Iran celebrated the 41st anniversary of the “Islamic Revolution” on Feb. 11, with thousands of people showing their support in public celebrations. Such rallies are organised each year to showcase support for the Revolution, which replaced Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s government with an “Islamic Republic” under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979. However, in recent months, Iran has experienced increasing confrontations between hardliners, reformists and those calling for the end of the Islamic Republic.
Last November, thousands of Iranians protested against the regime in centres across the country, with around 1500 Iranians killed by a regime crackdown according to Reuters.
While the November/December anti-government protests were quashed by Iranian security forces, public demonstrations were revived in January in response to Iran admitting responsibility for accidentally shooting down a Ukrainian passenger plane, killing 176 people, after initial denials. Footage from the January protests shows Iranian students refusing on masse to walk on US and Israeli flags, people in the streets tearing down posters of the Supreme Leader, and women publicly removing their veils (a punishable crime in Iran), all of which were widely shared on social media.
In light of these contrasting public demonstrations, AIR asked Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington DC, for his insights into the levels of popular support for the Iranian regime, as well as his estimation of the Islamic Republic’s prospects for survival.
As to whether the regime has popular support, Taleblu said, “The truth is… most Iranians aren’t celebrating, and 41 years later, there is little to felicitate. Given the increasing number of protests, it’s safe to say that the majority of Iranians don’t support the current government in Iran, and have sought to use political or economic events – or even tragic accidents, as was the case with the downing of the Ukrainian airliner – to voice their discontent. Expect more protests in the future, as the state and society continue to grow apart.”
Given the growing frequency of the anti-government protests in Iran, as well as the economic collapse resulting from the US sanctions campaign to pressure Iran to negotiate an improved nuclear deal, the AIR asked Taleblu whether he believes we are seeing the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic or whether it would be able to remain in power despite its unpopularity. He commented, “It’s always challenging to predict, but given the use of weapons of war against the Iranians’ own people, as we saw by the regime in November and December of 2019, the Islamic Republic certainly is acting like it knows the end is near. Fundamentally, given the past century of Iranian history, as well as the general drift among the rural and urban poor toward riot and revolution rather than reform since 2009, this becomes a matter of when, not if.”
Despite domestic pressures, Iran has continued its aggressive regional approach. Recently, a former leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Mohsen Rezaei, warned that Iran is looking for an excuse to attack Israel and “raze Tel-Aviv to the ground”, blaming Israel for allegedly helping the US to kill Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Major General Qassem Soleimani in January.
AIR asked Taleblu whether he believes an Iran-Israel confrontation is looming, and whether the removal of Soleimani will have an impact on Iran’s desire to “export the revolution”. He noted, “There have already been several iterations of an Iran-Israel confrontation. The Islamic Republic is seeking to use the chaos of the Syrian conflict to traffic weapons, particularly guidance kits to turn rockets into missiles, to bolster the arsenal of neighbouring Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel’s strikes against Iranian assets in Syria have aimed at slowing or stopping this from happening.
“Another thing Iran seeks to do is to grow the quantity and quality of forces belonging to its proxies and partners – both of which fall under the term ‘Axis of Resistance’ – that are on Israel’s border. This strategy is the latest measure of Iran’s ‘export of the Revolution’ policy. The loss of Soleimani is sure to slow its pace, but Iran has an entire regional network that remains devoted to its ideological and strategic aims, and sadly, that means continuing to pursue anti-status quo and destabilising policies in the region.”
These destabilising policies include Iran’s commitment to its nuclear program, which risks setting off an arms race in the region. In January, Iran announced that it will no longer abide by its uranium enrichment commitment, leading Germany, France and the UK to trigger the dispute-resolution mechanism of the Iran nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This could lead to the reimposition of UN sanctions on Iran.
Iran is also continuing work on its satellite program, recently failing in an attempt to send a satellite into orbit to celebrate the anniversary of the Revolution. Taleblu says regarding the links between the satellite program and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, “Iran’s interest in satellites and space-launch vehicles more broadly is a measure of its interest in long-range strike capabilities. While Iran doesn’t have a full-blown ICBM program, it does have a robust ballistic missile arsenal and an interconnected space and defence industry. As a reminder, India went from satellite launch-vehicles to ICBMs, so it is not impossible for Teheran to follow suit.”
Meanwhile, Iran appears to have returned to old tactics of arresting and imprisoning foreign nationals and using them as “hostages” in bilateral relations. Australia is very concerned about the imprisonment of Australian-British academic and lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne Dr. Kylie Moore-Gilbert – tried and convicted in secret last year on charges of espionage and sentenced to ten years in prison. Moore-Gilbert had letters smuggled out of prison in which she called on the Australian Government to act, she wrote, “I beg of you, Prime Minister Morrison, to take immediate action, as my physical and mental health continues to deteriorate with every additional day that I remain imprisoned in these conditions.”
According to reports in the Guardian, Dr. Moore-Gilbert also rejected Iran’s offer to spy for the regime in exchange for her release. Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne said, “The government has been working extremely hard in relation to the ongoing detention of Kylie Moore-Gilbert,” adding, “We don’t accept the charges on which she has been held and are concerned for her protection and the conditions under which she is held.”
AIR asked Taleblu how governments should respond to apparent Iranian hostage-taking tactics. He said, “Governments cannot afford to signal to Iran that they will not step up pressure, not just economic, but political, against the Islamic Republic, for its reversion to hostage-taking. When these events happen, national governments should do everything in their power to shine a light on Iran’s bad behaviour rather than remain silent. They cannot afford to vindicate Iran’s treatment of dual and foreign nationals as political pawns.”
On the 41st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, the Iranian regime seems to have little to celebrate. Its increasingly aggressive behaviour both towards other nations and its own people may, as Mr Taleblu suggests, be a sign, not of confidence, but that the regime’s leaders sense its days may be numbered.