Before assessing Iran’s contemporary unrest, we must challenge some popular illusions about Iran. Three in particular are:
- The 1979 Revolution – Islamic or Popular?
In addition to ending the corruption of the Shah’s era, many of the protesters were expecting the formation of a secular parliamentary democracy with pluralistic representation, and an end to US domination. Certainly, it was the Islamic Revolutionary Party, led by Ayatollah Khomeini after his return from exile in February 1979, which eventually took control as the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). However, they achieved this only after ruthlessly removing during 1979 and 1980 all other political parties deemed as threats. Popular hopes and expectations for democracy and an end to corruption were soon to be dashed. Professor Ali Ansari (2006, 2019) provides details.
- Female Emancipation – Non-Existent?
Glaring and hard-to-defend gender inequalities do exist. Nevertheless, women surprisingly possess a level of human rights and equality far greater than in many countries of the region.
Other restrictions, affecting both women and men, limit freedom of expression in the arts, journalism, and social media, among others. There is no press freedom. Any active support for any political parties that have not been approved by the IRI regime is also forbidden. Many individuals have been jailed or have gone into exile for transgressions. Many others have simply emigrated.
Such a context was a slow-burning fuse looking for an accelerant, an accident waiting to happen. One was supplied in September 2022 by the death in custody of a young female protester, Mahsa Amini, under suspicious circumstances, as detailed in a later section.
- Iranians Hate the West – Or Do They?
The author has personally observed in Iran that there continues to be no evidence of any popular hatred in Iran towards either the British or the American people. Iranians like and admire many aspects of the West. Many Iranians value a Western higher education and even pursue professional and business careers in the West. Even the children of the IRI leadership and its elite supporters do this on a grand scale. Anti-regime protesters have accused them of flagrant self-righteous hypocrisy by allowing their children to flout dress codes and live excessively self-indulgent lifestyles in countries that the IRI publicly vilifies.
Most Iranians old enough to remember the 1979 revolution have shown an ‘adapt and survive’ stoicism, a reluctance to see Iran embroiled once again in internal violence. They learned how to play the system so as to avoid being ensnared by the IRI’s repressive micro-management diktats. Indeed, a significant number simply pretended to support the IRI regime, as a cynical means to obtain favored status, privileges, access to political elites, insider commercial intelligence, and award of government contracts.
The past 40-odd years have seen a new elite of mega-wealthy opportunists, who enjoy a luxurious existence in their palatial houses in the exclusive Niavaran, Elahiyeh, and Tajrish districts of north Tehran, alongside many IRI leaders and elite functionaries and supporters.
The personal finances of the IRI leaders, and the senior commanders of their IRGC ‘security organization’, are not made public, although research suggests that Khamenei may have amassed a US$ 200 billion personal fortune. Nonetheless, in the imaginations of ordinary Iranians, the country is run by kleptocrats, who have plundered the country’s oil revenues and other public assets for their own benefit. Their lifestyle, visible assets, and suspected millions in offshore accounts have shaped an image of duplicity and greed among the elite.
On top of a national trend of increasing anger with day-to-day hardships, regional unrest has also risen. This has resulted from decades of neglect by the central authorities in Tehran. Two provinces remote from Tehran are especially affected: oil-rich Khuzestan, on the southwest border with Iraq, and Sistan-Baluchistan, on the southeast border with Pakistan.
In addition to producing more than 80% of Iran’s oil, Khuzestan sustained much damage, privation, and loss of life during the Iran-Iraq War. The port city of Khorramshahr in particular bore the brunt of 8 years of vicious close-quarters fighting and came to symbolize for Iranians the nation’s heroic struggle against foreign aggression and impossible odds. Yet, despite national recognition of such huge sacrifices, Khuzestan has been sorely neglected. While Tehran has thrived, expanded, and modernized, little has been done to regenerate cities such as Khorramshahr. Water shortages and power cuts add to the misery of unemployment, poverty, and decay, contrasted with the affluent elitist environment of Tehran. Little wonder that noisy, and increasingly violent, sporadic public protests against the authorities in Khuzestan cities since 2018 became more sustained in 2022, and have been typically suppressed by armed IRGC forces.
