Iran’s Islamic Republic Is Fading But Not Ready to Fall – Geopolitical Futures - 29.09.22
The government has a long history of quelling unrest says Hilal Khashan
Violent protests erupted in Iran last week following the death of a 22-year-old woman who had been arrested by the morality police, officially known as the “Guidance Patrol,” for violating the country’s strict dress code. The protests were the largest since the 2019 demonstrations against rising fuel prices, which led to the death of more than 1,500 people.
Last week’s unrest began in the Kurdish-majority northwestern region but spread to about 50 cities and towns across Iran, including Tehran, Mashhad and Qazvin. The woman’s death followed the signing, less than two months ago, of a new law that strengthened the rules on wearing the hijab.
The law sparked anger even before it took effect, with some female protesters burning their headscarves in defiance. This episode is another indication that the legitimacy of the Islamic Revolution on which the Iranian regime rests is waning.
It’s unlikely that the uprising will directly and immediately threaten the regime, whose forces have quelled all protests in recent years. Given the strength of its coercive capabilities and the fragmentation of the opposition, the regime is not on the verge of collapse, but the government is vulnerable and getting weaker. It’s doubtful that it can survive in its current form after the death of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The Iranian public has frequently expressed its opposition to the Islamic regime over the past quarter century. But the government was stunned by the latest bout of unrest, which involved demonstrators burning pictures of Khamenei, setting fire to stations and vehicles of the Basij internal security services and attacking them with firearms and bladed weapons.
The Iranian army warned that it would confront what it described as enemy plots and pledged to secure peace throughout the country. Its statement added that the protests were acts of desperation and part of the enemy’s strategy to weaken the Islamic political order. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps called on the judiciary to expose and hold accountable those who spread rumors and lies and endanger society.
The most serious protests since the 1979 revolution occurred in 2009, soon after it was announced that opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi had lost the presidential elections. When incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner, the opposition mobilized nearly 5 million demonstrators to the streets of Tehran, chanting “who stole my vote, you dictator?” and accusing the authorities of rigging the vote. The security forces responded to the protests with severe repression, which led to the arrest of hundreds of activists, the killing of dozens, and the placement under house arrest of prominent opposition leaders.
These events highlighted the central authorities’ control under the direct leadership of the supreme leader. At the time, the IRGC’s assistant for political affairs said his forces would not allow any group to undermine the principles of the revolution. The Tehran police chief also threatened Mousavi’s supporters with punishment if they participated in unauthorized rallies.
In 2020, after the IRGC accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner over Tehran, mostly student demonstrators staged daily protests, chanting “get out of our faces, clerics.” They also called for the removal of Khamenei, who has been in office since 1989. The protesters showed no fear by shouting slogans that challenged the sanctity of Khamenei and the ruling religious establishment. But in Iran, protests are seasonal, as the opposition waits for an event through which it can assess its influence and reassert itself.
Over time, the opposition lost momentum and its ability to initiate challenges to the government. But the regime’s zero-tolerance policy toward dissent hasn’t prevented Iranians from taking their anger to the streets. Frustrated young people have for decades challenged the authority of both Khamenei and Iran’s first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose pictures they also burnt throughout the cities and towns of Iran.
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Hilal Khashan is a Professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. He is a respected author and analyst of Middle Eastern affairs. He is the author of six books, including Hizbullah: A Mission to Nowhere. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019.)