Iran’s Uncertain Political Future

The December 2017 uprising in Iran was the most significant nationwide unrest seen in that country since 2009. But in many ways it was different from the so-called Green Movement.

For one, the 2017 uprising started in the city of Mashhad and spread to mostly smaller cities. Tehran, relatively more affluent and under the watch of the security forces, was not the epicenter of the revolt, as it had been in 2009. Moreover, the Green Movement was centered on the 2009 presidential election and led by the main reformist candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi. The catalyst for the protests was the widespread view that Mousavi’s rival, incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had stolen the election with the connivance of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards.

The latest protests had nothing to do with the reformists; the protestors did not mention Mousavi, under house arrest for the past seven years, as their leader or even as an inspiration. Indeed, the 2017 protests had no acknowledged leader. At the same time, this latest uprising was the most geographically widespread and vehemently anti-regime event since the 1979 establishment of the Islamic Republic. Many of the protesters came from Iran’s lower middle and working classes, the regime’s ostensible base. Many chanted “death to Khamenei” and called for an end to Iran’s theocratic autocracy. There were also attacks on police stations and other public property. Importantly, the protestors did not direct their anger towards one leader or faction, but towards the system as a whole. The reformists, anxious to preserve the Islamic Republic, roundly condemned the protestors and disassociated themselves from demands for regime overthrow.

The recent uprising has not led to the overthrow of the regime and it is quite possible that the system will muddle through for years to come. But the protests, which are continuing sporadically and have spread to demands to end the obligatory hijab for women, have greatly weakened the Islamic Republic and suggested that its very survival is at stake.

The protests have, at the same time, presented an opportunity for President Hassan Rouhani and his pragmatist/reformist faction to push through urgently needed reforms. The key question is whether Rouhani and his backers are willing or able to rise to the challenge.

As a presidential candidate, Rouhani promised to alleviate Iran’s many ills by resolving the nuclear crisis, improving the economy and easing the regime’s repressive social policies. But while Rouhani’s economic achievements may look good on paper as Iran’s GDP has risen following the nuclear deal, the uprising has highlighted the desperate existence of millions of Iranians. Corruption, mismanagement, and sanctions have created an unprecedented economic crisis; according to official Iranian government statistics, nearly one third of Iranians live below the poverty line, although unofficial estimates suggest the number is higher.  While Iranian society has continued to liberalize, human rights abuses appear to have increased under Rouhani, and the president’s signature achievement, the nuclear agreement, is in jeopardy if President Trump carries out his threats to walk away if it is not “fixed.”

Rouhani may realize that Iran is in need of major reforms, but his ability to enact meaningful change is hindered if not completely blocked by Khamenei and Iran’s unelected and deeply reactionary institutions, including the Guardian Council, numerous parastatal foundations, and the security forces, including the powerful Revolutionary Guards. Moreover, Rouhani is by nature a cautious person and is loath to rock a revolutionary system to which he remains deeply committed.

Nevertheless, he must realize that the Islamic Republic is facing systematic failure on all levels. More than a dozen financial institutions and banks have gone bankrupt, hundreds of factories have closed or remain idle, hundreds of thousands if not millions of Iranian workers are going without wages, and the value of Iran’s currency, the Rial, has declined to its lowest levels. Iran also faces a severe water crisis caused by climate change and government policies, has some of the worst pollution on earth, and suffers from periodic earthquakes that have exposed the regime’s inability or unwillingness to care for its citizens. The regime faces a restive and angry population, and while there is no cohesive political opposition, various movements and organizations may join efforts not just to reform a decaying system, but to overthrow the Islamic Republic once and for all.

In examining today’s Iran, several potential scenarios emerge for the future. It is impossible to predict which, if any, will come into being. But some are more likely than others given Iran’s precarious situation.

A Restive Status Quo

Khamenei has been Iran’s Supreme Leader since 1989. In that time, he has accumulated vast power and authority as Iran’s ultimate religious, political, and military leader. But at the age of 78, Khamenei finds himself increasingly beset by grave challenges. The Islamic Republic may appear ascendant in much of the Middle East, but it is becoming weaker at home. Khamenei lost much of his remaining domestic legitimacy after his direct intervention in the 2009 presidential election. The reformist movement, which he has banished to the margins of the system, no longer trusts him. Three of its key leaders, including Mousavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi, remain under house arrest by his orders. Even Ahmadinejad, once an ostensible supporter of Khamenei, has become a thorn in his side.

Perhaps more disconcerting for the aging leader, much of the Iranian population despises him. Numerous posters of Khamenei have been torn or set on fire since the current uprising and the slogan “death to Khamenei” appeared on numerous buildings throughout the country. Khamenei’s authority rests not only on the concept of velayat faghih (rule of the supreme jurisprudent) but also his credentials as a revolutionary who helped overthrow Iran’s monarchy. But much like the Shah before him, Khamenei is viewed as a despot rather than Iran’s legitimate ruler.

Khamenei may survive the current unrest in Iran, but he must surely fear for his legacy. The uprising has exposed his regime’s fragility, and it is not clear that Khamenei’s preferred successor, whoever he is, will be able to ascend to or maintain his power. The rumored frontrunner for the position, Hojatolislam Ebrahim Raisi, revealed his lack of popularity by running against Rouhani in 2017. Raisi, currently head of the enormously wealthy Imam Reza Shrine Foundation in Mashhad, was a member of the tribunal responsible for executing nearly 10,000 political prisoners in 1988. In the 2017 election, he won 38 percent of the vote.

