Ghosts of 1979: Iran protests won't bring regime change

The ghosts of 1979: Why Iran protests won't bring regime change
7 min read
Comment: Unlike 1979, there is no unifying force among the anti-government protesters, write Behnam Gharagozli, Jon Roozenbeek, Adrià Salvador Palau.
About 1,000 protesters were arrested [AFP]
The recent anti-government protests in Iran have provoked a frenzy of media attention, much of which has drawn comparisons with the country-wide demonstrations of 2009, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election as president.

As in 2009, many controversial Iranian exile groups, such as the delisted terrorist organisation Mujahedin e-Khalq and the (formerly ruling) Pahlavi family have expressed the hope that 2018 will be the year the Islamic Republic finally falls.

The same hope is held by some of Iran's adversaries, such as the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. But the 2009 protests didn't lead to regime change. The last time Iranian demonstrators managed to provoke a change of power was in 1979, when the current Islamic Republic came into being after Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was overthrown.

The seeds of revolution that existed in 1979 however, are not the same today, and the elements necessary for regime change to occur are most likely too weak to succeed. 

How did the Shah fall?

On paper, the Shah's overthrow was either unusual or miraculous, depending on who you ask. At the time, the Shah had one of the most powerful militaries in the Middle East, a special relationship with the United States, a formidable secret police (the CIA and Mossad were responsible for training the Shah's feared SAVAK) and an outrageously high oil revenue.

So how did he fall?

Generally speaking, we can attribute the Shah's 1979 downfall to three key factors.

First, by the mid 1970s, the Shah had managed to charm the anger of every important social group in Iran. The clergy, the radical Left (remember, this was during the Cold War), the intellectuals, the traditional middle class (the  bazaar), the modern middle class, farm workers and urban workers.

While all of these groups were no doubt important, the bazaar closings and industrial strikes organised by protesters were especially crucial in bringing down the Shah's regime, as these developments attacked the regime's economic lifelines.

Second, the regime was, for all practical purposes, exclusively dependent upon the Shah as a ruler, incompetent as he was at managing crises. Despite having seemingly infinite repressive tools at his disposal, the Shah was hesitant, insecure and isolated.

Faced with a choice to either pursue a crackdown to defeat the protesters or liberalisation to appease the protesters, he took an unsuccessful middle path wherein he both liberalised and repressed. This resulted in an opposition that was neither appeased nor repressed but rather emboldened and angered. 

The third factor was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was able to unite the various different opposition groups around the uncompromising goal of overthrowing the Shah. This was no easy task. The anti-Shah groups were so diverse they would have been just as prepared to attack one another, as they were the Shah's regime. Uniting communists, industrialists and Islamic fundamentalists required a particularly strong form of charisma that Khomeini provided. 

The spark in Mashhad 2017

The 2017/2018 protests began on 28 December in Iran's second-largest city, Mashhad. Most reporters agree that the initial spark was discontent over the price of food and other essentials. The Mashhad protests proved to be a fuse, and by the next day, many cities throughout the country became a stage for widespread demonstrations, including in Tehran.

Despite serious misgivings, the Iranian regime retains a fair degree of popular support

Protesters soon began voicing non-economic demands as well, including calls for a less interventionist foreign policy. On the 30th, students were seen outside Tehran University chanting anti-government slogans. Many demonstrators aimed their anger directly at Supreme Leader Khamenei, with some even daring to call for his resignation.

Pro-government rallies were planned by the Rouhani administration to present a counter-narrative. On the 31st, the government blocked access to some social media platforms that protesters were using to mobilise. Telegram - an encrypted messaging app akin to WhatsApp - was popular among protesters (and used by about half of all 80 million Iranians) and as such, was swiftly blocked.

The demonstrations decreased in intensity after this, although arrests did not cease. As of 11 January, approximately 21 people have been killed, and about 1,000 protesters have been arrested (90 of whom are students).

As in 2009, some protesters are alleged to have been tortured and killed in custody. President Rouhani, meanwhile, has begun speaking of the protests in the past tense. He acknowledged that protesters' demands were not purely economic, saying that "it would be a misrepresentation (of events) and also an insult to Iranian people to say they only had economic demands".

Read more: Rouhani's landslide quells risk of escalation, despite Trump's hostility

Although access can be gained through VPN connections, Telegram is still blocked by the authorities. Iranians have regained access to Instagram that was also used for mobilisation purposes. 

Comparing 1979 to 2018

When we compare the two protest movements, stark differences quickly become apparent. First, while the 1979 revolution included the participation of a diverse cross-section of society, the 2017-2018 protests do not.

In fact, some analysts believe that the initial Mashhad protests weren't completely spontaneous, but were in fact fuelled or encouraged by local conservative politicians in a bid to embarrass Rouhani. If so, the continued ability of the regime to mount counter-protests is another sign of this lack of cross-societal support for anti-regime efforts. 

The Islamic Republic is much more capable of repressing protests than the Shah's regime ever was

Second, the Islamic Republic is much more capable of repressing protests than the Shah's regime ever was. We don't need to look very far to notice how resilient the current regime is when dealing with challenges to its survival.

While the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei has the final say in the country's affairs, there are multiple different power centres that effectively keep one another in check.  This helps to prevent Khamenei from making the same mistakes as the Shah, as decisions are made through a process of consultation and discussion, rather than a one person rule.

Unlike the Shah’s forces, which didn't even have adequate riot gear, the Islamic Republic has a sophisticated repressive apparatus that reportedly even recruits gang members on occasion to suppress unrest.

The regime is also quite aware of the channels protesters are using to get mobilised, and are taking steps to take these tools away from them. 

Third, unlike 1979, there is no unifying force among the anti-government protesters. While old monarchists like Reza Pahlavi and former Saddam Hussein loyalists like the Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK) may fashion themselves as leaders of the people, they have failed to exert any real influence in Iran in the last few years. 

The MEK are seen as traitors (MEK supported Saddam Hussein against Iran during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war) and Pahlavi is seen by many as a joke.

The bazaar closings and industrial strikes organised by protesters were especially crucial in bringing down the Shah's regime

And finally, despite serious misgivings, the Iranian regime retains a fair degree of popular support. The elections of 2017 accrued a healthy turnout of 73 percent despite exiled groups' calls for a boycott of the election.

Additionally, Iran's hawkish foreign policy is not met with universal condemnation within the country: The regime has managed to gain the upper hand against its eternal foe Saudi Arabia in most of its proxy wars, despite American support for the Saudis. This is appreciated by the more nationalistic and conservative members of society.

All this effectively means that it's very unlikely for the regime to collapse under the current protests. Rouhani's acknowledgment of political and economical discontent might provoke some mild reforms, but the chances of a revival of 1979 are currently very slim.

Behnam (Ben) Gharagozli received his BA with Highest Distinction in Political Science from UC Berkeley and his JD cum laude from UC Hastings College of the Law. While at UC Hastings, he served as Development Editor of the Hastings International and Comparative Law Review.

Follow him on Twitter: @BenGharagozli

Jon Roozenbeek is a PhD candidate at the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge. He studies Ukraine's media after 2014. Before coming to Cambridge, he worked as a freelance writer, editor and journalist.

Adrià Salvador Palau Is a PhD candidate in the Distributed Information and Automation Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. He has written several journalistic articles about politics and international relations. He is interested in how data science can be used to better understand political dynamics.

Follow him on Twitter: @adriasalvador

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.