By Behnam Gholipour
November 30, 2019
For years now, discussions on how street protests in Iran are crushed have focused on the operational strength of anti-riot police, the Revolutionary Guards, the paramilitary Basij or plainclothes security agents; in other words, on the brute muscle used to suppress protests. Videos, photographs, and reports detailing exactly how these forces suppressed the protests – how savagely, and with what violence – are routinely published after any major protests end. Little attention has been given to the psychological tactics also used by the Iranian regime against its own people.
The Revolutionary Guards have themselves conducted several studies on effective methods for suppressing protests, publishing them in quarterlies associated with the Imam Hossein Comprehensive University, which itself is affiliated with the Guards. One of these studies, “Psychological Operations and Their Impact on Urban Riots”, was published in the 77th issue of Crisis Management Quarterly for the spring of 2016 [Persian PDF].
The study reviews the experiences of a group of senior commanders and security experts on 13 psychological techniques for controlling or crushing protests. These tools are primarily used to prevent people from joining protesters, undermining their morale and will; and they address the morale of the security forces tasked with the violent work of crushing the protests.
The study sums up the viewpoints of 350 security experts as follows:
The above table shows that the security experts surveyed by the study view “spreading rumors” among protestors as the most effective psychological method in crowd control. Senior commanders of the police, meanwhile, find sending “infiltrators” into the protesters’ ranks to be the most effective way to control protests, as the table below illustrates:
A comparison of the tables shows that security experts and police commanders differ somewhat in their views of the effectiveness of these 13 techniques. What is important, however, is to understand how these tactics are deployed and how they affect protesters.
Security forces, intelligence agencies and the Guards assign three phases to a crisis created by protests: the beginning, their spread and their decline.
This beginning phase sees protesters gradually take to the streets to express their opposition to a policy, a specific situation or a decision by the government. In this phase, security and law enforcement agencies tend to use the following techniques psychological techniques to try and discourage and suppress protests before they spread.
1. Mocking Protesters:
The tactics used to mock protesters often include highlighting any contradictions in their demands and trying to paint their leaders as stooges of foreign governments. Over the past 40 years, this has been the dominant psychological method used in attempts to suppress protests; indeed, there has not been any incident of street protests which Islamic Republic officials did not claim to have been organized and supported by hostile western governments.
2. Trivialize Protesters’ Demands:
Over the past 40 years, protestors’ demands have been ridiculed and belittled in a variety of ways. This psychological tool has become an integral part of the Islamic Republic’s ongoing media and propaganda operation. The messages used generally work to belittle protesters’ demands such as justice, liberty and democracy, as well as opposition to economic policies, as issues of little importance that can be easily satisfied without resorting to noisy protests. An example of this belittling of protesters’ demands can mean that a call to repair broken arterial roads is spun as a demand to fill potholes in back-alley roads.
3. Divert Attention through Other News:
This technique has long been used by Iranian officials to sideline news of street protests. During the recent protests over the increase in fuel prices, judicial officials announced the final verdict against six environmentalists to divert attention from violence against protesters and the scale the protests. Also, by cutting acces to the internet, officials prevented Iranians from getting news of protests and, at the same time, they diverted attention from protests by changing the subject.
4. Psychological Disarmament in Advance:
If officials anticipate protests or unrest, they often raise the demands of potential protesters on their own broadcast media and social media channels; but at the same time, they dilute the demands, sharing only toned-down versions voiced by local officials, members of parliament or “ordinary” citizens. The propagandists then present vague solutions and ambiguous promises to overshadow and forestall the unambiguous demands made by protesters. By muddying the waters in this way, this technique has had some success in in preventing the rest of society from hearing the voice of protesters.
5. The Scarecrow of Foreign Threats:
Highlighting the danger of foreign threats, especially by using examples from elsewhere in the Middle East, is also used to discourage people from joining protests. During nationwide protests in early 2018, officials repeatedly warned Iranians that the country will face the same fate as Syria or Iraq if protests were to spread unchecked. And during the most recent protests, officials reinforced this message by publicizing pictures and videos of widespread destruction which, according to many reports, was the work of anti-riot police, not protestors.
The Spread Phase
When a crisis deepens and unrest spreads, Iran’s security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies move on to another set of techniques and tactics:
6. Terrorizing People:
Repressive regimes such as the Islamic Republic publicize an exaggerated narrative of violence perpetrated by demonstrators. They then enhance this narrative by ordering their own forces to engage in the wanton destruction of public property, and especially private property, to further terrorize the populace and to turn public opinion against the protesters. One important side benefit of this tactic is that it lays the groundwork for putting arrested protesters on trial and punishing them for destroying public and private property.
7. Assigning Scapegoats:
The regime is also not above sacrificing some of their own lower-level officials by presenting them as responsible for taking decisions or implementing policies that led to protests in the first place. Iran’s senior officials hope that, by dismissing these lower-ranking officials from their posts, they can defuse or control protests before they spread too far.
This technique works only if unrest is still contained within a limited set of places. During the recent November protests, a number of hardliners and conservatives blamed President Hasan Rouhani’s government as the culprit, accusing it of “inefficiency” in carrying out their decision to raise fuel prices. The aim was to smear the Rouhani administration; and in the process, absolving the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, of any responsibility for the crisis. The technique can also help senior officials in removing inconvenient opponents in the regime by blaming them for the unrest.
8. Framing Protest Leaders:
Bringing trumped-up charges against protest leaders and publicizing fake news and pictures is a favorite psychological weapon of all repressive governments. In this method, protest leaders are presented to the public as agents of foreign governments that have been trying to carry out the schemes of those governments. This November’s protests had no leaders but officials of the Islamic Republic repeatedly accused western governments of organizing and supporting the protests.
9. Infiltrating Protests
Security and intelligence agencies may deploy their agents to infiltrate protesters on the street with orders to cause the protests to go astray by spreading rumors, fanning disagreements between the protesters and provoking violence.
10. Forced Confessions
Arresting some protesters as soon as possible after protests begin, interrogating them and forcing them to make false confessions is a favorite weapon in the psychological operations arsenal of many repressive governments. The Islamic Republic is no exception. Such confessions are used to frighten protesters, to dissuade others from joining the protests and to motivate the regime’s own forces in the field to crush protests as violently and as quickly as possible.
If a crisis spreads and continues, and even after they subside, the institutions of the regime also work to mobilize masses from among students, government employees and other state organizations, deploying them on the streets to show their supports for the regime. By staging – and then broadcasting on state media – these counter demonstrations and by using cinematography techniques intended to amplify their size, the regime hopes to discourage protesters and to encourage mainstream society to support the regime. This technique is especially effective if it is accompanied by strong and threatening messages from government leaders or senior military commanders.
The latest example of this took place on November 25, in Tehran’s Revolution Square, with a speech by Major General Hossein Salami, Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary Guards, in which he denounced the recent unrest and threatened consequences for the protests. State-sponsored counter-demonstrations have, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, become one of the most important tools of the Islamic Republic to wage psychological war against dissent and protest among the people of Iran.