Could the Iranian protest movement succeed?

Dec 15, 2022 | AIJAC staff

The Iranian protest movement against the ruling theocratic regime has certainly been inspiring - but is it a noble but ultimately futile effort, or can it lead to regime change? (Image: Shutterstock, DigitalAssetArt)
The Iranian protest movement against the ruling theocratic regime has certainly been inspiring - but is it a noble but ultimately futile effort, or can it lead to regime change? (Image: Shutterstock, DigitalAssetArt)

12/22 #02

The Iranian mass protest movement powers on, despite increasing repression from the regime, including not only the killing of an estimated 450+ protesters, but the sentencing to death of at least ten protesters and the execution of two of them so far. (A good summary of the state of the uprising and regime repression is here.)

Now some experts on Iranian politics are saying that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the protest movement has a very real chance to achieve its goal of overthrowing Iran’s oppressive Islamist regime.

This Update leads with veteran Iran policy analysts Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh making the case for the potential success of the protest movements. They argue that Iran’s rulers are looking increasingly fearful and hesitant in the face of the protests. They list numerous aspects of Iranian history, political culture and society – including education levels, pluralistic traditions, ethnic divisions and the growing role of women – which make the country potentially amenable to another revolution resulting in genuine liberal democracy. For their arguments in full, CLICK HERE.

Next up is another top scholar of Iran, Karim Sadjadpour of the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – who argues that, whatever happens in the near future, the protest movement has permanently changed the relationship between Iranian society and the regime. He notes numerous signs of unprecedented popular rejection of the regime and its ideology, and the disarray within the ruling elite. Sadjadpour draws comparisons with the situation prior to the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, noting that while the regime still possesses tremendous repressive power, things can shift very quickly and unexpectedly, and some in the security forces must be starting to question their allegiance to the regime. He argues that the regime’s overthrow has become a matter of when not if, and to read his full argument why,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, Washington Insitute for Near East Policy expert Henry Rome looks at how various Western sanctions on Iran can best assist the protest (which is particularly relevant given Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s announcement of Australia’s first human rights sanctions against Iran last Friday.) Rome emphasises setting realistic goals for a sanctions program, and close coordination between Western countries as to the individuals and entities subject to sanctions. This, he says, would both send a more effective message, and also prevent bad actors from exploiting the differing sanctions programs imposed by different Western countries to effectively evade the effects of sanctions. For this valuable guide to effective sanctions, CLICK HERE.

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Why Iran’s Protests Could Topple the Regime


The country has a rich history of political dissent that has brought it to the edge of revolution.


By Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray TakeyhWall Street Journal, Dec. 12, 2022
Iranian rulers, like President Ebrahim Raisi, seem increasingly uncertain, fearful, and incoherent in the face of the mass protest movement against the regime  (Photo:  Amin Bre / Alamy Stock Photo)

Reports of the demise of Iran’s morality police were greatly exaggerated. There’s no evidence that the Interior Ministry has dissolved this force. It may have even been temporarily repurposed into riot control. This disappointing deflation of last week’s reporting reinforces the Central Intelligence Agency’s view that the current wave of unrest in Iran poses no threat to the regime.

But that view — coloured by the disappointing results of the Arab Spring and of Western military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq — is too pessimistic. The Islamic Republic’s rulers are uncertain, fearful and increasingly incoherent in their public statements. They surely know that these demonstrations aim to foment revolution, not reform. And they have reason to worry that the demonstrators will be successful.

Iranians, unlike anyone else in the Middle East, have lived under two very different dictatorships—the Westernizing Pahlavi shahs from 1925-79 and an Islamic theocracy since 1979—and they’ve rejected both. Iran is the only Middle Eastern state to have had two revolutions in the 20th century. Belief in the value of a constitution and representative government is more than an imported, debased Western idea to Iranians. Iran embraced a written code of laws as a means of checking foreign influence in the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11. Iranians have a 120-year history of using street demonstrations to check abusive power. Unlike past protests in other Middle Eastern countries, today’s popular rebellion in Iran could usher in a lasting pluralistic order.

