Iran: no regime change?


Published on Tuesday 18 October 2022 Back to articles

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Commentary: A new political dynamic but not yet another Iranian revolution

More than five weeks of social protests have created a new domestic political dynamic that will have repercussions for the future of Iran, whether they lead to a revolutionary upheaval or not. 

A protest movement that was triggered by the killing of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman turned into riots and wider anti-regime protests after a violent reaction by the authorities. An immediate response and dismantling of the so-called morality police could have eased tensions, but the radicalisation of the situation by the security forces met radicalisation by protesters leading to a massive challenge that the Islamic Republic has not managed to control. The question is whether or not this wave of protests will lead to a regime change as predicted by some commentators and foreign-based opposition leaders. 

Differences from past protests 

Iran has witnessed sizeable protests regularly over the past two decades. In the past, the main causes were either political or economic. This is the first time that a social issue – the dress code for women – has triggered massive social unrest. Furthermore, the composition of protesters has shifted to include younger participants (including schoolchildren) than in previous cases, as well as many women from the middle class. It is valid to say that this wave has included different groups beyond demographic, ethnic and social class lines. 

One thesis in Iran argues that, every time there is economic shock therapy, the potential of social unrest increases and a single event can turn into massive protests. The last wave of protest was in 2019, when the government increased fuel prices overnight. This year, the elimination of the subsidised exchange rate in April 2022 and the consequent high inflation paved the way for economic grievances. Nevertheless, the current wave is different. 

One factor that could explain the intensity of this wave is the fact that many Iranians could easily identify with the victim, Mahsa Amini because she could have been anybody’s daughter, sister or wife. This means that grievances translated into grief and became a lot more personal. Even though in the course of the protests, social, ethnic and economic demands have been intertwined, the focus is on women’s rights, also reflected in the main slogan ‘woman, life, freedom’. This is the first time in Iranian political history that a national uprising has been driven by a feminist slogan. 

The other factor is the use of social media to mobilise support. This is why the authorities shut down the internet to stop the spread of demonstrations. Based on various sources, the number of protesters is not very high. Compared to 2009, when three million were on the streets of Tehran, or 2019 when up to 90,000 citizens participated in a single demonstration, this year the highest number reached has been 5,200. Nonetheless, there is an intense demand for change and reform. 

One interesting fact was also how quickly and decisively a number of celebrities joined the protest. Popular actor Mehran Modiri immediately published a video on social media instructing the state broadcasting company not to show his programmes in solidarity with the grieving people. Fatemeh Motamed Aria, a popular actress, gave a speech at a funeral without her head scarf. Most importantly, former footballer Ali Karimi used his social media presence to publish statements in support of the protesters. Other celebrities have also contributed to the leader-less movement.

The authorities’ response, including violent clampdowns and a series of arrests, show that not much has been learned from previous experiences. Top leaders only offered the same talking points – foreign-led conspiracies. The security forces framed the protests as questions of territorial integrity supported by external interference. Expecting that Kurdish and Baluchi separatists would take up arms the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) carried out unnecessary massacres in Kurdistan — where Mahsa was from — and Sistan-Baluchistan which are both Sunni communities. With each radicalised response by the authorities, new layers of rage and anger emerged, leading to more potential for protest and escalation.

What do the protesters want?

There is now so much grief and rage in the population that a regime change seems to be the end goal. The protesters have no central demand – just a radical view that the regime has to go, crystallised in the slogan ‘death to Khamenei’. One should not lose sight of the fact that the protests have united many social groups with different agendas. In the absence of a leadership, the fragmented demands will be difficult to achieve, especially as the hardline forces argue that the ultimate goal of the ‘enemies’ would be to Iran’s disintegration. It is also valid that the majority of Iranians would be hesitant to support regime change without knowing what will replace it. The Islamic Republic continues to benefit from the fact that there is no viable alternative and that all violent upheavals in the region have led to undesirable outcomes.

Therefore, what civil society leaders in Iran hope to achieve is a process of moderation and gradual reform, moving away from the hardline policies of the past decade. 

What will the regime do?

The ruling elite is certainly divided on how to proceed. There are many who disagree with the harsh clampdown. However, the hardliners regard any retreat, even an apology, as a sign of weakness, hence continuing the misguided radicalisation. At the same time, there is no doubt that various political networks are engaged in discussions on how to ease the current level of tension. The deliberations also include networks of businesspeople, clergy, IRGC commanders etc.

The highest priority of the Islamic Republic has always been the survival of the regime. Compromises and even U-turns could happen to guarantee the regime’s survival. This is one such moment and it is becoming clear that there is no path back to the status quo ante; some tangible changes will have to emerge. However, the hardline core of the regime has spent past decades marginalising other forces. It has lost all credibility and social capital. Furthermore, the divide between people and the political elite has never been this deep. 

Institutions are also incapable of moving beyond the established patterns. For example, a fact-finding committee set up by the Majles stated that ‘No assault or physical treatment’ had taken place in the case of Mahsa Amini. It demanded the prosecution of those who hurt people’s feelings with ‘hasty and untrue statements’ before the matter was clarified. Such official statements rub salt on the deep wounds of society.

What is already emerging is a role that can be played by former officials still within the ruling elite. For example, Ali Larijani, former conservative Majles speaker, has already stated that ‘the morality police should be dismantled, if more than 50% of women do not want to wear the hijab’. Other figures will emerge and try to act as catalysts to ease the current tensions. It is also conceivable that some of the more accepted senior clergy will intervene.

What to expect

Despite the anger and frustration, it will be difficult to sustain the current protests. As with previous waves, a large portion of the protests will move from the streets to online activism. It is also highly likely that members of the middle class will engage in civil disobedience. Many women have stopped wearing the headscarf and, for now, this is being tolerated. Other protests such as strikes and ethnic activism will intensify, but they are not new and will experience their ups and downs.

The authorities will also have to introduce some changes. Generally, in the Islamic Republic one has to distinguish between official written policy and implemented policy. For example, satellite dishes are officially forbidden, but the ban is not enforced and many families openly watch foreign programmes. It can be expected that some lax enforcement emerges in social and cultural spheres, not only with regard to women’s clothing, but also some cultural aspects such as policies towards film, music, social freedoms etc.

What creates a major challenge is the fact that these required changes must take place in the middle of two important processes: On the one side, Iran is in the middle of what can be described as a ‘succession process’ and on the other side, the ongoing Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiations. Key political figures, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Ebrahim Raisi and the IRGC leaders don’t want those processes to be influenced by the current wave of protests. At the same time, some hardline forces, especially the IRGC commanders who were against the JCPOA, will see the unrest as an opportunity to kill the nuclear talks and move towards an escalation.

In the succession process, more moderate voices may see an opportunity to change the face of the regime. However, the hardline forces would like to lean towards continued repression but a more faceless state and more organised authoritarianism. 

Time will tell which path the Iranian regime and society will take. The country is experiencing a high degree of social tension, but a revolution is not in the making. The only event that would change the dynamics is if a strong military faction in the country stages a coup d’état – a prospect that would introduce more uncertainty.

This excerpt is taken from Iran Strategic Focus, our monthly intelligence report on Iran. Click here to receive a free sample copy.

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