Iran will get worse before it gets better

Jay Mens
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In November 1978, the CIA Tehran Bureau told Washington that Iran was “not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation.” The Shah and his family went into exile in January 1979. This cable is a strong contender for the most extraordinary analytic failure of modern times. Perhaps because the lead-up to Iran’s Islamic Revolution was so badly misinterpreted, many analysts have taken to hearing the footsteps of revolution in each new wave of Iranian unrest. The anger of today is, to be sure, a milestone on the road to eventual change. But there is still a long way to go.

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Those who think about or hope for political change in Iran tend to pounce on the protest du jour, in the hope that it is “the big one.” In 2009, some observers of Iran’s Green Movement anticipated a “tear-down-this-wall moment.” Ten years later, an opposition website spoke of the “imminent collapse of [the] regime.” Historical context is the antidote to this sort of false prophecy and false hope.

If history is any guide, the latest round of Iran’s protests will fizzle out within weeks. The attention of the world will migrate to the next crisis, wherever it may be. The true nature of the Islamic Republic has briefly been acknowledged; but soon, the world will return to turning a blind eye to the fact that ordinary Iranians are the unfortunate mice in a theocratic experiment. All who wish that Iranians could look forward to a better future will have to keep waiting. Reports of the Islamic Republic’s pending demise are greatly overstated.

First, today’s protests are of a similar size to those of the student protests of 1999, if not smaller. The government suggests a total turnout of around 45,000; others see the turnout in the low thousands. Turnout is closer to the 1999 Student Protests than to the major demonstrations of 2009, 2017, and 2019. Anti-regime sentiment is clear but unlike 1979 or even 2009, it is disorganized. Protesters have relied heavily on the internet, and there is no organized movement or figurehead behind the demonstrations.

Second, the regime’s apparatus of repression is sprawling and active. The SAVAK, the Shah’s pre-revolutionary secret police, numbered around 15,000 operators. Today, the Islamic Republic has the Special Unit, focused on crushing the opposition; a 40,000-strong Cyber Police; the Ministry of Intelligence, the SAVAK’s immediate successor, with around 30,000 officers; the Basij, Iran’s domestic paramilitary, which has an estimated 90,000 volunteers plus reserves; the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which swears allegiance to Ayatollah Khamenei, comprising 200,000 more men. Funding for these institutions has markedly increased, as has their political influence. And most importantly, the regime’s armed vanguard is willing to shoot.

In 1979, the Shah, with his terminal cancer, avoided using the world’s fifth-largest military to secure his rule. His troops stayed in their bases as the Revolution rolled on. Today, Iran’s government, military, and bureaucracy see today’s demonstrators as “hired terrorists” and a foreign conspiracy. The regime has no qualms giving orders to “mercilessly confront” demonstrators, as was the case in 1999. And as we have seen, their enforcers—many from the “Burnt Generation,” which lived through the Revolution and Iran-Iraq War—have no problems carrying those orders out.

The regime will crush these protests, with its characteristic brutality and prejudice. This is a heartbreaking conclusion for those of us who have watched, in awe and in anguish, as young Iranians risk their lives and livelihoods to assert their fundamental right to dignity and choice. But as we watch on with horror, we are reminded of fundamental weaknesses in the regime. History offers a grim prognosis for today’s protests. But it also offers a glimmer of hope for Iran’s future.

Iran is undergoing radical economic, demographic, and political changes that resemble the White Revolution, the package of political, economic, and social reforms that began sixteen years before the collapse of the Pahlavi Monarchy. Unlike the White Revolution, which sought to liberalize Iranian society and economy, today’s reforms are subordinated to the mission of “re-revolutionizing Iran.” As we have seen for the last five years, this is backfiring badly.

Beyond Western sanctions, endemic economic mismanagement is a significant problem. Inflation is around 43 percent, almost double the inflation before the Islamic Revolution. Poverty is above 35 percent – over 10 percent higher than before 1979. Unemployment is as high as 40 percent. The response to this crisis has been more unpopular subsidy reform, and Ayatollah Khamenei condemning aspirations to material prosperity as mimicking a “Western lifestyle”. But Iran’s parlous economic situation is merely the context for the real problem: demographic change.

Compare today to 2000. Then, just 65 percent of Iranians lived in cities; literacy was 77 percent; less than one percent of Iranians had access to the internet. Today, urbanization exceeds 75 percent; literacy is above 90 percent; and over 80 percent of Iranians are online. Secularization is rising, and protests are frequent and growing. Just 10 percent of Iranians were above the age of 16 in 1979. Around 60 percent of Iranians are 30 and under. Ayatollah Khamenei—himself 83 years old—has expressed concern that the youth is not revolutionary enough. Legislation has been introduced to reverse this: criminalizing pets and VPNs, introducing strict “chastity laws,” and by banning English in elementary schools. But the tide of change rolls on.

Within 20 years, Iran’s geriatric clerical elite will have died out while millennials, temporally and intellectually distant from the founding of the Islamic Republic, will be Iran’s largest demographic group. The writing is on the wall.

Kafka wrote that “every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.” Iran’s new bureaucracy has gotten old—figuratively and literally. And as the distance between 1979 and the present grows, the justification for the slime becomes less and less tenable. The Mahsa Amini protests will likely be stomped out. But the youth and anti-clericalism, that has animated them are symptoms of a fatal malaise for the Islamic Republic. The regime will likely win this battle. But it will probably lose the war.

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