LONDON – After a month of nationwide protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of Iran’s notorious Morality Police, there is growing conviction that the militant clerical regime that has ruled the country since the 1979 Islamic Revolution Office is, it’s living on borrowed time.
Amini’s death on September 16 ignited a powder keg of pent-up frustrations in Iran at falling living standards and discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, leading to the largest wave of mass protests since the Green Movement of 2009.
A month later, unrest continues and has spread to at least 80 cities despite a “reckless” crackdown that has left more than 200 dead.
Such is the scale, anger and determination of the protests that many Iran observers and social movement scholars are beginning to speak openly about the possibility of regime change.
It would certainly not be unprecedented if a nonviolent protest movement of this magnitude were to succeed. According to research by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, nonviolent protest has twice as much success in this avenue as armed conflict.
Looking at hundreds of campaigns over the past century, including in the Philippines in 1986, Georgia in 2003, and Sudan and Algeria in 2019, Chenoweth noted that about 3.5 percent of the population actively participates in such protests need to achieve serious political change.
Such is the impact of Chenoweth’s work that the phenomenon has been dubbed “the 3.5 percent rule.”
Roham Alvandi, associate professor of international history at the London School of Economics, believes that “something fundamental” has changed after the protests that could mark “the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic”.
Immediately after Amini’s death, the protests were mainly directed against the vice squad and their strict dress code for women. Videos of these early demonstrations, shared on social media, showed women removing and burning their headscarves in defiance.
But the protests soon grew to focus on a whole range of other grievances, from falling living standards as a result of crippling Western sanctions to the denial of basic rights to ethnic minorities.
However, it was the decision by workers at the Abadan and Kangan oil refineries and the Bushehr petrochemical plant to join the protests that fueled belief that the regime might be on the verge.
Strike action played a crucial role in Iran’s 1906 and 1979 revolutions, Alvandi told Arab News, arguing that it could now serve to “paralyze the Islamic Republic and show the powerlessness of the state in the face of this movement.”
Sanam Vakil, deputy director and senior researcher for the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, agrees, telling Arab News that a series of strikes comparable to those of 1979 could be a “key ingredient” crippling the economy and flaunting a broader base of support.”
However, Vakil says there are several factors that could determine the movement’s success. The most important among them is leadership.
“The strength and weakness of the movement is its lack of clear leadership,” Vakil told Arab News. “It’s a strength because without a clear structural organization and a leader it will be difficult to stamp out completely, but these components are also very necessary if this movement is to be a real challenge to the regime.”
And while the 2009 and 2019 protests may have been larger in terms of the number of people who took to the streets, analysts have pointed to the movement’s intergenerational nature and the sheer number of cities and regions participating.
“It’s not often that school children tell the Iranian president to go away,” Vakil said.
Yassamine Mather, an expert on Iranian politics at Oxford University and editor of the scholarly journal Critique, believes this broad base of support, spanning many segments of Iranian society, is a key strength that increases the possibility of regime change.
“It is also a strength that they have gone beyond the hijab and are addressing other issues – oppression, political prisoners, the high prices of basic commodities, unemployment or lack of secure jobs and corruption,” Mather told Arab News.
“And then there is support for oil workers in certain areas like Assalouyeh, as well as support for Hafttapeh sugar cane workers, a syndicate of Iranian teachers and parts of the legal profession. Lawyers have been demonstrating in Tehran since this week.
“Not to mention that many of the protesters are young. In some cases, they are school children, so they are not easy to scare. It helps that the regime has failed to mount sustained or successful pro-government counter-demonstrations.”
Mather also pointed to an apparent sense of growing disunity at the top after former parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani decided to publicly depart from the regime’s line that US and Israeli intelligence efforts fabricated the protests.
Speaking to an Iranian news site, Larijani said “extremist” government policies regarding the hijab had sparked an extremist backlash from the Iranian public and called for more tolerance.
“Reformers within the regime trying to distance themselves from hardliners, some calling security forces to the side of ‘people who protest,’ are probably a little late,” Mather said.
“The fact is that the protesters are distancing themselves from the regime and the slogan ‘Death to the dictator, be it Khamenei or the Shah’ is now very prominent.”
Iranian diaspora opposition groups are closely monitoring events in Iran but fear the regime will collapse without a fight.
Elham Zanjani, a member of the Women’s Committee of Iran’s National Council of Resistance, told Arab News it’s “certainly possible” that the protests could lead to regime change, but far from inevitable.
“The vast majority of the Iranian people are against the regime, they shout ‘Down with Khamenei’, ‘We don’t want the mullahs or the Shah’ and they have little doubt about what they are looking for, which is freedom and democracy, separation from religion and state, etc., will not see the light of day with this regime in power,” Zanjani said.
“But one should not underestimate the regime’s terrible repressive potential, as demonstrated in November 2019 when it killed over 1,500 protesters in five days.”
In fact, sheer brute force might be enough to ultimately smother the movement.
“There’s also the problem that there isn’t an obvious alternative or strategy about who or what would replace the current regime,” Mather said. “That gives you the security forces’ ability to kill, injure and arrest protesters.”
Aid from outside powers is also likely to sully the movement and lend weight to the regime’s claims of a foreign conspiracy.
“Support from Western governments — this is also a potential weakness as it evokes ideas of ‘color revolutions’ and notions of foreign intervention with the aim of dividing Iran into small regional states,” Mather said, referring to the fragmentation of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s along predominantly ethnolinguistic lines.
For Zanjani, however, international support remains an important factor in the regime’s eventual overthrow. This support should include punitive measures to prevent the regime from using further repressive measures against peaceful demonstrators.
“We have to overcome this evil oppressive force one way or another,” Zanjani told Arab News.