In order for the Islamic Republic of Iran to avoid a bloody crackdown against the popular protest movement, to contain it and protect the ruling regime, it will have to fundamentally evolve itself. It will not be enough to reform the Iranian regime, as demanded by the uprising of 2009, which then-US President Barack Obama had helped turn the page on by reassuring the mullahs and pillars of the regime led by the Revolutionary Guards. But evolving the nature of the Iranian regime and the mindset of those who believe in Vilayat-e Faqih (rule by the guardian jurist) may be impossible, because any serious development requires respecting the sovereignty of international law, human rights, and basic freedoms in addition to tackling the problems of employment, corruption, and poverty – all issues that are nearly impossible for the mindset of the regime in Tehran to solve. This does not mean, however, that the mullah regime and the structure of the Islamic Republic are about to collapse, as a result of the outbreak of protests in Iran’s cities and countryside, including in Isfahan and Mashhad, bastions of the regime’s popular-religious support, and their expansion to Ahwaz and Iranian Azerbaijan, home to Arab, Kurdish, Turkmen, and Baloch minorities. What the events of the concluding days of 2017 mean is that Iran could witness major domestic changes that could affect its regional projects in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon.
The main engine of change is the new generation who are completely at odds with the aging organs of the regime. The people of Iran in general are fed up with the nearly 40-year-old Iranian Revolutionary system. Their popular opposition stems from their pain and is an expression of their exhausted patience after a long period of repression. If the pillars of the regime respond wisely to the protests by reinventing their system of government to adapt to the demands of the protesters, they could seize the opportunity to steer Iran towards development and freedoms domestically, while moving to curb Iran’s foreign projects and interventions outside its borders. But if the Supreme Leader, the mullahs, and the pillars of the IRGC decide that that the people have no choice but to accept the regime as it is, then Iran could face a very dangerous situation domestically, with terrifying implications for Iran’s regional allies and worrisome repercussions for its international partners outside.
The announcement by the IRGC commander Maj Gen Mohammad Ali Jafari that “sedition has been defeated” reflects the antiquated mentality that sees dissent as treason, with complete disregard for the extent of popular suffering, indicating the regime is determined to pursue a sweeping crackdown. Earlier in the week, the head of Iran's Revolutionary Court even warned that arrested demonstrators could face the death penalty, suggesting again that the regime cannot accept anything less than a total monopoly of power, with dissidents seen as rioters and traitors who deserve to die.
Yet the protests that swept across Iran have undermined Iran’s triumphalism over its regional victories, both real and falsely claimed. Fear has crept up to the ranks of IRGC-backed militias and organizations, and all those who have assumed that Iran’s achievements in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen are their insurance policy. The scene in Iran, ongoing since the closing days of 2017, has made it hard to claim that the IRGC’s adventures and wars for domination of a number of Arab capitals have succeeded in warding off accountability for Iran and its allies, as the ‘feats’ of Qassem Soleimani have now been toppled in Iran’s streets.
Iran’s foreign military adventures had been sold as pre-emptive strikes on ISIS fought in Syria and Iraq so that Iran would not have to fight the jihadists on its soil. But this was the same logic adopted by US former president George W. Bush when he declared a war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Russian President Vladimir Putin when he declared a war on terror in Syria. Yet Bush was not spared from popular accountability for the war in Iraq and Putin has started to feel the repercussions of his intervention in Syria. In Iran, the popular wave of discontent has proven that the regime’s expansionism in the Arab landscape is not among the priorities of the inhabitants of Iran’s cities and hinterlands.
Meanwhile, the authoritarianism and tendency to initiate crackdowns seems to be a shared trait between the rulers of Tehran and Ankara, as Turkish President Erdogan rushed to express solidarity with the Iranian government, telling his Iranian counterpart there was a need to protect “peace and stability”. Erdogan’s experience with the Turkish opposition has left him with a victory against the coup attempt – although some claim the putsch had been staged in order to allow Erdogan to consolidate his authoritarian grip on power in Turkey. The president is hard bent on staying in power at any cost, just like Putin in Russia and the mullahs in Iran.
Erdogan is concerned by the fallout of the unrest in Iran. He is permanently obsessed with the Kurdish question, and ever determined to contain Kurdish ambitions in partnership with Iran. Erdogan is also concerned that the developments in Iran could benefit US President Donald Trump, who has made explicit his hostility to the Tehran regime when he launched his strategy on Iran, and expressed his intent to help remove that regime “when the time is right”.
For his part, Vladimir Putin has different calculations, although like Erdogan, he is worried of the copycat effect of the protests in his own cities and hinterlands, and does not want Trump to claim any victories in the Middle East, especially when it comes to his strategic allies in Tehran. However, Putin – and perhaps also Erdogan – may find himself reassured by the prospect of a weaker Iranian partner in Syria. Yet a full explosion in Iran could undermine Russia’s projects in the Middle East, where Moscow is seeking to secure Syria’s position in Russia’s long-term strategic interests.
At the US level, it is clear that Trump is resolved to reverse the policies of his predecessor Barack Obama on Iran – without yet tearing the nuclear deal with Iran unless necessary. Obama had acknowledged the legitimacy of the regime in Tehran, which he considered to reflect the free expression and choice of the Iranian people. However, Trump is again using the term ‘regime’ to describe the Iranian government, denouncing the crackdown against the Iranian people, and he has pledged to support the protesters, though they may prefer for Trump not to make such promises that could harm them more than they could benefit them.
Perhaps it is naïve to attribute US grand strategy to whoever is in the White House. Perhaps the US strategic imperative at present is to stop giving free rein to Iran, a process that had started with gifting Iraq to the Iranians on a silver platter following Bush’s war there, and then continued with the nuclear deal and the enabling of Iran’s actions in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen under Barack Obama.
It is not impossible to remove a regime no matter how strong it appears to be. Toppling the Shah of Iran once appeared impossible before 1979 – and the same is true of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Colonel Gaddafi in Libya during the Arab Spring, which quickly turned into an Arab Winter.
Furthermore, Barack Obama had supported toppling Mubarak by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. His predecessor toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq. NATO toppled Gaddafi in Libya. And Russia and Iran have both prevented the toppling of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Foreign intervention in popular movements in the Middle East is therefore not anathema.
In Iran, what is new is that the popular protests seem to target the imbalance in the structure of a regime that has ruled with a tyrannical bent and impoverished the nation in the name of regional victories that not only do not interest most Iranians, but also burdens them. What is also new is that the IRGC has entered the first direct confrontation with the Iranian masses, including in Mashhad and Isfahan, and this will affect its regional projects because the IRGC will have to now focus on the crackdown against the popular unrest domestically.
Monday will mark the anniversary of the death of the most prominent reformist president of the Islamic Republic, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. One veteran observer of the Iranian political landscape said Rafsanjani’s absence has deeply affected President Rouhani, weakened his reactions, and undermined his ability to control the situation. If Rouhani is to help steer the country towards wisdom and evolution, he must hold on to his future, either in partnership with former President Mohamed Khatami or by mobilizing a new leadership. The outbreak of protests against deteriorating living conditions and the uprising against an aging regime are important developments, but change ultimately requires a political program, leadership, and new ideas founded first on acknowledging the need to evolve the regime.