Opinion

'Hold on to Power': Iran's Ayatollahs Are Channeling the Shah's Strategy to Repress Protests

Modern Iranian history shows that insurrection and rebellion results not in regime moderation, but extremism. The Iranian protests are likely to lead Iran not to become more free - but to become even more of a police state

Pro-government demonstrators parade an oversized Iranian flag during a march in Iran's holy city of Qom. January 3, 2018
MOHAMMAD ALI MARIZAD/AFP

In 1973, the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, told the journalist Oriana Fallaci that "[t]o get things done, one needs power, and to hold onto power one mustn’t ask anyone’s permission or advice." 

Fast forward to 2018, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei is likely to follow that maxim in the days ahead.

Despite the clarion calls for citizen activism in Iran, change is likely to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and not in a good way. 

A demonstrator dressed as the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei participates in a rally across from the White House in solidarity with anti-government demonstrators in Iran. Jan. 6, 2018
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

It is for this reason to look out for three potential political developments in the fallout from the protests: a neutered presidency; a securitization of the state; and difficulty translating grand promises into concrete results.

Iran’s government architecture rewards loyalty, piousness, and ideology over competence, accountability, and popularity. The presidency was never meant to be the decisive institution within the Tehran power hierarchy.

In fact in the first decade of the Islamic Republic’s existence, a president presided, while a prime minister governed. It was only in 1989 that the president became the chief executive officer of Iran after the passage of constitutional amendments which abolished the position of prime minister. 

In 2011, well after Ali Khamenei ascended to the supreme leadership, he even floated a proposal to dissolve the presidency and to rule the country himself, alongside a parliament and a return of a prime minister who wouldn’t be elected directly by the people. The Ayatollah hinted that such a fix to the system could happen in the "near or distant future." And as recently as October 2017, it was being debated within parliament. Khamenei indicated he would have more to say to the "dear people" on the protests in the near future. Watch this space.

Young Iranians at a cafe in downtown Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018
Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

In addition to potential structural changes to the presidency, Hassan Rouhani has also quickly become the incredibly shrinking cleric on a practical level. 

Many Iranians have come to see that their big bet on Rouhani has turned into a disastrous gamble. He’s being attacked from the left over his own administration’s shuttering of access to Telegram and Instagram during the protests, and by the right, especially in the provinces, for the unending high unemployment and rising prices even after the nuclear deal. He’s become a man without a base.

Simultaneously, the supreme leader has grown increasingly frustrated with the president’s performance. Last March, ahead of the presidential elections, Khamenei said: "I feel the pain of the poor and lower class people with my soul, especially because of high prices, unemployment and inequalities [t]he government has taken positive steps but they do not meet people’s expectations and mine." These protests will only increase his impatience. 

Second-term presidencies in the Islamic Republic have often served as political death sentences. Just ask Mohammad Khatami, who remains subject to a state media blackout even after being out of office for over 10 years, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom Khamenei forbade from running for a third term as president in 2017. Given the headaches of the past several days, Khamenei may now seek to clip Rouhani’s wings.

People protest in Los Angeles, California, U.S., in support of anti-government protesters in Iran,  January 3, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
LUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS

Iran may become even more of a police state as well. If past is prologue, there are lessons to be learned from the 1988 massacre of over 5,000 political prisoners, the 1999 student uprisings, and the 2009 Green Movement. 

What all of these watershed moments in modern Iranian history have in common are fears of insurrection and rebellion resulting not in moderation, but extremism. 

As The Economist wrote about 1988, "[W]itnesses' testimonies suggest that the regime was worried about the large number of unrepentant political prisoners due to be released after the end of the war with Iraq, and so decided to purge its prisons of troublesome elements once and for all." 

In July 1999, students rebelled and rioted in major cities across the country after the closure of reformist newspaper Salam. What followed were hardliners ransacking student dormitories, the judiciary outlawing 18 reformist dailies, and the implementation of a draconian new press law.

Ditto in 2009, after the Green Movement, where massive protests over a rigged election resulted in Stalinist show trials of over 100 of its leaders.  With officials already warning of the death penalty for protesters, expect more of the same in 2018.

A poster of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini displayed in a shop window next to bottles of Coca-Cola, in Tehran.  January 1, 1979
-/AFP

Lastly, reformist and pragmatic figures in the Islamic Republic have historically overpromised, and under-delivered, and will continue to do so in 2018. 

As far back as December 2014, Rouhani proclaimed that corruption was "endangering" the foundations of the country; he even announced his intention to check the power of monopolies like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and pledged to lay taxes on charities and religious foundations which were previously exempt from such duties. 

However, these populist impulses never came to fruition. Consider the budget Rouhani submitted to parliament in December 2017: The Financial Times found that militant cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi was slated to receive IR280bn in the next cycle, which is eight times as much as he received in 2007. But the new budget proposes to increase fuel prices by 50% and to cancel subsidies impacting 30 million people nationwide. 

Rouhani has announced his intention to work "hand-in-hand" and as "partners" with the people given the protests. Yet his record paints a different picture.

Before popping champagne corks over unrest in Iran, the international community must be clear-eyed in understanding just how difficult change will be in the Ayatollah's government.

Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). From 2013-2016, he worked at the Wilson Center, including as a research associate in its Middle East Program, and served as a policy fellow at the White House from 2010-2012. Twitter: @JasonMBrodsky