Cartoon by Emad Hajjaj

Iran’s More Offensive Security Policy in the Post-Protest Period

Middle East Directions: ... In both internal and external threat encounters, either when the source of threat is citizens or adversarial states such as the United States, the Islamic Republic’s policy choice is ‘active resistance’ to balance the incoming threat. The head of the Judiciary System‘s call for the ‘toughest punishments’ for those involved in the protests and the IRGC Commander in Chief ‘s call for the “toughest response to US threats’ equally follow the ‘threat balancing’ logic.  Against both internal and external threats, Iranian leaders employ the similar logic of ‘rising the costs to an unbearable threshold’ to refrain others from taking threatening actions against the Islamic Republic. At the domestic level, this is pursued by enforcing harsh penalties targeting people’s calculations of taking part in anti-government protests – ‘maximum suppression.’ While at the international level, Tehran’s version of ‘maximum resistance’ represents its threat balancing logic.

By transforming threats against the Islamic Republic into more severe existential forms, particularly through the merging of domestic threats with foreign ones, Tehran’s grip on bolder threat-balancing acts will increase as its most feasible option of strategic impact on its adversaries. The key factor here is that the reinforcement of ‘threat balancing’ at the domestic level will generally empower its external version. In other words, Washington’s policies and the accumulation of domestic discontent are generating domestic and external versions of threat balancing which are aligned and mutually reinforcing each other. This intensification paves the way for the emergence of a more offensive threat-balancing approach in Tehran. Thus, contrary to the White House‘s reading of the protests as evidence of success of ‘maximum pressure,’ the result is likely to be the opposite. It empowers tougher positions among the Iranian leadership including on the JCPOA as I have argued elsewhere, the JCPOA for Tehran had major de-securitization function. Trump’s withdrawal and its push for re-securitization of Iran has already weakened that function. Now with the outbreak of recent protests, which among Iranian security establishments and hardliners is seen as the Western plot, the faith on any security function of the deal is fading. In this view, remaining in the JCPOA has no more security assurance, while has previously lost its economic function. This raises the internal push on Rouhani’s government for reducing other key commitments under the deal, even total withdrawal or reviewing country’s commitments under the NPT.

In addition, the rising domestic discontent will negatively impact Tehran’s strategic calculations about popular public support for the state in the wake of the external military threat. In particular, it impacts on the state’s ability to mobilize mass support, including recruiting new members for its Basij militia. By making the social basis of Tehran’s security policy precarious, further instability will force the leadership to rely even more on military means and regional deterrence tools as the only way to keep the general deterrence posture working. In a longer perspective, it may even impact Tehran’s prospects of effectively maintaining deterrence through conventional means and thus change Iran’s broader nuclear agenda by increasing the strategic value of nukes as a means of guaranteeing the government’s survival at a time when domestic support is shrinking.

Abdolrasool Divsallar holds a Ph.D. in Political Science-Iran Issues from the University of Tehran. He was a senior fellow at the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran in 2017-2019.