Sistan-Baluchistan has also suffered from the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ neglect by the IRI authorities in Tehran. In addition, the neglect has aggravated a grumbling grievance over alleged discrimination by the Shia Muslim IRI regime against the local Baluchi population. The Baluchi’s are predominantly Sunni Muslims, among whom a separatist movement has emerged.
The western Iranian province of Kurdistan is also a focus of regional unrest, although centered more on Kurdish separatism and ethno-suppression by the IRI than economic and infrastructure neglect or religious discrimination.
Whatever the truth, public anger against the regime boiled over, with mass protests in Kurdistan province. When these were put down brutally by the IRGC, street protests rapidly spread across Iran. By late November, over 150 cities and towns were involved in demonstrations. Unprecedented mass chants of ‘death to Khamenei’ and ‘death to the dictator’ continue to echo across the nation.
The savagery and amoral conduct of the regime’s forces, cheered on by an unrepentant Ayatollah Khamenei, President Raisi, and other IRI leaders (e.g. Chief Justice Gholam-Mohseni Eje’i, his adviser Hossein Ali Nayyeri, Prosecutor General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, and IRGC Commander-in-Chief Major General Hossein Salami), has provoked a new resolve among protesters to match their level of violence.
The failure of IRI leaders to stop the sexual abuse of detained protesters, including children, or even to publicly condemn it, is now taken as a clear sign that the regime is using rape as a terror weapon against its citizens. Since the regime has remained silent on such accusations and has failed to arrest and prosecute the state’s agents involved, it is likely that all the IRI leaders and their subordinates down to the local perpetrators would be prosecuted for these offenses by an incoming regime.
The decades of overbearing, misogynistic IRI rule, plus the general corruption orchestrated and nurtured by the regime against the mass population, as well as hyperinflation, perpetually falling standard of living, high unemployment, US and UN sanctions, have together built up into a nationwide coalescence of different protesting sectors of society. For every protestor, there is one common enemy: the IRI regime. This coalescence mirrors that of the 1979 revolutionary build-up.
The public mood has changed strikingly in recent years. A poll by Pew Research in 2013 indicated that more than 80% of the population wanted to retain an Islamic state in some form. By 2022, polls showed that a similar proportion now want the opposite, a secular or non-religious state. This clearly indicates that the IRI had lost its moral authority and public trust. The current unrest reflects that mood change, but how does it differ from previous unrest?
Unprecedented perseverance, severity, scale, and geographical spread of public protests: As of January 24, 2023, protests have lasted 130 days without a break and spread to over 150 cities and towns across all provinces, with crowd numbers ranging from tens to thousands.
Populist character, involving males and females of all sectors and age groups, including schoolchildren and bazaari support. High-profile Iranians (e.g. former President Khatami, Ayatollah Khamenei’s sister, TV personalities, film stars, sports champions) publicly backing the protesters. Sympathy strikes across many sectors (e.g. higher education and schools, oil & gas, petrochemicals, bazaaris and shopkeepers, and manufacturing). An effective 3-day national retail strike occurred in early December.
Demand for regime change. The spectrum of grievances has coalesced into a single overall demand that the IRI regime must go. Nothing less will do. Negotiation and compromise are no longer possible, especially given the regime’s increasingly murderous crackdown.
Lack of fear among protesters, especially the young and females, despite a high risk of injury, imprisonment, or death. Despite the lack of firearms or other weapons among protesters, they exhibit few qualms or reluctance to resist the regime’s armed enforcers.
Protesters use the internet and social media as communication and propaganda weapons against the regime, despite its attempts to block access or interfere with such use. Internet-savvy protesters are switching to VPN (virtual private networks) to thwart regime interference. Protesters have totally won a global and social media war against the regime, as well as public and political opinion globally including official UN position statements.
Violence against the regime’s suppression forces, and a preparedness of protesters to match or exceed their level of violence. Pitched battles by unarmed protesters against armed state agents. Protestors with a preparedness to kill are targeting more senior regime individuals. Attacking and taking over government offices and institutions. Tearing down of IRI signs, notices, and displays.
Police siding with protesters. In Orumiyeh, videos show police fraternizing with protesters. Although such instances are limited in number so far, many officers are unhappy with the crackdown and moral pressure from their own families to disavow the regime. They are also exhausted by months of trying to quell street confrontations.
