The Corner

Could the regime fall in Iran?

I’ve been asked a couple times in the last hour about whether we could actually see regime change in Iran.  I don’t know; I’m not there.  But, as an analyst, the key isn’t how many people are out on the street, but whether the security forces and, particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, switch sides.  The next 48 hours will be key.  A couple points, however:

  • Popular outrage is not enough.  The Islamic Republic is not a democracy.  Sovereignty comes from God, not the people.  Public will is subordinate to the Supreme Leader’s desires.
  • The Revolutionary Guards exist to protect the theocratic vision, not the Iranian people. It is now doing the job it was designed to do.  The only vote that matters in times like these is Khamenei’s.
  • While many analysts and journalists and even diplomats and intelligence professionals talk about Iranian politics in terms of hardliners, reformers, and pragmatists, we know little about the internal factionalization of the Revolutionary Guards.  For all intensive purposes, the organization remains a big black box.
  • The Islamic Revolution in 1979 is on everybody’s mind, including the regime’s.  The Revolution was not inevitable.  It was a result of a confluence of luck, outrage, and the Shah’s bad decisions.  Protests spread and snowballed as the Shah’s forces cracked down, and generally followed the cycle of mourning (with 40 day commemorations, for example).
  • What the Islamic Republic’s leadership has learned, therefore, is how to assert control and break this cycle.  They have done so with the help of Chinese security consultants.  Rather than simply bang heads as they did in 1999, incidents of which can spark further protest, they try to take photographs and then over the course of days and weeks, to arrest participants.  Even if the situation calms, expect a lot of disappearances in coming days.
  • Conversely, the opposition will try to create sparks that might further protests hoping eventually that the IRGC and Basij will defect.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.

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