The death of Qassem Soleimani, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s terror mastermind, has been followed by seemingly massive protests throughout the country. State media have portrayed these gatherings as evidence of not only Gen. Soleimani’s popularity but as a sign of the regime’s legitimacy. A closer look at Iran’s political system and the history of protests under the regime demonstrates the opposite.
Many Iranians oppose the Islamic Republic and wish for its overthrow. Past acts of rebellion, including the 2017-2018 protests and the nationwide 2019 Aban uprising (named for the Iranian month of Aban), showed the depth of popular anger toward the regime – and especially its adventurism abroad, which has drained the government’s coffers in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Protesters on the streets make clear that this was Gen. Soleimani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s doing.
The regime does have a significant number of supporters who may be genuinely bereaved and furious at the death of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general. And Mr. Khamenei is certainly capable of mobilizing his followers. But given a choice, the majority of Iranians would celebrate Gen. Soleimani’s death. He may have been a hero to some for “defeating” the Islamic State and defending the Islamic revolution through his sectarian campaign of bloodshed. But to many more Iranians, he was the leader of the regime’s oppressive apparatus, the senior leader of the Revolutionary Guards and commander of the Quds Force – the driving force behind the regime’s imperialist push throughout the Middle East, which fuelled the rise of the Islamic State.
How does the theocracy show that it still has political legitimacy? Mr. Khamenei still has a loyal base, and mobilizing even 1 per cent of Iran’s population would drive 800,000 people onto the streets. Even the harshest of police states have some measure of popular support. The Islamic Republic also employs millions of Iranians it can put pressure on to attend the “mourning” protests for Gen. Soleimani. They include public servants, teachers, members of the paramilitary Basij, Revolutionary Guards and the regular military (Artesh). Jobs, salaries, bonuses and pensions can depend on one’s attendance at these events. The regime also closed all schools, pressed students to attend rallies and coerced them into fake displays of sorrow. Shops and businesses were also ordered closed. The costs of not attending may have far exceeded the moral value of boycotting the demonstrations.
To be fair, Gen. Soleimani was genuinely admired by many as well. Mr. Khamenei saw him as his best lieutenant – loyal and capable, an extremely poor provincial boy, just like Mr. Khamenei, who rose to prominence with the Islamic revolution and the war against Saddam Hussein. The general was also seen by some regime insiders as a possible president or even successor to Mr. Khamenei. Many Iranians and even some non-Iranians saw him as irreplaceable, a larger-than-life myth builder taking selfies on the front lines with his fighters. His role combined the roles of America’s CIA director, secretary of state, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and head of the Joint Special Operations Command.
But his writ went beyond the traditional to the murderous. Gen. Soleimani was responsible for rescuing the Assad regime as it faced defeat, led the ground forces in the brutal siege of Aleppo, and was complicit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and thousands of Iraqis and Iranians. His genius for destruction terrorized Middle Easterners and terrified many Iranians. His death could make the region less bloody.
With his death, the U.S policy of maximum pressure on the regime in Iran has entered a new phase beyond sanctions to the selective use of military power. This could lead the regime to escalate its violence, reach out for renewed negotiations or collapse. The U.S. has much reason to welcome the fall of the Islamic Republic, a state responsible for attacking U.S. interests and thousands of Americans since the 1979 revolution. But we should be ready for a range of unpleasant scenarios. As welcome as the end of the clerical and revolutionary regime would be, it’s difficult to see this happening relatively peacefully given the theocracy’s propensity for violence. We should expect instability in Iran for years to come, especially if the Islamic Republic hangs on.
The regime’s weakening grip is likely to lead to the emergence of opposition groups within Iran. The U.S. needs a policy of acceptable types of movements. Mainstream democratic opposition in the diaspora should become a greater sounding board for policy makers. As the regime becomes more desperate, U.S. leverage in shaping the future of Iran as a country could increase. No matter what kind of government rules the country, it has to end the malign activities on which the U.S. sanctions regime is based. Then, the U.S. can help it reintegrate into the global order and the world economy.
U.S. policy makers and the international community should not fall into the trap of believing the regime’s narrative of Gen. Soleimani’s popularity. The history of protests in the country since 1999, when student demonstrations hit the country’s major universities, strongly suggest the regime has lost much of its support, including among the poor. Even the most committed regime supporters are dissatisfied with the status quo, particularly the dismal state of the economy. Authoritarian states know how to mobilize “the masses.” But the events of the past two years show there is widespread dissatisfaction in Iran that will burst out again.
The Islamic Republic is fundamentally weak and vulnerable to internally driven changes. Forces that support U.S. objectives may emerge. Washington should be patient and wait for its policy of maximum pressure to present the right opportunities.
Mark Dubowitz is chief executive of the non-partisan, Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he has advised three U.S. administrations on Iran policy.
Alireza Nader is a senior fellow at the FDD. A fluent Persian speaker, he has conducted research and taught courses for U.S. Special Forces and the U.S. Department of Defence.