In the last few days of 2017, a crowd gathered in Mashhad, Iran's second-largest city, to protest growing inflation and the rising prices of food and fuel. The protest began with the shouting of "no to high prices!" but as the crowd grew larger and gathered steam the slogans became political, crossing all the red lines and attacking the supreme leader, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the ruling clergy and Iran's costly support of Palestine, Lebanon and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. As the news, images and videos were posted on social media, demonstrations swept across dozens of other cities, lasting for a week. The nation-wide riots and a few smaller, yet significant, political events that ensued caught domestic and international analysts by surprise. In view of the Trump administration's efforts to step up economic and political pressure, many observers have come to believe that the 2017-18 unrest was not an ephemeral outburst of public anger but a precursor to a deeper political crisis, and that the main shock is yet to come.
What gave further evidence to this idea were authorities' concerns about the recurrence of riots. In an unprecedented speech indirectly warning the supreme leader, President Rouhani noted that current political leaders must remember the lessons of the 1979 revolution: "The previous regime thought monarchical rule would last forever, but it lost everything for this very reason…. It did not hear the voice of reformers, advisors, scholars, elites, and the educated, it only heard the voice of revolution... and by then, it was too late."1 A few days later, he called for referendums to resolve issues on which the political factions could not reach an agreement,1 a move that signaled political deadlocks within the establishment. Ahmad Jannati, the speaker of the Assembly of Experts — a body responsible for electing the supreme leader — warned against the possibility of another chain of protests next year because of severe poverty and people's "terrible" and "awful" living conditions.2 Similarly, General Gholamreza Jalali, the head of Iran's Civil Defense Organization, warned that similar unrest is likely to occur this year,3 and the IRGC publicly emphasized that Iran's economy is under "threats and attack" by western powers.4 The political climate in the aftermath of the 2017-18 riots energized the opposition and generated debates on social media and satellite television channels about the likelihood of a revolutionary situation. Drawing parallels with the last years of the shah's regime, BBC Persian held panels and programs on "the fundamental problems of Iranian society,"5 while international commentators such as Francis Fukuyama anticipated a social explosion in Iran.6
This article will examine the political stability of the current regime. First, the main components of state ideologies are discussed (ideologies that are scaffolded mainly by the institutions of the clergy and military), then the destabilizing effects of aggravating economic conditions and the thrust of oppositional political forces are explored. The article argues that the regime is able to preserve its balance in the face of oppositional political forces, but it is considerably vulnerable to the effects of rising economic frustrations and grievances among the masses.
"Independence" is the central feature of Iran's foreign policy.7 "Neither East, nor West, but the Islamic Republic!" was the motto of the ideological state that emerged from the 1979 revolution. The Constitution emphasizes "the rejection of all forms of domination" and prescribes "non-alignment with respect to the hegemonist superpowers."8 The enmity between Iran and the United States began soon after the revolution in November 1979, when a group of revolutionary students stormed the U.S. embassy and took dozens of diplomats hostage, provoking a crisis that lasted 444 days. Tension and conflict between the two governments then ebbed and flowed for decades until the unrest gained a new momentum in the 2000s in response to Iran's nuclear ambitions and its growing regional influence. The historic nuclear deal between Iran and the United States, Europe, Russia and China in 2015 signaled more constructive relations between Iran and the West. However, political confrontations were revived with the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. The Trump administration accuses Iran of destabilizing the Middle East, and Iranian leaders criticize the U.S. government for plotting against the Islamic Republic and meddling in the Middle East.
In the early 2000s, Iran stepped up its foreign policy, following the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the ousting of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein (both being Iran's enemies). Subsequently, the collapse of several Arab states during the so-called Arab Spring of 2010 provided Iran with further opportunities to extend its reach. This new foreign-policy approach was facilitated by the rising price of oil in the 2000s. Having faced resistance from Sunni Arab states, in particular Saudi Arabia, the Iranian government has leveraged Shia groups and militia in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain and other countries to push its regional agenda (Sunni groups are also supported if they are in line with Iran's anti-U.S., anti-Israel or anti-Saudi agenda). Arab states, Israel and the U.S. have raised concerns about the emergence of a "Shia crescent" from Bahrain to Syria under Iranian control.9
Domestically, Islamic authoritarianism is the dominant political and cultural framework in Iran. By replacing "the turban for the crown,"10 the governing elite have cloaked their authoritarianism in an Islamic turban and robe. Iran's political system amalgamates representative democracy with religious control, the constitution with sharia law, and the ballot box with morality police; the CIA World Factbook defines its government type as a "theocratic republic."11 This inner contradiction is key to understanding Iran's domestic political dynamics. In the early years of the revolution, the charismatic personality of its leader Imam Khomeini unified the two dimensions. In 1989, however, when the leadership was taken over by Ayatollah Khamenei (a figure who enjoyed neither his predecessor's religious authority nor his charismatic traits), the rift appeared and has since widened. In the past two decades, Iranian citizens have often voted against those who were widely believed to be supported by the supreme leader; the last instance was Rouhani's victory in the 2017 presidential election against Khamenei's preferred candidate, Ebrahim Reisi. To counterbalance their electoral misfortunes, the Guardian Council, whose members are appointed by the supreme leader, often disqualify the majority of political opposition members from candidacy in presidential, parliamentary and other elections.
