Faced with the resilience of the national protests, Iran's security forces are now facing unusual acts of sabotage on state installations, and clerical authorities have started to wonder which of their loyalist forces can be firmly relied on still to defend the regime.
Ten weeks into the nationwide anti-state uprising in Iran, the regime's security agencies face a crisis driven by four key factors: 1. Losses among the ranks through disobedience, desertion or negligence on the streets; 2. insufficient forces because of casualties from clashes; 3. rising number of acts of subversion and sabotage, especially targeting strategic installations; 4. cyber-attacks and security traps laid from abroad.
At the same time, the Iranian regime is facing an apparent change of tactics among protesters compared to previous rounds of unrest, which is particular to the new generations involved in this movement. Senior officials of the Revolutionary Guards corps — the body effectively coordinating the repression — say the protesters are mostly aged between 15 and 25 years.
It is a kind of Gen-Z brigade working with older and experienced protesters who led previous rounds of protests in 2009, and especially 2017 and 2019 when public unrest reemerged with particular vigor.
This round is marked by greater experience, more "field" coordination against anti-riot forces, "neighborhood-based" activism and targeted acts of sabotage or symbolic vandalism.
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The regime's leaders have been left asking themselves how this time around, forceful repression and cutting off the Internet could have failed to snuff out the protests. Some have blamed computer games, which they want to see banned, saying numerous protesters are teenage gamers who, allegedly, practiced their street tactics before online..
The fact is repression is no longer working,
The regime is thus blaming computer games and the aggression they seem to generate, rather than its own incompetence, cruelty, people's dismal living conditions and their generalized hatred of an entire political setup, for the unrelenting unrest.
The fact is repression is no longer working, and desertions and dispersions among regime forces, especially those facing protesters, are far greater than officials want to admit. Sources claim an increase in cases of police officers and other security personnel failing, or refusing, to perform their duties, but also of aiding subversive actions.
Revolutionary Guards and rank-and-file
Senior officials are now less trusting of their rank-and-file forces, especially among the police. The more loyal Basij (Mobilization) militia, run by the Revolutionary Guards, lacks enough forces to quell protests if they persist, and dissent has been reported even among the families of the Basiji troops.
There are also reports of a deepening rift between the regime and families of "martyrs" and injured veterans of the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. The regime has lost its principal social support bases. The country's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is seeing fit to warn the armed forces about desertions, though the head of the regular land army (artesh), Abdulrahim Musavi, has sought to reassure loyalists by describing "unexpected desertions" as simply God's trial.
About 70 state agents are counted as killed since the protests erupted in mid-September — a significant loss for the state though nothing compared to the hundreds of ordinary Iranians the state has killed these past two-plus months.
While the head of the Armed Forces Judicial Organization, Ahmadreza Purkhaqan, insists "no harm will come to this state while the Basij stands," he has warned about "infiltrators" penetrating the leadership ranks. Obsessed with internal enemies and infiltrators, senior officials cannot understand that it is for the rank and file to decide whether they will stand with or against the people. Many have already chosen the people.
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Kayhan-London has also received information that the spreading acts of sabotage has gone beyond refineries and power stations to reach military bases. State industrial and mining firms have all boosted security measures for their premises and sought protection from the military.
In this context, Supreme Leader Khamenei advised a gathering of Basijis on November 26 to "maintain readiness" and "not to be taken by surprise." He's increasingly sounding like the head of a criminal gang who feels rivals are closing in on his operations.
Khamenei's stated concern with the integrity of loyalist forces are effectively an admission that their cohesion is damaged. He told his Basijis that some had advised him, in order to end the protests, to start talking to America. The suggestion may have come from the reformists, to whom the ruling clique has turned for advice or support after decades of thwarting them in politics.
These reformists, including individuals like former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Hasan Rouhani, may see this as an opportunity to return to front-line politics and "save" themselves and their Islamic Republic. It is all a very different tune than just a few days ago when Khamenei was confidently vowing the unrest would soon be "cleared up."