Iran is the illustration of this paradox: at the precise moment when western analysts have noted, half disillusioned, half-astonished, the success of its foreign policy (in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq …) it is at home that the protest has broken out. The country is going through a period of turbulence whose nature is very different from those of the past.
The presidential election of June 2009 (with the victory of Ahmadinejad, highly contested and considered as fraudulent by a large part of the population), the demonstration of the students in 1999 (which were crushed by the regime without the reformist president Khatami, elected in 1997, acting in their favor) or the workers’ protests of recent years (the Tehran Transport Authority, the sugar factories or those of the automobile industry) were all sectoral and did not mobilize society as a whole. Above all, they did not contest the regime head on.
Most of the protests of the past two decades have been led by the new middle classes
Most of the protests of the past two decades were led by the new middle classes, especially students, for the opening up of the political system. This has been the case with the presidential elections, which have become a challenge for the reformists against the hardcore partisans of the theocracy (the “principalists”): Khatami the reformist in 1997 and 2001, Ahmadinejad the principalist in 2005, Rohani in 2013. These movements had political issues much more than economic ones. If Ahmadinejad won the elections in 2005 and 2009, it is because in addition to fraud, he was able to mobilize the “deprived” (mostaz’afin), whereas the reformist candidates focused almost exclusively on political freedom.
The revolt of the deprived
The current troubles have several new characteristics. Firstly, it is above all “the revolt of bread” (in fact, eggs, whose price doubled after the lifting of subsidies), the economic dimension being very important and the political demand largely overdetermined by the social justice claim. They were asking for the end of the regime, not so much for more democracy, but in despair over the theocracy’s ability to meet the demands of people’s fragile expectations.
Then, it is a revolt which affects almost simultaneously the big cities (Mashhad, in the north-east of Iran, from where the movement left, Tehran then Isfahan) and the small and medium-sized cities (Abhar, Doroud, Khorramabad, Arak …). The protests of the last two decades were mainly in Tehran and some major cities; those of today touch a vast panoply of cities and towns, where people protest against living expenses and against a corrupt government.
In addition, the revolt is much more that of the poor and indigents than of the middle classes: it testifies to the misery, the fall of the standard of living in a society where the oil rent enriches its elites disproportionately, and through corruption,. Moreover, it is a movement without a leader, all the more difficult to contain and repress; unlike in 2009, when the leaders were Moussavi and Karroubi, nobody is at the head of this wave of protest likely to spread to the whole country.
A general challenge
Finally, ironically, the movement might have come and gone at the instigation of the hard wing of the regime, led by Ayatollah Alamolhoda, the Imam of Mashhad Friday, appointed by the Supreme Leader and head of the informal pressure group Ammariyoun: two hundred women in chador (recognizable by the uniformity of their dress) demonstrated against the expensive life. But soon, people came to join them and submerged them within their number. They were launching slogans against President Rohani; the crowd began to chant slogans against the regime, the Supreme Leader and aid abroad (Syria, Lebanon and Hamas), stressing that the Iranians were in misery and that the state budget in favor of foreigners should first serve to relieve the most fragile people inside the country. An artificial move against the president, built up by one of the regime’s hardline supporters, turned into a general protest because of the material but also the psychological situation of Iranian society.
One of the factors of the rapid expansion of the movement is the delegitimization of the regime by the sheer extent of its corruption and arbitrariness and its display on the Web. In addition to the general malfunction (the burning down of a central building in Tehran in 2017 and the ineffective government attempt to extinguish it), the impunity of the leaders and their venality, with, in the background, more and more expensive living and unfulfilled promises of economic development – all have played a major role in the spread of the protest movement. The discrediting of power, patronage and place had no equivalent before 2009, when corruption was sectoral. At present, the state apparatus is fully in the grip of corruption, and officials are doing it publicly in an economy where one can no longer live decently with one salary, or even two, and where baksheesh is needed for the survival of the small fry.
Discredited actors to varying degrees
The regime no longer has any legitimacy, even among the poor, who had been its major source of support against the middle classes in 2009 (the populist promises of Ahmadinejad touched them). The latter have not been able to mobilize them to push for the reform of the regime. This has occurred on the cultural front, not politically: the dominant culture in Iran is for the opening up of the political system and the questioning of “Islamic” principles, such as the exclusion of women and the outward appearance of puritanism of the institutions. But theocratic power does not care.