The above ideologies, anti-imperialism and Islamic authoritarianism, shape Iran's economy and politics to a great extent and produce resistance from internal and international contenders. They are bolstered mainly by two institutions: the clergy and the military. The continuation or collapse of the current political order largely depends on the cohesion, strengths and weaknesses of these two institutions.
THE CLERICAL-MILITARY ALLIANCE
In "The Power Elite," C. Wright Mills claimed that three elite groups govern America: the political, the corporate and the military.12 In Iran, two groups rule the country and frame its national policies: mullahs (Islamic clerics) and commanders. The head of state is valy-e faqih, a cleric with expertise in Islamic jurisprudence. He is the most powerful man in the country, the commander-in-chief; he appoints the head of the Judiciary, the members of the Guardian Council and the head of state television and radio; he determines the direction and priorities of foreign policy, and is in charge of an economic empire that operates outside the control or supervision of the government. A contingent of seminarians fill in the ranks of the state bureaucracy. The second group of elites is the military commanders, in particular, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a body that defines its role as defending not only the national borders in time of war, but also the revolutionary ideology. An examination of these two institutions, their functions, cohesion, strengths and weaknesses, will help assess the stability of the current ideological order.
The clergy: Shia ulama were important political players far before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In 1892, Grand Ayatollah Shirazi issued a religious edict (fatwa) banning tobacco use in defiance of the shah's award of the concession to a British company — an event referred to as the Tobacco Boycott. The ensuing protests forced the shah to terminate the contract and pay compensation to Britain. The mullahs also played a critical part in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906. Their political influence culminated in the 1979 Islamic revolution, in which clerical networks effectively mobilized the masses and energized the revolution against the regime.13 The mullahs' grassroots connections with the masses convinced almost all political factions, from Marxists to liberals, to recognize Imam Khomeini as the leader of the revolution.
In the first few years, the clerics progressively wiped out their Marxist and liberal opponents and occupied the highest ranks of the state apparatus. Currently, they dominate the judicial system and influence national-level cultural policies through the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution and promote religious mores, symbols and virtues in state television and radio and through their numerous representatives at schools, universities, factories, military bases and government departments. Over time, they have lost much of their traditional independence and have become part of the state machinery; many join seminaries with the hope of later acquiring an occupation in the bureaucracy. Nevertheless, there are independent clerics whose interpretation of Islam does not fit the dominant one; they are either progressive and reform-minded or more orthodox than the ruling clerics.
According to authorities, there are about 200,000 seminarians in Iran — 130,000 men, 60,000 women, and 10,000 foreign students — of which 80,000 reside in the holy city of Qom.14 The clerical institution mobilizes its resources to promote religious practices and rally support for the state. Every year, an army of preachers with their flowing robes are dispatched to villages, towns and cities across the country during the holy months of Ramadan, Moharram and Safar. Given the traditional fabric of Iranian society, especially among the lower classes and rural residents, the clerics leverage religious sentiments to rally support for the Islamic regime and demonize political opposition as irreligious, morally corrupt and the enemies of God. The integration of the clerical system into the state, with the consequent corruption, however, has significantly damaged their credibility and influence.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC): The IRGC (Sepah-e-Pasdaran) was established after the revolution parallel to and as a counterbalance to the conventional army (the Artesh) that had been left from the past regime.15 Viewing themselves as the guardians of the revolution, they increased their political role, especially during the presidency of Ahmadinejad (2005-13), who appointed about half his cabinet members and several provincial governors from the ranks of the IRGC.16 Wehrey et al. claim that of 152 new parliament members in 2004, 91 had an IRGC background.17 The Quds Force, the branch of the IRGC in charge of overseas operations, has a military presence in Iraq and Syria and influences Iran's regional foreign policy.
