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Iran’s Ban on Cryptocurrency Mining Unlikely To Stave off Energy Shortages, Protests

Elliptic, a cryptocurrency analysis firm, has recently estimated that about 4.5 percent of all the world’s bitcoin mining operations take place in Iran.

It was widely reported on Tuesday that Iranian authorities had imposed a ban on cryptocurrency mining until through March 6, in an effort to prevent energy shortages throughout the winter. It is the second such ban to be imposed this year, though questions continue to swirl about the extent of the prior ban’s enforcement, given that many of the entities responsible for both licensed and unlicensed cryptocurrency mining operations are linked to the terrorist Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The prior ban was imposed in the wake of large-scale protests over power cuts during the summer. The protests resulted in serious and sometimes fatal clashes between Iranian citizens and regime authorities, and helped to fuel concerns in Tehran regarding the ongoing influence of nationwide uprisings in January 2018 and November 2019. The latest ban was presumably motivated in large part by concerns over the potential for further unrest should Iranians find themselves without reliable access to home heating or light during the winter.

Cryptocurrency mining is an extremely energy-intensive process, involving the constant operation of computer servers tasked with verifying transactions via complex calculations. But given that cryptocurrency is effectively unconnected to any specific legal or financial authority, the Iranian regime seized upon it last year as a potential means of generating revenue and engaging in international exchanges without serious risks of sanctions enforcement.

Even before the government officially licensed certain cryptocurrency mining operations, the IRGC became involved in the industry as a means of expanding a financial empire that already included vast swaths of the black market and accounted for the vast majority of the country’s gross domestic product.

The illicit nature of that empire has helped the IRGC weather the effects of economic sanctions even as the national economy has deteriorated. Cryptocurrency mining and energy shortages have only exacerbated the tensions between the nation’s interests and the interests of the IRGC and other regime institutions.

Those tensions will certainly continue to grow if the new ban does not actually curtail IRGC-linked mining operations. But even if it does, there is no guarantee that Iran will be able to stave off the feared shortages this winter. This is evident from the fact that the cryptocurrency mining ban is only one of several measures the regime is undertaking in an effort to curtail consumption.

Authorities recently announced a program called “Fuel for All,” which involves the provision of 15 liters of gasoline each month at a subsidized cost of 15,000 rials for individual consumers. Under the program, additional quantities will need to be purchased at market rate, which is currently around doubt the subsidized rate.

Prior to implementation of this program, about 70 percent of Iran’s consumer gasoline was subsidized, but now that figure will be cut back to less than half of monthly consumption. According to an analysis by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, this can be expected to result in higher fuel costs for the vast majority of consumers, along with a six-fold increase in revenue for the Iranian government. At the same time, it will bring about an increase in liquidity which will help to drive already out-of-control inflation.

Similar effects can be expected from an imminent hike in the cost of electricity. Although the government currently plans to keep the existing price in place for households and businesses with moderate consumption, the state-run electricity provider will set different energy caps for different regions and charge a price 50 percent higher for those who exceed it by 1.5 times. Those who use twice the allotted amount of electricity will 1.5 times the baseline rate, or 10,000 rials instead of 4,000.

Of course, demand for fuel and electricity will be influenced by a variety of uncontrollable factors in the coming months, including the severity of winter weather and the resilience of Iran’s aging civilian infrastructure. Protests over the past year have variously highlighted flaws in that infrastructure as evidence that entities such as the IRGC are diverting national wealth away from the people’s vital needs and toward pet projects such as support for paramilitary proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

If Tehran fails in its efforts to stave off new energy shortages, those talking points will no doubt resurface in new protests and may ultimately revive the explicit message of regime change that defined the uprisings of 2018 and 2019. Outstanding concerns over this prospect are apparent from an ongoing upsurge in repressive activity such as high-profile executions and the arrest or harassment of those who attend funerals for political prisoners such as Heydar Ghorbani, a member of a Kurdish dissident group executed on December 19 in spite of international outcry regarding the lack of due process and allegations of torture.