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Scale of Recent Repression Confirmed As Tehran Braces for New Challenges

Despite the heavy presence of security forces in different Iranian cities and widespread efforts by the Iranian regime to intimidate the public and prevent further demonstrations, people in several cities continue to take to the streets to protest the government’s corruption.

On December 15, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) announced that the number of killed protesters during the Iran protests has reached 1500.

A week later, Reuters’s special report that confirmed this number and some of the most damning information about the Iranian government’s repression of dissent in the face of nationwide protests that broke out in mid-November.

The demonstrations were sparked by the announcement of sharp increases in the price of gasoline, but they quickly assumed a strong anti-government message, characterized by chants of “death to the dictator” and the burning of images of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Among the findings in the Reuters report is an account of the high-level discussions which led to Iranian officials ordering the use of live ammunition and other violent means of shutting down the various protests. It confirms that relevant directives ultimately originated with the supreme leader himself, as Khamenei told his subordinates that order must be returned to the street by any means necessary.

Furthermore, his comments to this effect were recorded almost immediately after the protests began on November 15, and by November 18 security forces were apparently shooting randomly into crowds.

By that time, estimates of some source for the number of fatalities were already running into the hundreds. Amnesty International quickly placed the figure at around 200 and subsequently revised it to slightly over 300 while also noting that there were sure to be many other fatalities that had not yet been confirmed.

Sources on the ground in the Islamic Republic have produced dramatically higher estimates, although the Iranian government itself has refused to provide any sort of tally despite dismissing independent estimates as speculation and “fake news.”

Roughly a month after the unrest began, the US State Department was publicly denouncing violence that might have claimed upwards of 1,000 people. Meanwhile, as mentioned earlier, the leading Iranian opposition group and a major driving force in the protest movement, the MEK, determined that at least 1,500 people had been killed in the streets or in the regime’s detention facilities.

At the time, this figure drew upon the MEK’s intelligence network inside Iran, which reportedly includes civil servants and government officials. Through that same network, the group has been able to identify more than 620 of the victims by name. And on December 22, the Reuters report cited its own sources within the Iranian government corroborating the PMOI’s account of the number of fatalities.

Three anonymous officials from the Interior Ministry pointed to a range of data points including security forces’ reports and records from morgues, hospitals, and coroners’ offices as support for the conclusion that 1,500 people have been killed so far.

Additionally, according to the MEK, well over 4,000 other participants in the protests have been injured, and at least 12,000 have been arrested. The volume and frequency of arrests have been so extreme that regime authorities have converted various buildings, such as elementary schools, into temporary detention centers.

And there is good reason to believe that each of these figures will continue to climb in the days ahead, both because the public has largely refused to succumb to the pressure and because regime authorities remain noticeably obsessed with containing what appears to be an existential threat to the theocratic system.

Following shortly after the Reuters report, other media outlets identified the regime’s commitment in monetary terms. According to UPI and France 24, the regime has spent an average of 25 million dollars per day on its repressive institutions since the unrest broke out last month.

Over the course of the entire fiscal year, the four main such organizations – the police, the Intelligence Ministry, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the volunteer Basij militia – have received about nine billion dollars in government funds.

This data can be expected to exacerbate the Iranian people’s preexisting frustration with wasteful government spending and the regime’s perceived neglect of the civilian population. That sentiment has been expressed during both past and current protests with chants and slogans that call attention to Iran’s imperial presence in the broader region.

One slogan that became common during a previous nationwide uprising at the beginning of 2018 was “forget about Syria; think of us!” And this same message has been featured in the latest demonstrations, calling attention to Tehran’s recurring investment in its support for the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Of course, similar messages can and have been applied to similar financing of militant proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. But what makes these issues even more noteworthy in the context of the current protest movement is that they are backed up by the significantly enhanced source of pressure beyond Iran’s borders.

On December 23, US President Donald Trump issued a collective warning to Iran, Russia, and the Assad government over the rising civilian death toll in their joint assault on Syria’s Idlib Province. The statement may point to the potential for still more targets in the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against the Iranian regime.

That campaign has been prosecuted primarily through economic sanctions, although the US has also rearranged its forces in the Middle East with the specific aim in mind of deterring Iranian aggression.

While some commentators have expressed concern about the potential for this strategy to push the US and Iran toward open conflict, Trump has regularly expressed confidence in his strategy for bringing the regime back to the negotiating table and forcing it to accept formerly unheard-of concessions on issues reaching far beyond the content of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Today, that confidence is arguably reinforced by the protests inside Iran and by even longer-lasting protests in Lebanon and Iraq, where the civilian populations have expressed unequivocal opposition to the growth of Iranian influence over their affairs.

Although Iranian-supported political factions continue clinging to power in both of those countries, the popular backlash has had some success in compelling other factions to push back against their initiatives. On December 23, for instance, it was reported that Iraqi President Barham Salih had offered to resign his position in protest, rather than designate a new Prime Minister who is favored by Tehran.

The outgoing PM, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, was dogged by similar accusations of excessive closeness to Iran, and he ultimately agreed to resign in the face of the protests that first broke out on October 1. That decision was delayed somewhat by the intervention of Iran’s foreign expeditionary force, which put direct pressure on Mahdi’s political allies as well as helping local authorities to violently suppress dissent.

Nonetheless, the protesters’ demands ultimately seemed to prevail in that case, and with Salih’s disobedience of Iran-backed lawmakers, this pattern now appears to be repeating, to the detriment of Tehran’s foreign policy interests.

In Yemen, too, there are signs that Iran’s influence may be flagging. Recent reports indicate that the Iran-backed Houthi rebels are fractured, with one faction prepared to talk with the Saudis and pursue a long-sought political solution.

Under these conditions, it is very likely that Tehran will be required to increase its financial spending and other material investments in order to preserve and extend its existing regional interests. But this is sure to be difficult at a time when the domestic population is already in revolt over the mismanagement of an economy that has been further damaged by the sanctions associated with Trump’s maximum pressure campaign.

However, the persistence of the current protest movement casts serious doubt on the capacity for the regime’s tactics to bring the population entirely under control. Although the initial internet blackout slowed the flow of information to global audiences, the public was quick to take advantage of restored connections to share that information after the fact.

And subsequent reports have at times suggested that the attempt to control the flow of information only served to bring more attention to Iranian affairs, leading powerful Western governments and international organizations to wonder about the kinds of human rights abuses the regime was concealing behind its hastily-erected firewall.

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