More than 40 days after the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody, following her arrest for wearing her hajib improperly, provoked mass protests across Iran, the public unrest there is increasing rather than abating. The regime and the Iranian public are in a state of permanent confrontation, with neither side blinking first. But for how long can such a stalemate endure, paralysing an entire nation?
With security forces now routinely firing live ammunition at protesters, the Norway-based group Iran Human Rights claims that at least 234 people, including 29 children, have been killed. Internet access has been shut down – the authorities of the Islamic Republic have sophisticated skills in online censorship. This time the regime is closing down every possible form of access. Only VPNs and some other minority online facilities can circumvent government censorship – Tehran is even jamming some satellites.
But there were revolutions before there was an Internet and dissenters quickly rediscover old techniques of spreading information, the “bush telegraph” of insurgency. Protesters seem to be able to assemble at agreed venues and therein lies a grave threat to the regime. So far, the regime has not unleashed upon the protesters the full might of its Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, 90,000 strong, with an estimated 300,000 auxiliaries in the Basij militia.
The Revolutionary Guards have a reputation as fanatics (they are training Russian forces in Ukraine) and are armed to the teeth. The protesters, in contrast, have no arms, except probably in the Kurdish areas. The key questions are: can unarmed citizens defeat such a force? Would the Basij remain reliable if civilian casualties became massive? More importantly, would the regular army remain loyal if friends and families were being massacred by the security forces? And, win or lose, would the world not regard Iran as a failed state?
The answer to those questions is that unarmed civilians could not hope to defeat the security forces, but what if they obtained arms? Breaking into arsenals is invariably the tipping point in revolutions, when the government loses the monopoly on firepower. The ayatollahs, too, are playing a dangerous geopolitical game at the moment: much of Russia’s remaining effective firepower in Ukraine is supplied by Iran. That leaves those countries backing Ukraine with a strong motive to bring down the Tehran regime.
There is no sign of any foreign power arming Iranian dissidents, but if that were to happen, the ayatollahs’ days would be numbered. But the anti-government movement has another big deficiency: it lacks a leader. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 benefited from the firm leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, a man with a will as strong as the Shah’s, with whom his grudge match proved decisive.
Although his portrait is now being torn down by anti-government demonstrators, Khomenei was a formidable force in his day. In boyhood, incongruously, he was the leapfrog champion in his native town; his family were Musavi seyedds, claiming descent from the Prophet through his daughter and the line of the seventh Imam of the Shi’a, Musa al-Kazem. They had crossed swords with the shahs of the Qajar dynasty long before Ruhollah Khomeini fought his life-or-death struggle with Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
Khomeini, whatever his other faults, to which a badly injured Salman Rushdie could testify, had a first-class Persian education and could quote classical poetry as well as theology. His prestige grew immense, despite the fact that the Shah was raising living standards. The crowds in the streets demanded “freedom”: Khomeini was hardly the go-to man for that amenity. It was a clash of cultures and that phenomenon is now being repeated, in reverse.
But today’s counter-revolution, after 40 days of fierce street clashes, still has no leader – not even a candidate for the post. That is a fatal deficiency. Who can coordinate a coherent strategy against the regime? Who can negotiate, when that becomes necessary? On the government side, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, may not be an inspiring figure, but he enjoys authority among those still loyal to the Islamic Republic, issues commands and is obeyed. There is no such source of cohesion on the insurgent side.
Another question is: can the ayatollahs ride out an imploding economy? The rial has lost 90 per cent of its value since 2014. The high cost of medicines is a particular grievance among the public. Although the repressive hijab law was the immediate trigger of the uprising and women have been hugely prominent in the protests, the unrest is now about far more than the hijab. When crowds converged on government buildings in the Kurdish city of Mahabad this week, the protesters were all male.
If the dissidents target government buildings or were able to occupy them, that would remove the limbs from the regime. Every time a protester is killed, the dissidents now reset a 40-day timer, committing to protest for that length of time; each new victim extends the protests, to the disadvantage of the regime. Many protesters may feel they cannot stop, since, if normality were restored, they would be liable to be arrested by the authorities.
In the same way, if the protesters were to appoint any kind of revolutionary committee, or even a provisional government, its members would immediately become targets for the authorities. But just as that lack of leadership deprives the revolt of direction, it also frustrates the ayatollahs, whose enemies are visibly the overwhelming mass of the population.
There is the nub of the matter. Every totalitarian government, no matter how tyrannical, needs some kind of moral authority, however synthetic, to bolster its rule. The Soviet Union, for example, though corrupt and dysfunctional, drew a spurious legitimacy from its victory in the “Great Patriotic War”. The Tehran regime has only the discredited cult of Ayatollah Khomeini and a transparently usurped religious authority which the Iranian nation has unambiguously rejected.
Only force keeps the Islamic Republic precariously in place: it remains to be seen whether the nation it oppresses can prevail against it. One incendiary episode could decide the issue: if the security forces were to perpetrate some exceptional atrocity that would cause the entire population to rise against them. Another key factor is the interaction between the protesters and the outside world, which could eventually prove pivotal. Otherwise, the current stand-off in Iran is, as we say of Western elections, too close to call.
Write to us with your comments to be considered for publication at firstname.lastname@example.org