In its latest estimate of the death toll from Iran’s November 2019 protests over a sudden state-enforced spike in gasoline prices, Amnesty International confirmed on December 16 that at least 304 people have been killed so far. While the real number of fatalities appears to be much higher and yet to be announced by the Iranian government, 13 women and 12 children are among those slain and at least 7,000 people behind bars, according to UN sources

A  Special Report by Reuters on December 23 laid the blame squarely on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for directly ordering the bloody repression that, it says, claimed “about 1,500” lives, even though the accuracy of the statistics is in dispute. “The Islamic Republic is in danger. Do whatever it takes to end [the unrest]. You have my order,” Khamenei was cited telling a group of senior officials, including President Hassan Rouhani, in a closed-door meeting at his fortified official residence in central Tehran on November 17.   

The state crackdown on the nationwide demonstrations were evidently unprecedented in scale, speed, and intensity; dwarfing the violent repression of earlier waves of unrest in the 40-year lifetime of the Islamic Republic.

The state crackdown on the nationwide demonstrations were evidently unprecedented in scale, speed, and intensity; dwarfing the violent repression of earlier waves of unrest in the 40-year lifetime of the Islamic Republic, from the 1999 student protests to the 2009 Green Movement backlash against systematic electoral fraud, to the “livelihood protests” of December 2017 and January 2018. This was particularly the case in regions with sizable ethnic minority populations such as the oil-rich southern province of Khuzestan, where Iranian security forces deployed tanks and machine guns, reportedly gunning down as many as 148 people in the industrial city of Mahshahr alone. 

The repression was so excessive that it raised questions even among the ruling establishment’s core support constituencies, compelling Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to authorize the labelling of some of the protesters who were killed as “martyrs”. In another rare gesture, around the same time, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Ali Shamkhani personally visited some of the victims’ mourning families to pay his respects.

There is already a plethora of analysis and commentary on why the regime raised the gasoline prices overnight or why it resorted to the excessive use of force.

There is already a plethora of analysis and commentary on why the regime raised the gasoline prices overnight or why it resorted, without hesitation and in sharp contrast to previous waves of protests, to the excessive use of force. As U.S. sanctions against Iran’s oil industry and banking sector increasingly squeeze the state coffers, Tehran understandably seeks new sources of revenue to compensate for the loss of foreign currency influx caused by its substantially dwindled crude exports. 

According to Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, a presidential deputy and head of Iran’s Plan and Budget Organization (PBO), the gasoline price spike will yield an additional $2.6 billion for the government.  Furthermore, the oil ministry expects to garner another $5.5 billion per year from exporting the surplus fuel generated as a consequence of reduced domestic consumption and smuggling. To balance its budget, the Iranian government has even turned to Moscow for a $5 billion loan for developmental projects. 

Also, the November unrest coincided with popular protests in Lebanon and Iraq, where the Islamic Republic and its non-state allies such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and some Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) groups were viewed by protesters as the key antagonists. So, it was not surprising that the regime rushed to quell the uprising at home in a desperate attempt to prevent the situation from snowballing and slipping out of control.

Lastly, Iran’s notorious factional politics and bitter hardliner vs. moderate political rivalry have been broached as a central motive in the government’s gasoline price hike decision in the run up to parliamentary elections in February. 

Yet, none of these explanations account for the ruling elite’s refusal to prepare the public for such a decisive policy change that would affect almost every walk of life in Iranian society. 

Yet, none of these explanations account for the ruling elite’s refusal to prepare the public for such a decisive policy change that would affect almost every walk of life in Iranian society, particularly the working and middle classes. The Iranian leadership knew all too well that such a drastic austerity measure with a direct bearing on the livelihoods of millions could trigger a massive backlash, and yet it carried it through. 

The “controlled explosion” hypothesis 

The decision to cut fuel subsidies was suddenly announced by the Supreme Council of Economic Coordination (SCEC), a powerful contingency body formed on Supreme Leader Khamenei’s orders following the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May 2018 and the re-imposition of crippling sanctions. The SCEC consists of heads of government branches, namely President Hassan Rouhani, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, and Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi. 

However, the policy had already been made by the Supreme National Security Council with Khamenei’s blessing and behind the backs of members of parliament (Majlis). 

Even after the popular protests erupted and some members of parliament (MPs) rushed to table a motion to overturn the decision, Khamenei refused to back down, creating the impression that the regime in fact expected the protests and allowed them to run their course once they broke out. 

This radical course of action was motivated by a highly cynical yet realistic calculation: the U.S.’s “maximum pressure” campaign erodes Iran’s economy and might continue to do so for another 4 years should Donald Trump be reelected in the 2020 presidential election. It would thus be wiser to trigger protests now in a controlled fashion rather than kick the can down the road and face a more explosive wave of riots in the future when sanctions have already sapped the state’s mobilization and self-defense capacity. 

By declining to prevent the outbreak of protests in the first place, the government in fact tried to take some steam off the accumulating anti-regime resentment and also gauge the destructive potential of the simmering dissatisfaction.

By declining to prevent the outbreak of protests in the first place, the government in fact tried to take some steam off the accumulating anti-regime resentment and also gauge the destructive potential of the simmering dissatisfaction. Hence, it could enhance its coercive resilience accordingly and brace itself for similar future challenges as the U.S.-led economic strangulation of Iran persists unabated. 

The fast and furious suppression of the gasoline protests was also meant to send a stark signal to both restive domestic constituencies and foreign adversaries alike that the Islamic Republic will not buckle under pressure but is in fact willing and ready to go to extreme lengths to protect its survival. Moreover, the upheaval and the government’s recourse to securitization of dissent provided a golden opportunity for it to test a near-total Internet shutdown across the country, an extraordinary measure it probably would not have been able to carry out as effectively under ordinary circumstances. 

With a precedent thus set, there are arrangements under way to build a National Information Network (NIN) or a domestic intranet as a replacement for the global Internet. A technical shift from filtering a “blacklist” of websites and services to creating a limited “whitelist” has been touted as a preliminary step in that direction. 

In a December 19 speech in the southern city of Bandar Abbas, Iran’s Prosecutor General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri slammed the ICT minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi for a “48-hour delay” in blocking public access to the Internet and social media networks during the protests, as if the communications blackout had been planned in advance but faced resistance from parts of the “moderate” Rouhani administration. 

In another speech, Hassan Abbasi, a hardline ideologue close to parts of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) described the whole experience as a “cupping therapy” that enabled the ruling system to get rid of “a little dirty blood in its body” by luring out and then neutralizing anti-regime forces among the public. 

The magnitude of the November protests took Iranian authorities off guard, so much so that the IRGC top commander Hossein Salami compared them to “a great world war” and an “international plot” against the Islamic Republic. But having successfully quelled the demonstrations, the regime is now believed to be in a better position to confront future eruptions of collective anger even as it refuses to change course and take any meaningful measures to address the root causes of the crisis.