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Instability, Revolutions, and the Future of the Islamic Republic

The Iranian society is witnessing yet another wave of demonstrations against the regime in Iran, as thousands of citizens voice their anger at socioeconomic hardship and hopes for political liberalization. But a full-on revolution is easier to proclaim than carry out. A revolution, simply put, is a mass social protest that completely overhauls the existing political system in favor of another. The Islamic revolution of 1979, for instance, replaced the monarchy with a theocracy. The current unrest in Iran will not likely lead to the same result i.e., a transition from a theocracy to, for example, a democracy. Such an outcome faces several significant hurdles. One of these hurdles is the possibility of widespread violence enacted either by the regime or the demonstrators, which would transform the peaceful demonstrations into a civil war, similar to what happened in Syria. Another obstacle is the lack of an organized political opposition that adequately incorporates the political and socioeconomic desires of the Iranian people. Finally, the existence of ethnic and religious minorities within Iran that have separatist or more autonomous aspirations will constitute another barrier to creating a truly representative political system. In short, the best outcome – the establishment of a liberal democracy in Iran, faces formidable obstacles.

A Divided Opposition

The bravery of ordinary Iranians on display throughout the history of protests against dictatorship in their country is unparalleled. Several cities witnessed popular uprisings from 1991 to 1994, student demonstrations emerged in 1999, and Iranians widely protested the 2009 presidential elections results, which many Iranians viewed as fraudulent. Over time, however, political parties representing reformist policies or an alternative to the existing hardline regime have gradually receded. Mir Hussein Musavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who were instrumental in 2009, have been under house arrest for more than a decade, prevented from conducting any political activity in the process. Needless to say, other political forces cannot operate within Iran because of the regime’s harsh crackdown.

The situation outside of Iran is not much better. The son of the last Shah, Reza Pahlavi, has remained outside of the country for decades and lacks influence within the country. Other groups are outright detested by Iranians. The Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, an Iranian movement in exile, is not only unpopular because its members fought along Iraq in its war with Iran, but also because of their cult-like practices, such as keeping members within the organization against their will. A disorganized and fractured political opposition not only hinders the prospects of bringing about the conditions for domestic regime change, but also hampers the political resolution of any transition period. Ideally, an effective political opposition would bring disparate social forces together—not drive them apart—and create a basic political understanding regarding a new political system. Without a united front, it is nearly impossible to establish a new social contract, inviting chaos amid a nationwide power vacuum.

The Dangers of Escalation

Additionally, the extent and severity of violence conducted by the regime could plunge the country into an internecine conflict and impede democratic transition. Despite the tragedy the world has seen unfold thus far, the level of violence today in Iran pales in comparison to the repression witnessed in other states gripped by civil unrest. One only has to look at Iran’s partner, Syria, to grasp the horrors dictatorial regimes will inflict on their own citizens to preserve their power. Observers may expect that the regime’s repressive measures will mount if the demonstrations come to threaten its very existence. Without the support of the security forces, hope remains dim for a successful revolution as Iran’s current leader remains adamant that the regime will crush its dissenters. The Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, compared the Islamic Republic to a seedling, saying that it has grown into a “mighty tree now, and no one should dare think they can uproot it.” This is a clear indication that he is willing to apply force to protect the regime through its security apparatus.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the main protector of the regime, is an ideological force in itself, and it is unlikely to remain neutral as demonstrators threaten the Islamic Republic. In 1999, for example, the Revolutionary Guards issued a letter to Mohammed Khatemi, the president at the time, demanding an immediate end to the student demonstrations, and warned of grave consequences if he failed to quell the unrest. Beside its hardline ideology and devotion to the Islamic Republic, the IRGC has an economic interest in maintaining the status quo. The IRGC is involved in various sectors of Iran’s economy, ranging from construction projects to agriculture. Of course, there is a possibility that protests could resort to the use of violence if the regime’s violent crackdown continued or escalated, and if they felt that their voices are not heard. Desperation often acts as a catalyst for revolutionary activity, and if peaceful means did not pave the way for a meaningful change, this may prod protestors to resort to other measures.

Finally, despite the cohesive nature of Iranian society relative to its neighbors, there are some fissures that might widen if instability persists, imperiling any potential revolution before it begins. Iran’s strong national identity subsumes several ethnic and religious minority groups. However, discrimination against minority populations is widespread, and aspirations for independence may surface if the central government is weakened. Iran’s Kurdish region, for instance, faces deep-rooted discrimination, and suffers from one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. When Iran underwent a turbulent time after WWII, the Mahabad Kurdish Republic was declared as Iranian Kurds sought to protect themselves. The Kurds’ ambitions for independence were rekindled after the revolution in 1979, and Iraq supported Kurdish parties during the Iran-Iraq war. Similarly, the Azeris suffer from discrimination in Iran, while constituting the second largest segment of the society. They too declared their independence from 1945-1946, and their hopes were reawakened as some sought separation from Iran to join “Northern” Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Azeris have also demonstrated against discrimination that targeted their identity. For instance, Azeri protestors took to the street after the state broadcaster belittled their accent and made offensive jokes on air. Nor is discrimination confined to these two minorities as Arabs also face ingrained discrimination. In short, ideational, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic differences will affect the formation of the new political system, and will almost certainly hinder the revolutionary process.

Despite Iranian citizens’ perennial struggle for better political conditions and the remarkable political mobilization on display in the country, any revolution that seeks to replace the Islamic Republic with a purely democratic system faces immense challenges to its success. Iran needs a nationalist political opposition to translate the ambitions of society into a functioning political system. Toppling the regime is one matter. Establishing a viable democratic alternative is another. Moreover, it is evident that the Iranian security apparatus today is radically different from the one formed under the Shah. The ideology of the IRGC and the Basij is heavily in favor of velayat-e-faghih (the political and religious supremacy of the “Guardian Jurist”—Iran’s supreme leader). Uprooting the current system, therefore, will require confrontation with a staunchly loyal and immensely powerful state security apparatus.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Dr. Massaab Al-Aloosy is a Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum and a researcher focusing on Iraq, Iran, and Shia non-state armed groups. He holds a PhD from the Fletcher School-Tufts University and is the author of The Changing Ideology of Hezbollah, Palgrave 2020.

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