Iran has been extremely divided since the Shah left Iran for exile in 1979. The last Persian Monarch of the time, he left his duties to a regency council and the opposition prime minister, and in the decades that followed the country never fully stabilized. Rampant corruption and civil rights abuses have been frequently cited as a roadblock to economic equality. However, in recent years the already politically tumultuous climate may have reached a new low, thanks in large part to burgeoning economic and social discontent.
The causes of anger are all too similar to the other oil-rich countries in the region: corruption and financial inequality. Sanctions from the U.S. and other Western powers were lifted in 2016, until being reinstated by under Donald Trump’s orders. That two-year span of relief did little to improve factors such as youth unemployment, which is at an all-time high. The price of fuel, dairy and meat have skyrocketed and show no sign of letting up.
Mark Dubowitz from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) spoke with the Wall Street Journal about the present state of Iran, and how the current administration could learn something from Ronald Reagan. Dubowitz’ opinion on this: “The Islamic Republic of Iran is imperialist, repressive, and—unless we adopt a new strategy—[is] on its way toward possessing nuclear weapons.” The series of public Iranian protests, which lasted from December 2017 to January 2018, could suggest a threat to the stability of the government.
Details regarding the size of the demonstrations and specifics behind the groups present and their motivations are unclear due to the Iranian government’s strict control over news outlets. The Iranian Minister of the Interior went as far as to blame the stoked fears on social media and as a response, the government swore to clamp down on the technologies.
During the protests, many cities experienced widespread power outages. While the government takes no responsibility for the blackouts, many believe the timing is evidence at how far the Iranian administration will go to keep information from leaving the country’s borders. At its peak, the entire country experienced a drop as high as 50% in internet traffic. Since then, likely as a result of paranoia about web-activity monitoring, the country has seen a significant rise in the use of online masking software, such as the anonymous browser TOR.
We know for certain that the national unrest was kicked off by a protest in Mashhad because of surging prices. It’s clear the feelings were shared across the country. Many experts say that protests against the Iranian regime were caused by the corruption of the government that ruined Iran's economy. Click here to read more about Mark Dubowitz.
In response to the events, President Rouhani gave an official statement condoning the citizens’ right to protest in a peaceful manner. His words, however, are in stark contrast to the actions his administration has taken since; going so far as to ban English language lessons because they were to blame for a “cultural invasion of Western Values.”
The government’s actions didn’t end there. Many watch-dog organizations have cited the country’s record-high arrests and use of torture as evidence that basic freedoms are not respected. Nearly thirty suspicious deaths were reported during the protests and US intelligence agencies received reports of inmates being treated inhumanely. In one instance a 15-year-old was given a five-year prison sentence because he removed a government flag from a city square.
If these kinds of human rights violations persist and the government continues to censor free press and individuals alike then Western alliances might be forced to heighten the sanctions already in place. However, China’s recent oil purchases have proved that not all countries are willing to honor US sanctions. What’s more, any ability for the current administration to negotiate a new Nuclear deal will be hampered by the corrupt government’s actions. As Iran’s financial inequality worsens, it’s likely more civil unrest will follow.
Understanding how terrorist organizations receive funding is an essential step in targeting them more effectively. While there are standard trends, it’s vital to look at the specifics of each organization to understand how they finance their activities and work with governments in the region to curb terrorists’ efforts whenever possible. To achieve this end and educate lawmakers the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, (FDD), created the Terror Finance Briefing Book which explains how individual terrorist groups fund their operations. Read more about the FDD CEO here.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)
ISIL, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is one of the best funded terrorist organizations in the world and they aren’t reliant on any outside income. Instead, they derive the majority of their finances from exploiting resources in the region they control, such as petroleum, taxes levied against the local population, extortion, illegal drug production, and money stolen directly from banks. In 2016 ISIL had revenue north of $500 million. The year before that, they likely earned between $1 and $2 billion. The majority of the organization’s expenses cover supplying and paying its large force, as well as maintaining a defense against the local governments and Western coalition forces. Due to the raging war and a severe loss of land-holdings ISIL members experienced a severe cut to wages. In the coming years, it is likely ISIL will become more dependent on external donors to finance its operations.
Mark Dubowitz of FDD has stated that Hezbollah spends a great deal of revenue on its fighting forces in Lebanon and Syria, and on dispensing social services in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah stays afloat thanks to ongoing support from Iran, which has contributed billions since the group’s formation. The group has a vast network of illegal businesses around the world. For this reason, it's often referred to as a cartel as much as a terrorist group. Hezbollah has laundered money and run front companies on six continents.
