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How the Iran protests help explain Tehran’s military aid to Moscow
Iran isn’t simply helping Russia because they can. This is a somewhat desperate show of strength at a point when the Iranian regime feels vulnerable and threatened from outside and within.
You may have noticed stories about Iran popping up in the news more often lately, and there are two big reasons for this—the ongoing protests against the government and the Iranian government’s decision to send material support to the Russian war effort in Ukraine. This support includes sending Shahed 136 kamikaze drones which Russia has deployed primarily against infrastructure targets in Ukraine.
The British military describes the Shahed-136’s 80-pound payload as small. Still, its precision targeting gives it a potentially devastating effect. A Ukrainian officer who saw the drone used in combat said it could target a self-propelled howitzer near where the gunpowder was stored, causing a greater explosion than its warhead alone would achieve.
As defense analyst Michael Kofman said to the New York Times recently, the Iranian Shahed 136 drones "can be used by Russia to target electricity, fuel, et cetera, and to attempt to economically exhaust Ukraine over time." Yesterday, an explosive ordinance attached to one of these kamikaze drones struck a residential building in Kyiv, killing at least four civilians in the process. This follows similar attacks last month on the Ukrainian port city of Odessa which also resulted in a civilian casualty.
John Schindler pointed out some important context for these attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, which I think are worth repeating here.
If the Russians are intentionally targeting and killing civilians (which is possible but difficult to prove), then certainly there are grounds for calling those acts war crimes, and we know from Russia’s behavior in Bucha and Mariupol that quite a few credible accusations of war crimes against the Russians have already been made.
Russia’s decision to launch a full-scale war against Ukraine remains unprovoked and unjustified, and the amount of human suffering that has resulted from that decision is on such a massive scale that it’s difficult to quantify. However, no one should be surprised that the Russians are using these tactics against Ukraine. If anything, the surprising part is the Russians haven’t already done so.
There’s a key quote from yesterday’s New York Times piece titled ‘Drones Embody an Iran-Russia Alliance Built on Hostility to the U.S.’ which warrants a mention. The author, Neil MacFarquhar, writes:
For Iran, Russian use of its drones sends a message to its domestic audience, including those who have been protesting against restrictions on women’s rights and personal freedom for weeks.
The government is trying to show Iranians that it is “not in a position of weakness, and has not been cowed by external pressure and threats,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran project director for the International Crisis Group, an independent research institute.
MacFarquhar chose not to elaborate much on this idea, but I do think it warrants a bit more context.
First off, why are the Iranian people protesting?
It’s unclear if this unrest will result in anything resembling an Iranian Revolution, but the protests have been ongoing for over a month now with no sign of stopping. Last weekend, eight prisoners died at the infamous Evin Prison in Tehran which holds political prisoners and Westerners whom the regime deems as threats or potential bargaining chips to be used in future negotiations. Specific details on what happened at the prison are scarce. Iranian state news agencies put out competing claims. One stated there was an escape attempt at the prison. Another argued a fire broke out as a result of a fight between inmates. However, gunshots were heard coming from inside the prison, and the possibility of an uprising against the guards should not be discounted. According to NPR, after news of the fires at Evin made their way across social media, “A protest broke out on the street soon after, with many chanting ‘Death to the Dictator!’ — a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — and burning tires, the videos showed.”
This sort of open defiance to the regime has become a regular feature of the protests. As a result, the government has turned to its most loyal soldiers to regain control by any means necessary, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The result has been tragic and costly. Iran's Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA)'s latest estimate states that 222 Iranians have been killed in the crackdowns.
As we wrote about in our recent piece about the attempted assassination of Salman Rushdie, the IRGC maintains a cult-like adoration for the former IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani. His death was a huge shock to the regime. Their need for revenge has been a frequent fixture in state-sponsored rhetoric. That’s why something CNN wrote about recently regarding the protests really struck out to me. Quoting that article:
Earlier this year, Iran flaunted a new patriotic song targeting school children around the country. Titled “Salute, Commander,” the song was a tribute to Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Imam Mahdi, a descendant of Prophet Mohammed who Shiite Muslims believe went into hiding in the 10th century and will reappear one day to end injustice.
“Salute, commander,” goes the song. “I’m a child, but the life of my family and I, all belongs to you.” In a music video published on Iranian media, thousands of young boys and veiled girls are seen singing in unison to a live performance of the song. Some are seen crying, and others are wearing military uniforms while holding posters of former Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by a United States airstrike in 2020.
Critics decried the song as an attempt to indoctrinate children and instill in them loyalty for the Islamic Republic.
The article contrasts this with the current mood in Iran:
School children are protesting their leaders on an unprecedented scale that may prove difficult to contain, say experts. In videos on social media and seen by CNN, more protests now involve school children.
