It is no surprise that a recent announcement by Iran’s attorney general that the government was abolishing its “morality police” elicited widespread confusion. Indeed, while some officials indicated that changes to the role of the morality police were under discussion, others stated that there were no plans to abolish the force. Thus, the moral—and even political—victory that appeared to be within protesters’ grasp has apparently passed from their hands. This diverse protest movement, which arose in every corner of the country, and which has suffered some 14,000 arrests and as many as 448 deaths at the hands of the security forces—not to mention multiple credible reports of the rape of female detainees—has a long and arduous path before it.
Yet while there is no evidence that Iran’s political system is about to fall, the conflicting signals regarding the future of the country’s morality police seem to suggest that a debate has emerged in the highest levels of the regime. These fissures may turn out to be politically insignificant. But they could also expand in ways that might eventually increase the leverage of leaders who argue that the best way to defend the system is to advance a policy of limited political, or at least social, decompression. Indeed, what could emerge is a retooled “compartmentalized regime” strategy. This strategy would sustain a full-fledged crackdown in the country’s predominantly Kurdish and Balochi provinces, while also creating space for a regime-managed dialogue with the opposition in the Shia-Persian area that constitutes the regime’s geographical and political core. Fueled by ruthless political realism, this dual approach may eventually create ripple effects that could shift the political terrain.
The challenge for Iran’s protesters and their supporters both at home and abroad is to sustain the protests in ways that increase the clout of those Iranian leaders who favor dialogue.
Thus, the challenge for Iran’s protesters and their supporters both at home and abroad is to sustain the protests in ways that increase the clout of those Iranian leaders who favor dialogue. The regime’s recent efforts to reach out to former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and other Reformists could be a cynical political ploy. But whatever the motivations, the action could create its own momentum. Although imperfect and deeply uncertain, this scenario would be preferable to clinging to a regime-collapse strategy that is likely to only strengthen the hardline forces that are most opposed to change of any kind.
Full Repression in the Kurdish and Balochi Provinces
The compartmentalization of repression in Iran is a long-standing strategy that has echoes in governments throughout the Middle East. In Iran, this strategy has unfolded via a system that allows for a measure of state-managed competition in the Shia-Persian core, while also sustaining an often draconian system of state repression in provinces where ethnic Kurds, Arabs, and Balochis are the majority. With Shia Muslims constituting some 90 percent of the population, and citizens with Persian ethnicity making up about 60 percent of the population, this dual strategy has given the state a tool to repress, co-opt, and divide political leaders in the regime’s Shia-Persian national heartland. Simultaneously, the state has imposed security forces, educational systems, and discriminatory social and economic practices that some minorities (especially Sunnis) in the less central provinces argue constitutes a kind of second-class citizenship, or worse, a system of outright occupation.
In addition to demographics, sectarian considerations have also animated this dual strategy. While the Kurdish and Balochi communities are by no means culturally or linguistically monolithic, and while Iran’s rulers have brought some prominent leaders into the state’s political and security apparatus, most Sunni political and clerical leaders reject the official, Twelver Shia ideology known as “guardianship of the jurist.” The familial, personal, and economic ties that these Sunni minority communities have with their coreligionists across the border in Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey have only added the regime’s concerns. Indeed, the long-held belief of Iranian leaders—which President Ebrahim Raisi has repeatedly articulated—that the United States and its Sunni Gulf allies have backed these groups on both sides of the border has deepened the regime’s existential nightmare of national disintegration.
Indeed, the long-held belief of Iranian leaders—which President Ebrahim Raisi has repeatedly articulated—that the United States and its Sunni Gulf allies have backed these groups on both sides of the border has deepened the regime’s existential nightmare of national disintegration.
Volatile Regional Dynamics
The protests that have spread throughout Iran over the last two months have prompted Tehran to widen its clampdown on the Kurdish and Balochi provinces. But increased repression has only elicited more resistance, as was demonstrated in early November when Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi—who is widely considered to be Iran’s top Sunni cleric—demanded a referendum on state policies and called for a revision of the country’s constitution. The fact that he made these extraordinary demands just weeks after leaders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) issued what they claimed was a “last warning” to Ismaeelzahi underscored his determination to defy Tehran despite IRGC leaders’ promise to take whatever measures necessary, despite the costs.
