To adapt the famous opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, it may be said that while all states are paradoxical, every state is paradoxical in its own way. The single most consequential paradox of the Islamic Republic of Iran is that by anchoring the state to a particular formulation of Shiism, its founders all but guaranteed that one day a large swath of society would come to question the very ideological foundations of the country’s political system. The ongoing protests that have now swept through no less than 80 towns and cities in Iran—including its capital, Tehran—were sparked by the killing of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who was beaten to death by the state’s “morality police” following her arrest on September 13 for allegedly wearing “immodest” clothing. But the rapid spread of these protests is rooted in a much broader crisis of legitimacy that was born of the yawning gap between state leaders’ claims and the everyday reality of economic difficulties and endless repression by morality enforcers and other security bodies.
This is not the first time that such chickens have come home to roost. Iran has seen several bouts of popular protest in the last decade, and most recently in 2019, when a sudden rise in fuel prices prompted thousands to take to the streets, only to see their rebellion brutally quashed. More than a few commentators have argued that the protests of September 2022 are different from those in 2019—or for that matter, from the 2009 “Green Revolution” that erupted following Iran’s contested presidential election. They note that the current demonstrations are geographically widespread like those of 2009, are spearheaded by women from various social classes who are demanding equality and personal freedoms, and also have an important ethnic dimension, since Amini was a member of Iran’s Kurdish community. This mix of factors has created a difficult—even unprecedented—challenge for the regime.
Observers should be cautious about reaching hasty conclusions regarding long- or medium-term implications of the protests for the evolution—or even the survival—of the Iranian regime, or regarding their wider significance for US policy on Iran.
But observers should be cautious about reaching hasty conclusions regarding long- or medium-term implications of the protests for the evolution—or even the survival—of the Iranian regime, or regarding their wider significance for US policy on Iran. It is especially important to avoid conflating advocacy with analysis—a common occupational hazard in Washington, DC. The key question is not whether Iran is controlled by ruthless leaders who deserve to be replaced by a government that protects basic rights and freedoms while securing the accountability of elected leaders. All reasonable supporters of Iran, not to mention most Iranians themselves, would probably prefer some kind of peaceful democratic scenario to the survival of an autocracy. Instead, two critical questions merit attention: First, what is the probability of a democratic outcome in Iran versus other possible scenarios? Second, what helpful role—if any—can the international community and the United States play in influencing Iran’s tumultuous political arena? Unfortunately, there are no simple or even pleasing answers to either of these two questions.
Organization, Leaders, and Regime Interlocuters
Because of the precarious nature of prediction, it is impossible to rule out any outcome for Iran’s current demonstrations. All kinds of scenarios are possible, particularly if the country’s security forces choose to massacre large numbers of protesters. But since this kind of massive state violence could prompt tensions within the regime, Iran’s leaders would probably want to avoid such a scenario, if nothing else for reasons of sheer expediency.
Still, even if no turn of events can or should be ruled out, there are some scenarios that are more likely than others. But ferreting out probabilities as opposed to possibilities requires some informed sense of the political conditions that would most likely favor a move from loose rebellion to an organized movement that could wield real leverage against a regime that is desperately determined to survive.
While scholars offer a range of theories for this kind of process, a good place to start is one recent observation by analyst Borzou Daragahi, who argues that, “Demonstrators would do well to heed lessons from recent revolts against autocracy in the Arab world. Uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011 and Algeria in 2019 ousted leaders when the military turned against the longtime ruler. Uprisings against longtime autocrats in Libya in 2011 and Sudan in 2019 succeeded after protesters’ political allies visited foreign capitals and convinced regional powers that the opposition could responsibly lead their nations.”
By itself, protest does not change political realities. To push regimes to liberalize, protesters not only need inspirational leaders who can transform disparate protests into organized collective movements; they also need interlocuters within the regime.
These observations contain a key insight, one that scholars of social movements have long emphasized: By itself, protest does not change political realities. To push regimes to liberalize, protesters not only need inspirational leaders who can transform disparate protests into organized collective movements; they also need interlocuters who, by virtue of their positions within or close to regimes, can leverage the demands of demonstrators to convince hardliners to stand back from repression and to open the political arena.
Political Repression’s Paradoxes and Constraints
Unfortunately, such intermediaries are often in short supply, as some of the very examples offered in the quote above show. In Egypt and Algeria, military leaders manipulated the energy of protesters to kick out political leaders whose missteps had endangered the interests of the army. In both cases, the military’s power was eventually stabilized—if not increased. Indeed, interlocuters can be useless—and even dangerous—if they at first appear to lend a hand, only to later turn against protesters.
In Iran, the problem protesters currently face is not only the paucity of leaders within their own ranks, but rather that there appear to be no political or military leaders in or close to the regime who have the clout to get Iran’s hardliners to step back from the brink. This absence of regime interlocuters is partly a consequence of hardliners’ efforts to push all of Iran’s Reformists out of parliament and executive institutions of the state. In Iran today there is no figure like former President Mohammad Khatami, who in the late 1990s and early 2000s represented the Reformists. Nor is there even a tepid version of former President Hassan Rouhani, who from 2013 to 2021 tried to bring some Reformists back into the government, even as he accommodated hardliners. This situation ultimately reflects the preponderant power of Iran’s unified security apparatus and its two key formations: the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its “voluntary” popular forces known as the Basij Resistance Force.
The IRGC’s constitutionally-mandated role is to defend the ideology of the state, and especially the doctrine of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist). IRGC leaders, who are dedicated to this mission and enjoy the financial perks that come with being part of the security apparatus, have long viewed Reformists as practically an existential ideological threat since they fear that any proposal to create even limited space for more pluralistic politics will produce a slippery slope to revolution. For the IRGC—and for Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei— having even a little political reform is perilous. Hardliners thus believe that Reformists must ultimately be stopped, blocked, or repressed—as they were in 2009, when several leading Reformists, including President Khatami, were placed under house arrest.
For the IRGC—and for Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei— having even a little political reform is perilous. Hardliners thus believe that Reformists must ultimately be stopped, blocked, or repressed.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s 2021 election heralded a system bereft of Reformists, and the resulting hegemony of hardline forces has deprived the regime of leaders who might have been able to reach out to opposition forces in ways that could deflect, or even divide, the protesters. Successful repression, combined with the closing of the political arena, has bred its own paradoxical logic and constraints, which, from the vantage point of the regime, leave Iran’s leaders with only one obvious option: relentless repression. But while the regime’s resorting to force is accelerating its legitimacy crisis, a fragmented opposition and a lack of regime intermediaries make it very likely that security forces will prevail in the current crisis, even if doing so incurs a very high political and human cost.
Preventing the “Disintegration” of the Regime
The IRGC’s readiness to pay these costs has undoubtedly been reinforced by the regime’s concerns about the Kurdish dimension of the protests. To appreciate the regime’s extreme sensitivity on this issue, it is crucial to remember that the institutions and ideology of the Islamic Republic have been imposed on a multiethnic society in which Persian Shia constitute roughly sixty-one percent of the population. Ethnic and religious minorities, including Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Sunni Balochis, have suffered structural discrimination under a regime whose hardliners have long nurtured fears of state disintegration.
Such worries appeared in February 2022 with the leak of an IRGC survey warning that escalating economic woes and other social pressures were leading Iranian society to “a state of explosion.” The fact that the very body charged with defending the ideological purity of the Islamic Republic maintained that “several shocks” had “shaken public trust” suggested that IRGC leaders fully grasped the need to regain some measure of the Iranian people’s trust. Thus it is perhaps not surprising that the regime first responded to Amini’s killing with some degree of restraint. The death of a young woman who came from a small village, who had never been involved in politics, and who was also a Kurd seems to have given the authorities an additional reason to avoid measures that might provoke a wider backlash.
While attending the recent United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, Raisi assailed the protests and signaled his support for a crackdown.
Echoing these concerns, President Raisi stated that he had contacted Amini’s family and promised that her death would be “steadfastly” investigated. But while the regime initially avoided using an iron fist, the rapid spread of the protests seems to have quickly convinced Iran’s leaders to back a full clampdown, lest the double contagion of rebellion and state fragmentation develop a momentum of its own. While attending the recent United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, Raisi assailed the protests and signaled his support for a crackdown.
