Iran protests: Iranian regime vulnerable but unlikely to implode

Iran protests: Iranian regime vulnerable but unlikely to implode

With the ongoing protests, Iran finds itself facing the most serious domestic crisis since 1979 (File/AFP)
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As the 44th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution approaches, the country of 87 million, ruled by religious hard-liners, finds itself facing the most serious domestic crisis since 1979. For more than four months, tens of thousands of mostly young Iranians have taken to the streets calling for an end to the theocratic regime, which has grown distant from its people. More than 60 percent of Iran’s population is under 30 years old and they now want to see an end to the decades of mismanagement of the country’s affairs; an end to the harsh treatment of women; an end to the foreign adventures that have squandered Iran’s resources; and an end to everything that 87-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stands for.

Khamenei has ruled Iran with an iron fist for more than three decades. He has rejected all calls for reform and sought to alienate or sideline moderate supporters of the regime. Previous public uprisings were ruthlessly crushed and hundreds of dissidents executed.

But the ongoing protests — triggered by the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested last September for allegedly wearing her headscarf “improperly” — are relentless. The regime’s response has been bloody. More than 500 Iranians have been killed by the Basij, a paramilitary force established to deal with local dissent. But the crackdown has not worked. Women protesters have been joined by students, laborers, merchants and professionals; all calling for structural reforms.

Tens of thousands of protesters have been arrested. At least four have been executed following summary trials. President Ebrahim Raisi, himself a hard-liner who sent hundreds to their deaths when he was a revolutionary judge, brushed aside calls from former Presidents Mohammed Khatami and Hassan Rouhani and former Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani — and even officers who were once associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — to adopt economic reforms, initiate dialogue and seek national reconciliation.

But Raisi has no alternative. Rouhani had earned Khamenei’s wrath when he appeared to adopt a moderate line as president. So did Khatami, whose calls for national reconciliation in 2017 were described as “meaningless” by Khamenei.

A mixture of xenophobia, religious fundamentalism and paranoia has clouded Khamenei’s judgment

Osama Al-Sharif

So, did the supreme leader blink this week when he issued conditional pardons that would affect tens of thousands of those detained during the protests, many of whom had been convicted of various crimes? The conditions appear to exclude many, especially those involved in the protests, the majority of whom are young men and women, who are required to sign a declaration of remorse. This gesture is unlikely to succeed in stemming the growing opposition to the regime simply because of a deep lack of credibility.

The problem, as well as the challenge, has to do with Khamenei himself, who had enjoyed unchallenged authority as he surrounded himself with hard-liners. In his view, the ongoing protests, this time as before, are the product of a Western conspiracy to topple the Islamic Republic. A mixture of xenophobia, religious fundamentalism and paranoia has clouded the man’s judgment. Although he is still in control, he is reportedly in poor health and is yet to name a successor.

While the popular uprising, now spread all over the country including in the capital Tehran, is unlikely to subside, it will not bring down the regime anytime soon. In spite of years of economic sanctions and feeble economic performance, now made worse by a currency freefall, the regime is using its influence in Iraq to siphon off much-needed dollars at the expense of the Iraqi economy.

It has used the war in Ukraine to its benefit — for now — by bolstering a strategic alliance with Russia, while maintaining strong economic ties with China, with exports to Beijing worth about $5 billion annually. In 2021, the two countries signed a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement.

While most of Iran’s resources go on developing its nuclear and long-range missile programs, in addition to its advanced drone system and financing its proxies in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, little is spent on civilian infrastructure or on creating jobs, despite unemployment now standing at about 11 percent.

But the protests will continue to drain the regime’s ability to manage the country. Change could come from within the system itself.

In the past few days, two prominent Iranian opposition figures have called publicly for sweeping reforms. Long-detained former presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi has called for a nationwide referendum on adopting a new constitution; one that would end the unchallenged authority of the supreme leader. And Khatami has said he hopes that the use of “nonviolent civil methods” can “force the governing system to change its approach and accept reforms.” This is a boost to the popular uprising because it comes from people who know the system inside out.

Like all authoritarian rulers, Khamenei will continue to listen to his close cadre of hard-liners and opt for the use of force rather than making concessions that could open the proverbial floodgates for a regime that has never before looked as shaky or vulnerable.

On the other hand, one factor could change all that and breathe life into a beleaguered regime: An Israeli-led strike against Iran’s nuclear sites. The consequences of such a cataclysmic event could very well backfire and give the regime a new lease of life.

  • Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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