Although the Islamic Republic of Iran has always brimmed with enmity for foreign foes, popular discontent at home has always posed the more obvious and lethal threat to its existence. By its very nature, theocratic rule tends to unsettle societies in ways that breed political opposition of great breadth and depth, and the clerical tyranny in Tehran is no exception. Since it seized power in 1979, and particularly since the disastrous 1980–88 Iran-Iraq war, the revolutionary theocracy has had to contend with tenacious opposition from below. At one time or another, a range of dissidents—from liberal student activists and ardent secularists to disgruntled mullahs and the bourgeoisie—have defected from a system that, in theory and in practice, has no respect for the concept of the citizen.
Barely four decades into its existence, the Islamic republic is confronted by another eruption of public rage, this time brought about by the nation’s women, that may yet end in revolutionary change. A majority of Iranians now groaning under this austere order have no recollection of the revolution that produced it, and reject its central justification—an Islamic concept known as velayat-e faqih, or “guardianship of the jurist.” Originally conceived as a license for the clergy to assume responsibility for orphans and the infirm, the late Ayatollah Khomeini amended it to encompass the whole of society. By these means were his unfortunate subjects relegated to the status of state property.
The current Supreme Leader, Seyed Ali Khamenei, and his regime have used capricious violence and cunning incentives to shore up their support base and thwart resilient opposition. Lavish instruments of repression and intimidation have imposed a high price on those Iranians brave enough to protest in public, and an elaborate welfare state and subsidy system have wedded the poor to the ruling establishment. For decades, this potent combination of sticks and carrots has ensured that the counter-revolutionary cause has always ended in bitter disappointment and defeat. This time, though, things may be different.
In recent years, the Iranian working class and urban poor have abandoned their quiescence and joined the ranks of disaffected educated professionals and protesters hailing from the middle class. This denotes a new level of resentment made more acute by a combination of economic mismanagement, the pandemic, and punishing sanctions. The inflation rate hovers around 50 percent and the value of the rial has been shredded. As a result, the regime’s traditional constituency has shrunk considerably. Iran’s authorities continue to employ brutality in an attempt to smother the burgeoning civil resistance, but the spell of fear in Iranian society has been broken.
This new dispensation is indicated by the schisms that have opened among the clergy, with even regime stalwarts venturing trenchant criticism of the government. The leadership of the fearsome Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps may be culled from the upper echelons of society, but the rank-and-file of the Guard Corps and the Basij are another matter. Drawn largely from the lower orders, the loyalty of these enforcers is no longer assured. The massive, lingering street demonstrations will not be easily swept away.
The proximate cause of Iran’s latest eruption of unrest was a grotesque crime. On September 16th, 2022, a 22-year-old Iranian woman named Mahsa Amini died in custody, following her arrest by Ayatollah Khamenei’s “morality” police for wearing her hijab improperly. Amini’s murder at the hands of cold and arrogant officialdom caused Iranian women to pour into the streets. But that cruel instance of the routine subjugation of half the Iranian population has also galvanized a broad cross-section of Iranian society, including its diverse mosaic of ethnic groups. The courage of women removing or burning their headscarves in public—a breach of law punishable by whippings, if not detention and rape—has been augmented by demands for an ignominious end to the regime that equipped the clerics with such inordinate power in the first place.
Iranians have plainly tired of this regime, the baroque misogyny of which is a standing affront to their basic rights. To the embarrassment of regime apologists in the West (some of whom betray a surreptitious fancy for theocracy), the participants in this new liberation movement understand that the mullahs are incapable of prioritizing Iran’s national and economic interests over revolutionary ideology. Those who have long claimed the contrary in support of a policy of rapprochement have fallen silent of late. But it is vanishingly unlikely that they have learned from their mistake of siding with Iran’s rulers over its ruled—or worse, of imagining that the rulers are the legitimate tribunes of a people infuriated by US imperialism.
If the slogans “Mullahs Get Lost” and “We Don’t Want Your Islamic Republic” sound uncompromising, it is because the decaying one-party/one-god state has left Iranians with no alternative. Although the waste and futility of the Islamic revolution have exacted a terrible price on the country, even modest reform initiatives (from the presidential campaign of Mohammad Khatami in 1997 to the green revolution in 2009) have been stymied by a corrupt and imperious establishment. For the vast populace, convulsive street demonstrations have been the only possible means of redress.
Iranians today live without hope for the backward political order that has immiserated and imprisoned them since 1979. It’s no less apparent that they have lost their fear of it. Separately and together, these facts should make the masters of the Iranian regime nervous. If, as Benjamin Disraeli remarked, a weak government discloses itself by its eagerness to resort to strong measures, the Islamic republic will continue to reveal its vulnerability in the ruthless force with which it aims to quell dissent. But for a state that no longer commands the widespread loyalty of its people, such measures are fraught with risk.
This may explain its initial reluctance to unleash brutal suppression en masse. But there can be little doubt that a regime with no compunction about abusing and killing its own citizens will seek to stamp out this uprising with force. The most recent evidence of this impending savagery was a proposal by the rubber-stamp parliament, which voted overwhelmingly in favor of harsh measures, including capital punishment, for protesters. Although the judiciary is the only body vested with authority to determine punishment in these cases, raising the specter of the death penalty evokes a grisly precedent. On the heels of the revolution, this regime became infamous for raping its female political prisoners on the eve of their executions because killing a virgin is a sin in Islam.
