An anti-regime protest in Tehran, Iran, in December 2017. (Image source: Fars News/Wikimedia Commons)
During a recent speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hinted that America would support the Iranian people should they seek to replace their regime. "While it is ultimately up to the Iranian people to determine the direction of their country," Pompeo said, "the United States.... will support [their] long-ignored voice..."
What "direction," then, is that? Are the Iranian people actually seeking regime change? If they are, why have past protests failed and how can current demonstrations have a better chance of success?
Some commentators are suggesting that today's demonstrations indicate that the regime of the mullahs may be in trouble. This idea is partly based on the recollection that the general structure of Tehran and other cities remain much as it did in the late 1970s, when merchants played a critical role in the overthrow of the late Shah Reza Pahlavi. Today, however, the political power, financial strength and religious influence of the bazaar class is much reduced.
Within two years of establishing the Islamic Republic, however, the theocratic regime carried out a massive purge of politically active businessmen in Tehran's Grand Bazaar; presently, economic influence is in the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and ideological theocrats affiliated with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The IRGC is now a powerful economic conglomerate in Iran, with IRGC veterans heading major industries. IRGC retirees are able to take economic advantage of their political contacts in the Majles, Iran's parliament, many of whose members are also IRGC veterans.
Nevertheless, on occasion, bazaari businessmen did stage protests against regime policies, such as in 2008 and 2010. These merchants, however, were not advocating regime-change, but rather were expressing anger over the decision by then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to raise taxes.
When protests erupted in July 2009 over Ahmadinejad's electoral victory -- and the public sense that he had not actually won the election -- many outside observers speculated that the regime was on the verge of collapse. The protests were quashed; no change took place.
What sectors of Iranian society supported Ahmadinejad? They included IRGC members and many branches of the Basij militias, on which the regime has relied to suppress protests.
Although the 2009 protests were sizeable, they did not, as Egypt's protests against President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, reach a critical mass. One Tehran demonstration allegedly drew three million people, but the greater national capital area alone has a population of 15 million. The northern neighborhoods of Tehran have a high concentration of wealthier and more educated constituents, including students, professionals and members of the middle class, all of whom generally tend to be critical of the regime. This concentrated group may have given the impression that the majority of Iranians wanted regime change in 2009 and still do today. In addition, some reporters are ordered out of the country during periods of public disorder and others are confined to their homes or are severely restricted in their ability to travel across the country. Consequently, most reportage on unrest emanates from opposition strongholds in Tehran.
Meanwhile, most Western journalists do not speak Farsi and therefore primarily interviewed English-speaking students. Most of those supported leading opposition candidate Hossein Mousavi, who himself was featured in news clips and articles. This impression likely contributed to the view that Mousavi was the legitimate, even landslide, victor in the election -- which may or may not have been accurate.
As there is no evidence that the regime has ever implemented political reforms to assuage an opposition, its staying power should not be underestimated. One possible explanation for the regime's survival, apart from raw repression, is that while a majority of Iranians appear to want reforms, it may be, as in Turkey, that sizable elements of Iran's population may still support the regime. As for the regime's brutally efficient repressive measures, one could make the case, that Mohamed Reza Shah's government was also brutal, yet was overthrown by the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Even though the Islamic Revolution ended up reducing Iranians' liberty rather than expanding it.
What are the opposition's weaknesses?
In the failure of the 2009 protests, there seems to have been a substantial disconnect between two groups -- those who championed the opposition leaders, Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi -- both of whom supported the Islamic Revolution and sought reform, not overthrow, of the regime -- and the more radical anti-regime demonstrators, who shouted slogans such as: "With God's help, victory is near; death to this deceptive government." The discrepancy between the objectives of the protests' leaders and many demonstrators appears to have stemmed, in part, from the Iranian citizenry's distrust of Mousavi and Karoubi. Mousavi, for example, during his tenure as prime minister in the late 1980s, was responsible for mass executions.
Meanwhile, there were rumors that Karoubi had enriched himself by embezzling large sums of money, and was responsible for several sex scandals.