After the 1981-88 Iran-Iraq War, the IRGC shifted some of their equipment and resources to the postwar reconstruction of the country. Over time, they evolved into an enormous economic conglomerate operating in telecommunication, construction, banking, mining and other sectors. Khatam-al Anbiya, their major economic arm, employs about 1.5 million people including contractors.18 They are also active in illicit trade and the underground economy, which, based on some estimates, makes up about 36 percent of Iran's GDP. Mehdi Karroubi, former speaker of the parliament, once revealed that 300 illegal ports are used for smuggling, implying that the IRGC was involved. Former president Ahmadinejad once referred to them as "our smuggler brothers."19 Criticizing the economic domination of the IRGC, President Rouhani complained: "We handed our economy to a government [the IRGC] that has guns, media, many other things, and no one dares to compete with them."20
The IRGC's militia arm, the Basij Resistance force, is a key political player. Its estimated one million members21 play a crucial part in promoting the dominant revolutionary narratives. As a volunteer-based organization, its members receive military and ideological training and are called on to quell street protests during political upheavals. The Basij has offices and representatives at universities, schools, mosques, factories, large organizations and governmental departments.22 Coming from lower-class families, its members are usually local to the villages, towns and neighborhoods in which they operate, a quality that adds to their effectiveness.23 Unlike conventional police forces, they do not have to wear a uniform or comply with cumbersome codes of conduct. In a 2013 interview, General Hamadani, a prominent IRGC commander, revealed that 45,000 Basij forces had participated in suppression of the 2009 mass uprising. He noted that the IRGC had also organized 5,000 thugs; in such instances they need people "who are familiar with knife and dagger."24
As the regime's coercive force, the IRGC has successfully repressed political opposition over the past four decades. In 1981, the IRGC put down the armed uprising of their most hard-core oppositional force, the leftist Muslim group Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), executing and imprisoning thousands of their members and suspected followers.25 A few years later, in 1988, the regime committed a mass execution of political prisoners, most of them MEK members and followers. Human-rights organizations estimate the number to be between 4,500 and 5,000.26 In the 1990s, the IRGC crushed several economically driven urban riots, the largest being in Mashhad in 1992 and Islamshahr in 1995. In 1999, the IRGC and the Basij violently cracked down on large-scale student-led political protests27 and in 2009 crushed the Green Movement protests against alleged fraud in the presidential election. Gurr, a prominent scholar in the field of revolution theory, noted that "the general principle is that elites who have secured state power and maintained their positions by violent means are disposed to respond violently to future challenges."28 The IRGC has so far been able to maintain its organizational cohesion; very few, if any, defections by commanders have been reported. They have proven willing and able to suppress street demonstrations.29
Although functional, the two institutions face potent and growing socioeconomic and political challenges. The greatest threat stems from renewed economic pressure by the Trump administration. The 2017-18 unrest exhibited the gravity of socioeconomic frustration and an alarming level of public resentment and anger, and also showed that economic protests quickly turn into political ones.
ECONOMIC CHALLENGES: INTERNATIONAL SANCTIONS
Iran's economy has suffered from chronic problems — high unemployment, inflation and the like — for decades, even though the country enjoys remarkable natural resources and substantial human capital. Second in the world in natural-gas reserves and fourth in proven crude-oil reserves, Iran is the eighteenth-largest global economy, between Turkey and Australia. The population is young, well-educated and urbanized, and the economy is relatively diverse. Overall, the country has enough resources for healthy economic growth;30 however, crippling international sanctions have considerably thwarted its capacity for prosperity.
Iran has been subject to U.S. sanctions since the 1979 revolution, but unprecedented nuclear-related sanctions that were imposed by the U.S., the UN Security Council and the European Union from 2006 to 2013 effectively cut off the Iranian financial system from the rest of the world.31 In 2015, the U.S. Treasury secretary claimed that "sanctions isolated Iran from the international financial system, slashed its oil exports by more than half, deprived it of access to much of its oil revenues and foreign reserves, and severely constrained its overall economy."32 He contended that sanctions have cost Iran $160 billion in oil revenues since 2012, reduced its GDP by 9 percent in the two years ending in March 2014, and that in 2015 the economy was 15 to 20 percent smaller than before 2012.
Growing economic pressures in the 2000s compelled Iran to engage in negotiations with the P5+1 — the U.S., the UK, France, Russia, China and Germany — and sign an agreement to restrict its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief, commonly referred to as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Despite Iran's hopes for quick economic recovery, the process has been slow, due to "an extended delay in the reintegration of the Iranian banking sector with the rest of the world, ... uncertainty about practical implementation of the JCPOA" and "overarching snap-back risk and remaining non-nuclear-related sanctions."33 The renewed efforts by the Trump administration to step up economic and political pressures will have devastating effects on Iran's economy.34 In 2018, Austria's Oberbank — the first European financial institution to enter Iran following the nuclear deal — put their work on hold because the U.S. policy "complicates the business massively."35 The deteriorating economy will make it difficult for the governing elite to maintain the social order.
