Ongoing anti-regime protests in Iran are unlikely to pose a threat to the regime. Although protests have shown few signs of petering out, cross-societal participation remains limited (universities remain the primary sites of the protests).
This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 24 October 2022.
Daily protests demanding changes to the morality policing of women are likely to remain spontaneous and largely unorganised for now. But the regime has so far failed to abate activists’ anger or the high frequency of protests across the country, despite the use of well-established – and previously effective – tactics of violence and repression.
The previously flagged indicators that would suggest the protests are becoming more widespread have not happened. They include the emergence of an organised movement that leads demonstrations, cross-societal participation or solidarity sector strikes. Nor does the regime seem to view these as posing an existential threat. This is despite comments from two IRGC commanders last week criticising morality policing in the country. Both comments did not show any support for the protest movement or directly criticise the regime establishment.
But with countrywide protests persisting, we have laid out three scenarios for how this might play out over the rest of the year, including the remote chance of a major overhaul of government and the morality police. For each, we have provided indicators that a scenario is becoming likely.
Scenario 1: Violent crackdown ends the protests – 70%
In this scenario, which remains the most likely, protests persist for another month at least before the authorities begin a systematic and violent crackdown. Based on the regime’s response to similar protests in 2009 and 2019, this would most likely begin with a coordinated deployment of special riot police officers, Revolutionary Guards, and Basij forces across the country to enforce a national curfew, accompanied by a blanket internet shutdown. The likelihood of this scenario playing out will increase the longer the protests continue and/or if the regime senses that an organised movement is emerging.
- Protests become more widespread, occurring at the same time in separate locations
- Protesters begin to form an organised anti-government movement
- The government deploys Basij forces countrywide
- Internet shutdowns become more frequent and long-lasting
Scenario 2: Minor concessions end protests – 45%
Concessions to protesters of any kind from the regime remain unlikely for now. This is based on precedent, recent rhetoric from officials, and the absence of any offer from officials to meet with activists. However, if labour unions and conservative members of the public, particularly members of Islamic universities, start expressing support for the demonstrations or at least questioning the regime’s response to protests, superficial concessions would become reasonably possible. That said, public criticism of the morality police by the IRGC implies that the former does not enjoy the full backing of regime loyalists.
In light of this, any concessions would probably be minor limits on the powers of the morality police, the release of several hundred protesters from jail, and a minor relaxation of rules around the wearing of headscarves.
- Labour unions express support for protesters and plan a prolonged general strike in solidarity
- Conservative members of society join protests
- Further public criticisms from some IRGC members of the powers of the morality police
- Protesters organise a ‘day of rage’ across the country
Such concessions, considering their symbolism, are likely to be enough to appease many protesters. This is also because of the lack of an organised movement with specific demands beyond broad criticism of the morality police.
Scenario 3: IRGC conducts anti-clerical purge – 5%
We assess that there is currently a remote chance of an IRGC-led purge of clerics (from government, the judiciary and official roles). Such an overhaul – while a highly unlikely scenario – is more plausible than a full collapse of the Islamic Republic, at least for now. The indicators for such a purge to play out are equally as unlikely as the scenario itself. These would need to happen against a backdrop of prolonged unrest and civil commotion that the security forces are unable to contain, even with the tactics and concessions mentioned in scenarios 1 and 2.
- High-profile IRGC members publicly support protester sentiment
- Protests bring Iran’s economy to a halt
- Symbolic mutiny gestures from security forces who are unable to contain unrest
- IRGC withdraws Basij forces from the streets
There is no precedent of the IRGC carrying out this kind of coordinated public criticism of the clerical establishment, even though there have been periods in which relations between the two camps (which are themselves divided) have played out in public. It is difficult to see a way for the IRGC to do so without bringing the Supreme Leadership into disrepute. The regime has previously endured several months of violent and disruptive anti-government protests without showing signs of weakness. We are, therefore, maintaining our moderate regime instability risk level for the country.
Image: People gather in protest against the death of Mahsa Amini in Tehran, Iran on September 19, 2022. Photo by Getty Images / Stringer