Iran’s Revolution: Will the Islamic Regime Endure?

Iran’s Revolution: Will the Islamic Regime Endure?

A wave of protests over the past few months has rocked Iran, with protesters calling for an end to the theocratic regime, the Islamic Republic.

The ongoing protests have unleashed a torrent of speculations about the regime’s future. Some observers have expressed hope that the widespread demonstrations could result in a regime change. Others, pointing out the lack of leadership and coordination among the protesters, along with the brutality of the theocracy and its successful history of suppressing previous unrest, are pessimistic. 

However, the latter argument is not valid for several reasons. First, the lack of centralized leadership is not a source of weakness but a strength. Leaderless movements are difficult to repress. Conversely, appointing leaders would enable tyrants “to focus on them, to pick them off, to arrest them, kill them, denigrate them,” as pointed out by Carne Ross, the author of The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century. Further, the leaderless nature of protests is not unprecedented. Protest movements in ChileLebanon, IraqIndonesiaHaitiEgyptBolivia, and Hong Kong were all leaderless, and protesters gained remarkable success.

Furthermore, “leadership” is not among the significant factors required for the success of a revolution. Crane Brinton, the famous social scientist and the author of the Anatomy of Revolution, outlines several factors, which he called “uniformities,” required for fundamental political change, among them people’s unhappiness, elite defection, and, more importantly, the ‘inefficiency of governance.’

Iranian Women Day’s protests against mandatory hijab laws (Wiki Images)

Citizens’ unhappiness is a potent force in driving political change. When people feel that the ruling power is out of touch and irresponsive to their needs, they become dissatisfied with the status quo and begin to express their discontent through civil disobedience and protests. If citizens’ grievances are not addressed, this can lead to further frustration, which may eventually result in a revolution. 

Iranian citizens are unhappy with the ruling power because it is out of touch, irresponsive to their needs, and indifferent to their grievances. For four decades, the regime redirected massive amounts of resources away from the domestic sphere, where they were desperately needed, towards consolidating its influence over other peoples and territories, a policy known as exporting the Shiite Islamic revolution to the region. This agenda left ordinary Iranian people with basic needs unfulfilled and is one of the core reasons behind people’s anger. The cost of exporting the revolution and a highly inefficient economic system took a considerable toll. Food shortages, a collapsing health system, and unprecedented environmental degradation plagued the country. The Islamic Republic-style ruling system became a byword for corruption and dysfunctionality in Iran. 

Dissatisfaction with the deteriorating living standard and the regime’s brutal social policies has triggered sporadic riots where the crowds chanted slogans against wasting money on the various proxies. This time around, not only are people unhappy with the regime for being irresponsive to their needs and indifferent to their grievances, but they are also protesting the regime’s social policies, namely the brutal treatment of women over the issue of hijab. Given that hijab is considered one of the ideological pillars of the regime and the regime’s heavy investment in exporting the revolution, it is improbable that the theocratic regime would try to implement a course correction, and one should expect the continuation of protests until a fundamental change has occurred. 

Likewise, elite defection has significant implications for the success of any revolution. It typically happens when the old ruling class and individuals who hold positions of power or privilege come to distrust the very system they built, lose faith in old habits and traditions of their class, and go over to the opposing side.

The recent public statement by Iranian reformist and long-detained politician Mir-Hossein Moussavi hints at the cracks in the state edifice. It can be considered an example of elite defection. In a fundamental shift, Moussavi denounced the Islamic Republic political system (that is based on the principle of Velayat-e Faqih, which gives ultimate power to the clergy) and called for structural change, including drafting a new constitution and submitting it to a popular referendum, followed by a “free and fair” vote to change the Islamic Republic’s structure of power.

Mousavi’s transferring allegiance to the regime’s opposition is paramount because he still has a meaningful power base among Iranians. The last time he participated in the presidential election was in 2009, when he received over 14 million votes, according to the official announcement by the regime. Of course, since 2009, things have changed a lot in Iran, but he still enjoys political influence among political, intelligence, and military elites as well as popularity among intellectuals and Iranians.

Similarly, the other factor mentioned by Crane Brinton, the ‘inefficiency of governance,” also plays an essential role in structural political change than the leadership factor. This issue is explained in detail by Daniel Treisman, who said that “dictators survive not because of their use of force or ideology but because they convince the public…that they are competent. If citizens conclude that the dictator is incompetent, they overthrow him in a revolution.” 

During 33 years of his rule, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, hasn’t been able to convince Iranians that he is competent. Because of his inadequate policies, the country faces several environmental, social, economic, and legitimacy crises, and Khamenei has no solution or resources to manage the situation effectively. Therefore, it is unsurprising that protesters focus their anger on Khamenei by chanting, “our disgrace is our incompetent leader.” 

Mousavi’s transferring allegiance to the regime’s opposition is paramount because he still has a meaningful power base among Iranians.

I include an additional crucial factor among the existing factors mentioned by other social scientists that can accelerate the downfall of repressive regimes. That is the leaders’ determination not to change their ways on the pretext that this reflects strength. However, such a strategy may buy dictators some time, but in the absence of structural reforms, protests would get stronger and more frequent. In the case of the Islamic Republic, this is the biggest weakness of the regime. Ayatollah Khamenei believes that if he offers the prospect of change, he may risk appearing weak and emboldening protesters, unaware of the consequences if he chooses not to, the protests will continue.

It is not to suggest that leadership is not an important factor in the success of a revolution. Effective leadership can provide the vision, organization, and strategic direction necessary to mobilize and coordinate social movements and negotiate with opposing forces. However, leadership is only one of several factors that can contribute to the success of a revolution. 

In the case of the current uprising in Iran, those who emphasize the role of leadership too much are adopting the Islamic Republic’s narrative that “without the presence of Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini, nothing would have happened in 1979.” This account is not supported by evidence and lacks intellectual substance. In the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini’s dominance and appointment as the revolution’s leader came along only after the initial success of the revolution and even after king Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi left Iran.

Ultimately, additional steps must be taken to help the Iranian people overthrow the brutal Islamic Republic. Economic sanctions on the regime leaders can limit their access to resources and make it more difficult for them to maintain power. The United Nations and the United States can significantly impact this situation by imposing crippling sanctions, isolating the Islamic Republic from the international community, and condemning the regime’s brutalization and oppression of Iranian women in the harshest tune. Imposing tough sanctions against the regime leaders and applying political pressure would leave the regime with no choice but to stop its brutal treatment of citizens, especially young women.

Diplomatic isolation can also be an effective tool in undermining the regime. These tactics were used by the international community against the South African government, which forced it to dismantle the apartheid regime. If the same tactics are used against the Islamic Republic, this regime too, will end. 

Farhad Rezaei
Farhad Rezaei

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