Last month, Iranians celebrated the 39th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution which led to the downfall of the Pahlavi Shah Regime. However, prior to this, modern Iran itself experienced some protests, starting in one of Iran’s big cities, Mashhad, raising questions as to whether the next revolution will happen and bring regime change. The most recent protests that drew the world’s attention to Iran’s domestic processes started on 28 December 2017 and lasted into the first days of 2018. The key motives for protestors were the economic problems of the country which led a group of unemployed young people to take the streets.
However, this time the unrest evolved to include political motives, as the demonstrators showed their rage against the theocratic government and especially Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This unrest cannot be equated with the revolution in 1979 and did not have the same effect on the country’s political regime. K. Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, mentions “In 1979, Iranians experienced a revolution without democracy; today they aspire for democracy without a revolution”. But then the question is why people could not continue to express their anti-governmental views if they have already done it before. Instead, this time it ended with 25 people dead and the arrest of 3700 Iranians. Most of the detained were released only after interrogation and signing a pledge that they would never again participate in protests causing damage to public order.
Once people’s courage to protest has already become a part of the political atmosphere in Iran, Iranian leaders have substantial reasons to be fearful, from external support to domestic disorder, especially from the side of the USA. Historical facts might support this idea. In 2013, the CIA publicly admitted that it stood behind the 1953 coup against the Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, who was elected democratically. Tensions were raised to a new level by the hostage crisis in 1979 which lasted for 444 days, after which Iranian students set free their American hostages.
And at the present time, the two countries’ animosity is strenghtening under the Trump administration which refused to re-certify the nuclear deal with Iran (according new legislation of US Congress, the president has to report every 90 days to Congress with regard to Iran’s compliance with the deal and the deal’s being within the interests of US). Notwithstanding the acute hostility of US towards Iran, and Iran’s accusations of US interference, there is no real evidence that the US actually sponsored the protests or pursued its democratic goals here. Therefore, despite all these challenges that Iran encounters both internally and externally, it is unlikely that current regime would undergo the same fate as its neighbors or repeat its history as in 1979.
It is important to look through a few factors to understand why protestors could not achieve what they aimed. The absence of leadership among protestors obscured the coordination of demands and aims which could not get enough support from population and made it less visible for key foreign actors, whose interest was to weaken the current government by interfering inside the country. During the protests the government even blocked social media apps, such as Instagram or Telegram, in order to prevent spread of information, pictures and videos of rallies shared by protestors, restoring them only after the crackdown of protests. Furthermore, teaching English in primary schools was banned after Supreme Leader warned about the repercussions of “cultural invasion” of Western world on the young people.
A huge role was played by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a branch of Iran’s Armed Forces, which was founded after the 1979 Revolution and is now instrumental in terms of protecting the country’s Shi’ite theocracy and preventing the kind of military coup that could happen in the country. Its role not only limited to military actions, but takes broad influence on social, political and economic life of Iran. A few facts can be considered in order to understand the IRGC’s power and its effective security measures which shrink the possibility of regime change in the country. Firstly, the IRGC controls Iran’s ballistic missile program which is strategically its most important deterrent. Secondly, besides its military activities, the IRGC is a powerful economic actor within Iran with great influence over many sectors such as energy and telecommunication. When the government revealed its new budgetary plan for 2018, it became a controversial issue that constituted one of the reasons for protestors’ discontent. While the new plan contained austere budgetary measures, the IRGC was still entitled to generous public funding and religious foundations were only expected to pay a very small amount of tax.
Thirdly, as a guardian of the Islamic regime the IRGC is the key supporter of the Supreme Leader and his policies. Fourthly, the IRGC sees Western democratic ambitions as a threat to the conservative rule of Islam, therefore, upon every demonstrations in Iran, fears of Western influence triggers this organization to take every necessary step to quell the protests. There is even a massive volunteer militia, called Basji, which is subordinate to the IRGC at fighting against foreign intrusions through different activities such as, internal security, law enforcement, the organizing of religious ceremonies and suppressing dissident gatherings. Prior to these recent protests, Iran experienced more widespread protests in 2009, known as the Green Movement, in which millions displayed their discontent against the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, demanding his removal from office. During that time Basji was accused of applying violent measures to suppress the protests resulting at least 72 people’s deaths.
All these factors make the possibility of regime change or external support for that, very slim and unlikely. Iranians’ revolutionary spirit, their tendency to take to the streets when they are concerned with injustice are not sufficient to provoke a second political shift when there is still a considerable loyality to the Islamic regime under its current rulers from both religious people and a solid theocratic system that reinforces the leaders’ legitimacy.