One current shortcoming might the absence of a hardened political infrastructure capable of weathering regime crackdowns on protest leaders and key agitators. The "Green Movement" was swiftly decapitated when both Mousavi and Karoubi were placed under house arrest. The regime was prudent enough not to make them martyrs, but still cut protestors off from their leaders. There were also mass arrests and, worst of all, US silence -- thanks to the Obama Administration's feckless pursuit of what became the JCPOA "Nuclear Deal."
Today, the absence of leaders -- there is no Lech Walesa as in Poland's resistance of Soviet domination -- also makes protestors vulnerable to regime-contrived and self-generated rumors, conspiracy theories and false hopes. The regime has also severed internet communications, disrupted phone- and mobile-networks' connectivity, arrested dozens of journalists, and banned pro-reform newspapers, further disorienting demonstrators.
Today, the opposition's most significant shortcoming continues to be its relatively narrow base. Activists are still failing to reach out successfully to Iran's working poor, particularly in the less affluent neighborhoods of south Tehran. This strategic failure may be a product of centuries of class cleavage in Iranian society. (While there remains little linkage among dissident students, middle-class office workers and the masses of Iran's agricultural laborers, however, some protests suggest that this might beginning to change, with farmers demonstrating for improved water-distribution policies.)
The shallow foundation of the regime's opponents is also evident in their failure to establish substantive ties to Iran's ethnic minorities, including Arabs, Azeris, Balochis, and Kurds, who together account for about half of the country's population. One reason for the lack of open protest by these minorities is that the regime -- like its Pahlavi-led predecessor -- is equally unyielding in its intense repression of them.
Another factor has been the failure fully to exploit poor economic conditions by staging strikes, again as Walesa did in Poland. Past and present work stoppages have been sporadic, and have not disrupted delivery of goods and services. Strikes have also not prevented the export of income-producing Iranian petroleum products. Truck transportation routes and seaports have remained open.
Currently, Iranians who oppose the Islamist regime are an unarmed population, bereft of leadership, and faced down by hardened militia units that are ultra-loyal to the economic benefits of backing the theocrats in power. The protestors, so far, have unfortunately, not been able to elicit significant defections from the regime's military and security services. Reports of defections by IRGC and Basij members from the regime to the opposition are few and far between.
Recently, National Security Advisor John R. Bolton emphasized that the US is not seeking regime change, just "hoping that the regime will change its behavior."
Stiffer economic sanctions for Iran are scheduled to start in November. The tragic reality, however, is that without further help to the people of Iran who want an end to repressive laws -- as well as to the regime's squandering of money domestically for corruption and repression, and abroad to fund terrorism and aggression, rather than to solve domestic problems such as unemployment or the water crisis -- we may not see a change either in Iran's regime or its behavior.
Dr. Lawrence A. Franklin was the Iran Desk Officer for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He also served on active duty with the U.S. Army and as a Colonel in the Air Force Reserve.
 "Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How It Might Succeed" by Misagh Parsa. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2016. p. 72.
 Ibid. p. 72.
 Ibid. p. 72.
 "Going to Tehran: Why America Must Accept the Islamic Republic of Iran" by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett. Henry Holt and Company: New York. 2013. pp. 144-145.
 "The Iran Wars" by Jay Solomon. Random House: New York, 2016. p. 180.
 "The Commemoration of the Martyrs of Tehran" in Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini. Mizan Press: Berkeley, Ca., 1981. "Declaration of Ayatollah Khomeini, 40 days after "Bloody Friday" (9 September 1978). p. 239.
 "Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How It Might Succeed" by Misagh Parsa. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2016. p. 226.
 "The Forbidden Truth: Voices of Regime Change in Iran." (An Interview with Roozbeh Farahanipour) Ketab Corporation: Los Angeles, 2011. p. 40.
 Ibid. p. 41.
 "Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How It Might Succeed" by Misagh Parsa. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2016. p. 249.
 Ibid. p. 249.
 Ibid. p. 220.
 Ibid. p. 219.
 "The Iran Wars" by Jay Solomon. Random House: New York, 2016. p. 255.
 "Iran: The Islamic Republic" Country Handbook. U.S. Department of Defense: Intelligence Production Program. 2000. P.42.
 "Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How It Might Succeed" by Misagh Parsa. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2016. p. 168.