Experts debate whether protests can change Iran

Amid the continued protests throughout Iran, what will the future hold for the country’s terror-funding Shi’a regime?

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks in Iran’s Kermanshah Province in November 2017. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks in Iran’s Kermanshah Province in November 2017. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Amid the continued popular protests throughout Iran, what will the future hold for the country’s terror-funding Shi’a regime?

“The bottom line: Does the regime have both the will and ability to keep itself in power? If it lacks both, it is finished. If it has either, it should be able to weather this crisis,” Harold Rhode, a former adviser on Islamic affairs in the U.S. Department of Defense and now a distinguished senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute think tank, told JNS.

Ephraim Dardashti, who was born and raised in Iran and now lives in the United States, and is a published expert on Iranian history, told JNS that usually at this time of year, Iran’s government “is organizing parades boasting their support for the [ayatollah] and cursing the Americans and Israelis, so in essence these spontaneous demonstrations are counter-demonstrations and show how the people truly feel.”

Iran analyst Ali Alfoneh, author of the 2013 book Iran Unveiled: How the Revolutionary Guards is Transforming Iran from Theocracy into Military Dictatorship, told JNS that the regime “seems in control.” There is unrest in poor suburbs of urban population centers, but important cities such as Tehran, Isfahan and Tabriz were calm this week, he said.

“The Iranian authorities have for the most part dealt with the protests and have not found it necessary to resort to even more violent methods such as massacring the protesters,” said Alfoneh, who grew up in Tehran.

The regime’s methods of control

Dardashti explained that there are three main tactics the Islamic Republic uses to control and pacify its population: drugs, sex and fear.

Illegal drugs are widely available and very cheap in Iran, “from the old-time opium that the grandparents used to smoke, to crack packed in a glass container ready for consumption,” said Dardashti.

Iranian women are widely used as “sexual toys,” according to Dardashti.

“When they visit the homeland, Iranian-American men indulge—they ‘marry’ someone for the duration of their stay,” he said. In Shi’a Islam, there is a concept of temporary marriage known as mut’a.

To instill fear among the population, Iranian clergy have consistently killed dissidents from the start of the Islamic Revolution. Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the anointed successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was deposed after criticizing the regime’s tactics.

What is behind the protests?

Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, told JNS that while the protests “initially began over economic grievances, they soon mushroomed across Iran, drawing on the wellspring of discontent with the revolution that has existed in that country since the regime’s inception.”

“Chants drifted to include attacks on both President [Hassan] Rouhani and Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei, as well as rebukes of Iran’s overall foreign and security policy,” he said. “These slogans signal the deep levels of dissatisfaction the population has with the regime.”

Dardashti said Iran’s kleptocracy has played a major role in the public’s dissatisfaction with the regime.

“The corruption is so bad and widespread that hardly a day goes by without more revelations,” he said, noting that former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has traded barbs with judiciary chief Sadeq Larijani and his brother, the Iranian parliament’s Speaker Ali Larijani, accusing one another of corruption and sedition.

Many have observed that the current demonstrations are starkly different than the 2009 “Green Revolution” protests that were mainly carried out by young and affluent Iranians in large cities such as Tehran.

“What is noticeably different about these protests when compared to 2009 is the size and scope,” said Ben Taleblu. “While in 2009, protests in Tehran were in the millions, today’s protests are noticeably smaller, but wider in scale. Protests began in the holy city of Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city, and among the urban poor. That should be counted as part of the social base of the regime—but no longer.”

Despite their geographic and demographic differences, Ben Taleblu does see a connection between the protests of 2009 and 2017.

“These protests build on the ones from 2009, since those grievances have simply compounded with age,” he said. “And despite the aforementioned differences, they represent the Iranian people’s resolve for representative government, economic and social justice, and a government that reflects their values and interests.”

What happens if the regime collapses?

Dardashti said that if the Iranian regime falls, a new government would likely align itself with the West. On the other hand, he said the leadership vacuum could be filled by a Marxist Iranian opposition that is currently exiled in France and is partially represented by the People’s Mujahideen Organization of Iran (PMOI), which has been removed from the official U.S. list of terrorist organizations, but remains controversial due to its radical ideology. Dardashti expressed concern that the PMOI might currently be the best-organized Iranian opposition movement.

Ben Taleblu said, “It’s too soon to tell what direction these protests may take. But regardless of their perceived success or failure, they show the international community that the Iranian people are willing to risk their life for their beliefs, and for the future of their country.”

— With reporting by Sean Savage

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