It is odd to hear Westerners, hopelessly permeated with Marxism, dissect the nationwide Iranian protests as primarily an economic eruption, the suggestion being that the demonstrators are not that dyspeptic about the nature of the Islamic Republic. The New York Times’s Thomas Erdbrink, the Dutch foreign correspondent posted to Tehran who works in an impossible position since he and his Iranian wife could be booted, arrested, or separated at any time, first pushed the theme of economic dissatisfaction. In Washington, ardent fans of Barack Obama’s nuclear deal echoed it loudly. It’s not hard to see why. Strategically, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is premised on the assumption that economic rewards from the lifting of sanctions will go partly to the “good guys” in the Islamic Republic, that is, President Hassan Rouhani and his circle, who will use returning oil wealth to strengthen pragmatism and moderation among the ruling elite. The sunset clauses in the nuclear deal don’t make much sense, and the restrictions on advanced centrifuges begin coming off in six years, if the theocracy remains aggressive. When Iranian demonstrators chant “Death to Khamenei! Death to Rouhani! Death to the Islamic Republic!” as swarms of them have, there’s no longer reason to hope that giving money to Rouhani’s “cause” via the JCPOA will help, not hurt, the Iranian people.
Economics and politics are, of course, always intertwined. Politics and God unavoidably intersect. And threaded around and through everything in Iran is an ever-evolving Islamic culture, which, if one follows the anxious writings of the supreme leader Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, is in trouble.
We are not watching in Iran the aftershocks of an increase in the price of eggs and poultry in Khorasan Province. We are watching the continuing crack-up of theocracy, which for the ruling elite was the entire point of the Islamic revolution. What we are seeing in provincial cities, which is where this latest eruption of discontent started, is the expansion of the anti-regime critiques that started in Tehran even before the death in 1989 of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolution’s founding father and the first true Muslim theocrat since the collapse of the Shiite Fatimid caliphate in Egypt in 1171.
If we look back to the late 1980s, when the revolutionary esprit had been badly battered by the killing fields of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and by the brutality of Khomeini’s police state, we can see the spiritual, political, and economic cracks in the regime that today have turned into chasms. The treasure trove of vignettes in Téhéran, au dessous du volcan (Tehran, Under the Volcano), a little masterpiece published in 1987 about the anger, pride, and faith that made the revolution, and the disappointment, individuality, and yearning for happiness that were unmaking it, wasn’t unique to the capital. Although there are stark differences between provincial Iran and the all-consuming capital (the pull of Tehran in the Islamic Republic is similar to the centripetal eminence of Paris in France), it’s the similarities that are more interesting.
The rest of Iran is becoming like Tehran. Large-scale urbanization, which started under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, has gained enormous speed under the mullahs. The big provincial cities have an added accelerant for discontent: They are not Tehran, with its capacity to take the largest share of the country’s wealth. Upper- and middle-class Tehranis may rarely travel to the provinces; provincials who have the means regularly go to the megalopolis. Rapidly improving handheld communications and better transportation have also cut down the size of the country. The great revolutionary foundations and owqaf trusts, charities historically built upon land bequests, have essentially become mafia networks, inevitably under the control of the politicized, corrupt ruling clergy, ultimately under the guidance of the supreme leader and those mullahs he trusts. In many parts of the country, they dominate economic life. In other words, the Islamic Republic’s tyranny has become as acute outside of Tehran as it is in the capital. For those cities where large, potentially troublesome minorities live—Kurds, Arabs, and even Azeri Turks—the police state has always been vigilant. The clerics have improved upon the Pahlavi shahs’ love of centralizing, surveilling authority.
And the growth of universities in the provinces, perhaps more than any other factor, has made these cities powder kegs. Standards at Iranian universities have fallen drastically since 1979; the number of Iranians who have gone to college, however, is now in the millions. Even under the shah, Iranian families that had never known a college graduate were obsessed with the idea of university educations for their children. The Islamic revolution put these egalitarian aspirations into overdrive. According to official Iranian statistics, in 1970, there were 67,286 students enrolled in higher education. By 1991, that number had climbed to 514,000; by 2014, the number was 4,367,901. The Islamic Republic is pushing into the job market roughly 1 to 1.5 million college graduates per year. As with the capital, provincial cities are flooded with these graduates, many of whom cannot find jobs or are doing jobs that make them indistinguishable from the non-college-educated unemployed and working poor. In 2011, 22 percent of the graduates in engineering were unemployed; for the biological sciences, the figure is 26 percent, and for computer sciences, 30 percent.
The ramifications of the overeducated-and-unemployed are likely lethal to the regime: It’s one criterion we can use to pinpoint political dissidence—for example, self-identification with the Green Movement, which exploded into massive pro-democracy demonstrations in Tehran in 2009, correlates closely with higher education. And the frustrations and anger of the college-educated inevitably seep into the entire society, first and foremost via their families and extended families. The differences in attitudes of the college- and non-college-educated jobless and underemployed toward the theocracy may be far less than the regime, and many Western journalists and scholars, has assumed.
