Today’s topic: Do the massive protests threaten the regime in Iran? Is this the beginning of the end for the Islamic Republic?
The regime has been challenged, but will it change?
Point: Matthew Duss
Two days ago, I would have simply answered no. I’m less sure today.
Clearly, the regime has forces in reserve that could crush the demonstrations, and I have no doubt that it has the will to do so. But watching how presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi and his reformist allies have skillfully drawn on the same repertoires of contention as the 1979 revolution -- such as the nighttime rooftop calls of the takbir-- to cast the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as the new shah and the demonstrators as the true heirs of the revolution, it seems possible to me that a massive, Tiananmen Square-like crackdown could, by further confirming that narrative, actually have a galvanizing effect.
Key to this possibility has been the reformist strategy of calling for mourning for those killed by the security services. In the months leading up to the 1979 revolution, these memorials-cum-protests had a snowball effect, as the shah’s goons cracked down on the mourners, leading to more mourning protests, then more crackdowns, and so on. Clearly, and rightly, the Khamenei regime is wary of reproducing this phenomenon.
Though this is unconfirmed, there have been reports that Iranian army officers have been detained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for saying that they would refuse any order to fire on protesters. This is what authoritarian regimes fear the most, that at the moment of truth the instruments of repression will fail to function as intended.
One factor that has yet to really come into play is Iran’s clerical establishment in Qom. There have been interesting recent signs of tension within the Hawza, Iran’s preeminent Shiite seminary. As Meir Javedanfar wrote in the Center for American Progress’ Middle East Bulletin on Tuesday, the Society for Combatant Clergies, a powerful conservative group, abstained from supporting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection. This was taken as an affront to Khamenei, who had made his preference for Ahmadinejad clear. Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the prominent clerical dissident and onetime heir to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a powerful statement in support of the protests on Tuesday. If more clerics decide to follow his lead, especially in response to mounting regime violence, that could be decisive.
Still, despite the massive crowds on Iran’s city streets and the scattered reports of police defections, it’s not yet clear to me that a critical mass of Iran’s people -- most of whom are not seeing the same news, blog posts, video and Tweets that we are, and are largely dependent on state-controlled media -- have decided to abandon the regime. The reformists could be brought into a deal in which the regime is sustained, though with momentum so strongly on the reformists’ side, this seems unlikely. A massive show of violence by Iran’s rulers could probably still end these demonstrations, though at the cost of any remaining claim to being a “just” Islamic government.
I won’t make a prediction, but I will just observe that the supreme leader’s authority, and that of the government over which he presides, has been challenged to an extent that I could not have imagined a week ago. It’s hard to imagine that Iran can ever be the same.
Matthew Duss is a national security researcher and writer at the Center for American Progress.
Protests aren’t enough to topple the Islamic Republic
Counterpoint: Michael Rubin
Street protests in Iran are important but are themselves not enough to force change. The supreme leader will not be swayed because he considers himself accountable to God, not to the people. Indeed, even the Islamic Republic’s clerical establishment is irrelevant in this calculus. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s invocation of folk religion -- his appeals to the messianic Hidden Imam, for example -- is a way to bypass senior religious figures who, according to Shiite theology, will be among the greatest obstacles to the Hidden Imam’s return. Nor does the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, pay too much heed to his fellow clerics in Qom. They have always refused to bestow on Khamenei a level of religious legitimacy to match his ambition. Today, the majority of Iran’s grand ayatollahs oppose the concept of theological rule. Not by coincidence, the majority are now in prison or under house arrest.
Khamenei can weather the public’s disdain so long as the Revolutionary Guard serves as his Praetorian Guard. Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founder, formed the Revolutionary Guard to defend his revolutionary vision. It is more powerful than the army and answers only to the supreme leader. That the Islamic Republic has lost legitimacy in the eyes of the Iranian public is now evident to the outside world, but it is not news to the regime. In September 2007, Mohammad Ali Jafari, the new Revolutionary Guard chief, reconfigured the force into 31 units -- one for each province and two for Tehran -- on the theory that a velvet revolution posed a greater threat to regime security than any external enemy. Guardsmen are not stationed in their home cities so that they do not hesitate to fire on crowds that might include family and friends.
In the public mind, the Islamic revolution 30 years ago looms large. The regime is not aloof to this. It understands the shah’s mistakes and is determined not to repeat them. Next month marks the 10th anniversary of the student uprising, which erupted after the security forces attacked a student dormitory. Their brutality shocked the Iranian public, and demonstrations spread throughout the country. For a few days, regime survival was also subject to speculation.
In the aftermath of the protests, the Chinese government supplied security consultants to Tehran. Rather than bash heads and risk protests and endless cycles of mourning, Iranian security services began photographing demonstrations, after which they would arrest participants over the course of a month when they were alone and could not spark mob reaction. With the assistance of European businessmen, the Iranian government upgraded its surveillance of communication (and the Internet).
Ultimately, the theocracy will fall only if servicemen in the Revolutionary Guard switch sides. There will be compromise. The end will come only over Khamenei’s dead body. Certainly, Iran today is a tinderbox. The question is whether the regime is better at putting out fires than demonstrators are at starting them.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.