“There is another layer [to the demonstrations], which is the protests we have been seeing in schools,” said Tara Sepehri Far, a senior researcher in the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch, adding that it is “unprecedented” for Iran.
The government has said it is sending underaged protesters to mental health centers.
In an interview with a reformist Iranian newspaper, Iran’s Education Minister Yousef Nouri last week acknowledged that school students had indeed been protesting, and the government has been responding by detaining and sending them to mental health facilities. The establishments are meant to “reform” the protesting students and rid them of their “anti-social” behaviors, he said.
It’s unsurprising to see this level of indoctrination of kids occurring in an authoritarian regime. Free thinking is not encouraged, and in most cases, it is actively discouraged. The Soviets similarly sent their dissidents off to mental health clinics to receive “psychiatric care”. The East German Stasi secret police did the same. As the propaganda told them, the regime provided everything its citizens could ask for in life. Only a mentally ill person would question a system that provided everything they needed! So it continues in Iran today, but I do think this shows the nervousness and vulnerability of the Iranian regime if they feel they must crack down on children this harshly. Surely, from a propaganda perspective at least, the regime will want to avoid killing any children who take to the streets and reject the government’s regulations. But what comes next if they don’t fall into line? As these children get older, the government will need their support to continue to exist and beating their dissenters into submission could very easily have long-term effects. Even if no Revolution comes to Iran in 2022, their current tactics have every chance of making revolution more likely in the future. That’s perhaps why they feel such a need to flex their muscles and show their strength to the rest of the world. How the Iranians can do that today is by supplying Russia with the kamikaze drones and missiles they desperately need to continue their war in Ukraine.
Iran isn’t simply helping Russia because they can. This is a somewhat desperate show of strength at a point when the Iranian regime feels vulnerable and threatened from outside and within. The stronger Iran is perceived on an international stage, the more the U.S. and other real and perceived “enemies” of the state talk of Iran, the more the regime can pump out boastful propaganda to its audience. The point being that the rest of the world is scared of the regime so its own people should be too. “Stop protesting, or else” suddenly carries more weight.
Furthermore, this is not an entirely idle threat. An Iran whose weapons the Russian government values is perhaps an Iran which American troops still stationed in the Middle East or our allies in the region such as Israel or the Kurds should have reason to fear. Those Iranian kamikaze drones or the Iranian missiles being sent into Ukraine by the Russians could be coming for them next. Remember, the most immediate response from the Iranian regime after the death of Soleimani was to launch a rocket attack against US troops stationed at a base in Iraq. This may not be an idle threat, but even if it is, there’s a propaganda value to be gained simply from the possibility that the regime could use those weapons.
When we call the current state of world affairs Cold War 2.0, we mean it, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Russia, China and Iran held joint military exercises in Venezuela this past August. In January 2022, their navies participated in joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean. This has been an increasing theme in recent years. Joint military exercises occurred in September 2020 in Russia, and all three participated in joint naval drills in the Gulf of Oman in December 2019. The US-led Western democratic alliance is pitted against an authoritarian state alliance led by China with Russia, Iran and other dictatorial states serving as auxiliaries.
In truth, the governments in Tehran and the Moscow in particular have increasinged their cooperation together since at least 2015, as Michael Weiss explains in this thread.
Taken as a whole then, it’s easier to see why Iranian IRGC officers are reportedly training the Russians on how to fly their kamikaze drones in Ukraine. As The Daily Mirror reported:
Up to 50 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps specialists have been deployed to train Moscow’s forces in how to operate “Kamikaze drones.”
They were sent to the southern and eastern front with hundreds of Shahed-136 drones which have been hammering Ukrainian cities.
And in some attacks they are suspected of having controlled the flight path and targeting by the Shahed-136 drone teams.
In the latest escalation, the Washington Post reported on Iranian missiles being sent to Russia for use in Ukraine two days ago here:
In an apparent sign of Iran’s expanded role as a military supplier to Moscow, Tehran dispatched officials to Russia on Sept. 18 to finalize terms for additional weapons shipments, including two types of Iranian surface-to-surface missiles, according to officials from a U.S.-allied country that closely monitors Iran’s weapons activity.
An intelligence assessment shared in recent days with Ukrainian and U.S. officials contends that Iran’s armaments industry is preparing a first shipment of Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar missiles, two well-known Iranian short-range ballistic missiles capable of striking targets at distances of 300 and 700 kilometers, respectively, two officials briefed on the matter said. If carried out, it would be the first delivery of such missiles to Russia since the start of the war.
It seems the government in Tehran demands to be taken seriously, and this show of force and support for Russia in its time of need has laid down a marker.
So what’s to be done?
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