On Monday, December 23, Reuters reported that about “1,500 people were killed during less than two weeks of unrest that started on Nov. 15,” following the steep rise in gas prices. And as Reuters itself conceded, this death toll was “higher than figures from international human rights groups and the United States.”
Reuters reported that their report was based on information gathered from security forces, morgues, hospitals and coroner’s offices, via two Iranian officials who passed the information to Reuters, and that the responsibility for the killings ultimately rested with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Reuters reported that “After days of protests ... Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared impatient. Gathering his top security and government officials together, he issued an order: Do whatever it takes to stop them. ... That order, confirmed by three sources close to the supreme leader’s inner circle and a fourth official, set in motion the bloodiest crackdown on protesters since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.”
A former security official, however, tells IranWire that “I do not believe Reuters’ sources are fake, [but] I think that this news agency has fallen into the trap of the psychological war being waged by the Supreme Leader’s office and the Revolutionary Guards. Reuters has no reporter in Iran and its former reporter there has good relations with a number of government officials.”
During the massive student protests on July 9, 1999, and the protests resulting from the disputed 2009 presidential election that came be known as the Green Movement, this former official worked inside an Iranian intelligence agency and has maintained his connections to many security and military officials of the Islamic Republic.
“After 30 years in power, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has learned that fear of massacre is more effective than massacre itself,” the official says. He believes the death toll of 1,500 has probably been passed to Reuters by Khamenei’s office and the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Agency to create terror and fear among the people. The official adds that “in the near future, we shall witness more of this psychological warfare.”
Referring to what he has heard directly from people close to the Supreme Leader, the official says that Khamenei “believes that any [dead] protester can turn into a Sattar Beheshti, Neda Agha Soltan and Pouya Bakhtiari,” three Iranians who were killed during protests and became popular icons after their deaths. “So, in general, [Khamenei] has no interest in massacres. Not that he is averse to massacre, but he knows that it can lead to unfavorable results.”
As an example, the official cites a meeting between Khamenei and the Supreme National Security Council during the Green Movement protests, in 2009. “’Do not create martyrs,’ is always the Leader’s motto,” he says.
“Nurturing” Vs. “Creating” Martyrs
According to this former security official, Ayatollah Khamenei welcomes “nurturing martyrs,” meaning the death of friendly forces, but he believes that “creating martyrs”, meaning killing protesters, harms the interests of the regime.
“[Khamenei] prefers to see friendly forces killed in defense of the regime, because by ‘nurturing martyrs,’ the Revolutionary Guards and the paramilitary Basij become more united,” he says. “Khamenei is one the most ruthless but, at the same time, one of the shrewdest men in the world. Not everybody can rule Iran for more than 30 years. He is not a novice dictator like Gaddafi or Bashar al-Assad, who can continue to rule only by killing people. He knows that fear is many times more effective than killing.”
This former security official also tells IranWire that, in recent years, Ayatollah Khamenei has been worried that his inner circle is growing thin.
“The fact that the Supreme Leader has sacrificed everybody to his own power and government has made many people, like me, who were his devotees, to try and extricate ourselves from the regime so that we would have no more innocent blood on our hands. One of the errors in the Reuters report, in my view, is that it portrays the Leader’s office as a unified entity where everybody is in harmony with everybody else. But, from what I have heard or seen, in the Supreme Leader’s office, like anywhere else in Iranian government centers, the right hand and the left hand do not agree on anything.”
This former official emphasizes that the possibility that men on the ground will disobey orders to open fire and kill protesters is one of the greatest worries of Khamenei’s office, the Revolutionary Guards and, especially, the police. And the problem is exacerbated by Khamenei’s worry that his circle is losing some control on the many different security forces under his control.
According to him, one of the problems across Iran during the November protests was the lack of coordination between local Basijis with the central Basij Organization or the Revolutionary Guards.
“The Revolutionary Guards and the Basij had ordered their forces to shoot. But many members of the Guards, the Basij and, especially, the police disobeyed the order. This turned into a big problem,” the official says. “Some commanders of the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij had told their forces to stop the demonstrations by any means possible. In some towns they had even told their ground forces to shoot the protesters in the head or in the heart. I have no idea whether this order was issued by the Leader’s office or not but, if it was, it goes against [Khamenei’s] usual approach. Perhaps it was caused by the thinning of forces loyal to the regime.”
IranWire spoke to two more sources with strong connections inside the Islamic Republic – who confirmed the statements made by the security official.
According to them, the number of protesters killed during the November protests is still not clear. But it is likely that in the coming days the government and the Revolutionary Guards will start blaming each other for the high number of casualties.
Decoding Iran's Politics: The November 2019 Fact Sheet, 19 December 2019
148 Killed in Mahshahr During November Protests, 17 December 2019
Eyewitness: Security Forces Shot People Indiscriminately, 16 December 2019
Official Claims Mahshahr Protesters Were Armed, 12 December 2019
Heavy Machine Guns Used to Kill Protesters, 2 December 2019
The Regime’s Psychological Warfare Handbook to Crush Protests, 28 November 2019
Shutting Down the Internet to Get Away with Murder, 19 November 2019