‘The world is watching’ as Iran teeters, but the regime is unlikely to fall, say analysts

“The last time we saw a protest of this scale was 13 years ago, and in those 13 years the Iranian nuclear program expanded significantly.”

By David Isaac, JNS

Since the death of a young woman at the hands of Iran’s “morality police” in September, anti-regime protests have spread throughout the country. Cracks have been reported even among the elite. Still, the Iranian regime has weathered protests before; it has outlasted the multiple Arab governments toppled by the “Arab Spring” protests starting in 2010.

Hope of regime change accompanies every major protest in the Islamic Republic. The durability of this latest round (now past the two-month mark), the fact that it is being led by women, the way it has blazed across the country despite brutal suppression, and, most recently, a call by none other than the Supreme Leader’s niece for foreign governments to cut ties with the regime—all are fueling this hope.

But despite important differences between these protests and earlier ones, analysts told JNS that the Islamic Republic—totalitarian, bloodthirsty, ruthless—is resilient to internal pressures. While the young women leading the protests are remarkably courageous, they see little sign the protests will topple the ayatollahs, they said.

On the one hand, the regime’s paramilitary forces appear steadfast, while on the other, the opposition lacks certain elements necessary for success, they noted.

Norman Roule, a senior adviser to United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), told JNS the protests’ duration is a product of the deep dissatisfaction of many Iranians with the regime. According to Roule, a former National Intelligence Manager for Iran at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Tehran has failed to develop a strategy to improve support for it among Iranians. It is too early to say that the duration of protests indicates a weakening of the regime, he said.

“The world is watching unrest at multiple universities where students routinely show courage and determination in open defiance of the Islamic Republic. They’re standing up for their principles,” said Roule, who served for 34 years in the Central Intelligence Agency, managing programs relating to the Middle East. “But we have yet to see crowds of parents and other relatives blocking access to security forces at universities, saying, ‘Don’t touch our children.’”

Older Iranians are no less dissatisfied with the regime than Generation Z, but worry about the impact of their actions on their families—something the regime uses to its advantage, he said. Detained students are often only held for a few days, but upon their release, security forces pressure their parents, threatening to terminate government jobs and benefits if they don’t keep their children away from the protests.

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“It’s a time-consuming tactic, and one the government has used in the past,” he said.

The current wave of protests began after the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, on Sept. 16 after three days in police custody. Amini, an ethnic Kurd, was arrested for the crime of improperly wearing the compulsory hijab, a Muslim head-covering for women. The protests started in Tehran and then spread to 25 of Iran’s 31 provinces.

In an effort to suppress them, Iranian security forces have killed more than 400 people, among them 51 children and 27 women, according to Iran Human Rights, an Oslo-based NGO.

The regime is more determined, and younger, than some may think, said Roule. While Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is 83 years old and increasingly suffers from health problems, the government is run by men in their 50s and 60s, he explained. “They’re not going to crawl into the grave when the Supreme Leader dies. They’re looking to sustain the Islamic Republic of Iran for another generation,” he said.

At their disposal is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), dedicated to preserving the Islamic regime. It’s more than a military force, according to Roule. It’s a state-within-a-state, and its senior leadership is selected or approved by the Supreme Leader, he noted.

“Under the administration of President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, Khamenei allowed the IRGC to vastly increase its already significant private sector holdings throughout Iran’s economy,” said Roule. “Former IRGC and other security officials are salted throughout many major industries in Iran. This presence allows them to not only pass profits to the IRGC, but to protect IRGC interests and help obtain sanctioned Western technology.”

Roule noted the controversial purchase by an IRGC-associated consortium in 2009 of a majority stake in the Telecommunication Company of Iran for $7.8 billion.

“The IRGC literally purchased the majority of Iran’s telecommunication system, including its internet system,” he said. Although the IRGC distanced itself from the enterprise in 2018, the purchase showed the extent of IRGC’s commercial reach, he added.

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“When they found that it wouldn’t give them absolute control, they began construction of a national intranet system, on a size and scale that is rare in the world. I think only China, maybe North Korea, have spent as much money to establish a system to control information reaching their people,” he said.

In response to the unrest of recent weeks, the regime frequently shuts off internet access in areas experiencing protests. Iran’s ambition is to control all information reaching and emanating from its 85 million citizens, according to Roule.

‘Significant,’ but not ‘really destabalizing’

Elisheva Machlis, a senior lecturer in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Bar-Ilan University, agrees that the regime does not appear to be in danger at the present time, though she added that it has suffered a serious loss of legitimacy.

“What’s happening now is significant, but I don’t see this as being something that’s really destabilizing the regime at this stage,” she told JNS.

To pose a real threat to the regime, the protests would have to become unified under a strong leadership, she said. They would also need to expand their focus, she added.

While women’s rights brings people out to the streets, it alone isn’t enough, she said, adding that if a coalition forms between the lower and middle classes with some powerful forces breaking off from the regime to join them, that would be a different story.

“The regime still has its enforcement services. It has the military, the Revolutionary Guards, what’s called the Basij, which is the popular army, the people’s army,” she said.

Iran is also more “homogenous” than Arab states that collapsed during the Arab Spring, she added. Those states were largely western inventions with “artificial identities,” while Iran has a long history, she explained. “Nationalism is another flag of the regime. The leaders speak about Islam, but they also speak about Iran as a country. “

Indeed, the Arab Spring itself may play in the regime’s favor, she said. “When Iranians see the chaos in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, they think twice about getting into that situation.”

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Change could come to Iran, she said—but only gradually. “Even a dictatorship needs loyalty,” she said, and thus the leadership might realize that it needs to give in on certain issues, like women’s rights, in the hopes of regaining some of its lost legitimacy.

However, Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president of research at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), sees the focus on women’s rights as being more significant.

Noting that the last major protest in 2009 was about rigged elections, “this one is being led by women primarily,” he said. “They are rejecting what is often described as the third pillar of the regime … the repression of women.” (The other two are rejection of the United States and of Israel.)

“When protesters start to come out to contest a key pillar of the regime, not just a political outcome, or a specific action taken by the theocracy, then the tone and tenor of the protests begin to convey a different message,” he said.

That message, in addition to the main slogan, “Women, Life, Freedom,” includes chants like, “This year is the year of blood, Khamenei will fall,” “Your end is near, Khamenei,” and “death to the dictator.”

The regime’s inability to snuff out the protests may not be due to slow-moving tactics but to an inability to handle “the magnitude” of the protests, he said. “I just don’t know if there is sufficient manpower to crush these protests,” he added.

Schanzer would like to see the United States do more, from issuing regular public statements in support of the protesters to helping fund them (a fund for Iran’s workers to help them weather strikes is entirely possible, he said).

The protests provide a golden opportunity for Washington, and the risks involved in failing to act are great, he added.

“The last time we saw a protest of this scale was 13 years ago, and in those 13 years the Iranian nuclear program expanded significantly, as has the campaign of regional aggression by Iranian proxies, Iran’s malign activity across the Middle East, its support for terrorist groups and its repression of the Iranian people. If we wait another 13 years, I shudder to think about what Iran would be capable of.”