Nonetheless, the spirit of revolt now on display has inflicted the kind of damage on the legitimacy of the state from which it cannot easily recover. This development is even more grave in its implications than it may at first appear. The end of the Islamic republic would be an unqualified boon for liberal civilization, shoring up the cause of freedom after more than a decade of autocratic gains in the international system. Since the US has a huge stake in thwarting both Iran’s atomic ambitions and its pursuit of regional hegemony, it’s naturally invested in any possible transformation, or at least reformation, of the Iranian regime. The principal blessings of regime collapse would be enjoyed in Iran itself, which could at last shutter its political dungeons (not least the monstrous Evin prison) and build an open society for all. But the wider world—beginning with the Middle East where the Islamist imperium has wrought so much destruction—would accrue huge benefits from a post-revolutionary Iran, too.
The inauguration of a new order in Tehran would surely be followed by the return of its copious oil supplies to the market, alleviating the crude shortage occasioned by Russia’s war in Ukraine. The Ukrainian resistance would be strengthened, since Putin’s outmoded forces have been reinforced by an Iranian arsenal of missiles and kamikaze drones. The gruesome Assad dynasty in Syria would be dealt a severe blow by the removal of its primary patron and protector, as would the Houthi insurgency in Yemen. Hezbollah, Iran’s jihadist proxy, would also suffer grievously from the loss of its foreign paymaster. No longer hostage to the whim of the Party of God, Lebanon could reclaim its full sovereignty. Last but not least, without the looming specter of a predatory and potentially nuclear-armed Iran, both Israel and the Gulf states would enjoy an unprecedented security windfall.
In the meantime, hard facts must be faced. Henry Kissinger has long maintained that Iranian leaders must decide whether they want to be “a nation or a cause.” But Kissinger, like other foreign policy “realists,” insists that the character of foreign states is not a legitimate American concern, so his analysis fails to consider the nature of the regime seated in Tehran. The architects and heirs of the Islamic revolution have rejected the choice articulated by Kissinger and offered by the international system, seeking instead to burnish their prestige and power with an unsleeping quest for the bomb. The raison d’être of the Islamic republic remains what it has always been: to be an instrument of its own brand of Shiite millenarianism, and to conscript the Iranian nation into the service of that messianic cause. For such a regime, founded on the imposition of the veil and weaned on virulent antisemitism and anti-Americanism, it cannot possibly forego either mission without putting its entire order of power at risk.
The Islamic republic’s imperial ambitions have exacerbated its predicament at home. Its decades-long strategy of sponsoring and directing jihadist terror has long passed the point of diminishing returns, as the mounting costs of this sectarian imperium have discouraged the generosity of patronage networks. The once-popular view that any US military action against Iran would stoke the latent nationalism of its people and bind them to the ruling class has not been borne out. The targeted killing of General Soleimani in early 2020 was mourned by large crowds of Iranians. But since then, sizeable numbers have declared themselves to be contemptuous of the shadow commander. Across the Iranian hinterland, Soleimani’s omnipresent face is being burned in effigy.
When the Iranian people took to the streets in June 2009 to protest a fraudulent election, President Obama abstained in the clash between a cruel dictatorship and its long-suffering subjects. Anxious to protect his chances of signing an arms control agreement with the regime that would (purportedly) suspend its pursuit of a nuclear weapon, the ostensible leader of the free world paid his respects to the principle of “sovereignty” while musing about the past ills of US foreign policy. For a while, White House apologists implausibly insisted that the president’s neutral posture would help the demonstrators. American moral support for them would only play into the hands of their oppressors (or so the argument went), who customarily seek the pretext of a foreign plot to discredit popular discontent. This foolishness evaporated when Iranian demonstrators addressed their chants to Obama, demanding to know where his sympathies lay.
The lesson of this humiliating episode is that the United States should leave no doubt about where it stands in a struggle between tyranny and liberty. Obama himself has now admitted as much, conceding that it was a mistake not to have shown solidarity with Iran’s freedom movement. The Biden administration finds itself on the horns of that same dilemma—caught between its desire to resurrect the nuclear deal on one hand, and the depredations of the Islamic regime on the other. Present indications are that it is not in a hurry to repeat Obama’s mistake. “Don’t worry, we’re gonna free Iran,” Biden said during a recent campaign rally for Democratic Rep. Mike Levin. “They’re gonna free themselves pretty soon.”
These words were met with cautious approval from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies on November 7th:
The White House increasingly appears to recognize that Tehran lacks any interest in reaching a nuclear deal consistent with Western interests. U.S. envoy for Iran Robert Malley said on October 31 that the Biden administration would not “waste time” trying to resuscitate the JCPOA. However, it remains unclear whether the White House would advocate pursuing the deal if protests faded. To eliminate such ambiguity, President Biden should reject further talks and adopt a policy of maximum pressure on Iran.
In order to exploit the vulnerabilities of the Islamic republic and move human rights up the agenda, Washington must confront the left flank of the Democratic party that deems every US “intervention” a species of imperialism, as well as the cynical realists who recoil from any moral dimension to foreign policy whatsoever. In addition, it must not yield to those who feign support for Iranians even as they advise Western powers to remain neutral.
The strength and durability of the uprising in Persia suggests that the die may at last be cast against the Islamic republic. It no longer feels premature to venture that the days of this ghastly theocracy are numbered, even if the odds remain against a rapid overthrow. The revolutionary spirit of this regime looks depleted—not by the hostile actions of its foreign adversaries, but by its own kith and kin. In the midst of this latest season of protest, it is becoming evident that the Islamic republic has entered a patriarchal autumn and a hardened majority of Iranians are now determined to outlive it.