What To Watch For In Iran's Turmoil

Jan 8, 2018

Commentary: Will Iran's pro-democracy protests last? As the uprisings that have unexpectedly swept across the Islamic Republic approach their second full week, that's the question on the mind of policymakers in Washington. 

In contrast to its counterparts in Europe, the Trump administration has forcefully backed Iran's protesters and their political aspirations, and U.S. officials are now contemplating their next steps in support of Iran's opposition. As they do, they should keep their eyes on three key factors that will help determine the success or failure of today's ferment. 

The first is the presence of a coherent platform or political agenda. Back in 2009, Iran's "Green Movement" failed to coalesce around a concrete set of principles or a definable way forward. Simply put, Iran's Greens knew what they were against, but they didn't know what they stood for. And because they didn't, the disparate factions that had congregated on Iran's streets were gradually coopted and picked apart by the regime. 

The results were striking. By the time of the next presidential election, in 2013, Iran's once-potent opposition had been reduced to debating whether it should vote en masse for the "moderate" candidate in that contest, Hassan Rouhani, or sit out the elections altogether. 

Today, too, there is no discernible political plan in evidence among the country's protest wave. The activists on the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities have made clear their desire for fundamental political change through slogans like "Death to the dictator!" and "Down with Rouhani." But they have not yet laid out a roadmap for how to make this sort of shift of power actually happen. 

Nor are there identifiable leaders in today's uprising. The 2009 Green Movement saw the emergence of prominent personalities, such as former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi, possessing both the gravitas and presence to serve as standard bearers for the opposition, and the authority to speak for the protests as a whole. 

By contrast, today's protests are spontaneous in nature, with no discernible face or coherent leadership to speak of. As a result, they are more liable to fragment over time, as political rivalries and divergent views come to the fore among the various opposition factions without a unifying figure to reconcile or diffuse them. 

The final factor that will help determine the success or failure of the protests is the disposition of Iran's powerful security forces. A defining feature of authoritarian regimes is a heavy reliance on instruments of force in order to maintain domestic control. Historically, when the ideological or practical bonds tethering such forces to their regimes slacken - like they did in Tunisia in early 2011, and in Egypt later the same year - the government in question crumbles. But when security forces remain unified behind the regime, such as in the case of Bashar al-Assad's Syria, it remains in control and is able to repress its political opposition mercilessly. 

Iran is no different in this regard. Since its inception, the Islamic Republic has relied on institutions like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), its feared Basij domestic militia, and assorted informal pressure groups to enforce the edicts of the country's clerical elite. Whether these forces remain loyal to Iran's ayatollahs in the face of sustained unrest, in turn, is perhaps the most important factor in determining the long-term success of the current uprising. 

In that context, scattered reports of defections from the ranks of the IRGC and Basij, as well as other signs of disobedience by security forces, are unquestionably heartening news. But these must become more than a mere trickle in order to cast serious doubt on the Iranian regime's ability to forcibly quash the protests if all other means at its disposal fail. 

The United States can and should lend a helping hand to Iran's opposition. Strong, sustained messages of support from the United States - coupled with new sanctions against prominent regime institutions and personalities - can help restrain Iran's regime, and provide the protesters with much-needed moral backing. Necessary, too, are concrete measures (like assured access to the Internet and key broadcasting platforms) that permit Iran's opposition to communicate and coordinate in the face of mounting regime restrictions on access to the World-Wide Web and social media. Such steps can help buy Iran's activists the time necessary to coalesce into a coherent political force capable of presenting an alternative to the current regime in Tehran. 

Ultimately, however, only Iran's domestic opposition itself can develop the essential ingredients necessary for its uprising to succeed. As it stands, the protesters have their work cut out for them. 

Ilan Berman is senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.