1. major confrontation with foreign powers
2. popular discontent with the rulers
3. serious intra-elite disagreements on how to resolve the crisis
The protests in Iran that began on December 28th and continued for the next 10 days are only the most recent major protests since 1981. Although ending quickly due to government repression, major protests occurred in 1981, 1999, 2003, and 2009.
The current confrontation, however, appears to be about to blow up, as vast numbers of the population are opposed to the economic, political, cultural, and foreign policies of the regime. The poor economy allows few opportunities for employment and a better life. The economic situation continues to push the lower middle class into the ranks of the poor. The billions of dollars the regime spends on wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere takes away from public welfare and economic investments at home.
It is said that top officials in the regime receive licenses to import various products and circumvent custom duties. Paul Klebnikov of Forbes magazine has called them “millionaire mullahs.” Elaine Sciliano of the New York Times has referred to them as the “Mafia families.” Waldmann of the Wall Street Journal called the system “clergy capitalism.” These individuals are often closely related to the upper echelons of the regime by blood or marriage.
As well, the regime provides the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Basij, various intelligence and security entities of the Office of the Supreme Leader, the prison system, and the judicial branch and the members of their families with secure employment, power, status, and extensive fringe benefits (health care, housing, special stores, foreign travel, set asides for university entrance), according to an article published by Radio Farda — who also reports that much of Iran’s business network is under the direct control of fundamentalist clerics.
While three major factions comprise Iranian leadership: hardline, expedient, and reformist, they are all followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. Ultimate rule is by the Supreme Leader. All three factions have condemned the most recent protests and have supported its suppression.
In fact, in an official speech delivered on January 9th, Ayatollah Khamenei said that the protests in Iran were planned by the United States and the Zionists. Khamenei said that he will retaliate against the U.S. for the harms President Trump has inflicted on Iran by organizing these protests. This is a great concern, as in Iran, the decision to go to war or engage in major military action is the sole power and prerogative of the Supreme Leader.
Certain opposition groups in Iran, like the PMOI, have a strong social base of support and can organize large numbers of their constituents. This became clear during the current protests. These protests were occurring among Iranians from small towns and cities that are mostly Persian, Gilak, Azerbaijani, and Shia Kurds. Also, the protesters were young, lower middle class, and working class. Additionally, unlike the protesters in 1999, 2003, and 2009, the protesters in 2018 showed a proclivity to use violence. They burned Basij and government buildings and smashed bank windows. If other countries would be willing to provide funds and arms to the opposition groups, there is a fertile ground for mass armed movement. If the support is massive, the opposition groups may succeed in overthrowing the fundamentalist regime.
According to Radio Farda, Iran has the necessary ingredients for transition to democracy: a large educated modern middle class; appropriate GDP per capita; and a history of constitutional (1905-1909 and 1911-1921) and democratic rule (1951-1953).
Iran possesses the fourth largest known crude oil reserves and the second largest natural gas reserves in the world. The oil and gas sectors employ less than one percent of the economically active population and the income goes directly to the hands of the government. Purchasing oil and gas from the regime provides resources that enable them to dominate and oppress the Iranian people. Boycotting Iran’s oil would cause serious economic difficulties, and would likely collapse of the economy. Pressure from previous economic sanctions was so intense that it forced the regime to agree to the nuclear deal. Economic collapse would balance power against the regime and in favor of the opposition.
Providing free high-speed Internet to Iran would prevent the regime from blocking the Internet during protests, and make information available that would counter the regime’s propaganda.
The recent protests clearly show that many Iranians are deeply dissatisfied with the regime. Foreign policy toward Iran will influence the direction this dissatisfaction will take. Without serious threat of sanctions or pressure like a credible threat of war from the U.S. and EU, the successful suppression of the protests is the most likely outcome.
If Europe, Japan, and South Korea would join the U.S. in imposing serious sanctions on the Iran’s regime, it would be weakened. The Iranian people themselves would be empowered to overthrow the regime, and establish a democracy.