Armed resistance, but on a small scale. Public access to firearms in Iran is limited by strict gun control. However, after the Mahsa Amini killing, some Iranian Kurds are now reportedly receiving arms and military training across the border in north-east Iraq. Elsewhere, the potential for protesters to steal or capture weaponry from local regime sources may become more salient.
Despite the sustained eruption of Iranian public anger and bravery against the incumbent regime and a highly sympathetic global reaction, serious hindrances exist for those citizens aiming for a quick victory. These include:
No identifiable national leadership among protesters. Few credible national leaders inside Iran have emerged. One potential leader, Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, a leading Sunni cleric from Sistan-Baluchistan, is a popular reformist moderate in the IRI regime. Since September 2022 and the brutal IRGC crackdown, he has openly backed radical change, including an internationally-monitored national referendum on whether the regime should be retained or not, and called for regime agents who have sexually abused protesters to be prosecuted.
Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, exiled eldest son of the last Shah, may desire a return of the monarchy, but there is little enthusiasm inside Iran, especially among all those born since the mid-1970s. Another putative leader in exile is Hamed Ismaeilion in Canada, whose wife and child were killed in 2020 when the IRGC shot down (apparently in error) a civilian airliner leaving Tehran. Although a charismatic orator, he has neither political nor state administrative experience.
Ansari (2022) suggests that potential leaders are many but remain hidden, awaiting pivotal cues before emerging publicly.
No identifiable regime replacement or “government in waiting,” an extension of a lack so far of national leaders among protesters. To avoid economic and social chaos, an industrialized nation of 86 million people requires a credible and competent government continuously, with no lengthy hiatus during transfer of power.
Unequal firepower. Protesters lack (a) firearms, heavy weapons, ammunition, vehicles and other logistical supplies and (b) military training. Both are needed for effectively combating well-resourced and armed IRI forces.
Unequal finances. Whereas the regime has almost limitless finances, the disorganized protesters have very little and so are unable to create and sustain a credible national organization or to acquire weaponry or training.
Nevertheless, the momentum of the demand for regime change now appears unstoppable. Whether the regime’s survival capacity degrades fast or slowly, may depend on many volatile factors on the ground. Strikes, including a successful 3-day national retail strike in early December, have received wide sympathy among workers but frequently they are too poor to sustain even a temporary loss of income or too scared of losing their job. Unconfirmed reports suggest that state-owned companies are bribing workers with wage increases and other incentives to deter them from supporting regime-change strikes.
Having recklessly brought their regime to the brink of disaster, what happens next? Iran has long proven to be very unpredictable. However, it is reasonable to posit a number of rough potential scenarios, for example:
The increasingly brutal crackdown by the regime finally subdues the nationwide protests, as the protesters grow exhausted and terrified of dire consequences for them if they continue. Thus far, after some four months, there is scant evidence that the protesters are weakening. Estimated probability: (1=certainty; 0=impossibility): 0.2.
The protests continue unabated and even escalate in frequency, scale, spread, and ferocity. This projection becomes more likely the more that the protesters are supported by public figures and by multiple sector workers inside Iran, as well as globally by the media, governments, public protests, and UN bodies. Deployed IRI forces may be increasingly exhausted and unnerved and only barely managing to ‘hold the line’. Estimated probability: (1=certainty; 0=impossibility): 0.7.
In a hybrid scenario, Scenario 3 evolves into Scenario 4, but at this stage whether, or how fast, that might occur is impossible to judge. If this scenario unfolds, by then the estimated probability of regime collapse rises to 0.8.
The regime’s fear of losing both legitimacy and control of law and order should not be underestimated, given that savage retribution by aggrieved citizens is highly likely. Moreover, an incoming regime is likely to prosecute many of the IRI regime (who escape mob justice) for waging war on its own citizens, crimes against humanity, destruction of property, and not to mention wholesale plundering of state finances and assets for their own personal gain.
With such a horrifying prospect, an early sign that the IRI regime may be on the skids are reports of oligarchs, IRGC senior officers, and IRI ‘big hats’ organizing their exile early rather than risk getting caught. Venezuela appears to be their popular choice. A further sign will be the sudden unexplained absence of prominent individuals from public life. Apart from Venezuela, there are few countries that would be willing to offer sanctuary to such pariahs. Even in Venezuela, where assassins may be hired cheaply, their safety may be illusory.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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