Ongoing protests in Iran — targeting an ideologically rigid regime informed by a religious idea — have their roots in domestic political and economic strife which have reached a boiling point. The protestors know that it is perilous to confront the Revolutionary Guard, which protects the regime. The regime, for its part, understands the danger of allowing its sanctity to be violated. This is why the Iranian leadership hastened to mobilize counter-protests, under the pretext of paying homage to the anniversary of the edict that inaugurated the “Rule of the Islamic Jurist” (December, 30). But it appears that even some of these counter-protesters have themselves turned against the regime.
The so-called “Green Revolution” of 2009 — following the results of an election widely believed to have been rigged — caused a crack in the system that has not fully healed. Many of those protesters sought to end the reigning system altogether. The concept of the “Rule of the Jurist” was a radical departure in Shi’ite theology in that it contradicts the tradition of waiting for the arrival of the “hidden Imam,” who will bring justice to the world. The figureheads of the 2009 protest movement — reformist presidential candidate Mir Mousavi and his supporter, the cleric Mehdi Karroubi — were arrested. If Mousavi won — or let us say, if his followers had won — then Iran’s foreign and domestic policies alike would have undergone an overhaul. That outcome did not of course come to pass.
Nearly a decade later, it appears that the regime had convinced itself that it had thoroughly trounced the “green revolution,” and was not prepared for the possibility that 2009 was a dress rehearsal for 2018. Economic crises had meanwhile intensified. Through the slogans protests chanted, it appears that a wide sector of the Iranian people consider Hezbollah to be a leach on the Iranian economy. Small wonder: Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah has declared that the muitions, salaries, and all the movement’s essentials are funded by the Iranian treasury. With the advent of the Syrian crisis in 2011, Iran mobilized its Iraqi proxy militias at further cost to the economy. Add to this the Yemen crisis, which saw Iran arming and supporting “Ansar Allah,” otherwise known as the ”Houthis.” All of the above was abundantly clear to the Iranian people in an era of information simultaneity.
The chants of the protestors went beyond demands for a better livelihood: They have called for nothing less than the overthrow of the “Rule of the Jurist” and death to the Supreme Leader. In other words, the protection Khamenei has long enjoyed by virtue of popular reverence for his founding predecessor, Ruhollah Khomeini, is waning. And an ideology grounded in religion cannot afford to be compromised; it is meant to be absolute.
Since 1979, the Tehran regime has consistently denigrated all its opponents as “agents” or “spies,” and all challenges to its authority as “conspiracies.” It has meanwhile structured all policies, foreign and domestic, based on the logic of revolutionary activism, not the logic of statecraft. Though lately the establishment media has reduced its use of the term “Great Satan,” the political narrative on the whole remains the. same: the authorities are blameless, and any problems the population may be facing stem from the machinations of a foreign enemy.
Perhaps the senior leadership of Iran’s “Rule of the Jurist” regime have forgotten that the present crop of protestors was mostly born after the revolution. They have little interest in the revolution’s prior achievements, though the education system remains saturated in aging tales of glory. Perhaps the authorities have also forgotten that millions of Iranians have been either banished or effectively forced to flee the country. Their children are deeply opposed to the establishment. Perhaps, after all, this regime was not divinely guided, and has not earned the right to rule in the name of Shi’ism cherished hidden Imam. Tehran today is no heaven on earth.
Whatever the future of these protests, they are more than just a passing cloud. Nor are they a “bunch of agents,” as the regime has been describing them. Their emergence is an expression of a suffocating crisis. To save themselves, Iranian authorities must ultimately review their priorities. They must reconsider whether their Islamist dictatorship, as presently constructed, can ever regain a semblance of a popular mandate. They must ask themselves whether Iran’s youthful majority could possibly be swayed by the regime’s boasts that it controls four Arab capitals.
The “Deputy Imam” is not above the rage of his people — and his pretension to sacred status has been smashed by the spirit of a well-known proverb: “Without bread, God won’t be worshiped.”