Although Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei surely backs the regime’s clampdown, during a 55-minute speech on September 21, he assailed the US and warned young people to resist “western powers’ deception,” but made no mention of the protests. His second appearance in as many days, the speech was probably pitched to show that he has now recovered from what was, according to credible reports, a significant bout of illness. The absence of any reference to the demonstrations in Khamenei’s speech was not surprising. For now, his best bet is to downplay the protests, especially since many of the demonstrators have directed their wrath at him. But if the protests escalate, as seems to be the case, he may have to choose between fully backing Iran’s security forces or trying to act as kind of national arbiter in his capacity as supreme leader. It is likely that he will choose the latter rather than the former.
Indeed, with his latest health crisis underscoring the contentious issue of who will succeed him, Khamenei needs to project a tough position that is in line with the IRGC, which will undoubtedly push for a successor committed to sustaining a close alliance with the country’s security apparatus. With one eye on the short term, the IRGC encouraged its own supporters to mobilize in the streets of Tehran and other cities. The political significance of this move should not be underestimated. Although there is widespread discontent in Iran, the regime still commands support among tens of thousands of young people. In Iran’s divided and polarized society, the organization of power favors a regime that has severed ties with whatever leaders might have served—however imperfectly—as mediators between the state and a huge swath of Iran’s disaffected, albeit unorganized, youth.
Three Potential Scenarios
The above analysis suggests three potential scenarios resulting from Iran’s ongoing protests:
Regime Collapse: The most unlikely scenario is the full collapse of the regime and its replacement by a coalition of leaders committed to supplanting the Islamic Republic with a competitive democracy. The IRGC will surely do everything it deems necessary to prevent this outcome.
A Negotiated Peace: A second scenario is an effort by Khamenei and/or the president—perhaps with the support of some veteran hardliners—to end the regime’s confrontation with protesters, to restore order, and to institute measures designed to signal the regime’s desire to somehow heal or narrow the social breach. Given protesters’ fury, the absence of interlocuters, and the coercive power of the IRGC, this outcome also seems very unlikely—although it cannot be excluded.
Repression by a Strengthened Security Apparatus: With violence escalating on both sides, the most probable scenario is that the IRGC, with the backing of Khamenei, will crush the opposition and then prepare the stage for a successor to the supreme leader, one who will reach no compromise with Iran’s enraged citizens. This strategy, as noted above, could always backfire; but odds are that the regime will prevail, because from its position, the alternative is unacceptable.
The US Role
Iran’s ongoing protests come at a difficult time for both Iran and the US. Indeed, with Iranians currently dying in the streets, it is unlikely that the US can move forward with the Vienna talks on restoring the Iran nuclear agreement. But a September 26 statement by Iran’s Foreign Minister that Iran is ready to find a solution to one of the key bones of contention in the negotiations—namely the International Atomic Energy Agency’s demand that Tehran explain the presence of uranium particles in three undeclared sites—suggests that for a regime facing mounting protests, the promise of ending sanctions that have crippled its economy might trump other considerations. But at the moment, prospects for a deal still seem remote.
Some Washington-based Iran experts argue that the Biden administration should not only walk away from talks but should also take concrete steps to support Iran’s protesters, including issuing public statements of support for them and providing technology designed to circumvent the regime’s efforts to shut down social media platforms. These proposals reflect the perception—or the hope—that, as one expert put it, Iran may finally be moving toward “the advent of a representative Iranian government that puts the country’s national interests before its revolutionary ideology.” Many observers of Iran—including this author—share this desire. But it is very unlikely that the fate of Iran’s ongoing political struggles will be shaped in any significant degree by what the US does or does not do. What Iran’s hardliners ultimately want is to prevent any kind of reopening of the political arena that might encourage more protests or that allows the Reformists to make their case for political dialogue both at home and abroad. For the IRGC and its allies, this is an existential battle that they cannot afford to lose, even as they face thousands of citizens who are desperately fighting for an entirely different future.