“Iran is not in a revolutionary or even a ‘prerevolutionary’ situation” read the preface to a CIA Intelligence Assessment published in August 1978. As it turned out, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi left Iran on January 16, 1979, and within a month of his departure, the Imperial Army declared its “neutrality” in the course of the revolution effectively ceding power to Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The intelligence failure of 1979 ought to serve as a cautionary tale for any assessment of regime stability in Iran and elsewhere.
Nevertheless, the Islamic Republic, which is undergoing a legitimacy crisis not dissimilar to that of the Pahlavi regime in the late 1970s, is demonstrating remarkable resilience. The protests, which flared up in Iran in September 2022 and may continue well into 2023, are more widespread, protracted, and violent than previous protests over the history of the Islamic Republic, but the regime’s survival has never appeared at stake. What accounts for the perseverance of the Islamic Republic, despite the legitimacy crisis and recurring popular protests? The answer to this question can, in part, be found in the institutionalized nature of the Islamic Republic as well as the regime’s externalization of the crisis, ruthlessness, and pragmatism.
Since its establishment, the Islamic Republic has derived its legitimacy from three main sources: religion, elections, and performance, in particular in its capacity as a service and resource provider. Over the years, the strength of all three sources has declined.
The Constitution of the Islamic Republic, which was approved by 98.2% of eligible voters in a March 1979 referendum, and the 1989 constitutional amendment grant almost dictatorial powers to Iran’s clerical head of state. It is unclear if the Iranian public knew what they voted for when entrusting such powers to a clerical leader; however, it is clear that at the time, the Iranian society was far more religious than today, as documented by the Headquarters for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. While there is no certainty that the religious segment of society necessarily supports the regime, the general decline in religiosity suggests a similar reduction in the degree of legitimacy of a political system founded on a distinct interpretation of Islam.
Elected offices of the Islamic Republic too are suffering a crisis of legitimacy. Despite their manipulated nature, elections in Iran historically secured a degree of popular representation and, therefore, also legitimacy. The regime barred candidates it perceived as ideologically nonconformist or otherwise undesirable but, more often than not, provided the voters with a range of choice among candidates preapproved by the regime. Differences among the candidates were real, and so were their priorities. This is clear from the different track records of presidents who won in elections over the past several decades: Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-97) pursued economic liberalization; Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) promised, but failed to deliver, political liberalization; Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s (2005-13) populist agenda mobilized underprivileged Iranians against his predecessors; and Hassan Rouhani (2013-21) unsuccessfully tried to revive Rafsanjani-era policies. However, as apparent in the heavily manipulated process that secured Ebrahim Raisi’s path to the presidency in 2021, voters are increasingly boycotting elections due to the lack of real choice, and there appears to be a correlation between the decline in political participation and an increase in street protests.
The regime’s failing performance, in particular as a service and resource provider, is another weakened source of legitimacy: Under the weight of the international sanctions regime, and due to mismanagement, the government is struggling to maintain the flow of cash and services it previously channeled to broad segments of society to secure public support. The government has increased the universal basic income as well as pensions and salaries of public servants, however it can’t keep up with inflation, to the detriment of the purchasing power of the recipients. Large charitable organizations provide some safety net to the needy, but the overall weakening of Iran’s economy has also contributed to a reduction in their services.
With the decline of these sources of legitimacy, why has the regime been able to survive?
Unlike the Pahlavi regime, which was a personalized dictatorship, the Islamic Republic is highly institutionalized, which makes it more sustainable. The supreme leader is a power center among multiple power centers composed of government bureaucracies or factions among the ruling elites competing for political influence and economic gains. Rather than take advantage of his constitutionally mandated dictatorial powers and imposing his preferences, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei involves different power centers and the ruling elites in decision making, functioning as the final arbiter among these competing power centers. This not only ensures better governance and protects the system against the supreme leader’s mistakes but also helps share the burden of responsibility – and blame – in the case of policy failures.
The latter is of utmost importance due to Khamenei’s poor record of domestic crisis management, clear in his initial refusal to acknowledge, let alone take any action, in cases of crisis. On the first day of protests in September 2022, for example, Khamenei failed to make any reference to them in a seven-minute address to a group of students commemorating a religious holiday. And though the protests quickly spread across the country, Khamenei also avoided the subject in his second public appearance, on September 21, when addressing veterans of the war with Iraq. It was only on October 2, when addressing graduates from officer academies, that the supreme leader commented on “recent affairs.” While Khamenei was absent from the limelight, for reasons not made clear to the public, and does not appear to have been involved in day-to-day management of the crisis, regime institutions and power centers managed it.
The regime also tried to externalize the crisis, in particular by targeting Iraqi Kurdistan, which hosts Iran’s armed Kurdish opposition groups, and Saudi Arabia, which reportedly finances Iran International TV, whose role in the Iran protests has been similar to that of Al Jazeera Television during the Arab Spring uprisings. By September 24, Tabnak News, which is close to former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Mohsen Rezaei, reported the IRGC had shelled the positions of the Komala Kurdish armed opposition group in Iraqi Kurdistan to prevent further “infiltration into Iran, to instigate unrest and rebellion.” On November 17, the MI5 director-general reported his organization had uncovered at least 10 “potential threats” to “kidnap or even kill British or U.K.-based individuals perceived as enemies of the regime.” His statements may be a veiled reference to threats against Iran International TV’s headquarters in London.
Within Iran, the regime was ruthless. While the Law Enforcement Forces and the Basij militia were initially indulgent of the protesters in Tehran and other major population centers, the IRGC was mobilized in Iran’s periphery populated by religious and ethnic minorities. This is particularly true in Iran’s Kurdistan province and Kurdish-populated cities in the West Azerbaijan and Kermanshah provinces, which may indeed have been infiltrated by Iran’s armed Kurdish opposition, and Sistan and Baluchistan province. On September 30, clashes resulted in large protester and government personnel casualties. In total, the 2022-23 protests have hitherto claimed the lives of 592 protesters and 73 government personnel, more than the combined number of fatalities in the six previous major protests in Iran since June 1981.
However, the regime, or the IRGC specifically, combined ruthlessness with pragmatism and remarkable ideological flexibility. As opposed to Khamenei, who in his comments on the protests blamed the United States, Israel, the outlawed Mujahedeen-e Khalq organization, separatists, the former crown prince of Iran, and even descendants of agents of Iran’s pre-revolution intelligence service, the IRGC used its political allies to blame the Headquarters for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice for provoking the protests. The IRGC’s scapegoating of the morality police may be an early sign of the organization parting ways with Iran’s unpopular clergy. The IRGC may not mind granting personal freedoms to the citizenry, which resonates with the urban middle class. The question is if, and for how long, personal freedom suffices for the urban middle class before it demands political freedom as well. After all, the remedies hitherto used by the regime to suppress the protests and secure its existence only provide temporary solutions to the crises faced by the Islamic Republic.