The 2017-18 nationwide riots showed that economically driven unrest quickly turns into political protests. There are indications that the state is struggling to make ends meet; news of labor demonstrations for overdue wages and healthcare funding have become frequent. The supreme leader revealed his concerns about probable labor strikes by noting that "one of the fundamental attempts by enemies… [is] provoking the workers to create recession in factories."36 The government also seems to be incapable of controlling the rapid devaluation of the Iranian currency in the foreign-exchange market; the value of the U.S. dollar against the Iranian currency increased from 36,000 rials in September 2017 to 112,000 rials in July 2018.37
In addition to sanctions, involvement in regional conflicts has further strained Iran's financial resources. According to the UN special envoy for Syria, Iran spends $6 billion annually to prop up the Assad government. Other sources have estimated it to be higher, up to $15 billion.38 Furthermore, Iran spends billions in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen and other countries. In 2016, Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shia militia group in Lebanon, announced, "We are open about the fact that Hezbollah's budget, its income, its expenses, everything it eats and drinks, its weapons and rockets, come from the Islamic Republic of Iran."39 To fund the growing cost of regional involvement, the government doubled the IRGC's budget in 2018. Such foreign expenditures in the face of burning domestic needs alienate many Iranians; frustrations broke out in the 2017-18 riots and were reflected in slogans such as "Forget Syria! Think of us!"
An additional economic predicament is the rampant corruption that drains financial resources and alienates the people. Its rise in the past decade is partly attributable to the sanctions that isolated Iran's banking system from the world, a situation that necessitated a greater role for semi-governmental financial bodies and the IRGC to evade sanctions. While the regime used to cover up news of corruption, this now reaches the public, due to growing animosity among the political factions. In 2013, then-president Ahmadinejad played a secret video recording in parliament to accuse the speaker and the head of the judiciary of financial corruption.40In the 2017 televized presidential debates, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a conservative candidate, accused incumbent president Hassan Rouhani of a corrupt land deal.41 Iranians vented their anger in the 2017-18 riots by chanting "one less embezzlement, and our problems are solved."
Finally, strained financial resources prevent the government from addressing not only inflation and unemployment, but also another pressing issue that has afflicted most Iranians' daily lives: environmental crises involving water shortage and air pollution. Iran has experienced drought conditions for 14 years; its largest rivers and lakes have dried up, and groundwater and aquifers have significantly shrunk,42 leading the deputy of Iran's Department of the Environment to warn that Iran could turn into another Somalia.43 Air pollution has also reached a crisis point. According to the World Bank, "Iran is one of the most air polluted countries in the world." In 2013, 19,644 deaths were attributable to air pollution,44 and the World Health Organization (WHO) placed four Iranian cities within the top-ten most polluted cities in the world (Ahvaz in southwest Iran was ranked first).45 Also in 2013, massive dust storms, originating in neighboring war-torn Iraq, affected 23 of 31 Iranian provinces.46 City and school shutdowns for hazardous air quality have become a normal occurrence. While the government is not entirely responsible for these crises, many Iranians believe the government can do more to manage them. In 2013, hundreds of farmers in the province of Isfahan destroyed the pipelines they believed transferred their water to another province. Clashes with the police ensued. Iran's chief of police complained that "in the past people would pray for rain, but now they demand water from the government!"47
FACTIONALISM AND LEGITIMACY
The Iranian political system has shown itself to be remarkably resilient over the past four decades. Notwithstanding occasional unrest, the regime has been able to establish social order and manage divisions and conflicts. The political earthquake that spread throughout the Middle East in 2010 and brought down several governments — the so-called Arab Spring — did not shake Iran. Nonetheless, political challenges have grown stronger in the past few years and are likely to threaten its political stability in the near future. The most important ones are factionalism, declining state legitimacy, and the likely instability arising over the succession to the supreme leader.
Factionalism: In a rough categorization, the two main political factions that govern today's Iran are conservatives (or principlists) and reformists. Clustered around the supreme leader, the first group includes the military, the judiciary, state media, clerical associations and several large economic institutions that operate directly under his control. They appeal to the traditional and lower strata of society, advocate anti-Western ideology, emphasize Islamic practices and culture, and resist the integration of the Iranian economy into that of the world. The second faction, the reformists, occupies election-based positions in the executive and legislative branches, appeals to the urban middle class and youth, seeks harmonious relations with the West, and advocates a more democratic and accountable government.