It is highly unlikely that the Iranian population or even much of the elite will acquiesce to another leader like Khamenei or Raisi. Only the reactionary base which supports Khamenei will want someone similar to him to become the Supreme Leader — not so much for ideological or religious reasons but because Khamenei has been the spigot of a patronage system which has made many clerics and Revolutionary Guards abundantly wealthy.

It is possible that Rouhani is maneuvering to succeed Khamenei, especially if the Supreme Leader passes away before Rouhani’s second and last term ends. The president, after all, will have a major role in shaping the succession to Khamenei. But Khamenei’s supporters, especially the Guards, are unlikely to tolerate a leader like Rouhani, especially since they would have to share much of their spoils with Rouhani’s faction. Rouhani is also likely to change the Islamic Republic in ways that are intolerable for them. In the absence of a strong or preferred candidate, the Guards may opt to take power for themselves and do away with the institution of Supreme Leader completely.

Military Rule

The Guards have grown tremendously under Khamenei’s leadership. A relatively powerless president before Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death, Khamenei had to rely on the influence and patronage of Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani (who died a year ago) to become the Supreme Leader. But his partnership with the Guards has made up for his lack of religious qualifications, charisma, and political acumen. Under Khamenei, the Guards have become Iran’s foremost economic, military, and internal security actor. They also have played a decisive role in Iranian politics by interfering in the 2005 and 2009 elections and establishing themselves as a guardian of the regime’s political-ideological principles. The Guards also command Iran’s regional policies and have been responsible for maintaining the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria through the efforts of the commander of the Qods Force, General Qasem Soleimani, and Shi’ite militias organized by the Qods Force.

The Guards played a critical role in ensuring Ahmadinejad’s victory in the 2009 presidential election but had a more subtle position in suppressing the 2017 uprising. They may be aware that their use of brutal force against Iranians could endanger the regime by sparking even more public protests or violence from their opponents. Thus, Iran’s Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Intelligence — both under Rouhani’s authority — took the lead in suppressing the uprising and the Guards did not send their own troops into the streets.

While the Guards may be a repressive force, their leadership nevertheless pays attention to public sentiments and political realities in Iran. In the wake of Khamenei’s death, the Guards will be one of the kingmakers of Iranian politics. While the Assembly of Experts – an elected body of clerics — has the constitutional authority to appoint the next leader, in reality the decision will be made behind the scenes by Khamenei and the Guards. It is very difficult to imagine a leader that is not approved by the Guards. Rouhani would not be an ideal candidate for the top echelon; rather, they would like to see a conservative with close ties to the security establishment such as Raisi. But the Guards also have to consider the Islamic Republic’s precarious condition. Could a system that nurtures them survive with another leader like Khamenei?

It wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Guards taking decisive action to safeguard their interests. The Guards may be tempted to take complete power in the event of Khamenei’s death or even another uprising or revolution. They could either do away with the position of the leader or could select one or a group of clerics as figureheads.

Either way, the Guards are associated with the current regime and are unlikely to erase the past or suddenly become popular. Iran is not a country that lends itself well to military rule since democratic norms have taken root in its society and its people expect more freedom, political representation, and government accountability. The highly corrupt Guards will also face great difficulty in ruling a country with tremendous economic, social and environmental problems. Their foreign and military policies — countering US interests, support for Hezbollah and continuing the nuclear program — are likely to translate into a confrontational relationship with Washington, and thus a perpetuation of Iran’s social and economic decline. The Guards may be powerful, but their chief modus operandi, the use of force and repression, will only alienate an already angry and restive population.

Reform or Another Revolution

The Islamic Republic has ruled Iran for 39 years but its continued existence is jeopardized by its many systematic failures. The demise of the regime is an increasing possibility; the 2017 uprising demonstrated that many Iranians, from women’s rights activists to workers and farmers, are no longer afraid to challenge the regime’s system of repression. In his recent letter to Khamenei, Mehdi Karroubi urged the Supreme Leader to make fundamental changes before it’s too late. In the wake of the 2017 uprising, many Iranians, including reformists, have begun to question whether the regime is capable of fundamental reform. A new intellectual movement on cyberspace called barandazam (I’ll overthrow) which advocates overturning the regime entirely, has also emerged and is being encouraged by exiled opponents of the regime.

The track record for the reformists is poor and Rouhani does not have much to show despite the nuclear agreement. It is easy to imagine a series of cascading events, including mass protests, civil disobedience, and even anti-regime violence, which could lead to the fall of the regime and a referendum on a new political order. A new system could take many forms, from a constitutional monarchy to a secular republic. Both models are believed to have significant popular support in Iran.

Iranian history has often confounded predictions, particularly by outsiders. Former President Jimmy Carter described Iran as “an island of stability” shortly before the 1979 revolution. Many of those within and outside of Iran may be used to the Islamic Republic as a fact of life. But the 2017 uprising, internal elite divisions, and Khamenei’s inability to maintain a stable political system suggest that the regime’s demise, if it comes, should come as no surprise. Iran’s overwhelmingly young population is desperate for change and the Islamic Republic has so far shown itself incapable of fundamental reform. Karroubi’s warning may be too little too late.

Alireza Nader is an independent researcher on Iran and the Middle East. His research has focused on Iran’s political dynamics, elite decision-making, and Iranian foreign policy. His commentaries and articles have appeared in a variety of publications and he is widely cited by US and international media. 

Image: Cabinet session on Wednesday February 7, 2018