Is the Iranian theocracy on the chopping block?

The lesson social unrest in Iran triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman murdered by the “morals police” of the Islamic Republic, shows no sign of complicity. Understandably, legions of Iranian watchers offered speculation about the endgame of the upheaval. Scenarios range from the emergence of democracy to maintaining the status quo or an emboldened theocracy transforming into a totalitarian state led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Revolutions are inherently difficult to predict, but some observations on the progress of the struggle can be offered.

First, with the exception of the 2009 uprising following the stolen election, the current unrest is particularly widespread, with sustained protests across all ethnic groups and provinces. This so-called “global Iran”, a collective of people with diverse ethnic identities separated by geography, is “very united in feelings, concerns and dreams”, as researcher Asef Bayat wrote.

Second, the unrest is fueled by strong economic undercurrents, creating a virtual Bermuda Triangle for the embattled regime. After years of crippling sanctions, extravagant spending on its proxies in the “Resistance Axis”, and monumental corruption and mismanagement, the economy is in shambles. Amid the protests, the the rial has fallen to a record high and food prices jumped by more than 82%.

Workers in key industries, including oil and gas, steel and food production, went on strike. Pensioners have protested because their payments cannot keep up with runaway inflation and massive food price increases. Recent embezzlement scandals at some pension funds have added to the disarray and brought more protesters to the streets.

Third, if the nascent strike movement grew, it would likely tip the scales against the regime. As a reminder, in 1978 a general strike – which also included the powerful bazaars, the merchants who operate shops in the bazaars – limited the shah’s options. Several observers have suggested that a the general strike is not in the cards because workers do not exhibit the kind of unity that prevailed in 1978. This conclusion may be premature, however, as the Free Union of Iranian Workers (FUIW) is rapidly becoming a major force in the unrest. FUIW is part of Front-Line Defenders, an international organization that links the defense of civil rights with labor protection. The impact of the FUIW is already considerable. The Council for Organizing Oil Contract Workers’ Demonstrations threatened to strike. Bazaars, once a reliable constituency for clergy, said they would padlock their businesses due to the falling value of the rial.

Of course, the regime does not lack powerful tools to subdue the revolutionary forces. As in the past, the application of brute force is the first line of defense. Under the Ministry of Interior, Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) have designed special units for crowd control and suppression, known as Iranian Police Special Units (IPSU). Special units, which are present in all provinces and major cities, use live ammunition to subdue protesters. The current chief of special units, Brig. General Hassan Karami has been sanctioned by the European Union for his role in the violent suppression of previous protests. The brutal Basij, a division within the IRGC, has also been involved in suppressing the protests. Shia proxies such as Hezbollah and the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces have also been deployed.

In addition, the authorities have a wide range of intelligence and surveillance systems. The Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the formidable IRGC intelligence unit and the EWL cyber unit have joined forces to track, trap and arrest protesters and their leaders. It is no coincidence that Iran bought monitoring systems from China for years. So far, Chinese platforms including 19 million cameras, have been installed in twenty-eight Iranian provinces, with particular emphasis on urban settings. The arch-conservative judiciary has also stepped up recently announcing that more than 1,000 protesters would be tried in what could be a repeat of the show trials of the early revolutionary days.

In the past, the regime has tried to mix brute force with material concessions. For example, during the 2018 petrol riots, which were prompted by a decision to raise petrol prices, the government authorized around 60 liters of subsidized fuel for a broad category of drivers. In 2019, when protests erupted over high food prices, the government subsidized free food rations.

The situation today is very different. On the one hand, the regime cannot compromise on the central demand of the demonstrators: to make the hijab voluntary rather than compulsory. At the head of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, President Ebrahim Raisi obliged the council to apply the law of hijab and chastity with force. The Supreme Leader is equally adamant about upholding the hijab as a pillar of faith, as is the all-important judicial system. On the other hand, the government cannot improve the economic situation without reaching a new oil agreement, an unlikely event given Tehran’s determination to continue its nuclear project. The regime is also unlikely to reduce support for its Resistance Axis proxies, another sore point for protesters, who chant: “Neither Gaza nor Lebanon, I sacrifice my life for Iran.” .

Without compromise, theocracy will have to rely on increased violence and brutality. Even if the mullahs and their IRGC henchmen may prevail right now, history teaches that this strength alone cannot guarantee survival, much less legitimacy.

Farhad Rezaei is a senior researcher at The Philos project.

Siavash Gholami is a master’s student in political science at the University of Toronto.

Picture: Reuters.

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