In no Arab state—not even Egypt, where the intellectual and political classes were profoundly Westernized under British occupation—have we seen the kind of political ferment and critiques of authoritarianism, both secular and religious, that we have seen in Iran since the Constitutional Revolution. The rule of relentlessly Westernizing monarchs turned religion into a means of political protest and a vehicle for establishing representative government. Forty years of clerical rule has weakened Iranians’ religiosity but not their yearning for self-rule. Iran has become a country of empty mosques and a distinctly secular national pride.

As Americans often argue, separation of church and state can be a key to democratic success. Thanks to the totalitarian ambitions of Iran’s theocracy, no Middle Eastern society is less tempted by faith as a political creed than Iran. And while the theocrats have thwarted Iranians’ yearning for representative government, they have made concessions to popular sovereignty that have kept a culture of political self-expression alive and well.

The Islamic Republic has been bedevilled by this compromise. Elections, though never free, were once safety valves for popular dissatisfaction. A diverse collection of politicians have become president, ranging from the clerical reformer Mohammad Khatami to the populist firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Majles, Iran’s parliament, could be feisty. A dynamic press could criticize the government. Magazines and books served up serious discussions about man, God and the U.S.

This culture of political expression was fed by the clerical regime’s massive expansion of the country’s educational infrastructure—an aspect of the mullahs’ ardent desire to modernize after the fall of the shahs. They wanted a nation that was self-sufficient and self-reliant, and that required an educated public. Today, Iran has nearly six million university students, almost 60% of whom are women. In a reversal of the 1970s, higher education has become an engine of dissent against the Islamic revolution. Mismanagement and corruption in state-owned enterprises have done far more than U.S. sanctions to limit job creation. Iran is a land of highly educated poor people whose thirst for democracy has been whetted but never quenched. And Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s decision last year to asphyxiate this managed democracy by stage-managing the election of his ruthless protégé Ebrahim Raisi to the presidency triggered the existential crisis that has demolished the regime’s legitimacy.

After more than a century of societal involvement in politics, Iranians are more than aware of the serious nature of self-government. They are unlikely to fall victim again to the allure of a secular strongman or militant mullah, having seen the damage such leaders cause. The Arabs who revolted against tyranny a decade ago didn’t have the advantage of decades of trial and error. Self-criticism isn’t a Middle Eastern forte, but Iranians have come far in placing the blame for their own predicament on themselves. Democracy can’t ignite, or last, if the citizenry doesn’t assume responsibility for its own destiny. Iran seems ready.

Iranian women who filmed themselves walking unveiled in Teheran as a show of defiance. Iranian women appear increasingly determined to demand their natural rights. (Image: Twitter)

Most telling, Iranian women, who have tenaciously pressed for reform since Mr. Khatami’s election to the presidency in 1997, are no longer fazed by accusations of being gharbzadeh—Western-struck. They appear eager to make Western ideas about natural rights, especially individual liberty, their own. This is an essential step toward making democracy work in non-Western lands.

Iran is a diverse country. Its Arabs, Kurds and Baluch have a history of insurrection against Persian authority. Ethnic diversity has caused strife in the past. But the nationwide demonstrations that started after the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman, have been remarkably unifying. Iranians today want the extinction of the Islamist regime.

Many Americans and Europeans were deeply uncomfortable with the empowerment of religious parties in Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring. A post-Islamic Iran is likely to have a far bigger Western fan club than did the elected Islamists of North Africa. Good thing: As Samuel Huntington noted, foreign—usually American—support to nascent democracies increases the chance of their survival.

