Cocksure as it has always felt about its stewardship of the country, Iran’s ruling religious-military clique now faces big political challenges.
These challenges have them all the more frazzled as they would be deluding themselves to blame them, in their customary fashion, on their favorite trope – the big, bad United States.
Chanting “death to America” no longer helps
Far more worryingly than anything emanating from Washington, the real challenge to continued mullah rule is expressed by the Iranian people.
Forty years after the Iranian revolution, that is a very sobering result for the grey-bearded set of older men whose reflexive lifelong rallying has been to chant “death to America.”
They can no longer ignore that their decades-long reeducation and intimidation campaign is no longer working.
Iran’s mullahs face the same agonizing choice as China’s CCP
Iran’s young people know that they face long odds in their quest to take a determined stance against the oppression they have to contend with every day.
They see their situation much like the young people do in Hong Kong: Accept the choice of their parents and a further continuation of the mullah regime – and be forever stuck in a perverse time warp. Or take to the streets – and risk their lives.
That has the regime in a pickle. Clearly, the human potential of the young is the country’s ticket to the future. But they are no longer loyal to the regime. Far from it.
Iran’s poor: No docile North Koreans
The real trouble for the clerics and their enforcers on the “Revolutionary Guards” is the pincer movement they face. The young urban population quite aside, poor Iranians have become adamant about protesting the de facto “North Korea-ization” of their country.
Iran’s poor are deeply upset because the Iranian leadership opts for having nukes over putting food on the table. Blaming their misery on the lack of food imports and portraying it as solely the result of U.S. sanctions has its obvious limits.
Evidently, the Iranian leadership’s strategy of relying on rabid anti-Americanism as a tool to protect itself against comeuppance from broad swaths of the population has run its course.
Misreading their own public
What’s worse for Iran’s mullahs and their paramilitary henchmen is the fact that they misinterpreted the protests after the Soleimani assassination.
They originally regarded Trump’s drone strike as the equivalent of divine intervention. They based their assumption on the fact that all of Iran found itself on the streets during the Soleimani funeral procession.
Yes, the killing of Soleimani brought not just supporters of the government out on the streets, but also many of the regime’s opponents. As much as the latter did not like Soleimani, they were outraged by what the Americans had done.
The killing of Soleimani thus did indeed partially unite the country, but just for a few days. That changed quickly with the news about the downing of the plane by the Revolutionary Guards.
Back to the basic problems
Given the incompetence that manifested itself in that act, the ruling elite is once again facing a long list of complaints. Among them, the people protesting the regime’s military incompetence that cost 176 lives, many of them Iranians.
What’s more, the American and Israeli flags projected by the regime on the streets of Tehran (so that people can trample on them in disgust) were carefully sidestepped by the crowds who gathered on Monday. Civil disobedience at its best.
Another grievance is that the regime has seen fit to enrich itself shamelessly in the post-revolutionary period.
Part of that equation is the Revolutionary Guards’ ownership of many key enterprises. It is certainly not Western sanctions alone that are causing Iran’s economic misery, but also the economic incompetence of the regime.
And educated as well as poor Iranians wonder how they benefit from the mullahs’ and their military and para-military henchmen’s choice to turn spreading Khamenei-style authoritarianism and oppression of democracy into Iran’s biggest export item, even beating oil.
Education backfires on the regime
With the benefit of hindsight, it may prove to have been the ex-revolutionaries’ biggest mistake that they allowed Iranian universities to keep pumping out smart young people.
Most students not only see the political, cultural and economic reality of Iran today as the polar opposite of what they envision for their own futures. They are also ever more willing to stand up for their beliefs and hopes.
The fact that the regime’s “clubbing” brigades, at home and in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon, often act in the same brutal manner that was applied in the waning days of the Shah’s rule, before his dictatorial regime fell, is painfully clear to most young Iranians. There cannot be a bigger betrayal of a presumed “revolution” than this.
Iran’s civil society: Factor of hope
What sets Iran apart from other very illiberal countries around the world is that, based on the longstanding historic record in terms of human development, there is real hope for Iran.
In a way, what it needs to achieve is reconnecting itself to the secular ways of the early 1950s, before the disastrous and criminal Anglo-American intervention.
That act brought down Mohammad Mossadegh, the legitimate prime minister of Iran. He was rightfully adamant about wanting to use Iran’s oil riches for the benefit of the economic and social development of his own country and its people. He was removed by the outside powers because he did not want to leave those spoils solely to British and U.S. oil interests.
Luckily, Iran is no Russia
To its credit, because of its centuries-long emphasis on advancing the causes of human development, Iran is not like Russia/the Soviet Union. The latter country, except for the briefest of moments, has been run for its entire history either by a feudalist, a communist or a post-communist oligarchy.
Regardless of the historical period, those ruling elites were united by two guideposts: First, pursue maximum self-enrichment. Second, the people-at-large do not matter.
Iran’s balance sheet in terms of human development is far more positive. That is not just vivid testimony to the irrepressible strength of Iranian civil society and the immense talents of the urbanized population in Iran, which is very educated. It is also a tradition which the Iranian regime kept up.
Ultimately, the message from Tehran and other Iranian cities in the direction of their oppressors is simply this: For all your gloating about Iran’s nuclear arsenal, nobody can eat nuclear weapons.
Trying to tell people otherwise may work in a truly forlorn place like North Korea. But in a culture like today’s Iran, with its roots in the great Persian traditions in literature, the arts and commerce, utter docility is not considered a virtue.
Far more worrying than anything emanating from Washington, the real challenge to continued mullah rule is expressed by the Iranian people.
The Iranian leadership’s strategy of relying on anti-Americanism to protect itself against comeuppance from broad swaths of the population has run its course.
Iran’s young people know that they face long odds in their fight against oppression. They see their situation much like young people do in Hong Kong.
Iran’s mullahs misinterpreted the protests after the Soleimani assassination. They originally regarded Trump’s drone strike as the equivalent of divine intervention.
Iran is not like Russia which -- except for a brief moment -- has been run for its entire history by a feudalist, communist or post-communist oligarchy.