The two wings ruled Iran for decades, but their equilibrium began to tilt with the election of Ahmadinejad as president in 2005 when he, with the support of the supreme leader and the IRGC, embarked on cleansing the state of reformists. This attempt, however, created political conflicts that culminated in the 2009 post-presidential election crisis, when following the announcement of Ahmadinejad's landslide victory, millions took to the streets to protest against alleged electoral fraud. The regime's response was a violent crackdown. The contesting candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, have been under house arrest since 2011. Mohammad Khatami, former reformist president, has been subjected to a media ban. Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former moderate president who died in 2017, was disqualified from running in the presidential election in 2013, and his children were imprisoned. Dozens of prominent reformist politicians spent years in prison after the crisis.48
The political balance was somewhat restored in 2013 with the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani as president, which was followed by the reformists' success in the parliamentary and city-council elections. The hardliners have come to accept the reformists' electoral victories to let off steam, but they endeavor to contain and curb the power of the elected bodies by constant intimidation and coercion — evident in their policies during the presidencies of Khatami (1997-2005) and Rouhani (2013-present). Although the two factions do not represent the entire political spectrum of Iranian society, jointly they are able to rally enough support for the survival and continuation of the current political regime.
During the 2017-18 unrest, reformist politicians maintained a distance from the riots by proclaiming loyalty to the Islamic regime, rejecting radical ideas and preferring incremental reform to the violent overthrow of the state. They are also now part of the ruling elite. Consequently, the leaderless riots dissipated after a week. Unlike the 2009 mass uprising, the regime did not overreact, and the IRGC left it to the police to contain and control the riots. This event showed that the state's coercive apparatus is able to maintain the social and political order and that the two factions, jointly, can save the regime from total collapse. However, too-frequent or too-potent riots could pose serious challenges to the legitimacy of the entire political system.
Declining legitimacy: Over the past few years, the governing elite have faced rising resistance to the dominant Islamic and revolutionary framework. The defining features of Iran's foreign policy — avoiding direct negotiations with the U.S., supporting Palestine, Lebanon and Syria, and maintaining an anti-Israeli stance — have been overtly opposed. Public criticism of the untouchable supreme leader has spiked, and some of the most politically sensitive events in the history of the Islamic Republic, such as the mass execution of MEK prisoners in the 1980s, are now scrutinized in public. Furthermore, people dare to openly defy religious principles such as the compulsory wearing of the hijab and the suppression of the Bahai faith, which the clergy considers a heretical sect. Public displays of opposition against these state-supported ideologies and discourses are illustrated below.
In foreign policy, the taboo around direct negotiations with the U.S. government — the "Great Satan," as they call it — came to an end during nuclear negotiations (2013-15): President Rouhani held a phone conversation with Barack Obama; Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister, repeatedly met with his American counterpart, John Kerry; and letters were exchanged between Barack Obama and Iran's supreme leader.49 Hostility between the two states continues, but the regime has retreated from its ideological position, showing "heroic flexibility," in the supreme leader's words.50 The ruling conservatives know the public is frustrated by their dire economic problems. Ordinary Iranians regularly vent their anger over the costly support for Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. For example, in the 2017-18 riots, people chanted "No Gaza, No Lebanon, My Life for Iran!"
A key tenet of Iran's foreign policy is its refusal to recognize the state of Israel. Accordingly, the authorities expect Iranian athletes to refrain from competition against Israelis in international championships. However, to avoid disciplinary sanctions, the athletes often present medical documents to justify their pulling out. Nevertheless, at times they have received harsh penalties. In November 2017, the United World Wrestling Disciplinary Chamber (WWDC) issued a six-month ban to Alireza Karimi, an Iranian wrestler, and a two-year ban for his coach, because Karimi threw his match with a Russian wrestler to avoid an Israeli competitor in the next round. Iran's supreme leader praised Karimi, while Israel's prime minister criticized the anti-Israeli policy.51 Iranian athletes have also become disgruntled, working hard for an international medal but being obliged to forfeit it for political reasons. In February 2018, Rasoul Khadem, the head of Iran's wrestling federation (and an Olympic gold medallist), resigned, criticizing the hypocrisy around the boycott: "Forcing an athlete to accept defeat or run around all night looking for a doctor's note is not right." His move was followed by the resignation of scores of provincial wrestling officials, who wrote a public letter to the supreme leader asking for a solution. The commander of Basij forces warned Khadem and the wrestling officials not to push this agenda further: "We will break their legs when they make the very first move."52 Such public displays of discontent with the most sensitive aspects of the supreme leader's foreign policy are unprecedented.