Mr. Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Mr. Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Question Is No Longer Whether Iranians Will Topple the Ayatollah

By Karim Sadjadpour

New York Times, Dec. 12, 2022

A scene from the 1979 Iranian revolution against the Shah. The possibility of the protests leading to his overthrow was discounted by intelligence analysts, until it suddenly happened (Image: GRANGER – Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo)

The protests in Iran, now in their third month, are a historic battle pitting two powerful and irreconcilable forces: a predominantly young and modern population, proud of its 2,500-year-old civilization and desperate for change, versus an aging and isolated theocratic regime, committed to preserving its power and steeped in 43 years of brutality.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the only ruler many protesters have known, seems to be facing a version of the dictator’s dilemma: If he doesn’t offer his people the prospect of change, the protests will continue, but if he does, he risks appearing weak and emboldening protesters.

The protests were set off by the Sept. 16 death of a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, after she was detained by the morality police for allegedly wearing improper hijab. Although Iranian opposition to the regime is unarmed, unorganized and leaderless, the protests continue despite a violent crackdown by the regime. More than 18,000 protesters have been arrested, more than 475 have been killed, and 11 people have been sentenced to death so far. On Thursday, a 23-year-old man, Mohsen Shekari, who was arrested during the protests, was hanged.

However the protests are resolved, they seem to have already changed the relationship between Iranian state and society. Defying the hijab law is still a criminal offense, but women throughout Iran, especially in Tehran, increasingly refuse to cover their hair. Videos of young Iranians flipping turbans off the heads of unsuspecting Shiite clerics are popular on social media.

Symbols of the government are routinely defaced and set on fire, including, according to social media reports, the ancestral home of the revolution’s father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Laborersbazaar merchants and petrochemical workers have gone on intermittent strikes, reminiscent of the tactics that helped topple Iran’s monarchy in 1979.

The ideological principles of Ayatollah Khamenei and his followers are “Death to America,” “Death to Israel” and insistence on hijab. Mr. Khamenei’s ruling philosophy has been shaped and reinforced by three notable authoritarian collapses: The 1979 fall of Iran’s monarchy, the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Arab uprisings of 2011. His takeaway from each of these events has been to never compromise under pressure and never compromise on principles. Whenever Mr. Khamenei has faced a fork in the road between reform and repression, he has always doubled down on repression.

The rigidity of Iran’s hard-liners is driven not only by ideological conviction but also by a keen understanding of the interplay between the rulers and the ruled. As Alexis de Tocqueville put it, “The most perilous moment for a bad government is one when it seeks to mend its ways.”

Mr. Khamenei understands that rescinding compulsory hijab will be a gateway to freedom and will be interpreted by many Iranians as an act of vulnerability, not magnanimity. That Iranians will not be placated merely with the freedom of dress but will be emboldened to demand all the freedoms denied to them in a theocracy — including the freedom to drink, eat, read, love, watch, listen and, above all, say what they want.

There are signs of disarray within the ruling elite. While some officials have suggested the notorious morality police will be abolished, others have suggested this is merely a temporary tactic to restore order. “The collapse of the hijab is the collapse of the flag of the Islamic Republic,” said Hossein Jalali, a clerical ally of Mr. Khamenei and a member of the Cultural Commission of the Iranian Parliament. “Head scarves will return to women’s heads in two weeks,” he declared, and women who refuse to comply could have their bank accounts frozen.

The forces of repression the Iranian regime possesses available  – including thousands of the Basij militia men shown here – appear very formidable. But some within the security forces are likely starting to question their ironclad alliance with the regime. (Image: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo). 

The Iranian regime’s repressive capacity — at least on paper — remains formidable. Ayatollah Khamenei is commander in chief of 190,000 armed members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who oversee tens of thousands of Basij militants tasked with instilling public fear and morality. Iran’s nonideological conscription army, whose active forces are an estimated 350,000, is unlikely to take part in mass repression, but hopes from protesters that they will join the opposition have so far been in vain.