Al-Qaeda's Branch in Syria - HTS
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), is the Al-Qaeda contingent in Syria and generates tens of millions of dollars per year. The group is reliant on maintaining its image as an alternative to ISIL. To meet this goal they pay for sharia courts, provide healthcare, electricity, water, and subsidized food. HTS also runs several charitable operations to appease to the locals and solicit donations. The biggest cost to the group, however, is soldiers’ salaries and military equipment, which is primarily financed through ransom, foreign donations, and the exploitation of resources from the land it controls. Recently HST lost a great deal of oil-rich land to ISIL and has been more dependent on kidnapping to make up for the lost revenue.
The Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA)
The Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA), is not as well financed as many other organizations but has a significant advantage in its mobility and low-cost operations and largely operates in a poorly governed territory. By exploiting vulnerable populations for resources, the group generated at least $10 million a year until 2015. They have historically taken advantage of the region’s unpoliced borders to carry out raids against villages for food and livestock, but their funding has recently declined and as a result, they have struggled to pay their fighters’ salaries. A key strength of ISWA’s resilience is their lack of reliance on the banking sector. The group has managed to rely on the hawala system to move money and accept donations without being tracked.
Each organization is different and will require different solutions to stay ahead of. Whether it’s through sanctions of financial institutions or cracking down on the illicit operations that provide financing to terrorist organizations it’s important that policymakers have the tools necessary to tackle the job. To stay up to date, hear interviews, see news clips, and view other resources check out Mark Dubowitz of FDD on YouTube.
This past January, Iran moved to scale back its death sentences for those incarcerated for drug-related crimes seemingly as an attempt to shift the international community’s focus away from Iran’s deplorable human rights record. While the move was greeted with optimism at the time, many were skeptical about whether this signaled the beginning of changes to a country long-viewed as one of the worst on human rights or whether it was a cheap political stunt meant to gain positive public attention. This begs another question: since the new year, has Iran managed to continue making positive changes to its criminal justice system or have things remained the same as usual?
The Human Rights Watch recently stated that since May the Iranian courts have sentenced over 200 Dervishes, (members of an an Islamic minority group) to prison terms and other punishments in trials that violate their basic rights. The courts issued sentences that included prison terms up to 26 years, flogging, internal exile, travel bans, and a ban on membership in social and political groups. International human rights laws classify flogging as a form of torture.
The country’s use of Sharia law has garnered significant criticism from the international community. Under these rules, some behaviors that could result in execution include insulting the Prophet, atheism, homosexuality, adultery, and drug-related crimes. While executions have declined, nearly three decades ago, Iran had the highest rate in the world. Currently, Iran is second only to China in the number of executions per year.
What likely prompted Iran’s need to appease international pressure was the descent of public opinion surrounding its political and economic systems. In May 2017, President Rouhani was elected to a second term in office, however many questioned the legitimacy of his victory due to the undeniable discrimination against hundreds of candidates on the basis of gender, religious belief, and political opinion. Beyond the presidency, there was civil unrest over the appointments of other high-level officials who have been implicated in severe human rights violations.
While many Iranian human rights defenders served prison sentences for communicating with the EU and the UN, those agencies worked with Iran to renew an existing human rights agreement that Iran was in violation of. In addition, many individual governments including Australia, Sweden, and Switzerland began bilateral human rights talks with Iran.
By the end of 2017, thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest poverty, corruption, and political repression in the largest civil rights demonstration in Iran since 2009. The authorities suppressed freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and went so far as to jail peaceful protestors on the grounds of “national security” charges. Many of those targeted were political opponents of the party in power, journalists, social media influences, students, filmmakers, documentarians, musicians, writers and human rights activists ranging from women’s rights defenders to environmentalists. There is also evidence that there was a deliberate targeting of trade union leaders, anti-death penalty campaigners, civil rights lawyers and individuals demanding information on missing loved ones and suspicious disappearances from as far back as the 1980s. Many prisoners undertook hunger strikes to protest their unjust detainment.
Reports emerged that police and military personnel killed and injured unarmed protesters by using firearms and other excessive force. On December 31, the Minister of Information and Communications Technology blocked access to social media sites used by activists to coordinate demonstrations such as Instagram and the popular messaging application Telegram. Shortly after these events, the sentencing reforms to criminals of drug offenses was announced. The timing of the announcement was suspected to be intentional by many.
Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a non-partisan think tank, has highlighted Iran’s deplorable human rights record and has called for greater accountability by the U.S. and the international community. Despite the protests and jailing, most media attention related to Iran focuses on the regime’s nuclear ambitions. Dubowitz and FDD have long been championing the need to hold Iran accountable for its regional aggression and domestic repression.