Since the contested 2009 presidential election, which Khamenei and senior Revolutionary Guard commanders have described as a near-death experience, the regime has desperately wanted to believe that the poor—the mostazafan, “the oppressed” in revolutionary lingo—have remained true to the cause. The provincial protests have shattered that confidence. That the anti-regime chants of the provincial youth are aimed against the theocracy’s adventures in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon must be especially disconcerting. The regime’s internal propaganda about their foreign missions—an effort to cast Iranian foreign policy as a call to save Shiite Muslims from Saudi-, U.S.-, and Zionist-supported Sunni extremists—is aimed mostly at lower-class Iranians in whom Shiism and Iranian nationalism are tightly intertwined. Going abroad to protect Shiites should, in theory, strongly resonate among the faithful in a time of intensifying Sunni-Shiite antipathy, certainly more strongly than the old revolutionary music about protecting all Muslims from Western imperialism. Yet the provincials don’t appear to be buying it. The famous anti-regime chant of 2009 has resurfaced with a vengeance: “Na Ghazeh, Na Lobnan, janam feda-ye Iran,” “Not for Gaza, not for Lebanon, I sacrifice my life only for Iran.” This might also mean that the domestic audience for the regime’s nonstop anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli propaganda is not as large as some have feared.
Ultimately, the clerical regime can only survive if it can replicate its creed among enough young men who supply the muscle for the primary security institutions, the Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Basij, the “mobilization” force of lower-class, club-wielding thugs who maintain public mores. So far, the theocracy has been able to do this even though higher up, in the clerical seminaries, there has been a precipitous drop in enrollment.
In 2009 when the regime was on the brink, Guard commanders moved Basij units from outside Tehran into the capital. It also appears they deployed a substantial number of Turkish-speaking Azeri forces to thump the capital’s Persians. (Azeri-Persian relations—the two groups make up the lion’s share of the Iranian elite—are intimate but not without tension.) Given how widespread the protests are now, if the demonstrators can gain numbers, it may be a challenge for the regime to deploy sufficient security forces made up of strangers to those being repressed. We know that in 2009 and 2010 Khamenei played musical chairs with a number of Guard commanders, likely because they displayed insufficient vigor in squashing dissent. The regime’s enforcers may be more solid today. They may not be. Only time and clashes will tell.
But if the clerical dictatorship misplays its hand, that is, fails to find the right kind and quantity of intimidation, it could run into what Bashar al-Assad discovered to his regret: The lower classes are more stubborn than the college-educated middle and upper classes. Khamenei was able to crush the 2009 Tehran rebellion with relatively few deaths (estimates vary between 150 to 700 killed). His forces did effectively use torture, including rape, which sent shock waves through elite circles. That could well work in the provinces; it also might backfire horribly. It’s hard to see how the regime can plausibly label thousands of lower-class youth mohareban, enemies of God, as senior clerical prosecutors and Guard commanders have already threatened. Perhaps more than in 2009, the regime confronts an enormous existential crisis.
Khamenei appears to be judging the situation slowly, no doubt in considerable shock that he must, once again, make a regime-saving choice. He has certainly earned the right to think of himself as the most astute and clever dictator in contemporary Middle Eastern history. (Hafez al-Assad, who created the minority Alawite dictatorship in Syria, is his only real competition.) A charisma-free, religiously lightweight cleric has prospered in the Middle East’s most charisma-worshiping, cleric-heavy society. One thing is crystal clear, however: His religious writ is finished. (It was on life-support after 2009.) So, too, Rouhani’s presidency. The ideological constructs both mullahs have used to justify their rule are done. Neither Tehran nor the provinces see Khamenei as “the shadow of God on earth.” After the trauma of 2009, Rouhani wanted to enlarge the tent for those willing to accept the regime in exchange for greater economic performance—in other words, an Iranian Islamist version of the Chinese model: prosperity for political quiescence.
If the protests continue or are violently crushed, Rouhani will have to choose Khamenei’s side unmistakably, as he did in 1999, when university riots convulsed the capital, and again in 2009 with the Green Movement. When he does so, his marriage of convenience with what’s left of the reformists of the 1990s and the Green Movement will dissolve. Rouhani only became president because he convinced Khamenei that he could heal the wounds of 2009 and make the country richer. Whatever power and prestige Rouhani had among his own pragmatic revolutionary circle, whose members were all beholden to the late Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Khomeini’s right-hand mullah, have probably been irreparably damaged.
Although Donald Trump’s tweets on the upheaval have been good, we don’t have any firm idea what he or Congress are going to do, if they are going to do anything at all, to support the protesters. This eruption of popular disgust ought to make it easier for the White House to walk away from the nuclear accord and slam the Revolutionary Guards with massive sanctions. But this administration and Congress don’t seem willing to go there yet. The president, United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, and CIA director Mike Pompeo—the less-wobbly Iran hawks within the administration—might change that. Republicans may be, once the rhetoric is skimmed off, no different from guilt-ridden Democrats, who now turn away from President Obama’s decision to ignore the Green Movement uprising: They are willing to support the protesters so long as they don’t have to do anything serious, that is, anything that would jeopardize the JCPOA.
In the coming weeks, we should have a much better idea whether Trump will be towards Iran something more than a harshly tweeting version of Obama. Iranians, the good guys and the bad, will force his hand. Until then, it’s at least a pleasure to see a people daily engage in such exuberant, politically incorrect behavior. “Regime change” and “democracy” are much easier to say in Persian than in English.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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