Thursday marks the 31st anniversary of the Iranian revolution.
Thirty-one years ago, the Iranian revolution overthrew the Pahlavi monarchy in Iran. No one predicted the downfall of the shah, who believed that he was highly popular with his own people. His greatest tragedy was that he became a victim of his own illusion.
The overriding issue today is whether the Islamic regime that replaced the shah has succumbed to the same illusion – and is thus willing to use force to maintain the status quo and stay in power.
There are several key questions today. Will Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remain in power as the leader of the revolution? Will there be a takeover by the Revolutionary Guards? Will the frustration of Iranian civil society turn into disenchantment with the reformists and become more radicalized and violent? Finally, will the country suffocate from economic turmoil and even a banking collapse?
The staying power of the supreme leader – both that of the individual currently holding the position, Ayatollah Khamenei, and that of the office – will be a key driver of the immediate future of Iran.
It goes without saying that a loss of legitimacy and a disputed succession of the leader in the event of his death could bring on a power struggle among different factions of the Iranian regime, leading to a military coup d’état organized by the joint forces of the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia.
The behavior of Iranian civil society a year from now could range from a high wave of emigration among educated youth to a more radical stance and greater support for violence.
As for the Iranian economy, it will certainly be on its deathbed after a prolonged spell of low oil revenues, low foreign investment, high inflation, high unemployment, and corruption. This could be aggravated by political, cultural, and economic sanctions from the West that are now all but certain. And there could be a visible increase in unrest among ethnic minorities in Iran.
On the basis of these critical indicators, one can expect a harsher crackdown and tougher response to opposition groups by paramilitary and security forces in the coming period.
For one, high-ranking clerics in Iran will become even more critical toward a regime that has lost its grip over Iranian reality once and for all and embarks on shooting its opponents to survive. The fate of Iranian politics will be partly decided by grand ayatollahs in the holy Shiite city of Qom – who never supported the religious and political ideas of Khamenei – and the hard-liners within his inner circle.
Ultimately, we are witnessing a fundamental dispute over the ownership of the revolution and the means to safeguard Iranian Shiite Islam. The clerical establishment in Qom will continue to be aligned with those who seek to redefine the Islamic Republic of Iran, and will therefore find itself in open confrontation with the Revolutionary Guards.
If this confrontation unfolds violently, there would no doubt be both casualties and beneficiaries. The likely beneficiaries of such a struggle would be the Revolutionary Guards. With leading reformers and opponents in jail and the street tamed by a military coup, the voices for radical change would fall totally silent. This could lead to military action against Iran, which would certainly inflame the entire region and have catastrophic humanitarian consequences, while enriching and empowering the dangerous and violent components of the security and military apparatus in Iran.
Because all signals point toward a gradual transformation of Iran within a few months into a heavily militarized status quo power, this more ideological style would surely affect both civic reforms in Iran and its integration within the international community.
The immediate and significant foreign-policy implication of a military takeover would be that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps would likely play the nuclear card in order to further assert Iran’s anti-imperialistic mission abroad and boost nationalistic pride at home. This in turn would draw an equally aggressive answer from the Arab regional powers, who would seek to increase their involvement and foment tensions within Iran by supporting Sunni minority groups.
These issues would also put tremendous pressure on the Iranian military and paramilitary forces, who would continue to crush internal dissent while projecting a more aggressive tone of defiance and intimidation toward the United States and other world powers.
All this is hardly a rosy scenario. What is certain is that no one can affirm with any degree of accuracy what would happen in an Iran ruled by the most unpredictable of modern regimes. Yet, unfortunately, there is an undeniable logic to the course I have sketched out here.
Ramin Jahanbegloo, one of Iran’s most well-known dissidents, headed the contemporary studies department of the Cultural Research Bureau in Tehran until his arrest in April 2006. He was released that August and now lives in exile in Canada, where he teaches at the University of Toronto.
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