In lecturing last night in my Stanford University Continuing Studies (adult education) class on the current protest movement in Iran, I asked one big question and provided three different possible answers. The question was: “Could massive, determined and prolonged protests bring down the Iranian Government?”
The first answer was “extremely unlikely.” Massive protests have been occurring almost continually in Iran since the so-called Green Movement of 2009, but none has shown any sign of appreciably weakening the Iranian government. In comparative terms as well, protest movements rarely result in such a major change. Repression generally works well in quelling dissent, and the Iranian government is more than willing to use harshly repressive measures. It also has a huge internal security apparatus ready to carry out its directives.
My second answer was, “certainly possible.” Massive protest movements have in the past brought down governments, the most compelling example being the “Islamic Revolution” of 1979 in Iran itself, which took down the repressive regime of the Shah. After a little more than a year of huge protests, strikes, and civil disobedience, the government was no longer able to function. It therefore essentially disbanded itself without facing an actual armed rebellion or possible foreign intervention. Even if hundreds of protests are brutally repressed and therefore seem insignificant, one successful movement can topple a regime and thus change the course of history. In retrospect, such an event can seem inevitable.
My third answer was “likely, sometime within the next twenty years.” My reasoning here is based on both the determination of the Iranian protesters and the high level of support that they seem to be getting from the population at large. The government’s increasing repression and elimination of the country’s veneer of democracy in favor of complete theocracy is also pushing Iran to the tipping point. Before 2021, moderate and even relatively liberal candidates often won Iranian presidential elections, giving the people some hope for reform from within. In 2021, however, the major reformist figures were barred from competing. As a result, relatively few Iranians bothered to vote. Yet it still seems that extensive manipulation of the vote was necessary to ensure a solid victory for the regime’s favored candidate, Ebrahim Raisi. An extreme hard-liner, Raisi openly brags about his key role in the execution of between 2,800 and 30,000 political prisoners in 1988.
As a result of such developments, support for the current Iranian regime seems to be evaporating. The main demands of the protestors have thus changed from redress of grievances to wholesale political transformation. More important in the long run, evidence also indicates that the Iranian people are not just abandoning faith in their government, but also faith in the religious beliefs that underlay the Islamic Republic. Although conventional assessments hold Iran to be an overwhelmingly Shia Muslim country, a recent survey indicates that this is no longer the case. Instead, the country has shifted in decidedly secular direction. A 2020 article in The Conversation, based on research conducted by The Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN (GAMAAN) contends that only a around a third of Iranian citizens now follow Shia Islam. The rather astounding results of this research project can be seen in the two figures posted below. (Some of the oddities found in the pie chart, such as the high figure for Zoroastrianism, will be discussed in tomorrow’s post.)
If these findings are accurate, it becomes questionable whether Iran’s nakedly theocratic regime can persist for long. In such circumstances, heightened repression could easily result in increased opposition. Eventually, the dam will break. Such a momentous event will probably not happen in a few months, but within a few years or at least a few decades, Iran will probably undergo another protest-led revolution, this one of a secular and democratic nature.