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As Iran Unrest Turns to Armed Clashes, Government Prepares Fight to Survive

Newsweek 12/1/2022 Tom O'Connor
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As a wave of unrest in Iran sparked by the death of a Kurdish woman in police custody continues to rock the nation two and a half months after it began, crackdowns by security forces on demonstrations have at times been met with armed resistance, threatening a new, even more violent phase in which the Islamic Republic would be fighting for its very survival.

Newsweek spoke with officials, experts and activists who acknowledged the potential for this new phase of instability persisting throughout Iran.

In fact, this phase was already announced by semi-official outlets such as Fars News Agency, which declared in a November 17 analysis that so-called separatists were seeking to incite a civil war through attacks on security personnel. And in a rare acknowledgement of a growing death toll, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Aerospace General Amir Ali Hajizadeh stated Monday that up to 300 people have been killed since unrest began in September, though even he acknowledged there was no clear information as to the true count.

That number is an understatement, according to Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, who has been tracking the number of casualties of both civilians and security forces since protests began on September 17. He said a more accurate number would be something like 545, of which the vast majority are protesters, indicating that, even faced with a nascent insurrection, the government is still coming out on top.

"For now, the regime has demonstrated it has the will and ability to survive," Alfoneh told Newsweek. "After all, only 70 uniformed personnel vs. 475 protesters killed in street fights since September 17, 2022, is an acceptable statistic from the regime's perspective."

"As long as the protesters have no leadership, organization or funding, they fight a brave but, at least for now, futile battle," he added. "The regime may not be able to clear the streets, but the protesters too can't overthrow the regime."

But this stalemate is subject to volatile factors both internal and external, as the nature of the threat posed to the government shifts in line with existing fault lines and vulnerabilities plaguing the country, namely groups with access to arms near sensitive border regions.

"Uniformed personnel killed by rifle shot while suppressing protesters were killed in Iran's periphery regions," Alfoneh said, "in particular in Kurdistan and in Sistan va Balouchestan provinces."

"This is no surprise," he added, explaining that "respectively bordering Iraq's Kurdistan region, and Afghanistan/Pakistan, local protesters in these regions have not only easy access to arms and ammunition from neighboring countries, but have also a traditional leadership, organization and funding, thanks to tribal structure of society in these parts."

He also pointed to "a history of separatism" in these two provinces, a reason "why we see the highest number of government and protester fatalities in these two provinces."

Alfoneh there were elements of both truth and propaganda in the government's narrative, as it was a "historical fact" that foreign governments have interfered in Iran's internal affairs and that Iran had interfered in the internal affairs of other nations.

He said he was "inclined to believe separatism was, and is still not the main driver of protests in Iran's periphery regions," but added that he was "also inclined to believe separatist movements and their foreign sponsors have, are, and will take advantage of the current state of affairs to advance their agenda."

"The regime, of course, is only too happy to speak up the separatist threat in an attempt to persuade the nationalist middle class to stay home," he said, "rather than bring down the regime, and with it, perhaps the Iranian state with its current territory."

The Iranian government has amplified this narrative, pointing specifically to alleged foreign backing for the internal unrest.

"According to Iran's intelligence community, some countries have attempted to bring Iran into an internal military conflict," the Iranian Mission to the United Nations in New York told Newsweek. "In this regard, they had also sent weapons to the northwestern Iranian borders illegally, and they were planning to bring in even more."

But Iran claimed it had thwarted the attacks with an offensive of its own.

"The missile and drone attack on terrorist bases in northern Iraq messed up their plans," the mission said.

Beginning in late September, the IRGC has launched an unprecedented campaign of strikes against Iranian Kurdish dissident positions in neighboring Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. There, groups with a history of insurgency against the Islamic Republic have come out in strong support and solidarity with the protests and calls for regime change.

These issues far predate the current movement that has seen Iranians chant "women, life, freedom" nationwide, as do other tensions rising independently of domestic anger against laws mandating that women must wear headscarves or face retaliation from the Guidance Patrol, informally called the "morality police," which arrested Mahsa Amini before her death while in its custody in mid-September.

One European diplomat with extensive experience on Iranian issues, who asked not to be named, told Newsweek outlined the litany of issues disturbing the peace of the Islamic Republic.

