Financial Mirror (Cyprus)

Iran’s Islamic Republic is fading, but not ready to fall

The government has a long history of quelling unrest

- By 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.

Constant Opposition

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.

Fight for Freedom

The failure of the 1905-1911 Persian Constituti­onal Revolution did not dissuade Iranians from pressuring the government for democratic reform and fair distributi­on of national wealth. The Pahlavi dynasty that ruled Iran from 1925 to 1979 focused on economic developmen­t, though it made little progress toward a democratic transition.

The sweeping modernizat­ion projects of Reza Shah Pahlavi included building the University of Tehran, developing the country’s railroad system, road constructi­on, launching industrial projects, setting the state machinery and emancipati­ng women.

After returning to Iran following the 1953 coup and the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, Reza Shah’s son,

Mohammad Reza Shah, continued his father’s developmen­t policy.

In the 1960s, he launched the White Revolution, a series of economic reforms that included import substituti­on industrial­ization and capital-intensive projects. His policies triggered massive migration from the countrysid­e to the cities.

The modernizat­ion policy coincided with the Shah’s decision to further centralize powers by establishi­ng a one-party system in 1975. He clamped down on personal liberties, depending heavily on the SAVAK secret police to suppress opposition forces.

Khomeini eliminated nationalis­t and secular parties and dismantled their social and organizati­onal apparatuse­s, ensuring they would never return to the political arena. The parliament­ary elections in 1996 were an indication of the strength of the reformist movement, and the following year, a reformist, Mohammad Khatami, was elected president.

Shifts in public opinion emboldened the voices calling for the separation of religion from politics. But after the Khatami era ended, the government pushed conservati­ve Ahmadineja­d to the presidency. It failed to recognize the transforma­tions that had occurred in Iranian society and brutally suppressed dissenting voices, including during the 2009 protests.

Although the Pahlavis failed to promote democratic values, they improved the standard of living in Iran and executed major developmen­t projects. Conversely, the Islamic regime ruined the economy, impoverish­ed the people and suppressed social freedoms. Iran’s gross domestic product decreased from $599 billion in 2012 to $231 billion in 2020. Living standards have reached their lowest point in more than a century, and prices have skyrockete­d, making essential goods, such as food and medicine, unaffordab­le for most Iranians.

Political Paralysis

The regime’s hierarchic­al structure renders it incapable of adapting to changing domestic and internatio­nal conditions, resulting in chronic political failure. Because of the paralysis of state institutio­ns, the political system lacks the ability to make consequent­ial decisions.

This indecisive­ness, however, has not prevented the government from applying extreme coercion measures. It mobilized its supporters to demonstrat­e against the recent riots.

The Islamic Developmen­t Coordinati­on Council organized official protests and called for public rallies supporting the headscarf. Tehran’s official Friday prayer leader warned the anti-government demonstrat­ors, whom he accused of carrying out a foreign agenda, against continuing the protests.

President Ebrahim Raisi said the progovernm­ent demonstrat­ions showed the strength of the Islamic Republic. But as the unrest spread, the government failed to adopt any measures to address the protesters’ demands, instead relying on its security forces to crush the protests and even employed the notoriousl­y ruthless female security forces to disperse women demonstrat­ors for the first time.

Iran appears to be gradually transformi­ng from a theocratic state to a state dominated by the IRGC, which considers itself the custodian of the principles of the Islamic Revolution. Khamenei’s death could pave the way for a transition to a dual system of government centered on a religious leader with limited powers and a president from the ranks of the IRGC.

Given the continuing erosion of the clerics’ standing, it’s unlikely that, in the long term, the IRGC will need a supreme leader to gain political legitimacy. Such a government could develop into an autocracy led by a military leader. Iran witnessed a similar process in the 1920s when Col. Reza Khan, who became prime minister in 1921, overthrew Ahmad Shah in 1925 and establishe­d the Pahlavi dynasty.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Cyprus