Similarly, people candidly oppose the mainstays of domestic political norms. The state's chief pillar of stability — the supreme leader — is increasingly challenged in public. The aura that state propaganda had created around him for decades evaporated in the 2017-18 riots, when demonstrators shouted, "The nation live like beggars, and he lives like God," and "Seyed Ali [Khamenei] shame on you! Leave our country alone!" Opposition politicians address him directly and forthrightly in unprecedented ways. Mostafa Tajzade, a prominent reformist politician, described the leader's call for rooting out corruption a mere gesture; Ablofazl Ghadyani, another prominent reformist, likened him to Goebbels, head of the Nazi propaganda apparatus. Even Ahmadinejad, the former president and once a close ally of the leader, has recently issued several open letters critical of him.53
Public scrutiny and open criticism have also extended to sensitive historical events such as the prolongation of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88); the rationale, cost and benefits of the 1979 attack on the U.S. embassy in Tehran, the reasons behind the demotion of Ayatollah Montazeri and the mass execution of Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) prisoners in 1988. Regarding the latter case, an audio recording of a meeting in 1988 between Ayatollah Montazeri — then the designated successor of the supreme leader — and Judiciary officials was posted on the Internet in 2016. In that meeting, the ayatollah harshly censured the Judiciary for the massacre, telling the judges that their names will be recorded in history as criminals.54 The audio file triggered heated conversations on the Internet and satellite channels, forcing the hardliners to defend and justify the massacre. Surprisingly, Ali Motahari, the second deputy of the parliament, called for an investigation into the executions.55
Religious practices promoted by clerics and sanctioned by the state are also overtly opposed. During the 2017-18 demonstrations, a video went viral showing a young woman standing on a utility box in a busy Tehran street waiving her headscarf on a stick like a flag. This quiet and symbolic protest against the mandatory dress code triggered a chain of images and videos appearing on social media in which other girls and women replicated the act. Dozens were arrested and detained by the police. The event spurred passionate discussions among clerics, parliament members, government officials, civil-rights activists, lawyers and others. The supreme leader condemned the act and admonished those who defended it. Judiciary officials warned against the continuation of the movement, threatening punishment.56 In another case, Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, met with one of the leaders of the Bahai faith, whose followers are severely discriminated against. When an image of the meeting appeared on social media, conservative rulers reacted furiously. Amoli Larijani, the head of Judiciary, described the Bahais as "a false group created by foreigners and colonists" and threatened Hashemi that "if they break taboos to the point of committing a crime, we at the judiciary will take firm action."57
Such acts of resistance have always existed, but new media make them more intense and visible. In the past, the regime would have easily silenced such cases, but in the Internet era they find their way to the public and influence the masses. Popular satellite television channels such as BBC Persian and oppositional websites undermine the state's capacity to control the flow of news and images. The declining legitimacy of the revolutionary and religious ideologies forces the regime to resort to coercion, further weakening the state's soft power.
Political succession: Ali Khamenei, supreme leader since 1989, is old and ailing; his prostate surgery in a public hospital in 2014 was reported on state television. The Constitution stipulates that the supreme leader be elected by the all-cleric Assembly of Experts, and since none of the contenders have enough authority, popularity or religious status to generate consensus among the elite, Khamenei's death will create a leadership vacuum.58 He was not a powerful personality when he was elected, but in the span of three decades Khamenei has consolidated authority by building an enormous economic, religious, intelligence and political bureaucracy around himself.59 In the face of pressing social, economic and political problems, together with the deepening factionalism among the elite, a new leader will struggle to establish and develop a power base. In the political instability that will follow his death, the IRGC and the state security organs are likely to extend their political involvement, in which case the urban middle class will be further alienated, the state militarized, regional conflicts fueled, and tensions with the U.S. intensified.
The greatest challenge the Iranian regime is facing is its poor economy. The system will be able to overcome political divisions and conflicts if they can effectively manage the economy . Since the reformist faction does not support a radical overthrow of the current regime, occasional leaderless riots will not pose an existential threat to the establishment. The ruling elite believe that conservatives and reformists together appeal to a sizable portion of the population and can rally adequate support for the continuation of the existing state. In addition, the regime's security organs have shown they are willing and able to put down street protests. Economic grievances, however, undermine the legitimacy of the entire political system, whether conservative or reformist. The 2017-18 riots taught the regime that the gap between economic grievances and political demands is too narrow. Economic protests turn into political ones quickly, which is likely why the Trump administration has targeted the Iranian economy.
1 Saeed Kamali Dehghan, "Hassan Rouhani Proposes Referendum to Heal Iran's Divisions," The Guardian, February 12, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/11/hassan-rouhani-proposes-r….
2 Radio Farda, "High-Ranking Conservative Ayatollah Concerned about the Regime's Future," February 6, 2018, https://en.radiofarda.com/a/iran-jannati-concerned-about-regimes-future….
