from dr Mohammed Al-Sulami*
Alongside the ongoing political and social mobilization, successive waves of factional or popular protests have increased across Iran in recent months. This unstable situation is proving increasingly worrying for the Iranian leadership.
The seismic upheavals Iran is currently experiencing are eerily reminiscent of those that preceded the 1979 revolution. The current protests also follow in the footsteps of historic popular uprisings, the most recent of which were those that toppled several Arab regimes a decade ago. The striking aspect of the protests, past and present, is that any real change depends on an inevitable solution: regime change.
From the perspective of the Iranian people, all of the country’s crises stem from the brutal theocratic elite that seized power in 1979 and has since mismanaged the country for their own benefit and enrichment at the expense of society in general. This view fuels Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s concerns about the regime’s future.
The country is suffering from various complicated economic crises, not only due to the American economic sanctions, but also due to the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Iran’s growing political and social mobilization in the face of its deepening economic crisis prompted the regime to rig recent parliamentary and presidential elections to ensure that religious hardliners and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps monopolized all levers of power in the country. This technique means that power is now concentrated in the hands of those who uncritically support the extremist, revolutionary Velayat-e Faqih regime in its quest for survival.
Despite these attempts to shore up the regime, the Iranian leadership has actually exacerbated the country’s crises and undermined its remaining legitimacy. It now faces a very real threat from the protesters, whose growing and ongoing protest movement could derail its plans to rule Iran forever.
To prevent these protests from escalating and turning from mere popular and factional protests with economic and political demands into a full-fledged insurgency with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the regime, Khamenei used the death anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini this month to dispatch two important ones Messages to the Iranian people. With these messages, however, Khamenei did not want to offer radical solutions to the country’s deep-rooted economic, political and social crises. Instead, he wanted to influence the course of the protests and downplay their impact on the future of the Iranian regime.
Citing far-fetched conspiracy theories as usual, the supreme leader blamed the regime’s enemies for the crises Iran is suffering, accusing Western countries of leading popular protests to deal a blow to the regime and using psychological warfare. the internet, mercenaries and giving money to achieve their goals.
The first part of the message conveyed a tacit but clearly understood threat to the Iranian public to stage more protests, with Khamenei hurling smear and accusations of treason to discourage anyone from participating in the current or future protests. This message, of course, completely ignores the extent of the suffering of the Iranian people, their grievances and the reasons why they are taking to the streets.
This message stands in sharp contrast to what Khamenei said to the Middle East in 2011 when he delivered a speech in Arabic calling on the peoples of the region (presumably excluding the Syrians) to rise up against their leaders and governments. This speech reinforced the world’s belief in the Iranian regime’s hypocritical positions and support for the chaos in many regional countries and beyond, completely contradicting its leader’s and the constitution’s aspiration to help the vulnerable and oppressed.
Khamenei’s second message to the Iranian streets was another thinly veiled warning of the dire consequences of responding positively to demands for regime change and converting popular and factional demands into a full-fledged revolution demanding the overthrow of the regime – as the The case was with the 1979 revolution that overthrew Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
Western countries, notably the US, have changed their positions on the protests in Iran, sometimes denouncing the regime’s crackdown on protesters and sometimes declaring solidarity with their demands. However, Khamenei’s recent comments and accusations against the West, which accuses him of conspiring to overthrow the regime, show his concerns about growing popular discontent and the possibility that the situation could spiral out of control.
This is especially true given the severe and deepening economic crisis in Iran, stalled nuclear deal talks in Vienna and the fact that the short-lived optimism inspired by the seemingly imminent conclusion of a deal with the major world powers is quickly fading .
The current Iranian regime’s denigration of the Shah’s regime – which accuses it of being a Western agent, oppressing the Iranian people and causing economic crises – has been one of the key points of its propaganda over the past 43 years. Now, however, conditions in Iran are reaching levels that may be even worse than they were under the Shah, leaving the regime in Tehran in an awkward position. The Iranian people are beginning to compare the past with the present benevolently, with a certain nostalgia for the Shah’s era. Those in power fear these comparisons and repeated calls for regime change – emboldened by the Shah’s son Reza Pahlavi, who has stepped in and is leading an escalating protest movement in exile and is asking the West for help – could spark a new revolution.
The Iranian people are unlikely to heed the supreme leader’s threats, especially given the stalled Vienna talks and the regime’s failure to find convincing and satisfactory solutions to the country’s chronic crises. That means Khamenei’s worst fears could come true.
- dr Mohammed Al-Sulami is President of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami