Popular Transformation In Iran Is Complete
The regime's base has become its worst enemy.
Protests kept brewing in Iran until the pandemic. Indeed, the most challenging protests happened only three months before the plague reached Iran. The virus that changed the world also put dissent to sleep. Now, it has awakened again.
But these are not my protests. My first political memory is when I went with to the polls with my family who voted for Mohammad Khatami in 19971. The reformist candidate was brought to office by the educated middle class. His criticisms for the existing orthodoxies made voting for him a form of dissent.
This makes my first political memory one of dissent, witnessing the social clash between the liberal middle class who supported Khatami and those with lower wealths and levels of education who voted against him.
It represented the changes of standoff between the two sides. When I was 19, I voted for the first time in a stolen election which led to the 2009 Green Movement. I became an active participant in the protests. That was my first act of dissent. Those were my protests. My opponents in that election were the supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the same as the opponents of Khatami: The uneducated and the poor, the base of the regime.
The Islamic Revolution of 1979 was one of the working class. The regime it established was one of the working class. Four decades later, there has been an interesting political transformation.
A reformist public intellectual warned in 2009 that the regime should be worried. “These protests of the educated and the wealthy don’t threaten the regime,” he argued, “but there will be the protests of the starving and the shoeless soon, and that’s when the regime should be worried.”
The starving and the shoeless used to be the base of the regime. For decades, the regime had excuses for the poverty it brought with it: war, sanctions, “the enemy,” and so on. It is not that the regime has now run out of excuses. Its former supporters have run out of patience.
The protests of the past year have been increasingly becoming not the protests I was a part of. They are of the uneducated and the poor. They are the protests of those who have had neither education nor shoes.
There are protests in the south of Iran going on right now. People are paying attention to the sexy parts: The internet is disconnected; The chants and slogans; A Basij base was torched. But what caught my attention was one small detail about that last one: The base is in a village.
The villages used to be a stronghold for the regime. People there are poor, uneducated, and religious. But no more. Even in Tehran, the protests used to happen in neighborhoods that I would live in. Nowadays, it’s the opposite. Sadeqiyeh, for instance, a neighborhood where the upper classes never go to, is where protests erupt first.
This is not to say that the middle and upper classes are pro-regime, ambivalent, or indifferent. I don’t know the cause of their staying at home when protests erupt. I can have guesses. I know, based on anecdotes and data, that they hate the regime more than they used to.
But I can explain why the regime’s base has turned it against it. First, extremism and high passions is a trait of the masses. The same extremism and passion that made the revolutionaries against the Shah and attracted them to Ruhollah Khomeini and Ahmadinejad are now manifesting themselves again against the regime. Second, in a weird way, this is democracy without elections.2 The regime was brought in with popular support in 1979. It failed to deliver on its promises. Now the people that brought it in want it replaced. In other words, we give our leaders a four years to do what they promised and vote on whether we’re satisfied with the performance. The masses in Iran gave them four decades, and now they are dissatisfied.
2009 was the protests of educated, wealthy kids whose parents were begging them not to go. It was one of people who had a lot to lose. This is why it was not a violent insurrection3, and it was not going to lead to regime change. The regime is now facing a new enemy, an enemy that brought it to power, with the same passion, and with nothing left to lose.
I still cannot see regime change in Iran without foreign help. The people have nothing to lose, so they are willing to lose their lives. The regime’s leaders have everything to lose, including their lives. So both sides will fight to death. What I see is a brewing civil war.
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post said my first political memory is from 1976 just a few decades before I was born. It is in fact from 1997, which is the year 1376 in Iranian calendar, and my under-caffeinated brain just combined the two!
Iran is not a democracy, and I’m not suggesting that it is. It’s a totalitarian dictatorship.
I’m anti-insurrection in a liberal democracy and pro-insurrection in a dictatorship!