These included "the protest movement against the hijab, the tensions rising in the north in the Iranian Kurdistan along the border with Iraq, with Azerbaijan over Baku's plans for a land connection to its exclave of Nakhchivan via Armenian territory — something which can affect the relations with Turkey — and the fragile situation in Sistan Baluchistan, due to the rising threats at the Pakistan-Afghan border with Iran of groups like Jaish ul-Adl and ISIS-K."

Last month, the largely Baloch Sunni Islamist Jaish ul-Adl released a series of videos demonstrating their strength and voicing their support for the ongoing protests in Iran. Shortly thereafter, ISIS-K, an acronym for the Islamic State militant group's Khorasan branch based in Afghanistan, claimed a deadly attack at a Shiite Muslim pilgrimage site in the city of Shiraz.

The European diplomat said that "these developments are characterized by their own local dynamics," but, at the same time "it is fair to say that the protests sparked by the death of Masha Amini and the grievances of the Sunni Balochi in Sistan Baluchistan were somehow exploited by those groups, who rushed to reorganize themselves and enter Iranian territory."

And, while "the bigger threat for Iran could come from ISIS-K joining and sharing its logistic capabilities with Baloch separatists," the diplomat said a scenario akin to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 "would be much more difficult to unfold, due to widespread IRGC control in the country and in the remote areas, despite the seriousness of the mentioned threat at the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan."

To address these threats, the diplomat said Tehran has set out to more closely coordinate on security issues with neighboring countries, but it's "not clear in this moment if that will be enough to stop the spread of the violence in the country."

Others monitoring the conflict have also observed a growing trend of violence that is nearing levels unprecedented in Iran's recent history.

Sam Jones, head of communications at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (ACLED) Project, told Newsweek his organization's researchers were "seeing a significant increase in violence at demonstrations — more violent demonstration events have already been reported in 2022 than any other full year since the start of ACLED's coverage of Iran in 2016."

As of now, however, he said much of the data has yet to establish any connection between this rise in violence and the actions of armed and organized resistance groups, nor that these factions were inciting the riots, as the Iranian government has argued.

At the same time, Jones said "this could certainly change in the future, if tensions continue to escalate."

"Violent demonstrations and destructive activity targeting security facilities like police stations, as well as killings of security personnel with crude weapons during such events, have spiked," he added. "But most of this violence has occurred more spontaneously within the context of the unrest."

A screenshot of a video released October 19 by the Jaish ul-Adl militant group purports to demonstrate the group's strength in an undisclosed location. The largely ethnic Balochi Sunni Muslim group is considered a terrorist organization by several countries, including both Iran and the U.S. Ul-Adl Network © Ul-Adl Network A screenshot of a video released October 19 by the Jaish ul-Adl militant group purports to demonstrate the group's strength in an undisclosed location. The largely ethnic Balochi Sunni Muslim group is considered a terrorist organization by several countries, including both Iran and the U.S. Ul-Adl Network

The American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats Monitor has worked alongside the Institute for the Study of War to provide regular updated assessments on the crisis. On November 17, the same day that Fars News Agency announced a new armed phase of the conflict, the Crisis Update found that "certain components of the ongoing protest movement in Iran may have reached the threshold identified in US military doctrine for a 'latent and incipient' insurgency."

Critical Threats Project Iran Team Lead and Analyst Kitaneh Fitzpatrick told Newsweek that persistent allegations of human rights abuses committed by Iranian security personnel against protestors "will likely only further entrench dissidents' anti-regime sentiments, making this a long-term problem for Iranian officials."

"Increased violence may also change patterns in protest activity, too," she added. "Protesters could need more time to organize after increasingly frequent and lethal confrontations with security personnel."

But this does not necessarily mean the Islamic Republic was yet doomed, she noted.

"The regime has spent decades honing its protest suppression toolkit, and has demonstrated the willingness and ability to violently crack down on acts of dissidence," Fitzpatrick said. "It is not presently likely that the regime faces bandwidth constraints significant enough to threaten its survival."

"Iranian officials have discussed low morale among security personnel, however," she added. "Credible and repeated reports of defection among Iranian security forces would be a tipping point for this protest movement."

And while, she said that there were "several external actors who have a vested interests in seeing this protest movement succeed," she asserted that, "at the end of the day, protests will succeed or fail based on the decisions and actions of the Iranian people within Iran."

