IRGC takeover? Iran protests may change leadership, but not regime


Iran’s Supreme Leader demanded the judiciary punish those “who disrupt economic security” on Wednesday, following protests over the rial’s collapse and a tightening of U.S. sanctions pressure that has set the arch-foes further on a course of confrontation, Reuters reports.

A senior commander of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) attributed the unrest to external forces.

“We must neutralize the plans of the enemy for an economic war and psychological operations,” General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, who is also a senior advisor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Wednesday.

Anti-government demonstrations driven by economic troubles erupted across the country last December and January. But they didn’t gain traction in Tehran. This week’s demonstrations in the capital were the biggest in years, NPR reports.

As the country’s economic picture worsens, the movement looks likely to pick up strength. But a toppling of the government is far from likely, according to analysts at risk consultancy firm Eurasia Group.

“Growing economic turmoil in Iran means protests will increase in frequency in the short term,” Henry Rome, an Iran analyst at Eurasia, wrote in a research note Tuesday. “Overall, even though some protesters shout anti-regime slogans, the demonstrations are very unlikely to threaten the government’s grip on power.”

Abbas Milani (left), director of Iranian studies at Stanford University, tells NPR that these demonstrations are different.

“They have taken place amongst the regime’s hitherto reliable basis of support — the members of the bazaar and the working classes. For over a hundred years, strikes in bazaars have been harbingers of change and invariably the clergy were allied with these merchants. Now the ruling clergy are the subject of the merchants’ wrath.”

“Help us, not Gaza,” and “Leave Syria alone and deal with Iran,” protesters shouted, calling on the Iranian regime to invest in its own economy rather than interfering in other spheres throughout the Middle East.

Hundreds of merchants in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar shut down their shops this week in protests that allies of Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s centrist president, say are being whipped up by hardliners to push him out of office, the FT’s Najmeh Bozorgmehr adds:

The bazaar played a crucial role in the 1979 Islamic revolution when traders joined forces with the clergy to overthrow Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The traders no longer wield that kind of power, but symbolically, the view in the bazaar counts a lot for Iranians. ….This time, analysts say, it is at the centre of an intensifying power struggle, between pro-reform forces — allied with Mr Rouhani — and hardliners who are largely based in the elite Revolutionary Guard and the judiciary. There are even rumors of a military intervention to take control of the government.

Rouhani accused the United States of waging a “psychological, economic and political war” against Iran, and blamed “foreign media propaganda” for the devaluation of Iran’s currency, USIP’s Iran Primer adds.

“Devising a strategy to collapse the clerical regime isn’t difficult” because “the essential theme in modern Iranian history is a populace seeking to emancipate itself from tyranny,” Iran experts Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh argue in The Wall Street Journal.

But regime change may not necessarily lead to more democratic or liberal outcomes, observers suggest.

The current unrest “will lead to larger and more widespread protests of all classes of the Iranian society, forcing the regime to impose a state of emergency and transfer power entirely to the IRGC,” argues analyst Babak Taghvaee.

On Sunday, during a meeting of IRGC war veterans and generals in Fars Province, special military advisor for Supreme Leader Khamenei, IRGC General Yahya Rahim Safavi, clearly underscored the importance of governing Iran with the help of a political system where IRGC and Supreme Leader will be the only decision-makers, he writes.

To protect the so-called “Islamic revolution” and prevent its collapse, Khamenei is expected to increase the power of the IRGC and allow it to take over the entire political system, says analyst Babak Taghvaee.  An IRGC commander, most likely the current commander of the IRGC-Qods Force Gen. Qassem Soleimani, will be appointed as the next president, and the country will be run by a group of action-oriented “non-conservative” (as they call themselves) IRGC generals. The supreme leadership will gradually become a ceremonial role (especially after death of Khamenei), he writes for the Jerusalem Post.

Due to his role in forming and commanding Shi’ite proxies in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Soleimani (right) has developed a popular and charismatic character among the supporters of the regime including members of the IRGC and Basij militia and even among the reformists inside and outside the country.

There is domestic pressure from Iran’s hard-liners to withdraw completely from the [nuclear] deal, which would serve the interests of the IRGC. The IRGC is deeply rooted in Iran’s economy, maintains dozens of companies across multiple industries, and would benefit from a virtual monopoly over Iran’s (vastly shrunken) economy when sanctions are re-imposed, analyst Geneive Abdo writes for Bloomberg.

All of this is affecting Iran’s internal dynamics. Despite the spike in GDP growth that followed sanctions relief, the Iranian people saw few material benefits. Wages remained stagnant and unemployment and prices high, she adds.

The power gap between Iran’s authoritarian state and civil society is set to increase, says analyst Ali Fathollah-Nejad. During the 2009 Green Movement, an important section of the middle class called into question the political system’s legitimacy. However, now during the 2017/2018 uprising, Iran’s middle-class poor —conventionally considered as the regime’s social base— as well as the youth displayed an unprecedented popular rage against all factions of the regime, he writes for the National Interest:

Despite the lack of media coverage, the protests have continued on multiple fronts and in innovative forms, combining deep-seated socio-economic and political grievances, aided and abetted by Iran’s socio-economic misery, political authoritarianism, and environmental disasters. With these conditions prevailing, there will be more protests and strikes, but their crackdown will be easier this time.

Stanford’s Milani said that Rouhani faces pressure not just from the angered public, but radical conservatives such as the leaders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, NPR adds.

“The hardliners clearly think they can ride public dissent into more consolidated power for themselves,” he said. “But they might well have underestimated the seriousness of the crisis and its possible outcome.”

The situation is far from over, and to be on the safe side, the government stepped up its security measures on Tuesday, notes one observer. While the Basij militias [ Iran’s largest uncivil society movement] were present at all critical points in Tehran, the Iranian justice chief Sadegh Larijani threatened all “troublemakers” with high prison sentences.

Both the political reform movement of the late 1990s, which promoted the principles of pluralism, civil society, and the rule of law, and the One Million Signatures Campaign of the mid-2000s, which called for an end to all discriminatory laws against women, failed not only because of the highly restrictive operating environment of the Islamic Republic, but also due to internal strategic missteps, argue Rebecca Barlow and Shahram Akbarzadeh. Two important lessons emerge that may assist in grounding future human rights efforts in Iran in more effective theories of change, they write for the Journal of Human Rights Practice:

  • One, promoting Islamic values and interests to advance rights-based principles must be coupled with arguments grounded in evidence, research, and analysis.
  • Two, drivers of change in Iran must stop working in top-down/inside and bottom-up/outside track silos and establish an ethos of best-practice sharing where confrontation and cooperation are treated as mutually reinforcing approaches.

It is not clear if hardliners — who claim unconditional loyalty to the supreme leader — are in fact trying to press him to agree to an early change of the government, the FT’s Bozorgmehr adds.

“Ayatollah Khamenei is still against bringing down Rouhani,” said a regime insider who is a relative of the supreme leader. “Rouhani will be lucky if he is still in office by autumn,” said one reformist analyst.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email