A recent analysis by Janes 360 noted that earlier in March, Iran’s Assembly of Experts held a vote on the makeup of its executive board for the next two years. The 88-member clerical body is tasked with overseeing the office of the supreme leader and selecting his replacement in the event of death or resignation. The current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is 78 years old and has reportedly been suffering from prostate cancer, leading to speculation that the current Assembly could be the one that determines the future course of the Islamic Republic.
Following the optimistic assessment of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani by some Western policymakers following his first-term election in 2013, there has also been some talk about the possibility of a moderate shift in Iranian politics, perhaps even affecting the supreme leadership. However, opponents of the Islamic Republic have been critical of this optimism, and with Rouhani having already served out his first term before securing a second, there have been few domestic developments in Iran that might be cited as evidence of his supposedly moderating influence.
This skepticism was underscored in December and January by the mass protests that spanned every major city and two in Iran over a period of several weeks. Those demonstrations gave rise to a number of bold, anti-government slogans including one that targeted both “reformists” and “hardliners” in order to declare, “The game is over.” Various participants in the uprising also expressed specific regrets about their support of Rouhani as a “reformist” candidate, in light of his failure to follow through on promises of a freer and more open Iranian society that is better integrated into the international community.
While not commenting on Rouhani’s record in particular, the Janes piece reinforced the broader skepticism regarding moderate or reformist influences on Iranian institutions like the Assembly of Experts and the office of the supreme leader. According to that analysis, the recent vote on Assembly’s executive board only consolidated the power of hardline clerics, thereby helping to assure that the next supreme leader will be acceptable to the clerical establishment and to Iran’s hardline paramilitary, the Revolutionary Guards.
One does not need to look very far to see evidence of the sorts of policies and strategies that would be preserved by the retention of an ultimate clerical authority who embodies the regime’s most hardline principles. As the Janes analysis notes, especially in the wake of the nuclear negotiations in 2015 these hardliners have been extremely paranoid about the notion of foreign “infiltration,” whether through economic engagement, political cooperation, or cultural influence. And this paranoia has already helped to justify escalating crackdowns on dual nationals, Iranian activists, and anyone with perceived sympathy for Western values or ways of life.
One symptom of that crackdown has been escalating restraints on the rights of women. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei personally spearheaded an effort in recent years to discourage women from entering the workforce and to instead urge them toward having large families at an early age. This initiative has been reflected by a number of lesser authorities as they sought to expand the segregation of men and women in public places, to bar women from performing music, and to empower the basij civilian militia to more aggressively confront women over “bad hijab.”
There have, however, been counter pressures from throughout Iranian society, as evidenced by the “Revolution Street” protests that began in late December, simultaneous with but separate from the nationwide anti-government protests that were largely suppressed the following month. The Revolution Street demonstrations apparently continue to this day despite reports of more than 30 arrests, and they involve women removing their legally required head coverings in public and holding them up as symbols of opposition to forced veiling.
On Monday, the Women’s Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran highlighted the extent of the threat that these sorts of protests pose to the clerical regime. It quoted a high-ranking religious scholar, Makarem Shirazi, as saying in a meeting with State Security Force Commander Hossein Ashtari, “[Those who oppose the hijab… will deal a blow to the Islamic nature of the regime and undercut the Islamic aspect of the Islamic Republic; then the country will turn into a republic without Islam.”
Various officials including the supreme leader have also attempted to portray both the protests against forced veiling and the broader anti-government protests as symptoms of the supposed Western infiltration. And naturally, the effort to portray the Islamic Republic as under siege from foreign powers has also been reflected in foreign policy and particularly in the rhetoric surrounding that foreign policy. Throughout the end of the Obama era and shortly after the start of the Trump administration in the US, the Revolutionary Guards’ naval forces had made a habit of harassing US Navy vessels transiting the Persian Gulf, often presenting these via state media as triumphs over a more heavily equipped military force. However, this practice reportedly halted in August, perhaps in response to concerns over the unpredictability of the response from the Trump White House.
Nonetheless, other examples of that belligerence remain quite current, and may even be escalating. Ya Libnan reported on Monday that Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi of the Iranian army had once again vowed the destruction of the state of Israeli “within 25 years,” in reference to a timetable that had previously been set by Supreme Leader Khamenei. Mousavi also promised that Iran would “crush the United States” in the context of its mission against Israel.
These threats closely coincided with the report that the Iran-backed Houthi rebels had fired at least seven ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia. Previous such weapons had been found to be of Iranian manufacture, and although all have been intercepted by Saudi missile defenses, shrapnel from one of the most recent strikes reportedly killed one person and injured at least two others.
There is little reason to suppose that these sorts of events or the related Iranian threats will diminish in the near future. And in light of the consolidation of hardline influence over the clerical establishment, there is also little reason to suppose that a longer term shift is underway. In fact, the hardline trend may be reinforced by ongoing Iranian activism and the escalating assertiveness of White House policy toward Iran.
But while the regime would like to keep focus on the supposed foreign threat to its rule, the more salient threat may come from domestic resistance to the hardline power grab. This was one major takeaway of the Janes analysis, which concludes that the outcome of the Assembly of Experts vote only makes it more likely that political instability will persist and that mass protests will resurge. At the same time, the regime’s struggle to govern effectively may have the same effect.
Early reports of mass protests in December identified them has having started in response to poor economic indicators for ordinary Iranians, including steep increases in the cost of basic commodities. Although the protests were largely repressed in January, many of these indicators continue to get worse. Agence France Presse reported on Monday that the value of the Iranian rial had reached a record low, trade at more than 50,000 to the American dollar and threatening to deter foreign investors and prompt bank runs while also promoting financial corruption.
In addition, the leading Iranain Resistance movement has been pushing for even more protests against a system that it considers to be incapable of internal reform. On the occasion of the Iranian New Year celebration of Nowruz, Maryam Rajavi, the president of the National Council of Resistance of Iran said that the year ahead “can and must be turned into a year full of uprisings” and that these uprisings will ultimately lead to the replacement of the religious dictatorship with a truly democratic government.