Among those openly pushing for the fall of the Islamic Republic is the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), also known as the Mojahedin-e-Khelq (MeK). Although they were designated a terrorist organization by the United States 25 years ago amid a burgeoning warming of ties with Iran's newly elected President Mohammed Khatami, the group was delisted in 2012, and maintains close contacts in Washington as well as a network of activities with Iran itself.

Iran continues to consider PMOI/MeK a terrorist group, and has frequently blamed it for stirring unrest within the country, often on behalf of foreign actors such as the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel. Amid the demonstrations, the group has shared footage of armed protestors opening fire on Iranian security personnel.

Shahin Gobadi, a Paris-based spokesperson for the PMOI/MeK, told Newsweek that "there are many reports that the youth have defended themselves against the IRGC using Molotov cocktails and sometimes weapons." This, he said indicated that "the Iranian people increasingly feel that there is no other way for them to deal with the crimes committed by the regime."

He acknowledged his group's purported role in supporting the protests, stating that, "in the current conditions, the Resistance Units and the MEK network inside Iran consider it their duty to continue and organize the uprising, and they have played a very positive role in this regard so far."

"However, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American Declaration of Independence recognize the right of all human beings to resort to rebellion as a last resort against violent tyranny," Gobadi argued.

He warned, however, that "repression did not stop protests, but made them more radical, leaving no middle road," and that "the regime is on borrowed time."

A picture obtained by AFP outside Iran, reportedly shows objects lit on fire in the capital Tehran, on October 8 amid a wave of social unrest in almost three years, which has seen protesters, including university students and even young schoolgirls chant "Woman, Life, Freedom." The government of the United States and a number of allies, including Israel and European nations, have expressed solidarity with the movement. AFP/Getty Images © AFP/Getty Images A picture obtained by AFP outside Iran, reportedly shows objects lit on fire in the capital Tehran, on October 8 amid a wave of social unrest in almost three years, which has seen protesters, including university students and even young schoolgirls chant "Woman, Life, Freedom." The government of the United States and a number of allies, including Israel and European nations, have expressed solidarity with the movement. AFP/Getty Images

Speaking from within Iran itself, however, political analyst and Iran Twice Told podcast host Setareh Sadeqi told Newsweek that "the initially legitimate protests soon turned into violent riots within the first weeks" of the demonstrations beginning.

"The government reportedly tried to avoid using live ammunition against the protesters in most cases," she added, "and reports indicate that many of the victims of the recent unrest were killed by random unknown shooters that tried to incite more violence and implement a project of creating 'martyrs,' similar to what happened in Syria."

Sadeqi tied such actions, as well as the "backing, funding, and arming violent separatist and terrorist groups inside Iran" to plots by foreign powers such as the U.S. and its allies, which are "seeking to push an agenda of civil war, proxy wars, and regime change similar to Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan."

"I believe Iran is militarily and strategically much stronger than those countries," she said, "and the current establishment enjoys higher levels of legitimacy and popular support inside the country, which makes pursuance of similar hostile regime-change policies more difficult for the C.I.A. and the U.S. regime in general."

And though she said she does "believe it's important to distinguish between violent and sometimes armed rioters and legitimate protesters," she also said "it appears that at some point protesters backed off due to the violent elements that hijacked the protests, and it became difficult to see peaceful protests except maybe in universities."

Also speaking from Iran, activist Fereshteh Sadeghi echoed the view that the most critical moments of the peaceful uprising had passed. She said it was the frustration of these efforts that were fueling greater violence.

"The operation room of the opposition, which is located outside Iran, in the past two or three weeks set dates, encouraging people to go to the streets and topple the 'regime,' but to no avail," Sadeghi told Newsweek.

She portrayed this as part of a vicious cycle that the country has witnessed during previous periods of civil unrest.

"Protests in Iran always turn violent, and this fact is one of the reasons that they never reach an objective, and simply lead to a blinder violence, which in return draws further crackdown," Sadeghi said. "And the society easily accepts the crackdown exactly because of the violent nature of the protesters."

And she too stated that "we need to differentiate between protester and rioter, because the nature of their action is different," though she pointed out that this would only apply to those not inciting or participating in acts of violence.

"As long as the anti-government protesters or their leaders and organizers encourage and support violence, introduce security forces as legitimate targets, and don't want to draw a line between riot and peaceful protest," she said, "then you have no choice but to equate protester with rioter."

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