The killing of twenty-two-year-old Mahsa Amini while in detention for wearing her hijab improperly has sparked a new round of protests in Iran. These demonstrations are often referred to as the “hijab protests,” and the movement whose slogan began as “Woman, Life, Freedom” is misguidedly assumed by many to be purely a women’s movement. The Iranian youth attempted to fix this narrative by adding a second motto: “Man, Homeland, Prosperity.” Now in the third month of the movement, Iranians have largely moved on from both slogans and are demanding regime change. Yet there persists a desire in the United States to think of it as primarily a women’s movement.
In fact, the protests in Iran today are hardly limited to restrictions on women, just as the 2019 protests were sparked by gas prices but entirely political in their nature. They are, rather, the manifestation of a radical disagreement between the people and their oppressors about the right way to live. The disagreements and the mutual contempt between the two sides have been accelerating and have arrived at the point of no return. There’s no stopping the revolution, though the course it will take is uncertain. Should the country devolve into civil war, the consequences could be severe, morally expensive, and disruptive of the international order. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___
For the current revolution to succeed, the ruling elite needs to make a political decision to surrender power, which is feasible only if dissent within its own rank and across all factions grows to such a level that the ruling elite accepts there is no feasible path to maintaining power. In 1979, the ruling Pahlavis left Iran because they didn’t want a bloodbath in the streets, and the military surrendered. However, a similar scenario today is highly unlikely given the factionalized structure of the regime makes collective action practically impossible, while ideological and material incentives to remain loyal to the regime remain strong for many in the armed forces.
The Islamic Republic has proven that it has no interest in giving up power. Revolution is a contest of wills over the political future of a country; in this instance, one side has a brutal police state and surveillance technology on its side. It will end when one side’s will triumphs over the other’s. The people have demonstrated their resolve to stay the course as well. Since 2017, Iranians have bled and died in battles against the security forces and come back again more forcefully—and more grieved and outraged. Hacked files from regime propaganda outlet Fars News confirm that more protesters have died recently than in 2019, yet the protests have persisted. If neither side backs down, a civil war could emerge.
At present, Iran’s trajectory resembles Syria’s, as both sides demonstrate a willingness to engage in violence and absorb pain, and both sides have radical and irreconcilable differences between them. The Syrian civil war was first called the Syrian revolution. Just like the Islamic Republic, the Assad clan’s regime was unpopular internally below senior ranks, and the Syrian people’s desperation for change combined with the regime’s determination to hold onto power meant that there could be neither a compromise nor a hot peace.
Looking back to the Pahlavis’ decision, where would the leaders of the Islamic Republic flee to? Venezuela is the most widely discussed option—hundreds if not thousands have already fled there—but political instability makes it unattractive. The same could be said of Russia, not to mention that life in Latin America, Russia, or China for that matter isn’t exactly hospitable to orthodox Shiite Muslims. Closer to home, Iraq and Lebanon are also politically unstable, and if the influence of Shiites were to diminish with a collapse of the Islamic Republic, that could lead to the extradition of the regime’s leaders back to a post-Islamist Iran.
Iran’s ruling class remembers well what befell the Shah’s political allies who remained in Iran, because the current leaders were their predecessors’ executioners. A fear of the same fate means they will persist in clinging to power, furthering the likelihood of a civil war.
The structure of the Islamic Republic only makes this scenario more plausible. Leader Ali Khamenei acts as the central processing unit that holds factionalized elements together, an arrangement consistent with Iranian political thought. The Story of Politics (aka Book of Politics or Book of Government), written in the 12th century by Nizam al-Mulk, explains—and endorses—the Iranian political culture, a theory of power that enables kings to guard against coups by creating parallel institutions to compete against each other. This ensures there will always be some institution loyal to them amidst dissent inside the regime.
Today, Iran has two militaries, the Islamic Revolution’s Guardians Corps (often incorrectly mistranslated as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) and the Artesh; two major intelligence institutions, the Ministry of Intelligence and the Parallel Intelligence Agency; and two law enforcement entities, the regular police and the local civilian militias that are a subsidiary of the IRGC called the Basij. Within each set of these parallel institutions there are additional competing factions. Simply put, Iran is a Madisonian, personalistic autocracy.
As long as no one rocks the boat, and so long as there is a deeply rooted leader like Khamenei, the system works perfectly fine, evident by nearly forty-four years of undisputed rule. But in an ethnically diverse country under an illegitimate and brutal regime, someone will eventually rock the boat.
Additional instability has been introduced in the Islamic Republic due to the regime's recent inability to pay the security forces adequately. This, combined with the increasing growth of dissent within the ranks, means that enforcing order is becoming more difficult. There are many videos on social media of demoralized security forces doing the bare minimum to fight the revolutionaries. Sporadic condemnations of the regime and Khamenei from within the security forces suggest that defections will increase as more people die. The regime has traditionally excused the oppression of women, arguing that they are the more precious gender and in need of protection. Killing girls and women will also lead to the disillusionment of many within its own ranks.
It's highly likely, then, that arms will soon make their way into the hands of young radicals, many of whom have basic military training thanks to Iran’s mandatory two-year male conscription. There are already sporadic instances, such as in Esfahan and Izeh, where people have fired at the police with military weapons. Nor is there a Kurdish-majority city near the border, so it is highly unlikely that the weapons were smuggled into the country. It is possible they were passed to the people by members of the armed forces. Yet amidst the chaos and division there will always be factions ready to defend the regime from collapse. The stage is thus set for Iran’s security forces to move from competing against each other to shooting at each other.
The United States hoped that, by staying out of Syria, freedom would arrive. What resulted instead was the most disruptive and painful catastrophe of this young century. An Iranian civil war could be far worse given Iran’s size and military capabilities. Unfortunately, that frightful scenario looks more and more likely as time passes.
The United States seems frozen on Iran—it is preoccupied by Ukraine, distracted by China, beset with internal challenges, and has a mixed tract record at best in promoting democracy in the Middle East. Yet the most catastrophic U.S. foreign policy in this century remains staying out of Syria, which led to half a million deaths, disrupted regional order, and served as a catalyst for the rise of populism in Europe and the United States. The rebels in Iran have shown that they won’t go away. Failure is not an option. The remaining options are a civil war or success, and the latter requires outside help. A conversation is urgently needed about what the United States can do to nudge events in a better direction.
Shay Khatiri, an immigrant from Iran, studied strategic studies at Johns Hopkin University’s School of Advanced International Studies and writes on political events within the country for the Substack newsletter “The Russia-Iran File”and other publications.
Image: A protestor holds up a placard. (Unsplash: Ollie Parker-Jones)
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