Until now, the political and financial interests of Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards have been intertwined. But persistent protests and chants of “Death to Khamenei” might change that. Would the Iranian security forces want to continue killing Iranians to preserve the rule of an unpopular, ailing octogenarian cleric who is reportedly hoping to bequeath power to Mojtaba Khamenei, his equally unpopular son?

The internal deliberations of Iran’s security services remain a black box. But it is likely that, like the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries in 2011, some of them have begun to contemplate whether cutting loose the dictator might preserve their own interests.

The sociologist Charles Kurzman wrote in his seminal book, “The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran,” that the paradox of revolutionary movements is that they are not viable until they attract a critical mass of supporters but that to attract a critical mass of supporters, they must be perceived as viable.

The protest movement has not yet reached that tipping point, but there are ample signs that a critical mass of Iranian society has doubts about the regime’s continued viability. “What the people want is regime change and no return to the past,” said Nasrin Sotoudeh, a renowned human rights attorney and political prisoner who had long called for reform instead of revolution. “And what we can see from the current protests and strikes that are now being initiated is a very real possibility of regime change.”

Like many autocratic regimes, the Islamic Republic has long ruled through fear, but there are growing signs that fear is dissipating. Female athletes and actors have begun to compete and perform without the hijab — a criminal offense that has earned other women double-digit prison sentences — inspiring others to do the same. Political prisoners like Hossein Ronaghi have remained defiant despite imprisonment and torture. Rather than deter protesters, their killings often lead to mourning ceremonies­­­­­ that perpetuate the protests.

If the organizing principle that united Iran’s disparate opposition forces in 1979 was anti-imperialism, the organizing principles of today’s socioeconomically and ethnically diverse movement are pluralism and patriotism. The faces of this movement are not ideologues or intellectuals but athletes, musicians and ordinary people, especially women and ethnic minorities, who have shown uncommon courage. Their slogans are patriotic and progressive — “We will not leave Iran, we will reclaim Iran,” and “Women, life, freedom.”

The demands of the current movement are brilliantly distilled in Shervin Hajipour’s song “Baraye,” or “For,” which has become the anthem of the protests and articulates a “yearning for a normal life” rather than the “forced paradise” of a religious police state.

Senior American and Israeli intelligence officials recently stated they don’t believe Iran’s protests constitute a serious threat to the regime. But history has repeatedly illustrated that no intelligence service, political science theory or algorithm can accurately predict the timing and outcome of popular uprisings: The C.I.A. assessed in August 1978, less than six months before the toppling of Iran’s monarchy, that Iran wasn’t even in a “prerevolutionary situation.”

This is because not even the protagonists themselves — in this case the Iranian people and regime — can anticipate how they will behave as this drama unfolds.

Abbas Amanat, a historian of Iran, observed that one of the keys to Iran’s civilizational longevity, which dates to the Persian Empire of 2,500 years ago, is the power of its culture to co-opt its military invaders. “For nearly two millenniums, Persian political culture and, in a broader sense, a repository of Persian civilizational tools successfully managed to convert Turkic, Arab and Mongolian conquerors,” he told me. “Persian language, myth, historical memories and timekeeping endured. Iranians persuaded invaders to appreciate a Persian high culture of poetry, food, painting, wine, music, festivals and etiquette.”

When Ayatollah Khomeini acquired power in 1979, he led a cultural revolution that sought to replace Iranian patriotism with a purely Islamic identity. Ayatollah Khamenei continues that tradition, but he is one of the few remaining true believers. While the Islamic Republic sought to subdue Iranian culture, it is Iranian culture and patriotism that are threatening to undo the Islamic Republic.

Four decades of the Islamic Republic’s hard power will ultimately be defeated by two millenniums of Iranian cultural soft power. The question is no longer about whether this will happen but when. History has taught us that there is an inverse relationship between the courage of an opposition and the resolve of a regime, and authoritarian collapse often goes from inconceivable to inevitable in days.

Karim Sadjadpour (@ksadjadpour) is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on Iran and U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

Human Rights Sanctions on Iran Need More Coordination and Creativity

by Henry Rome

PolicyWatch 3680
Dec. 9, 2022

Australian Foreign Minister Sen. Penny Wong announced Australia’s first human rights sanctions on Iran on Dec. 9, long after most of Australia’s allies imposed similar sanctions. Rome suggests coordinating sanctions among Western nations is key to maximising their effectiveness. (Image: DFAT)


Several countries have rapidly imposed new sanctions in response to the regime’s repression of peaceful protests, but they should do more to harmonize and expand these actions.

In less than three months, key Western actors have levied sanctions against 113 individuals and 17 entities linked to human rights abuses in Iran, with 7 batches of designations issued by Canada, 6 by the United States, 3 by Britain, and 2 by the European Union. The speed and scope of these measures are notable, especially compared with the West’s relatively weak response to Iran’s previous round of serious protests in 2019. But a closer look at the lists reveals significant inconsistencies between who is being sanctioned and how.

Defining Realistic Goals

In general, human rights sanctions on Iran have aimed to freeze the assets of those implicated. Depending on the country and authority used, travel bans may also be imposed, and third parties may be restricted from dealing with those sanctioned.

These measures are different from more powerful tools such as the U.S. sanctions targeting Iran’s oil and banking sectors. Human rights sanctions are not generally intended to have macroeconomic impacts, and in many cases their practical significance is limited—especially when the targeted individuals have no assets outside Iran and do not travel to the country that sanctions them. In October, for example, after the EU and Britain sanctioned armed forces chief of staff Mohammad Bagheri in connection with drone sales to Russia, he responded by sarcastically suggesting that European governments should use his assets to “buy coal” given that a “difficult winter is ahead.” That said, former Iranian officials often travel abroad, so immigration restrictions may have some impact.

A memorial in London for the hundreds of Iranian protesters killed by security forces. Among other things, sanctions demonstrate support for the protesters by “naming and shaming” perpetrators. (Photo: Eleventh Hour Photography / Alamy Stock Photo). 

More broadly, human rights sanctions are a way to demonstrate support for protesters by “naming and shaming” perpetrators, creating an authoritative public record of accusations against them, and spotlighting abuses that Tehran may prefer to keep hidden. In that sense, the press releases announcing sanctions are perhaps as important as the sanctions themselves.

Sanctions could also alter the behavior of any Iranian security personnel who might be wary of being called out for their actions. The EU has already sanctioned various junior security personnel, including the officers involved in arresting Mahsa Amini, the woman whose death sparked the uprising. This approach shows that officers can be singled out for specific abuses they may have believed would remain anonymous. To be sure, however, there are no indications that such sanctions have had any effect on the calculations or behaviour of the security forces writ large.

Sanctions to Date

The majority of the Iranian officials sanctioned since September are commanders in security organs such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Basij militia, Law Enforcement Command (LEC), Guidance Patrol (i.e., the morality police), Cyber Police, and Prisons Organization. Canada has also announced that it will ban “tens of thousands” of senior regime officials from entering its borders, though it has resisted pressure to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization under the country’s criminal code.

Washington, Brussels, London, and Ottawa have moved quickly in rolling out these measures and have coordinated their steps at a strategic level. All of them imposed sanctions against the morality police, its director, and its Tehran commander, as well as the LEC’s chief in the capital area. In addition, they targeted Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi and Communications Minister Eisa Zarepour. Yet significant gaps between their actions persist as of this writing:

  • The EU has sanctioned fifteen senior provincial LEC commanders and nine regional leaders of the IRGC and Basij, but Britain omitted five of these individuals, while Canada sanctioned only six of them and the United States just four.
  • Washington has sanctioned seven prison commanders and six officials and journalists affiliated with Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, while Canada has sanctioned seven of these individuals and the EU and Britain have skipped all of them.
  • The United States and Canada have sanctioned Intelligence Minister Esmail Khatib; the EU and Britain have not.
  • The United States, EU, and Canada have all sanctioned the Basij, LEC, and IRGC Cyber Defense Command, while Britain has not.