3 Radio Farda, "The Warning of a Security Official against the Likelihood of Similar Protests," April 17, 2018, https://www.radiofarda.com/a/iran-security-official-warning-about-furth….
4 Radio Farda, "IRGC Blames 'Enemies' for Economic Problems, Threats Against Iran," April 2, 2018, https://en.radiofarda.com/a/iran-irgc-blames-enemies-for-economic-probl….
5 BBC Persian, "The Fundamental Problems of Iranian Society," March 1, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hESKL0QDwlQ&list=PLmdEvtplre60AYdxq_0nS….
6 "Iran Is Heading toward a Social Explosion, Says 'End of History' Man Fukuyama," Arab News, February 12, 2018, http://www.arabnews.com/node/1244711/middle-east.
7 Rouhollah K. Ramazani, Independence without Freedom: Iran's Foreign Policy (University of Virginia Press, 2013).
8 World Bank, Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, http://publicofficialsfinancialdisclosure.worldbank.org/sites/fdl/files….
9 "America's Strategy for Countering Iran Makes No Sense," The Economist, September 17, 2017, https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21728896-it-right-worry-about-ir….
10 Said Amir Arjomand, The Turban for the Crown: the Islamic Revolution in Iran (Oxford University Press, 1988).
11 Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook: Iran, accessed April 2018, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ir.html.
12 C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (Oxford University Press, 1956).
13 Nikkie R. Keddie, Iran and the Muslim World: Resistance and Revolution (Macmillan Press Ltd., 1995); and Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam (Harvard University Press, 1994).
14 Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), "The Statistics of the Clergy and Seminaries according to the Culture Minister's Advisor," July 26, 2016, http://www.irna.ir/fa/News/82164294.
15 Ervand Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran (Cambridge University Press, 2008).
16 Ali Alfoneh, "The Revolutionary Guards' Role in Iranian Politics," Middle East Quarterly 15, no. 4 (2008), https://www.meforum.org/articles/2008/the-revolutionary-guards-role-in-….
17 Frederic Wehrey, Jerrold D. Green, Brian Nichiporuk, Alireza Nader, Lydia Hansell, Rasool Nafisi, S. R. Bohandy, eds., The Rise of the Pasdaran, Assessing the Domestic Roles of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (RAND Corporation, 2009), https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2008/RAND_MG821.p….
18 Thomas Erdbrink, "Iran Saps Strength of Revolutionary Guards with Arrests and Cutbacks," New York Times, October 21, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/21/world/middleeast/iran-revolutionaryg….
19 Saeed Ghasseminejad, "How Iran's Mafia-like Revolutionary Guard Rules the Country's Black Market," December 10, 2015, http://www.businessinsider.com/how-irans-mafia-like-revolutionary-guard….
20 Erdbrink, "Iran Saps Strength of Revolutionary Guards."
21 Wehrey et al., The Rise of the Pasdaran.
22 Greg Bruno, Jayshree Bajoria and Jonathan Masters, "Iran's Revolutionary Guards," Council of Foreign Relations, June 14, 2013, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/irans-revolutionary-guards.
23 Afshon Ostovar, Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran's Revolutionary Guards (Oxford University Press, 2016).
24 Saham News, Hossein Hamadan's last interview, "I organized thugs to suppress demonstrations in the 2009 post-presidential election protests," October 10, 2015, http://sahamnews.org/2015/10/291154/.
25 Ervand Abrahamian, Radical Islam, the Iranian Mojahedin (I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd., 1989).
27 New York Times, "Student Protests Shake Iran's Government," July 11, 1999, https://www.nytimes.com/1999/07/11/world/student-protests-shake-iran-s-….
28 Ted Robert Gurr, "War, Revolution, and the Growth of the Coercive State," Comparative Political Studies 21, no. 1 (1988): 45-65, 49.
29 Jack A. Goldstone, "Understanding the Revolutions of 2011, Weakness and Resilience in Middle Eastern Autocracies," Foreign Affairs, May/June 2011.
30 Cyrus Amir-Mokri and Hamid Biglari, "A Windfall for Iran? The End of Sanctions and the Iranian Economy," Foreign Affairs 94, no.6 (2015): 25-32.
31 Gary Samore, Sanctions Against Iran: A Guide to Targets, Terms, and Timetables (Belfer Center, Harvard Kennedy School, 2015), https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/files/Iran%20Sa….
32 Jacob J. Lew, "Remarks of Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew to the Washington Institute," The Washington Institute, April 29, 2015, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/remarks-of-trea….
