Iran protests exposing cracks in regime unity
Not only does the character of the ongoing widespread uprising in Iran appear to be different this time, but the various and contradictory reactions of the regime’s political establishment points to a major crisis within the Islamic Republic.
In previous nationwide demonstrations, such as those in 2017 and 2019, the ruling politicians and clerics seemed to be united against the people. They carried the same agenda, message and response.
Now, however, the growing political gap within the theocratic establishment is noticeable. For example, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei criticized other clerics and officials for initially blaming the security forces for the death of Mahsa Amini. He believes that the narrative spread by some officials, which was anchored in blaming security officers, led to the protests. Khamenei said: “At first, some (clerical) elites made announcements and statements without investigation and probably out of compassion. Some of them blamed the law enforcement agency and some blamed the system. Now that they have seen what the matter is and what happened in the streets because of their words, in parallel with the planning of the enemy, they should make up for their work and clearly declare that they are against what happened and the plan of the foreign enemy.”
The supreme leader was basically instructing the elite to only spread the narrative that these protests are caused by the “foreign enemy.”
When Khamenei gives such speeches, the ruling clerics and officials used to follow his agenda word for word. But this time, some prominent clerics and news outlets seemed to be defying Khamenei’s instructions right after his speech. For instance, the government-controlled Setareh-e Sobh newspaper published a statement by cleric Mohammed Ali Ayazi, in which he said: “Some of the clerics do not accept the guidance patrol and say that this is not a way to make the society religious. Some things that are done in the name of religion are not acceptable from the point of view of some religious thinkers and researchers.”
Khamenei has ruled for more than three decades. From his perspective, the regime’s modus operandi — of brutally cracking down on the population and any opposition while declining to give concessions — has always worked. So, through this prism, why should the regime change this path, which has been successful since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979?
Some prominent clerics and news outlets seem to be defying Khamenei’s instructions
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
In addition, for the Iranian regime’s supreme leader, offering concessions means projecting weakness and, if the government makes one concession, this would be a victory for the opposition and would empower the people to ask for more.
While Khamenei is refusing to give in, some of his closest allies, such as Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf, a member of the Expediency Council, believe that the regime ought to address the tensions in society. He recently stated in a speech to the Expediency Council: “If we want to overcome this cognitive war, we first need to correct these conflicts and these different perceptions and understandings in this part of governance. This is the platform that the enemy uses because of its inefficiency and creates these problems.”
This does not mean that some of the regime’s officials or high-level clerics are asking for regime change. Instead, it shows they are scrambling to find ways to make sure that the Islamic Republic can survive.
This noticeable gap in the theocratic establishment also reveals the extreme concern that the ruling politicians are feeling due to the ongoing protests.
This is due to the fact that, this time around, the wall of fear has been broken among the overwhelming majority of the young generation, as well as among women. As a member of the regime’s reformist party, Mohammed Reza Tajik, warned this month: “The current political situation in today’s society has passed the era of fear and entered the era of rage. The current movement is associated with a kind of happiness and zeal for life. Today’s activist is prepared to sacrifice his or her life to achieve freedom.”
He added: “Today’s activist thinks that he or she can only get his or her point across to the ruling class with rage … He or she thinks that only the language of anger is the solution and that other languages are not answered and are not heard. Over the years, we have planted the seeds of hate and now we are reaping a lot of wrath.”
The political cracks within the theocratic establishment and between ruling politicians and clerics are deepening. This phenomenon, in combination with the increasing protests across the nation, is highlighting the speculation that the Iranian regime is on its last legs.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh