Tehran is caught in a straitjacket
‘This is nothing.”
So said Iranian president Hassan Rouhani on January 1, 2018, four days after nationwide protests began to consume his country. “Our great nation,” he declared, “has witnessed a number of similar incidents in the past and has comfortably dealt with them.”
The statement hasn’t aged well.
Thirteen months later, the Iranian uprising has shown remarkable endurance. Although Western reporting about the demonstrations largely faded within weeks, protests continued throughout 2018. Dozens of rallies have already occurred this year. Yet unlike other revolts in the Middle East, which rapidly subsided, descended into civil war, or — as in the case of Egypt and Tunisia — resulted in swift regime change, Iran’s unrest persists in a state of apparent deadlock.
But that may change. In recent weeks, key figures tied to the regime have begun to express doubts about the regime’s future. Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of Iran’s first supreme leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, said the regime may collapse. “The foundation of any society is to win people’s satisfaction,” he warned. “There is no guarantee that we stay in power and the others go.” Mohammad Reza Tajik, a political adviser to former president Mohammad Khatami, compared Tehran to the “Titanic in turbulent waters.” A top cleric, Ayatollah Abdollah Javadi-Amoli, claimed that the insurrection could “push” the clergy “into the sea.”
One Iranian lawmaker, Jalil Rahimi Jahanabadi, made a portentous comparison. “When the Soviet Union collapsed,” he told the Iranian parliament, “it had 13,000 nuclear warheads and had influence in more than 20 countries and a space station, but it was torn apart on the streets of Moscow, losing its security and territorial integrity.”
Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, added that the Islamic Republic clings to power primarily through “intimidation” and “fear,” making its ultimate downfall “very likely.” “Everywhere you look,” she declared, “there’s inefficiency, there’s a lack of leadership and reason, everything is abandoned, there’s no attempt to find solutions to the problems or if there is then things only get worse, there are no signs of improvement.”
What explains the regime’s paralysis?
It certainly isn’t squeamishness about the use of force. Tehran’s police state has murdered thousands of Iranians since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Since the demonstrations began, security forces have arrested more than 7,000 protesters and killed at least 26. And throughout the Middle East, Iranian forces and proxies continue to inflict untold bloodshed — most notably in Syria, where Tehran provides military support to a regime responsible for more than half a million deaths.
Yet Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is not Bashar al-Assad. Iran’s current supreme leader, like his secular counterpart in Syria, seeks to retain power, but his Islamist ideology constrains his ability to wage a scorched-earth campaign. In Khamenei’s mind, the Islamic Republic must not merely survive. It must also assume its divinely mandated role as the regional hegemon, with its radical Shiite doctrine commanding the allegiance of the umma, or Muslim world. This aspiration requires not only financial resources, but also — and perhaps more critically — a successful political template at home that can serve as a model for Iran’s neighbors.
This ideological goal helps explain Tehran’s dilemma. Replicating Assad’s domestic barbarity would surely weaken the umma’s faith in the glories of the Islamic Revolution. It would also deter international investment, which has already depreciated sharply in the wake of America’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal. In the long term, Iran cannot sustain its influence abroad if its own territory lies in rubble, if its society remains riven by internal dissent, and if its economy collapses.
The collision of Khamenei’s creed with the imperatives of realpolitik has left Tehran in a straitjacket. To address its people’s manifold demands, Iran would need to restore its ailing economy, end regime corruption, ameliorate water shortages, cease human-rights abuses, and roll back its regional aggression. But achieving these goals would require Tehran, at a minimum, to reconcile with the United States, embrace liberal norms, and become, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put it, a “normal country.”
Herein lies the revolution’s fundamental contradiction. In order to survive, Tehran would need to deny its Islamist identity — the basis of its self-declared legitimacy. It would need to commit political suicide.
But it’s not only the regime that faces an identity crisis. For many Iranian citizens, accepting the status quo not only threatens their prosperity and freedom but also amounts to its own form of political suicide. While its Arab neighbors are defined by artificial borders, Iran possess an organic, millennia-old national identity that belies Tehran’s enforced — and historically anomalous — pan-Islamist creed. As populist movements rooted in nationalist fervor reshape global politics, the cumulative failures of the Islamic Republic have reignited its people’s historical consciousness.
Iran’s demonstrations are “attuned to the worldwide spirit of nationalist renewal,” notes Sohrab Amari, the Iranian expatriate and journalist. “From the U.S. to India, and from South Africa to Britain, political leaders and the voters who elect them are reaffirming the enduring value of the nation-state. Iran hasn’t been immured from these developments, as the slogans of the current protests indicate.”
Strikingly, the chants of demonstrators have featured little discernible anti-American sentiment. Iranians primarily blame the regime for their problems — not, as Tehran posits, Western imperialism. Their most poignant rallying cry, “America is not the enemy, the enemy is right here,” echoes in the streets of Tehran. Even the renewed sanctions triggered by Washington’s exit from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action have not altered this narrative.
In this sense, the grievances of protesters may run the gamut of Iran’s foreign and domestic policy, but they share a common root. Tehran, in the eyes of countless Iranians, has prioritized revolution over nationhood. The upheaval thus represents not merely a disagreement over policy but a fundamental — and irreconcilable — clash of identity and political vision.
To be sure, the Islamic Republic may yet prevail. Iran’s security infrastructure remains loyal to the regime, and unarmed protesters can achieve only so much in a police state. Sanctions are squeezing Iran, but Tehran still retains lifelines in the form of exemptions for major oil buyers and significant gaps in the sanctions architecture.
President Trump appears uninterested in further intensifying economic pressure. And with the 2020 election just over the horizon, the mullahs may be hoping they can wait him out. A Democrat in the White House would likely reenter the nuclear deal, enabling Iran’s reintegration into the global financial system.
Still, Iranians have reason for optimism. The endurance of the uprising surely reflects the desperation of its participants, but it also may reflect the citizenry’s implicit recognition of Tehran’s increasing vulnerability. In this sense, the protests may spring from hope as well — hope that, in the not too distant future, their efforts may yet succeed.