests that Soleimani was not just revered militarily but was also the most popular political figure in Iran, with around 80 percent of the population viewing him favorably.28 Iranian officials elevated this sentiment in their rhetoric following his death, with Khamenei praising him as a “glorious” martyr and others like Foreign Minister Javad Zarif referencing his “pure blood.”29 This strategy appears to have been at least temporarily effective, given the outpouring of anger toward the United States from Iranians across the political spectrum following the strike. However, the Iranian regime not only failed to capitalize on the opportunity but actually reversed any potential progress toward national unity with their actions just a few days later.
Figure 2a: Qasem Soleimani Funeral Procession in Tehran, January 6, 2020
Figure 2b: Enghelab Square Crowds, Transportation, and Road Closures, January 6, 2020
On January 8, 2020, Iranian armed forces shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 shortly after its departure from Tehran, killing all passengers on board, including 82 Iranian nationals.30 For the first three days following the incident, the regime denied any involvement and made several statements claiming that a “technical problem” had caused the plane crash, despite mounting evidence that Iran itself was responsible.31 By January 11, denial was no longer tenable, and regime officials—including Zarif, Rouhani, and General Amir Ali Hajizadeh of the IRGC’s airspace unit—admitted to targeting the aircraft with a missile in a “disastrous mistake” caused by “human error.”32 Zarif also blamed U.S. “adventurism” for the tension that led to the mistake in the first place, likely as a last-ditch effort to revive the anti-U.S. sentiment of the previous week.33 But his gambit failed. That evening, protests broke out across Tehran.
By Sunday, January 12, they had spread to at least a dozen other cities, including Shiraz, Tabriz, and Kermanshah. As in the November protests, harsh anti-regime slogans spread rapidly: “The supreme leader is a murderer; his regime is obsolete,” chanted some protesters in Tehran. Still others countered Zarif ’s efforts even more directly with chants of “Our enemy is right here; they lie to us that it’s America.”34
Security forces cracked down on protests that Sunday. Though police were supposedly under orders to show restraint, eyewitness reports suggest that live ammunition (as well as tear gas and rubber bullets) may have been used again to disperse protesters.35 These actions prompted further demonstrations on Monday, January 13, as well as official condemnation from the United States in the form of a presidential tweet: “DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS.”36 Meanwhile, high-profile Iranian figures began to publicly decry the regime’s actions—including some hardline conservatives who have typically supported the regime against its domestic opposition. Kian Abdollahi, the editor- in-chief of the IRGC’s Tasnim news agency, denounced the regime’s lies about the crash as a “catastrophe” on par with the crash itself.37 Several popular IRIB anchors, including Gelare Jabbari, Zahra Khatami, and Saba Rad, quit their positions and made public apologies for lying on behalf of the regime. The Association of Iranian Journalists, based in Tehran, published a scathing statement about the loss of public trust in Iranian institutions as a result of the regime’s cover-up.38 Additionally, several prominent lawmakers even called for the resignation of Rouhani and his cabinet.39
SIGNPOSTS OF TROUBLE FOR IRAN
Protests will continue in Iran. The broad factors that have caused protests in the past—such as economic, political, environmental, and cultural grievances—continue to be significant. Economic conditions remain bleak because of the U.S.-impacted economic sanctions and regime inefficiencies. There are also deep political and social divisions in the country, as well as anger about government mismanagement and corruption.
Yet it is unclear whether the protests will lead to more significant outcomes, such as revolution or regime change. One of the challenges in overthrowing a regime is what Nobel Prize-winning economist Mancur Olson referred to as the “collective action problem.”40 The central implication for Iran is that would-be Iranian activists face tremendous risks and obstacles. Since regime change is a collective good (everyone benefits) and activism is dangerous and financially costly, everyone’s best move is to stay home and let others act. Moving forward, however, at least two developments might signal growing trouble for the regime.
First, defections among key individuals or units in the security forces—such as in the IRGC, Basij, or police—would be a serious problem for the Iranian regime. Governments have historically used a range of tools to prevent or respond to protests, from coercion (such as arresting individuals) to cooption (such as buying citizen loyalty).41 The Iranian regime has increased resources to, and improved the capabilities of, Iranian security forces to infiltrate and counter demonstrators; augmented the use of cameras and facial recognition technology; and shut down the internet and banned social media platforms. But if individuals or units within Iran’s security forces refuse to fire on or arrest protesters, or even resign in protest of government actions, this would indicate the regime’s authority is deteriorating.
Second, greater centralization of the protest movement would present a challenge for the regime. There have been protests organized by urban merchants, truck drivers, teachers, environmentalists, and others over the past several years. But today’s protest movement is fractured and lacks central leadership. Indicators of change might include an increasingly centralized organizational structure inside—or even outside—Iran that develops a broad political strategy, plans events, secures funds, and begins to look like a legitimate political opposition movement. But no such structure exists—at least not yet.
While the United States has repeatedly signaled its support for the current protest movement, Washington is suffering from a loss of credibility following the killing of Qasem Soleimani. Any direct or indirect aid to the Iranian opposition—including funding for diaspora television, print, internet, and social media programs, as well as direct aid to protesters—should be given cautiously and allow for change to be driven from within. A heavy U.S. hand will only reinforce the regime’s narratives of foreign interference and provide a justification for future crackdowns. However, limited U.S. activity driven by limited goals may have greater success. Instead of regime change, for example, the United States should encourage a more pluralistic and open Iranian political and economic system. Providing moderate levels of aid–whether from the U.S. government or non-governmental organizations–may help achieve this goal by allowing the existing protest movement to organically expand its membership and its ability to influence policy.
As the continuing protests demonstrate, the Iranian regime is in trouble and has lost whatever momentum it might have gained from the killing of Qasem Soleimani. Despite huge crowds that supported Soleimani and chanted “Death to America,” there was no long-term rally-around-the-flag effect. The Iranian government’s botched response to the shootdown of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 and the persistence of political, economic, environmental, and other grievances suggest that Iran is in for a turbulent period ahead.
Danika Newlee is a program manager and research associate for the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Seth G. Jones is the Harold Brown Chair and director of the Transnational Threats Project at CSIS. He is the author, most recently, of “A Covert Action: Reagan, the CIA, and the Cold War Struggle in Poland” (W.W. Norton). Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. is a senior fellow for Imagery Analysis at CSIS.
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