33 World Bank, "Iran Economic Monitor: Towards Reintegration," Fall 2016, https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/25865/111462….
34 Saleha Mohsin, "Mnuchin Signals 'Very Strong' New Sanctions on Iran Coming," Bloomberg, April 12, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-04-11/mnuchin-signals-very….
35 "Austria's Oberbank Puts Its Deal with Iran 'On Hold' Over Trump," Tasnim News Agency, April 1, 2018, https://www.tasnimnews.com/en/news/2018/04/01/1690895/austria-s-oberban….
36 Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), "Supreme Leader: Iranian Workers Stood against Enemies' Plot," February 26, 2018, http://www.irna.ir/en/News/82844192.
37 Steven Hanke, "Iran's Rial Is in a Death Spiral, Again," Forbes, July 29, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevehanke/2018/07/29/irans-rial-is-in-a-d…; "Iran Unifies Official and Open Market Exchange Rates as Rial Hit New Low," Reuters, April 10, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-currency-rial/iran-unifies-offi….
38 "Iran Spending $ 6 bln Annually to Support Assad Regime," Al Arabiya, June 10, 2015, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2015/06/10/Iran-spendi…
39 Majid Rafizadeh, "In First, Hezbollah Confirms All Financial Support Comes from Iran," Al Arabiya, June 25, 2016, https://english.alarabiya.net/en/2016/06/25/In-first-Hezbollah-s-Nasral….
40 Thomas Erdbrink, "Top Iranian Politicians Exchange Accusations," New York Times, February 4, 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/05/world/middleeast/high-level-feud-bar….
41 "Iran Election: Fierce Exchanges in Final TV Debate," BBC News, May 12, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-39902987.
42 Kaveh Madani, "Water Management in Iran: What Is Causing the Looming Crisis?" Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 4, no.4 (2014): 315-28.
43 "Iran's Deputy of the Department of Environment Warns That Iran May Become Another Somalia," Deutsche Welle, May 7, 2015.
44 World Bank, Iran Economic Monitor.
45 Noah Rayman, "The 10 Most Polluted Cities in the World," Time, October 18, 2013, http://science.time.com/2013/10/18/the-10-most-polluted-cities-in-the-w….
46 David Michel, "Dust Storms Cloud Iran's Future," Iran Prime, April 7, 2014, http://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2014/apr/07/dust-storms-cloud-iran%E2%8….
47 "Chief of Police: Nobody Was Killed in Isfahan Protests," KhabarOnline, March 2, 2013,https://www.khabaronline.ir/detail/279952/society/Police.
48 Hamid Dabashi, Iran: The Rebirth of a Nation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).
49 "Ayatollah Sent Secret Letter to Obama," The Guardian , February 14, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/14/ayatollah-sent-secret-let….
50 "Iran: Hello Diplomacy, So Long Martyrdom," The Guardian , September 21, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2013/sep/21/iran-heroic-fle….
51 "Iran's Wrestling Chief Resigns after Opposing Country's Boycott of Israeli Opponent," Russia Today, March 2, 2018, https://www.rt.com/sport/420201-iranian-wrestling-chssief-resigns-israe….
52 "Guards: Don't Compete with Israelis or We'll Break Your Legs," Iran Wire, March 7, 2018, https://iranwire.com/en/features/5206.
53 Radio Farda, "Khamenei under Attack from across Iran's Political Spectrum," April 6, 2018, https://en.radiofarda.com/a/khamenei-under-attack-from-across-iran-poli….
54 Saeed Kamali Dehghan, "Audio File Revives Calls for Inquiry into Massacre or Iran Political Prisoners," August 12, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2016/aug/11/hossein-ali-mon….
55 Golnaz Esfandiari, "Montazeri Comes Back to Haunt Tehran over Mass Killings," Radio Farda, September 8, 2016, https://www.rferl.org/a/iran-montazeri-comes-back-to-haunt-1988-mass-ki….
56 Robin Wright, "Hijab Protests Expose Iran's Core Divide," February 7, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/hijab-protests-expose-irans-co….
57 Center for Human Rights in Iran, "Iran Judiciary Vows to Punish Former President's Daughter for Upholding Baha'i Rights," May 19, 2016, https://www.iranhumanrights.org/2016/05/faezeh-hashemi-bahai/.
58 Alireza Nader, David E. Thaler, S. R. Bohandy, The Next Supreme Leader: Succession in the Islamic Republic of Iran (RAND Corporation, 2011).
59 Mehrzad Boroujerdi and Kourosh Rahimkhani, "The Office of the Supreme Leader: Epicenter of a Theocracy," in Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation, eds. Daniel Brumberg and Farideh Farhi (Indiana University Press, 2016), 135-165.