Iran’s message to its people: If you revolt, you die

The Iranian authorities are ramping up repression. They fear mass protests now more than ever.

AP iran protests
Protestors block a road after authorities raised gasoline prices, in Tehran, Iran on November 16, 2019 [File: Majid Khahi/ISNA via AP]

Since late June, 11 Iranian citizens – three in Tehran and eight in Isfahan – have been sentenced to death for taking part in mass anti-government protests in November 2019. Iranian journalist Ruhollah Zam, who was accused of fuelling anti-government protests through a popular Telegram channel in 2017, also received the death penalty during the same period.  

Also in June, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shut down Iran’s biggest anti-poverty NGO, the Imam Ali Society, and arrested its founding director, Sharmin Meymandi Nejad, citing “anti-Iran activities”. The independent charity had attracted the regime’s fury during last year’s protests by criticising government officials for “calling the poverty-stricken demonstrators rioters and agents of the enemy”. 

Why did Iranian authorities rapidly intensify their efforts to silence dissenting voices in the last few weeks? The short answer is “fear”. Today, amid a devastating pandemic and crippling economic sanctions, the Iranian government is more concerned about the possible re-emergence of mass riots than ever before. 

Today, Iranian people are fed up with the government’s totalitarian desire to control all aspects of their lives and its apparent inability to address pressing environmental threats, such as air pollution and drought. Moreover, they are extremely dissatisfied with its bungling response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But above all, many Iranians from all walks of life are experiencing unprecedented, crippling economic hardship as a result of the cumulative consequences of the US sanctions, the COVID-19 pandemic and the incompetence of the Iranian government.  

US President Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and embark on a “maximum pressure” policy devastated Iran’s economy, which was already in dire straits due to chronic mismanagement and widespread corruption. Just over a year later, the coronavirus pandemic, and the consequent drop in global oil prices, inflicted a second deadly blow on the country’s finances.

Due to US sanctions, Iran’s oil revenues dropped from over $60bn in 2018 to $9bn in 2019. As the Iranian leadership tried to compensate for its oil revenue losses with gains in other sectors, the pandemic struck the service sector – which makes up more than 40 percent of Iran’s economy – and sped up the country’s looming economic collapse. 

In the first half of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic already caused a 15 percent drop in Iran’s GDP, and the country is expected to experience further losses in the second half of the year.  

Adding to these concerns, Iran’s economy is experiencing another period of “stagflation”, a combination of recession and high inflation. The Iranian leadership’s short-term remedy for its economic woes has always been to print more money, which leads to higher inflation. Earlier this year, the Iranian rial plummeted against the US dollar to the currency’s lowest value ever, with one US dollar being traded for 230,000 rials. Inflation, meanwhile, reached 40 percent in 2019 and is expected to rise further this year. 

Iranians have been protesting against increasing economic hardship since December 2017. Most recently in November last year, they took to the streets en masse to protest against an unexpected increase in gasoline prices. The government violently cracked down on the protests, killing up to 1,500 people and injuring many others.  

Since last year’s violence, the worsening economic situation – and the unrest it may trigger – has been a primary source of concern for Iran’s political elites. Most recently on June 27, Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha, one of Iran’s highest-ranking and most politically influential clerics, wrote an open letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei and warned him that “increasing inflation and declining incomes have created back-breaking problems for the people” which threaten the stability of the country and the future of the regime.  

To remedy this situation and prevent future unrest, the regime adopted a twinned strategy of offering basic material aid to the poor and intensifying oppression. 

In April, as the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the country’s existing economic and social woes and increased the likelihood of a new episode of nationwide unrest, the government created an ad hoc welfare central command station called the Imam Hassan Headquarters to provide Iran’s poorest and most vulnerable with basic goods and “buy” their loyalty.

The government, however, is well aware that such initiatives are akin to putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. Iran’s parliamentary research centre has warned that as many as 57 million Iranians (out of a population of 82 million) may be pushed below the poverty line in 2020. The regime, whose income is already shrinking, cannot afford to provide sufficient aid to such a large section of the population for too long. 

This is why the government is also using a more effective and familiar tactic to prevent mass unrest: oppression. 

In June 2020, the state-appointed IRGC Brigadier General Hossein Nejat, one of Khamenei’s most trusted officers, as the head of Sarallah headquarters. Sarallah is Tehran’s most important security headquarters and is tasked with protecting government officials and institutions in the city against domestic threats such as riots, anti-government protests or coup attempts.

General Nejat’s appointment to this role indicates not only that the regime is gearing up for more anti-government protests, but also that it is preparing to crush any revolt with force. 

Prior to his appointment, Nejat made it clear that he views the urban poor as the most critical threat to the Iranian regime. In his analysis of the November 2019 uprising, for example, the general claimed that the West is using poor Iranians to topple Iran’s government and described them as “illiterate people, who live in the outskirts [of major population centres] and [whose minds] are polluted in the cyberspace”. 

And it is not only the forces directly tied to the Sarallah headquarters that are preparing for a battle with the urban poor. The IRGC has also started to prepare a volunteer paramilitary force of government loyalists, known as Basij, for a new round of unrest. According to my sources in the militia, the Guard has introduced new anti-riot tactics and scheduled extra propaganda sessions to convince Basij forces of the necessity of cracking down on civilian protests.  

Meanwhile, the IRGC propaganda machine is doing overtime and using social networks to pre-emptively brand any future protest movement as a Western attempt to topple the government.

As they work to expand their support networks, the government’s forces are also simultaneously dismantling any civil society organisation and movement that could provide support for protesters during future unrest, such as the anti-poverty NGO, Imam Ali Society. 

Another important element in IRGC’s strategy to prevent future unrest is injecting fear into the population. This is why Iran’s judiciary, which often acts as an arm of the IRGC, has sentenced youths involved in last year’s protests to death. The message that was sent to the masses with these sentences was clear: There is no mercy, if you revolt, you will die. 

Today, Iran’s security and political elites are clearly working overtime to prevent a new round of civic unrest. It is impossible to know whether they will succeed in sedating, and scaring, the Iranian masses enough to prevent another round of nationwide protests. One thing, however, is certain: in the hopes of maintaining order, the Iranian regime is becoming more authoritarian and repressive every passing day. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.