Iran is approaching a boiling point and the regime is ready with bloodshed

Amir Toumaj

Published: Updated:

The Islamic Republic of Iran has recently stepped up its repressive tactics with a series of high-profile executions in response to mass anti-government protests over the last two years. As the root causes of protests remain unaddressed, more violence and terror should be expected.

Despite global protest, the state executed national wrestling champion Navid Afkari on September 12, after rights group raised concerns that he had been tortured and forced to confess without a fair trial.

Afkari’s execution follows a successful high-profile campaign against death sentences imposed on three young men convicted for their involvements in the November 2019 protests. Like Afkari and countless other political prisoners, authorities tortured them, denied them a fair trial, and tormented their families. A court upholding the men’s death sentences triggered global outcry including from US President Donald Trump, and an unprecedented online campaign on Iranian social media. In response, authorities commuted their death sentences, although they are still imprisoned indefinitely.

A photograph showing the executed Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari. (Supplied)
A photograph showing the executed Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari. (Supplied)

Read more: Iran’s execution of wrestler Navid Afkari sparks outcry on social media

After that tactical retreat, Iran’s judiciary executed an alleged spy and then political prisoner Mostafa Salehi, arrested during the late December 2017 – early January 2018 protests, to fortify the state’s wall of fear.

Protests mobilized again on the web and the global stage after the judiciary announced it would uphold Afkari’s death sentence for allegedly stabbing a water municipality employee in a mass protest in August 2018. Afkari’s brothers too have been given lengthy prison sentences. International athletic associations and Trump called for Afkari’s release. It seemed as if the international and domestic pressure would work again. Or so people thought.

Authorities suddenly announced Afkari’s execution; he himself was apparently unaware until the last minute, and his lawyer and family say he was denied a last visit. Authorities have reportedly blocked roads in the vicinity of Sangar village in Fars Province to prevent more people coming to his grave.

The judiciary does not plan to stop with Afkari. At least 30 political prisoners are reportedly on death row Activists have warned that one Kurdish man and 4 Ahwazi-Arab political prisoners are at risk of imminent execution.

Rights groups have recently warned of an increase in the use of execution. Prominent political prisoner Narges Mohammadi on September 18 penned a letter from prison warning about the gravity of political prisoners’ plights, urging to act before it is “too late.”

Repression has also tightened. Mohammadi and another prominent prisoner Nasrin Sotoudeh say their treatment in prison has deteriorated. Dozens of members of the Baha’i faith were arrested over the summer. A number of Christian converts were exiled to cities far from their homes after their prison sentences, a new form of punishment for them according to International Christian Concern. At least 3,600 such as whistleblowers have been arrested and at least one newspaper suspended for spreading “fake news” about the spread of COVID-19 in Iran.

Read more: After escaping prison in Iran, persecuted Christian leader speaks out

More protests expected

The Islamic Republic is preparing to crush more protests. Since November of last year, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has introduced neighborhood-based Basij paramilitary units across the country to, as a senior commander put it, deal with “thugs and disruptors of security” in cooperation with the security and judicial apparatus. The Law Enforcement Forces (LEF), the first line of defense against protesters, has also restructured and declared commitments to implement more advanced weapons and technology. This allocation of resources amid a budget shortfall and cuts to salaries of security forces including in the IRGC reflects fears of more unrest.

The mounting use of execution is rooted in the Islamic Republic’s desire to secure its rule amid shaky grounds and fears of more looming protests. The regime has used repressive tactics throughout its history, including when authorities hung over 5,000 political prisoners toward the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988. One of the judges who liberally handed death sentences was Ebrahim Raisi, who today is the chief of Iran’s judiciary.

Since the end of 2017, Iran has witnessed two massive, nationwide protests, as well as other sporadic protests like the one Afkari was arrested in, that have engulfed the Islamic Republic’s traditional support base that encompass religious, working-class rural and urban areas. The state’s crackdown in 2019 was far bloodier than ever before. Whereas before security forces primarily used street melee and arrests to crush protests, this time they opened fire from the onset. The death toll has been in the hundreds - 1,500 according to Reuters - surpassing in a matter of days the death toll of months of 2009 post-election protests.

Iran is facing more mass protests because the Islamic Republic because is incapable or unwilling to address society’s political and economic grievances. Reformists, who were instrumental in propelling Hassan Rouhani to presidency in 2013 and 2017, have experienced a crisis of public confidence since the 2017-2018 protests, as they have been unable or unwilling to deliver on promises to meaningfully implement reform through the ballot for over two decades.

Read more: Iran denounces human rights criticism after European countries summon Iranian envoys

Iranian officials are particularly concerned about economic triggers for more nationwide protests. The 2017-2018 protests started in response to skyrocketing staple prices, most notably eggs, and the 2019 protests followed sudden cuts to fuel subsidies; both then spread to encompass broader political and economic grievances aimed at the Islamic Republic. While re-imposed US sanctions designed to pressure Iran into a new nuclear deal have significantly damaged the Iranian economy and contributed to a plummeting currency, protesters called out the Islamic Republic itself rather than US sanctions before and after the US exit of May 2018, most notably in the bloody November uprising. Iranian newspapers openly discuss how corruption and mismanagement have hit Iran’s economy. The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded Iran’s economic misery, raising the risk of further economic-induced protests.

Indeed, while Iran has a long history of labor protests, strikes in August spread from strategic energy-sector facilities like petrochemicals and refineries in the south to the north. While a deputy minister recently blamed foreign media coverage of strikes, accusing them of a plan to “Syrianize Iran,” he did concede that calls for protests had tripled in the last year, and acknowledged that “some” Iranians were involved – a tacit recognition that protest calls were not just a foreign plot.

All signs suggest the Islamic Republic is expecting more protests. On this point, they are probably correct. Iranians will likely soon reach another boiling point, and Tehran will only commit more violence to cling to power at any cost.

Read more:

Human rights watchers have eased up on Iran, even after Afkari’s death

President Rouhani condemns US for ‘crimes’ against Iran

Attacked, jailed, sentenced to flogging: Young woman reveals her life in Iran


Amir Toumaj is an independent researcher focused on Iran who has experience in the private sector and think tanks. He has published dozens of articles and reports, and his research has appeared in congressional testimonies and prominent global media outlets.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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