One of the keys to understanding the Islamic Republic of Iran is that despite the regime’s still formidable grip on power, its ruling elite believe that the regime is under constant threat from within and without. When Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei asserts that the protests sweeping through much of Iran in recent weeks have been fomented by the United States and Israel, he is not simply trying to deflect attention away from the regime; he actually believes it. And yet, if his warnings about outside “conspiracies” are predictable, what appears to worry Khamenei most is that the protests might exacerbate tensions within the regime itself.
Such tensions would hardly signal that the regime is on the precipice of collapse. On the contrary, its crackdown will probably end the protests and restore what the regime would call order. But the most important question is not what happens today, tomorrow, or in the next six to twelve months. The key issue is whether the regime’s bloody acts will eventually induce elements within the ruling elite to push for a tactical retreat away from the repressive and draconian “moral” policies and policing that hardliners have supported. Consequently, some kind of political decompression strategy is not inconceivable.
To probe this prospect, it is important to move beyond the binary analysis that has marked US coverage of Iran’s demonstrations. Between the commonly proposed options of regime survival or collapse are other potential scenarios, including a return of Iran’s Reformists to the political arena over the next five years. For US policy makers, think tank experts, and Iranian expat activists in the West, such a timeframe would be very long to wait for a change from within—versions of which have repeatedly failed since former President Mohammad Khatami began pushing for reforms in 1997. But however difficult or unsatisfactory, an evolution in the politics of Iran cannot be excluded, and perhaps should even be encouraged.
The key issue is whether the regime’s bloody acts will eventually induce elements within the ruling elite to push for a tactical retreat away from the repressive and draconian “moral” policies and policing that hardliners have supported. Consequently, some kind of political decompression strategy is not inconceivable.
A Trap of Its Own Making
The binary, either-or analysis of Iran’s politics suggests two very different scenarios, both of which proceed from an appreciation of the enormous power of the regime’s repressive apparatus. For analysts who see in the protests the “beginning of the end,” the regime’s effort to quell demonstrations has not only widened the breach between state and society; more importantly, it has accelerated the Iranian people’s resolve to topple the regime. This moment may not be imminent, but time is on the side of Iranians pushing for a democratic revolution. Meanwhile, those who argue that the regime will prevail assume that Iran’s security apparatus has ample means with which to crush the protests. This dynamic, some suggest, may ultimately give Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) the hegemonic power to which it has long aspired but never fully achieved, thereby shifting the regime to an even tougher version of autocracy.
In the short term, however, the most probable of these two scenarios is a hardening of the regime. But going down this path also carries risks stemming from the potentially destabilizing effects of mounting repression. Iran’s complex system of governance was designed to contain ideological and political struggles within the ruling regime while limiting the capacity of the wider populace—and the nation’s leaders—to pose a serious threat to its survival. The result has been a game of cat and mouse that has unfolded in many arenas, including that of elections for the Iranian Parliament and the president. This game produced a constant pendulum swing, with periods of repression and political closure followed by periods of decompression and opening. However, with the election of President Ebrahim Raisi in 2021 and the consolidation of power by hardliners in all three branches of government, the pendulum seemed for a moment to stop swinging.
But if Iran’s hardliners welcomed this shift, the problem they now face is that a move toward a fully autocratic regime could deny Iran’s rulers the potential benefits that would come with a decompression strategy, one that could create some room for the opposition to let off steam while giving the regime an opportunity to identify—and if need be, repress—its most vocal opponents. The current revolt underscores the mixed blessings of full-throttle autocracy: with the regime lacking room for maneuver or negotiation, it views its options for dealing with the ever-expanding breach between state and society as limited to arresting or killing its opponents. Apart from the moral implications of this situation, relying on a strategy of escalating force risks provoking tensions in the ruling elite. Thus the regime finds itself in a trap of its own making.
Tensions in the Security Apparatus
This trap has created multiple dilemmas for Iran’s leaders, the most significant of which stems from the reality that while the regime’s leaders feel that their only option is repression, a Tiananmen Square-style solution of massacring hundreds or even thousands of opponents could provoke an even wider dynamic of mass national mobilization. The most serious problem for Iran’s rulers is therefore not the moral issues raised by the use force; rather, their primary concern is that the escalating use of state violence might prompt defections from within the security apparatus itself.
Iran’s founders created a system designed to deter moves by any one part of the security apparatus against the ruling elite. This “coup proofing” strategy began by putting institutional distance between the professional military and its generals on one side, and the political institutions of the state and its most loyal ideological cadres on the other.
Aware of such dangers, Iran’s founders created a system designed to deter moves by any one part of the security apparatus against the ruling elite. This “coup proofing” strategy began by putting institutional distance between the professional military and its generals on one side, and the political institutions of the state and its most loyal ideological cadres on the other. The military was thus largely kept out of any direct role in politics, while the IRGC, along with the volunteer Basij Force, secured a place of pride as defenders of the revolution and its guiding ideology. In time, the role of these two bodies was buttressed by an array of other security forces that were embedded in the Ministry of the Interior, the judiciary and in the Office of the Supreme Leader.
However, this complex division of labor has not prevented tensions from developing in what is now a sprawling security apparatus. These tensions derive in part from competition over economic resources, and also from competition for access to and influence with Khamenei. The country’s ongoing protests have sharpened these divisions, thus posing a growing challenge for its supreme leader. The essence of this challenge is that while he derives authority from his ability to mediate elite conflict, Khamenei must also prevent even minor fissures in the ranks of the security apparatus from becoming a problem for the regime.
Thus far, Khamenei and his allies have managed this dilemma by using two tactics. First, rather than favor any one group, Khamenei has tried to maintain a rough balance of power between all of the security sector’s various units. President Raisi seems to have played a role in advancing this balancing strategy when, in response to the protesters, he called on the military rather than the IRGC to quell the protests. At the same time, underscoring his role as Iran’s supreme guide (and arbiter), on October 3—during his first extended appearance in weeks—Khamenei told a graduating class of military officers that their first task was to ensure the personal, social, and economic security of Iranian citizens.
This focus on the concrete issue of security, together with his emphasis on the “dignity” of all the security forces, was notable for the few words that Khamenei offered on ideology, religion, or doctrine—the very issues that are presumably of particular concern to the IRGC and other related groups, including the country’s “morality police.” His message boiled down to a call for unity, and, by implication, a warning against dissension in the ranks.
The regime appears to have used force against the protestors in a manner designed to mitigate the political dilemmas and internal tensions that could arise from escalating state violence.
Second, the regime appears to have used force against the protestors in a manner designed to mitigate the political dilemmas and internal tensions that could arise from escalating state violence. This does not mean that the regime is acting with restraint; quite to the contrary, it has killed at least 185 protestors and has arrested many more. But for its own purposes and interests, the regime has tried to avoid putting its security forces in a situation that would lead to a massacre of hundreds or even thousands of civilians.
Such an event, especially if it unfolds in Tehran—the political and economic heart of the regime and the country—could exacerbate existing tensions within the security apparatus. Thus, while the regime has arrested potential critics in the press and the country’s artistic community, and has greenlighted an assault by IRGC forces on student protestors at Iran’s prestigious Sharif University, it has thus far skirted the kind of mass bloodshed that many decades ago triggered divisions in the military and police, thus setting the stage for both the fall of the Shah and the revolution that followed.
This strategic calculation goes hand in hand with the massive use of force in the country’s predominantly Kurdish and Baluchi provinces. The September 30 massacre of worshippers in the southeastern, predominantly Sunni Baluchi town of Zahedan underscored the regime’s determination to quell any possible signs of rebellion in ethnic and religious minority communities. The regime’s fear that these communities were driving protest in the country predates the killing of Masha Amini, the Kurdish Iranian woman whose death at the hands of the country’s “morality police” first triggered the current protests.
Indeed, as one analyst notes, weeks before Amini’s death, tensions between the security apparatus and the Baluchi community were already high after an Iranian officer raped and murdered a young Baluchi girl. When news of Amini’s death reached Baluchistan—a province with close ties to the Kurdish community—these tensions were further inflamed. But even if the regime is ready to use a massive degree of force against Iran’s Baluchis and Kurds, by portraying their real or imagined political activism as a threat to the geographic integrity and security of the Iranian state while also avoiding the use of mass violence in the Persian political heartland the regime is trying to shield its security forces from the kinds of internal divisions that could arise if and when the IRGC or the Basij are completely unleashed upon their fellow Shia citizens.
The Position of the Political Elite
Recent statements by leaders who are close to or occupy important positions in the regime suggest that Iran’s ruling cadres are well aware of the dilemmas created by protesters who are calling for the downfall of the regime and its supreme leader. At least for the moment, there seems to be no room for compromise and no leaders from above or below—including the president, who in fact pushed for an expansion of the “morality police”—capable of taking up the task of negotiation. That fact alone seems to be making some regime supporters nervous.
Some of these concerns have been articulated by religious leaders such as Grand Ayatollah Noori Hamedani. A hardline, Qom-based scholar, Hamedani condemned the rioters on September 23 while at the same time insisting that, “The leaders must listen to the demands of the people, resolve their problems and show sensitivity to their rights.” He then added that, “Any insult to the sanctities and any attack on the rights of the people and public property are condemned.”
Speaker of Parliament Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a former commander of the IRGC, has echoed this theme, but using much more pragmatic language. “The important point of the [past] protests,” he reportedly told a closed door meeting of MPs, “was that they were reform-seeking and not aimed at overthrowing” the system. Seeking to position himself as a kind of mediator, he urged the demonstrators “not to allow their protest to turn into destabilizing and toppling” of institutions, while also promising to “amend the structures of the morality police” in order to remediate the conditions that led to Amini’s death and to the ensuing protests. Ghalibaf made these remarks about a week before holding a meeting with President Raisi and judiciary chief Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei to chart the regime’s response to the escalating demonstrations.
And former Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani has taken Ghalibaf’s point about the morality police one step further by arguing that the regime’s response to a protest movement that has coalesced around women and the rejection of state-imposed “Islamic” dress codes represents a misunderstanding of the very role of the state. “The hijab,” Larijani argued, “has a cultural solution, it does not need decrees and referendums” He then added that, “Islamic government means that people manage their own affairs. It is the same in terms of social justice. If the affairs are managed by the people, their talents will flourish.”
Because the hardest of Iran’s hardliners view this largely Reformist message as intrinsically subversive, they are not about to make any concessions to a leaderless movement that they see as pointing a dagger toward the very heart of the system.
Iranian hardliners, including perhaps Ghalibaf himself, are unlikely to accept a proposition that allows ordinary citizens to determine what is and is not “Islamic,” rather than having this fall to official clerics and their allies in the ideological apparatus of the state. Despite his being a veteran stalwart of the traditional conservative elite, Larijani’s language echoes the position of the country’s leading Reformists, including former President Mohammad Khatami, who has been under house arrest for more than a decade. Still, Larijani’s statement is not so far from the warnings issued by Ghalibaf and what might be termed other “pragmatic hardliners.” What all these leaders seem to be saying is that the effort to run an Islamic nation is undermining the very religious legitimacy of the Islamic Republic in the eyes of the “grandchildren” of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
An Eventual Opening for the Reformists?
Because the hardest of Iran’s hardliners view this largely Reformist message as intrinsically subversive, they are not about to make any concessions to a leaderless movement that they see as pointing a dagger toward the very heart of the system. But in the longer term, a bloody standoff between the regime and a significant part of the populace could and perhaps already is creating pressures within the regime’s ruling cadres. Thus the logic of some kind of political decompression endures, even if it may take some years to manifest itself in an opening to the forces that have effectively been banned from the political arena.
The current regional and global context is making life much easier for Iranian leaders who reject any reform of the political system. Apart from their control of economic resources and the state’s coercive apparatus, the hardliner’s ace in the hole has always been a state of sustained yet contained conflict with the United States. We simply do not know how Iran’s system would evolve if the country had a more normal relationship with the US, and this uncertainty is what keeps Iranian hardliners opposed to engaging the possibility and keeps them flexing their military muscle in the Middle East and beyond.
As for the United States, leaders have chosen at several crucial moments to back away from or to reject engaging Tehran in ways that have undercut Iranian elites who favor a détente on both the domestic and diplomatic fronts. This proximate history does not bode well for a more productive process of political change in Iran that would move the country beyond the current quagmire of violence, confrontation, and repression that is probably keeping more than one Iranian leader up late at night.
Feature image credit: Shutterstock/Mircea Moira