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Iran on the brink? Demonstrations and their suppression much worse than those that toppled the Shah

The latest round of protests began earlier this month in Iran after a young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, had been detained by the 'morality' police and beaten into a coma. She later died. Amini was detained for failing to properly wear the hijab garment decreed by Iranian law.
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Analysis by Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs, September 26, 2022

Most of Iran’s 36 provinces saw mass demonstrations in September 2022 against the clerical Government of the Islamic Republic, and, as with earlier periodic waves of demonstrations, each occurrence prompts the question: Is this the outburst which topples the clerics?

At the very least, Iran has turned its back completely on the West, and any thoughts the U.S. Biden Administration might have entertained about a revival of the “nuclear accord” — the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — must be considered, comprehensively, dead and buried. This alone opens the debate as to whether Israel, concerned about Iranian nuclear weapons capabilities, will see this as an opportunity to initiate new strikes at Iran’s nuclear and command and control facilities.

But there are no indications as yet that the September 2022 protests spell an imminent threat to the clerics’ control of Iran. No amount of economic hardship, and even starvation at times, has caused the clerics to loosen their controls.

The Shah of Iran abdicated in 1979 with far fewer protests, and with far less suppression of free speech. But that difference tells the story: the Shah was not prepared to use massive force to oppose public demonstrations, far less engage in indiscriminate killing of Iranians. His successor, Ruhollah Khomeini, had no such scruples, and violently beat, arrested, imprisoned, and killed as many as a million Iranians when they protested the clerical take-over of Iran.

The Western media, which led the assault on the Shah for “suppressing” the Iranian people, have said little or nothing about the regime of suppression and deaths which have characterized the 43 years of clerical rule thus far.

Related: The ayatollahs' crisis: Youth, courage and revolutionary ideas, July 16, 1999

Khomeini’s clerical successor, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and successive presidents under him, followed Khomeini’s example, and have not hesitated to ensure the rapid application of overwhelming force against demonstrators, regardless of the cause or peacefulness of the protests. Nothing changed with the September 2022 protests, particularly under the extreme hardline new Presidency of Ebrahim Raisi.

Protests began when a young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, 22, had been detained by the religious (or “morality”) police for failing to properly wear the hijab garment decreed by Iranian law. She was mistreated in custody, fell into a coma for three days, and died on Sept. 16, 2022. The protests began when the religious police insisted that they had done nothing wrong, and, with the Basij militia, began beating and arresting protestors who accused them of violence, rather than admitting that they had made mistakes in the handling of Ms Amini’s situation.

The protests began after her funeral in Saqez, in Iranian Kurdistan province.

The violent response by the police and the Basij seemed only to outrage Iranians further. And by Sept. 25, 2022, there had been a reported 41 deaths, including children, as a result of the wave of protests. Security forces had been filmed firing, with live rounds, directly into protest crowds.

The 2019 protests had caused at least 1,500 deaths, and President Raisi — who was, in his younger days, one of Ayatollah Khomeini’s most important enforcers during the early days of the clerical rule1 — has no intention of allowing protests to spread again.

Iranian state media accused exiled Iranian Kurds, living in Iraqi Kurdistan, of fomenting the latest protests, although the protests were clearly well beyond the scope of Iran’s Kurdish minority. The casual disregard over the death of Ms Amini had touched a much wider audience, and particularly among Iranian women who have often been a cornerstone of protests. This time, Tehran ordered the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC: Pasdaran) artillery to shell Kurdish refugee camps across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan.

IRGC Intelligence also caused the lockdown of Iran’s internet access on at least three occasions in one week of September 2022, and attempted also to ensure that video footage of the riots could not be uplifted from private computers or cellphones. Skype communications were also disrupted by the State, which has extensive and sophisticated cyber capabilities. Nonetheless, significant video did escape Iran to show protestors attempting to remove portraits of Khomeini and Khamenei from a university at Babol, in northern Iran, while protestors called for “death to the dictator”.

This led U.S. entrepreneur Elon Musk to provide his Starlink satellite internet service to Iranians so that they could escape controls on the terrestrially-based internet services. Getting Starlink terminals into Iran may prove to be a challenge on a par with the U.S. Cold War provision of fax machines into the Soviet Union to break Soviet information controls.

He ordered immediate and draconian response to the September riots, but they did not stop him from participating in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Sept. 15-16, 2022. There he signed Iran’s accession to full membership of the SCO, seeing it, particularly at this time of renewed East-West polarization, as a key to the protection of Iran’s clerics and their grasp on power.

The SCO accession places Iran more deeply under the influence of Russia and the economic umbrella of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a true victory for Moscow which, during the “Great Game” of the 19th and 20th centuries, had resisted the southward expansion of the Russian Empire and its successor, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. That era had cost Persia — Iran — vast swathes of its own empire, including Azerbaijan to the immediate north.

Russia, which has gradually become “comfortable” with Iran’s clerics (although historical suspicions exist between Iran and Russia, for obvious reasons), has gradually approved more and more advanced defense sales to clerical Iran. Early September 2022 saw Iran openly confirming that it was negotiating with Moscow for the acquisition of 24 Sukhoi Su-35SE advanced combat aircraft, and pave the way for a larger order.

The 24 Su-35s had been built for the Egyptian Air Force, which was forced by Washington, DC, to abandon the order, and the aircraft have been parked at Komsomolsk-on-Amur, awaiting a new buyer. Meanwhile, Iran has also been providing its unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs and combat UAVs) to Russia for use in Ukraine. These have supplemented Russia’s own UAVs and UCAVs, and have been regarded as of relatively limited capability (as the Ethiopians reported from their use of Iranian drones), but have been critical to the war, given the growing “expendability” or “commoditization” of battlefield drones.

In summary, there seems little prospect that the West would significantly escalate its support for the protesting Iranians, Elon Musk’s Starlink gesture notwithstanding, which means that it would be difficult for Iranians to withstand the combined pressures of police, Basij, and Revolutionary Guard suppression. A long-held belief that the Revolutionary Guard would eventually throw up a protest to the clerics had caused the clerics themselves to gradually tighten their control over all IRGC leadership, even at the expense of military operational effectiveness.

However, the target-killing by the U.S. of Supreme Leader Khamenei’s greatest defender, IRGC Quds Brigade leader Maj.-Gen. (posthumously Lt.-Gen.) Qasem Soleimani on January 3, 2020, has seen the IRGC become more “establishment” and probably unlikely to throw up a leader likely to side more with the population than the clerics.

The emergence of a stronger and more cohesive “Eurasian bloc” of allies for Iran with the SCO Summit of September 2022 means that the window for Iranians to break from “the East” and resume their ties with “the West” is shrinking.

In many respects, the clerical rule of Iran has become exhausted — and has exhausted the country — but is sustained by the inertia of the inability of agents of change to enter the system.

But, then, as the great Iranian strategic philosopher and patriot, Dr. Assad Homayoun; who died in exile in 2020, at age 88), constantly noted: In Persian history, “the man on horseback” emerges only suddenly, at the end, to step into the chaos and save the situation. Assad himself always had the reins in his hand. Perhaps he passed them to the next horseman.

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