Addressing crowds in February on the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani challenged the legitimacy of the country’s unelected, theocratic institutions. Rouhani asserted that “if our revolution has remained, it’s because of the elections” and specifically underlined that the regime’s survival depends on Iran’s presidential and parliamentary elections. Rather than using the platform for its traditional purpose of condemning the United States, Britain and Israel, Rouhani focused almost entirely on domestic issues, acknowledging the regime’s shortcomings while urging all the state’s organs—including its hard-line theocratic institutions—to facilitate the will of the people.
The president’s speech, which was highly unconventional in terms of both content and delivery, accurately reflected the fragile state of affairs in Iran and the widening gap between the republican and theocratic organs of the regime.
The widespread unrest that began in December 2017 and continued into 2018—the largest protests of their kind since the 2009 Green Movement riots—caught the establishment off guard. Paradoxically, the demonstrations, which started in the ultra-conservative Iranian city of Mashad, were initially encouraged by the regime’s hardliners, who saw an opportunity to weaken Rouhani and his political-economic project, including significant cuts in state subsidies.
As the protests spread, however, two significant developments unfolded. The first concerned the demographics of the protesters. Unlike in 2009, these protests were not motivated by the metropolitan middle class—the regime’s usual critics—demanding greater social freedoms. Instead, they were driven largely by the regime’s traditional support base—working-class folk—enraged by economic hardship and high levels of corruption. In this sense, the threat posed by the protests is more potent than before.
Although nationwide demonstrations have settled down, overt dissent has been a consistent feature in Iran, both in public and online”
The second key development was the lack of uniformity in the regime’s response to the demonstrations. On the one hand, Rouhani and his allies voiced support for the people’s right to peaceful protest, claimed their grievances were legitimate and dismissed claims that unrest was orchestrated by foreign powers. On the other hand, the unaccountable institutions advocated repressive means to silence the protests, blaming foreign powers for the unrest.
Since then, although nationwide demonstrations have settled down, overt dissent has been a consistent feature in Iran, both in public and online. This includes the rise of a women’s rights movement, workers’ strikes and protests, and a number of high-profile arrests and deaths in prison.
Although Iran’s recent instability is highly significant, its impact should not be exaggerated. The Iranian regime is not on the verge of collapse. Perhaps more importantly, however, the protests have exposed an underlying tension that is embedded in the structure of the Islamic Republic.
Contrary to common knowledge, the 1979 revolution did not produce an absolute theocracy. Rather, revolutionary Iran fused elements of a modern Islamic theocracy with notions of republicanism and democracy. In essence, the structure of the Islamic Republic can be divided between the ‘Islamic’, which consists of the revolutionary, autocratic and unaccountable institutions of power, and the ‘Republic’, which includes more transparent, republican and accountable elements. The former includes the supreme leader, the Guardian Council, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the judiciary, whereas the latter consists of the presidency, the parliament and municipal councils. The fusion of these two conflicting conceptions of political authority has created a major tension between those seeking to expand theocratic rule and those pushing for a more democratic polity.
Managing this tension is the foremost task of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei. While Khamenei has the final say over policy, he also acts as the crucial power balancer between the institutions urging greater theocracy and those calling for increased accountability. The stability of the regime largely depends on Khamenei’s ability to balance these competing centres of power.
Iran’s recent unrest reflects an imbalance of power that has favoured the unelected institutions, despite popular demand for greater accountability and democratisation. The population has by and large voted for reform of the system—as seen in Rouhani’s landslide re-election in May 2017 and the reformists’ gains in the 2016 parliamentary election. But the hardliners have used the regime’s theocratic organs to effectively block the path to reform. The rise in the number of executions and the imprisonment of political activists, academics and dual nationals are examples of the hardliners using an institution they control—the judiciary—to silence, delay and disrupt Rouhani’s ability to implement reform. Other examples include the IRGC’s confrontational regional approach and its uncompromising grip on the Iranian economy. Both of these factors have deterred the foreign investment that Iran’s economy desperately needs since international sanctions were lifted following the 2015 nuclear deal.
The stability of the regime largely depends on Khamenei’s ability to balance these competing centres of power.”
The international community needs to understand these nuances in the Islamic Republic to be able to calibrate an effective Iran policy. For too long, the West has got Iran wrong. The West’s failure to understand how the Iranian system operates, with its myriad actors and competing centres of power, has often led to decisions or actions that have discredited those the West wants to empower—namely, Iran’s reformers—and played into the narrative of the hardliners. For example, many Iran experts argue that US President George W. Bush’s 2002 “axis of evil” speech undercut Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s policy of détente at a time when the reformers were seeking to re-orientate policy towards the West into a more cooperative phase—for instance, actively cooperating with Anglo-American forces against the Taliban in Afghanistan. At the next presidential election in 2005, the hard-line candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was elected and the hawks in the Iranian system, particularly the IRGC, were strengthened.
Rouhani’s recent comments signal his intention to capitalise on discontent to move further on reform, strengthening his domestic support and pushing back against the unelected institutions of power. Not only has he directly challenged the legitimacy of the regime’s unaccountable centres of power, but he has also proposed a referendum to settle domestic disagreements (although without spelling out the details). The president’s message of increasing accountability seems to be getting through to the supreme leader. Faced with pressure to change, Khamenei has reportedly ordered the IRGC to “withdraw from irrelevant economic activities” and sell its economic assets to the private sector, according to Iran’s defence minister.
Indeed, although Khamenei is instinctively more favourable to the regime’s hardliners, he has to carefully manage this power equilibrium to ensure the regime’s functionality. Thus, in the short term it is likely that he will give some ground to Rouhani. Yet, adding a sticking plaster to a growing wound may not be enough to nurture reconciliation between the establishment and the population at large.
Globalisation has been responsible for fostering demands for greater democratisation, accountability and modernisation in Iran. Coupled with this is the fact that Iran has a growing middle class and a well-educated population: women outnumber men at universities, and 70 per cent of the population is under 35. Polling has revealed that an overwhelming majority of Iranians want increased state accountability, more foreign investment and amicable global relations. Crucially, in terms of strategic outlook, the Iranian population does not look eastwards but towards Europe.
Globalisation has been responsible for fostering demands for greater democratisation, accountability and modernisation in Iran.”
The ingredients for progress are therefore already present, and in a sense, reform is inevitable. Rouhani and the reformers understand this and acknowledge that the regime’s durability rests on its ability to evolve to meet such societal changes. The president spelled this out in an unprecedented manner when he said, “The previous regime lost everything because it failed to listen to the people’s criticism and advice.” This necessity to modernise was repeated on 11 March by Iran’s interior minister, Abdul Reza Rahmani Fazli, who cited “generational changes” and underlined that “over time, ideologies, beliefs, thoughts and preferences have gone under fundamental changes”.
Iran’s recent protests illustrate an establishment that is divided and a population that is thirsty for change. The authorities may be able to manage these tensions in the short term, but failure to address demands for societal change will almost certainly lead to greater regime volatility in the long run.
The reformists understand that to break this impasse and implement real change, they must tilt the structural balance of power to favour the elected, representative institutions of governance. Resolving the deep tension between the two conflicting conceptions of political authority is fundamental to determining what type of country Iran wants to be, both domestically and internationally. Until then, Iran is—in the words of Professor of International Relations Anoushiravan Ehteshami—a nation “stuck in transition”.