These costs have escalated in both Iraq and Syria following Tehran’s military strikes against Kurdish forces in Iraq. The November 20–21 missile and drone attacks by IRGC forces on armed Kurdish groups took place alongside threats by IRGC leaders of a ground invasion if the “Iraqi army [sic] does not fortify the countries’ shared borders against Kurdish opposition groups.” Iraq’s new prime minister, Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani, who has been openly criticized by no less than Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has promised to rectify the situation, but probably lacks the authority and the means to shut down Kurdish groups.
Tehran’s attacks on Kurdish forces have also complicated its bid to sustain a difficult balancing act in Syria. Although allied to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Iran maintains vital yet tense relations with Turkey. The latter’s support for anti-Assad Sunni Islamist forces in Syria has often rankled Tehran. But Ankara’s recent threats to launch a ground operation against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria’s Idlib Governorate is surely welcome news in Tehran. Moreover, while Turkey’s ongoing efforts to push the anti-Assad Syrian National Army (SNA) and the Sunni Islamist organization Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham to create a unified command is bad news for Tehran and Damascus, Ankara’s mediating efforts could still benefit Tehran. After all, the SNA has often targeted Sunni Islamist and Kurdish forces, thus directly supporting Iran. But whatever the outcome of the murky game unfolding in northwestern Syria, Tehran has shaped a regional diplomacy that serves its often brutal quest to bring its own Kurdish provinces to heel.
Tehran’s Authoritarian Balancing Act in the “Persian Plateau”
Predictably, in the “Persian plateau” of the political system, Iran’s leaders have tried to undermine the protests not merely through repression but also by playing the minority threat card. “Kurdish opposition groups,” one hardline security official warned, “are using Amini’s case as an excuse to reach their decades-long goal of separating Kurdistan from Iran, but they will not succeed.” The official was referring, of course, to Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish woman whose September 16 beating and death at the hands of Iran’s security forces ignited the protests.
With the apparent support of Ayatollah Khamenei, hardliners have rejected any demands for reforming the constitution.
Similarly, following the October 26 bombing of a sacred Shia pilgrimage site in the southern city of Shiraz, Iranian security agents blamed “foreign” agents from Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, trying to stir up sectarian Shia-Sunni tensions. Because such scare tactics have probably further enraged Iranian youth and women in particular—while having little to no apparent effect on the efforts of the protesters to sustain a united front—the regime’s divide-and-rule tactic has only deepened the hole that it has already dug for itself. The regime might still manage to exit this pit by intensifying what is already a bloody crackdown. But doing so could prove politically risky. With the apparent support of Ayatollah Khamenei, hardliners have rejected any demands for reforming the constitution.
The problem for the regime is not simply that it might benefit from finding some way to make tactical concessions to the opposition in a bid to divide it, since that would be a choice directly from a dictator’s handbook. Rather, the more elemental structural issue is that while political power ultimately rests in the hands of the supreme leader—and in the hands of his allies in the security sector and both the clerical and lay vanguard that constitute the ruling elite—the political system has also been sustained by a volatile mix of institutions, norms, and rules that have, to different degrees and at different points, created some space for rival political elites to mobilize supporters and articulate competing interests, especially on economic issues. Having imprisoned or silenced most Reformist leaders well before the protests began, the regime deprived itself of the very political mechanisms that former President Mohammad Khatami tried to leverage to push for reforms, and that former President Hassan Rouhani failed to revive. Faced by a relentless opposition that has exploded in the urban and rural areas of the Persian plateau, the government’s equally relentless repression has limited its own options.
Faced with this situation, the regime has in recent weeks reached out to several opposition leaders with roots in the Reformist movement. The most important of these is former President Khatami, who on November 14 stated that the overthrow of the regime was neither possible nor ideal, and called upon protesters (and by implication, the regime) to engage in a dialogue. In response, an IRGC-linked media outlet stated that the former president was well placed to pursue such an initiative. Ever the optimist, in early December, Khatami praised what he called the protesters’ “beautiful slogan” of “woman, life, freedom,” and urged that freedom not be “trampled in the name of security.” Raisi’s government, he said, should “extend a helping hand to [the protesters] and, with their help, recognize the wrong aspects of governance and move towards good governance before it is too late.”
As this back-and-forth between the regime and Khatami unfolded, Iranian Chief Justice Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i and Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani met with a group of veteran Reformists including Azar Mansoori, Behzad Nabavi, Gholamhossein Karbaschi, Hossein Marashi, Abbas Abdi, and Masoumeh Ebtekar. Mansoori reportedly laid out a list of requests that, in addition to highlighting the need for dialogue, outlined other steps, such as controlling the hardline “loudmouths who anger the people,” unblocking social media, removing plainclothes security officials and the morality police from the streets, and allowing at least one political party to hold a protest.
Moreover, Mansoori called for changing the electoral and political process—a classic goal of the Reformist movement. Signaling the limits of the regime’s sectarian divide-and-rule strategy, Mansoori had previously endorsed the abovementioned Sunni cleric Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, adding, “Lack of political legitimacy is the most obvious threat to the country’s national security,” and asking, “Do you want to make legitimate changes? Don’t erase the problem, find out the reason for the people’s protest and ask yourself is there any way other than free elections and an independent civil society?” Her demands were subsequently echoed by other Reformist leaders, who called for a national referendum on constitutional reforms.
These demands, and the debate that they may be eliciting, are reminiscent of the growing calls for constitutional reforms that were made both in advance of and following Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death in 1989. With Iranian leaders and the wider populace once again anticipating a struggle over who will be chosen as the country’s new supreme leader after Khamenei dies, both sides are using this occasion to argue either for or against political change. Hardliners have, of course, rejected any demands to rewrite the constitution. And yet, as noted above, there appear to be individuals in the IRGC itself who want to talk, even as the regime maintains an iron fist.
However, this convenient discovery of the benefits of negotiation may have come too late. Khatami is 79 years old, and thus, like many of his Reformist allies, speaks for a generation of leaders—the “children of the revolution”—who no longer have the ear of the next generation. Divided, and suffering from their own legitimacy crisis among the wider population, the Reformists may not be in a position to deliver, particularly if the emerging fissures in the regime turn out to be more of a political mirage than a sustainable political reality. Still, advocates of negotiation in other autocracies that have suffered from similar liabilities have nevertheless used internal regime tensions in ways that created unanticipated outcomes. In Poland, Brazil, and South Africa, to name just a few examples, the results were positive, whereas in Russia, reforms led to a less happy outcome. The path in Iran is uncertain, and is full of detours and even landmines. But given the alternatives, testing the regime’s tentative outreach may open up opportunities that cannot be fully envisioned at this fraught moment.
Divided, and suffering from their own legitimacy crisis among the wider population, the Reformists may not be in a position to deliver, particularly if the emerging fissures in the regime turn out to be more of a political mirage than a sustainable political reality.
Sending the Right Message
The prospect of a long, drawn out, and uncertain struggle is difficult to accept. Several leading Washington think tanks, inspired by Iran’s fearless protesters and the apparent disarray in the regime, are now shaping research initiatives that will trace the possible paths from uprising to democratic revolution. Efforts to imagine or even foster such a dynamic are well intentioned. But for the moment, the protesters’ immediate challenge is to keep up the pressure and sustain as much collective action as possible, not because such exertions will necessarily topple the regime, but because they could amplify the leverage of political leaders who favor negotiations over endless confrontation.
The US and its western allies could help this endeavor by accelerating two steps that have already been taken, but that still require robust follow-up: First, mobilizing multilateral institutions like the United Nations to address Iran’s human rights abuses, and second, relaxing international sanctions on the social media technologies that are vital to sustaining communication during Iran’s protest movement. Neither of these two measures will produce the democratic victory that the opposition and a good part of the Iranian population surely want. But they might help realign a grossly imbalanced domestic playing field that has empowered hardliners while also signaling that a government that is pummeling its own people while the drones it sells to Russia are being aimed at Ukrainian civilians will only earn the contempt of the international community and of people around the world who have, like many Iranians, taken to the streets to demand justice and respect.
Featured image credit: IRNA