Such inconsistencies are sometimes inevitable given differing enforcement priorities, administrative processes, and evidentiary standards. Yet aligning sanctions lists would help Western allies project a united front and prevent bad actors from exploiting any technical differences between them; the governments should close these gaps in coming rounds of designations.

Comparing the 2019 Response

The West’s current sanctions have been significantly more concerted and coordinated than its response to the mass protests of November 2019, which lasted less than a week but were met with even more violence than today’s movement (e.g., as many as 1,500 civilians were reportedly killed). The United States imposed several rounds of sanctions during and after those events, but still fewer than today. Specifically, the Treasury Department imposed three batches targeting the communications ministertwo Revolutionary Court judges, and eight senior regime officials, while the State Department designated two Iranian prisons and an IRGC brigadier general, in addition to expanding immigration restrictions. At the time, Washington may have been more focused on imposing “maximum pressure” through broad-based sanctions against Iran’s economy rather than making specific human rights designations.

Another striking difference was the lack of coordinated action with Europe. The 2019 protests occurred at a time of sharp transatlantic tensions over Iran policy. European governments had fiercely opposed the Trump administration’s 2018 withdrawal from the nuclear deal and took pains to preserve it, both by establishing a special financial mechanism to bypass U.S. sanctions and by lending political support to Tehran. When the regime cracked down on demonstrators a year later, Brussels may have felt compelled to further differentiate itself from Trump’s policy and avoid irritating Tehran. Whatever its calculus, the EU did not issue sanctions in response to the violence until April 2021, while Canada did not issue any at all. Today, the allies are much more aligned—not only on the protests, but also on their broader approach to the nuclear file, Tehran’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, and other issues.

Another notable difference is time—the 2019 protests ended rapidly, but the current movement has continued for nearly three months, giving Western governments more opportunity to react. Indeed, in situations where the offending behaviour is ongoing, policymakers may believe that moving quickly on sanctions can play a role in shaping outcomes.


To maintain pressure and attention on the Iranian regime’s human rights abuses, the United States, Britain, Canada, and the EU should continue issuing sanctions while aligning their lists as much as possible. Although this may require some cultural and administrative shifts, there is symbolic value in speaking with one voice.

Western capitals should also consider extending asset freezes and travel bans to family members of sanctioned individuals. Some U.S. executive orders permit targeting the spouses or adult children of such individuals, while the State Department has authority under the Immigration and Nationality Act to impose immigration restrictions on immediate family members. For example, Washington recently used this immigration tool to pressure the police chief of Iran’s Isfahan province, while family members of other individuals have been targeted by various U.S. tools or warned of their potential use on several occasions in the past few years (e.g., in relation to BurmaSudanSyria, and Russia, most prominently the daughters of President Vladimir Putin).

The West should also be more creative in designing sanctions tranches. One option is to target lower-level Iranian security commanders in parallel with other elements of the regime’s repressive apparatus, such as judicial officials responsible for prosecuting, sentencing, and executing demonstrators. Britain’s sanctions earlier today against Revolutionary Court judges and a prosecutor may be a good model in this regard. Travel bans could be more impactful as well if governments use international travel data to identify Iranian perpetrators who have already visited Europe, the United States, or Canada, since they may have future plans to do so again.

Finally, Washington and its partners should consider using sanctions in a deterrent capacity. The regime has yet to unleash the full force of the IRGC against protesters, so the West still has time to try warning Tehran away from even greater bloodshed. For instance, governments could identify and publish lists of IRGC officers who might be involved in a broader crackdown, threatening the imposition of personal sanctions if such an action proceeds. Encouraging defections or even just hesitation among Iran’s security forces may be a longshot, but the West should at least consider this possibility.

Henry Rome is a Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, specializing in Iran sanctions, economic, and nuclear issues.

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