Editor’s note: A version of this story first appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, a thrice-weekly look at the region’s biggest stories. Register here.
The latest wave of protests in Iran is perhaps one of the most protracted challenges the Islamic Republic has faced in recent years.
Over the past two months, the government has cracked down heavily on protesters, resulting in the deaths of at least 326, according to Iran Human Rights, a Norway-based NGO. More than 1,000 have been charged in connection with the protests. On Sunday, an Iranian court handed down the first death sentence to a protester convicted of “enmity against God” and “spreading corruption on Earth” for allegedly setting fire to a government building.
So far, the regime remains intact with no signs of cracks in its foundations.
But Iran’s security apparatus has not always been so sophisticated in quelling uprisings, analysts say. The Islamic Republic itself was the product of a revolution, lessons from which it appears to be applying today.
During that revolution, in 1979, the security apparatus was “largely cohesive but extremely overstretched,” says Trita Parsi, vice president of the Quincy Institute in Washington, DC.
According to analysts, Iran’s previous regime, ruled by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, relied mainly on its powerful military to contain the uprising that eventually led to its downfall. Finally, the military could not contain the protests.
One of the main factors that led to the success of the 1979 revolution was the military’s declaration of neutrality, said Afshon Ostovar, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. This was the final blow to the Shah’s prime minister.
On February 11, 1979, the last prime minister of the Shah, Shahpur Bakhtiar, resigned after the Iranian military refused to quell the protests and called in its troops “to prevent further bloodshed and anarchy”, the New York Times reported at the time. It was a revolutionary victory for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Shiite cleric who led the new regime.
Analysts say it was this overreliance on a single security force that contributed to the shah’s ouster, and Tehran’s rulers are wary of making the same mistake.
The creation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a parallel security institution to the national army was primarily aimed at protecting the revolutionary regime and its leaders, thus preventing the army from amassing too much power. Today, it is seen as a deep state that is a more powerful force than the military and has a large business empire that plays a vital role in the country’s economy.
“The [current Iranian] The regime knows that it was the military’s declaration of neutrality in 1979 that allowed the revolution to succeed,” Ostovar said. “They also know that the acts of lethality fueled the protests.”
The violence in Iran today is reminiscent of the months before the revolution of 1979. Parsi says the uprising was not peaceful either.
“In the period before the victory of the  revolution, the funerals of those killed by the Shah’s forces – as well as the 40th day ceremony after the deaths – often turned into new demonstrations with more people killed,” he said. “This led to a spiral in which the The Shah’s forces literally created new demonstrations by killing protesters.”
A similar cycle is playing out in the streets of Iranian cities today, but this time it is not the military, but the police and their many specialized units who are cracking down on the protesters. The multitude of security units charged with suppressing dissent work to dilute the potential impact of any defection from the force.
The Law Enforcement Command is the umbrella police force whose head is appointed directly by the Supreme Leader. It has been “the main force behind government crackdowns and has grown in importance since 2009,” when the country faced another major protest movement, Sanam Vakil, a senior fellow in the Middle and North East program at Africa at the Chatham House think tank in London. It was “restructured earlier this year, perhaps reflecting government concerns about the possibility of protests,” he said.
Under him fall the riot police, who according to Vakil should not use lethal force and are more involved in dispersing crowds.
“Police are doing the lion’s share of counter-protest operations,” Ostovar said. “But we also saw IRGC agents on the ground, and plainclothes agents could come from the Basij, IRGC intelligence, the Ministry of Intelligence or the police.”
The Basij is an Iranian volunteer paramilitary group under the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). It is fiercely loyal to Iran’s hardline leadership and is often used to suppress protests. Its staff often wear plainclothes and tend to be violent, according to Vakil.
With so many different security groups overseeing the crackdown, it is harder for any organization to gain power and turn against the Islamic Republic. As in 1979, the repression today has been violent, but the security forces have not yet turned against the government.
“We are not seeing the degree and type of defections necessary to put the regime’s survival in immediate danger. That may change, though,” Parsi said. “Unfortunately, [the violence] it is likely to get much worse. The regime’s full capacity for repression has probably yet to be seen.”
Turkey blames Kurdish militants for deadly explosion in Istanbul
Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said on Monday that officials believe Kurdish separatists from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Syria-based Democratic Union Party (PYD) were most likely behind of the deadly explosion that rocked Istanbul on Sunday. Soylu did not say how the researchers reached the conclusion.
- background: Six Turkish citizens died in the attack. No group has claimed responsibility. The blast occurred on Istiklal Avenue, a popular spot for shoppers and tourists with a tram line running its entire length. The area, in the Beyoglu district of Turkey’s largest city, had been packed as usual over the weekend.
- Why it matters: Turkey’s conflict with Kurdish separatist groups has lasted four decades and claimed tens of thousands of lives. The PKK has been designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, but the PYD has received support from some Western nations, which Turkey has strongly condemned.
Bahrain hails vote turnout, rights groups criticize ‘repressive’ climate.
Bahrain said voter turnout was more than 70 percent in Saturday’s general election, which rights groups criticized as being held in a climate of “political repression” after the Gulf state dissolved its main opposition groups and quashed the dissent, Reuters reported.
- background: Bahrain, which crushed a 2011 anti-government uprising led largely by the Shiite Muslim community, accuses Iran of fueling unrest in the kingdom where security forces have been targeted by bomb attacks. Tehran denies the accusations. Shiites have long complained of discrimination when seeking jobs and government services in the country, a charge authorities reject.
- Why it matters: Ahead of the election, the human rights group Amnesty International criticized “highly restrictive measures” banning members of banned opposition groups and those who have served prison terms of more than six months. “Holding these general elections will not address the atmosphere of repression and denial of human rights that has gripped Bahrain for years,” he said in a statement.
Saudi minister says trade and security are on agenda for Xi’s visit
Strengthening trade ties and regional security will be priorities in Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia, Saudi State Minister for Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir was quoted as saying by Reuters on Saturday.
- background: Chinese officials have not commented on the schedule and no date has yet been announced. The Chinese president has made few trips abroad since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Why it matters: The visit would come at a time when relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States have been strained by a dispute over oil supplies and amid U.S. concerns about growing cooperation between Arab states in the Middle East. Gulf and China.
Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the Iranian who had lived for years at Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport and who inspired Steven Spielberg’s 2004 film “The Terminal,” died Saturday at the same airport, he told CNN an airport spokesman.
Nasseri was pronounced dead by the airport’s medical team at Terminal 2F. He had “returned to living as a homeless person in the public area of the airport since mid-September, following a stint in a nursing home,” according to the spokesman.
The spokesman said Nasseri died of natural causes.
Nasseri, an Iranian refugee, was on his way to England via Belgium and France in 1988 when he lost his papers and was unable to board a flight or leave the airport until 2006.
While Nasseri’s story inside the airport was recalled by Tom Hanks in the movie “The Terminal,” the airport’s spokesperson noted that: “Spielberg’s film suggests that he was trapped in a transit area at Paris-Charles de Gaulle. He actually had several stays there, but always in the public area of the airport, he was always free to move around.”
The spokesman added that Nasseri was an “iconic figure” at the airport and that “the entire airport community was united with him, and our staff looked after him as best they could for many years, although we would have preferred him to find a true refuge”.
By Saskya Vandoorne and Maija Ehlinger