At least three types of actors are in place in the current power structure, discredited to varying degrees. First, the Army of the pasdarans. This is no longer a simple army: it is an economic juggernaut, which holds under its control a very important part (perhaps 30% to 40%) of the Iranian economy, if only via its own economic tentacles. The private sector, battered, cannot compete with it, as they depends on its private ports, exempt from the tax system of the country for their imports, levers of power at the local level and a state of impunity for their malpractice.
Paradoxically, the Pasdaran army is the least discredited institution in the theocratic state: it has ensured Iran’s territorial integrity and has given Iran a sense of regional supremacy. People willingly denounce its exorbitant privileges, but they do not perceive it as useless or harmful. Its undue privileges are deplored, but it is not entirely denied legitimacy due to its capacity to defend the country in a troubled regional environment.
The judiciary, meanwhile, escapes the government. Its autonomy is not a guarantee of democracy, but rather the effect of an oligarchic system that acts against the government and which, by its corruption, completely discredits justice and prevents the implementation of reforms.
No charismatic leader among Reformers
The third pole of power, the most important, is the Supreme Leader and his parallel state apparatus, his “Deep State”, his “Makhzen”. It dominates and straddles the revolutionary foundations, arbitrarily handling colossal sums, and the pious foundation of Astan-e Qods, at Mashhad – one of the richest in the Muslim world. He has the armed forces under his tutelage and, through a complex system, assures his hegemony over the country’s judiciary. Ayatollah Khamenei has survived several crises since his appointment as Supreme Leader on the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. He is supposed to be ill, but he has managed to maintain his power through a balanced distribution of positions within of the Pasdaran army and the security apparatus of the regime.
The reformists have not had a charismatic leader since the placing under house arrest of the candidates for the 2009 presidential elections, Moussavi and Karroubi. President Rohani provides the formal leadership, the moral leadership returning to Khatami, the former president, whose character is considered “soft” and not capable of facing down the hardline supporters of the regime. Rohani’s role is ambivalent in the current situation: he claims freedom of demonstration but rejects the violence, which is largely the result of the behavior of regime henchmen, pretending to believe that most of the assaults will come from a section of protesters. His attitude is similar to that of Khatami in 1999, during the repression of the student movement. As for the Conservatives, they denounce the ‘foreign plot’ and refuse to listen to popular demands.
The regime has shown its limits on several occasions: in 1999, in 2005 and, especially, in 2009, with the Green movement. It refuses to question its immoveable theocratic structure, the only alternative being repression in its view. The present movement has no political direction; it is scattered among several cities and there is no link between the poor young people at the bottom of the social ladder and the middle classes, eager for political reform.
An irredeemable regime
The current crisis, if it spreads, is likely to take power, with unpredictable consequences. If it is defeated, the regime will come out of it unscathed for a limited period, because the causes of the revolt remain: an economic system locked up by the state, deeply corrupt and increasingly unequal.
Reformists are reduced to the role of accomplices, so thoroughly does political power escape them (even the ministry of education was indirectly named by the Supreme Guide); and, above all, the discrediting of power, in its theocratic structure, is total. The regime proved to be under lock and key, with the Supreme Leader undermining the reformist opposition and gradually reducing it to insignificance.
The current movement, whether successful or failing in its ultimate goal of overthrowing the regime, is a wake-up call for a business as usual that is in total contradiction to the evolutionary trend of Iranian society. Where the latter demands economic justice, the regime sustains cronyism, which makes inequality even more intolerable and insulting. Where women and men of the new generations seek gender equality, the regime continues to act in a patriarchal manner. Where civil society intends to reconcile with the world, and particularly with the West, the government pursues a policy that provokes the distrust of western states.
The blockage is total, and the regime relies on the weaknesses of Iranian civil society and the lack of leadership in the current protest movement, much more than on its ability to adapt to the new situation.
This is also the swansong of the opposition between Reformists and Conservatives – carried away by the same disrepute within a structure of power that has reduced to nothing the room for maneuver of the former. The Iranian regime is a Janus that has accumulated success in its regional foreign policy but in terms of legitimacy, it is a colossus with clay feet, which might collapse or end up with a coup d’état of the Pasdarans army, once the supreme leader disappears.