Revolution and instability have characterized Iran for well over a century. Between protests against foreign control of tobacco in the late nineteenth century and the recent Iranian democracy movement, the country has seen its fair share of violence and radical change. The modern Iranian state, the product of a lengthy struggle against the old imperial regime, continues to see itself as thoroughly revolutionary. In its forty-three-year reign, it has worked tirelessly to transform Iranian society in the likeness of its interpretation of Shia Islam. But in recent years, it has been increasingly beset by a new revolution – a liberal one. Protestors, increasingly supportive of the expansion of democratic power and secularism, have taken to the streets in droves since 2009, co-opting economic grievances against the government into an ideological struggle about the virtues of the revolution itself. Their struggles have arguably reached their zenith recently, with the multi-month-long demonstrations against the government killing of Jina Masha Amini. You’re likely familiar with the basic details – the twenty-two-year-old was beaten to death by the Iranian Guidance Patrol for refusing to wear a hijab. In the days that followed, the nation erupted into protests- sparking speculation that another revolution is on the horizon. I will not discuss the virtues of such a revolution itself. I instead wish to bluntly state why it would end in failure and give the people of Iran a far bleaker future.  

The history of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 is complicated and would warrant an article of its own. To keep it terse, Shah (roughly equivalent to Emperor) Mohammad Reza Pahlavi came to power after deposing his father with the help of the Allies during World War II. Said allies wished to secure Iran’s lucrative oil resources for the war and beyond. The country remained a constitutional monarchy, and in 1952, Mohammad Mosaddegh was elected to the office of Prime Minister. His attempt to nationalize Iran’s oil led to another coup in 1953, wherein the Shah and his western allies became even more powerful. The Shah’s power grew to the point of dictatorship, and he embarked on a lengthy campaign of modernizing Iran. In awe of his allies, he rapidly “westernized” the country – industrializing, extending personal and political freedoms to women, et cetera. He hoped to establish Iran as a great power, a junction between east and west. The intense, hubristic pace of development proved to be his downfall. Inflation, housing prices and unemployment skyrocketed. Hordes of rural peasants flooded the cities, deprived of their millennia-long way of life by the Shah’s insistence on development. The clergy – who Pahlavi had become increasingly reliant upon (to resist communism), began to resent him for his social reforms. In 1977, the economy collapsed, leading to demonstrations across the country. The Shah cracked down with increasing brutality – his military and secret police (SAVAK) would kill thousands but ultimately could not quell the protests. With domestic dissent censored, an external voice spoke loudest of all. Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, exiled years before to Iraq, galvanized Iranian resistance. In his writings and speeches (distributed by cassette to mosques across the country), he denounced the Shah’s reforms, declared him a western puppet and called for the fundamental reconstruction of Iran into an Islamic republic. Protests intensified, and the Shah’s goons began to lose the will to keep killing their fellow Iranians. Seeing the writing on the wall, the Shah transferred powers to a provisional government and fled the country in early 1979. The Ayatollah, now revered across the country (despite many factions of protestors opposing Islamism), assumed power in Tehran. The army declared neutrality, and the provisional government gave in. What immediately followed was a purge of members of the old regime and an intense Islamization of the country. By understanding the revolution of 1979, we can begin to understand the nature of change in the country and its current government. 

Force upholds any state – this is common sense. Any genuine revolution involves a profound shift in the capabilities of the factions involved to wage war. The Shah fell because his army did. Demoralized, with confidence neither in their leadership nor the cause they were fighting for, soldiers began to abandon their duties, leaving towns in the hands of protestors. Iran’s revolutionary government has made sure not to fall for the same trap. Iran’s armed forces consist of three main components – the main army, regular law enforcement and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The latter of which is an enigma – its stated purpose is to defend the revolution. Thus, it is fiercely loyal to central leadership (the Supreme Leader) and is unlikely to declare neutrality in internal strife. The 150 000-man [1] strong force has only seen its power in Iranian society grow in the past few decades, expanding from a military organization to a business conglomerate with a stake in construction, energy, land and transportation [2]. Some even floated the idea of a “military president” coming to power (in Iran, the president is an elected role beneath the Supreme Leader). All in all, they have everything to lose from instability. The rest of Iran’s security forces, at the time of this writing, show little indication of desertion [3]. Thus, any uprising that would go revolts in the streets to a total civil war. 

A civil war would plunge Iran into a humanitarian crisis easily exceeding those of Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. The country is one of the largest in the Middle East in terms of population, with well over 80 million [4] people. The habitable parts of the country are like a fortress, enclosed by mountain ranges. The rest of the country, meanwhile, is inhospitable desert. The country is very ethnically diverse, with dominant ethnic Persians only comprising only 61% [5] of the population. The remainder of the population is mostly Azeri, Kurdish and Luri and Baloch. With two of those ethnicities already involved in the struggle for self-determination and one with its own state hostile to Iran, a civil war would see an explosion in ethnic violence. The Iranian resistance, like other rebellions in the Middle East, would quickly descend into infighting. The revolution of 1979 saw the unity of Iranian society against one man, after which infighting was given little time to establish itself. In a civil war, infighting would appear front and center. Ethnic separatists, ideologues divided on post-revolutionary Iran, other factions of Islamists, et cetera would create a nightmare of a quagmire in the country. There may be a day when revolutionaries dance freely in the streets of Tehran – but this would be followed by years of desperately trying to stabilize the country. We’ve seen it across the Middle East – from Tunisia to Iraq to Libya – the toppling of autocratic regimes leaves a vacuum of power that quickly becomes impossible to deal with. More often than not, this situation is worse than that which preceded it (take the rise of ISIS in the 2010s as an obvious example). This is, of course, to assume the government is defeated in the first place. Iran’s current protests, while mobilizing vast swathes of society, lacks centralized leadership or any real lethal capabilities. A full-blown revolution today would end in a complete massacre. The protests of the past decade have led to the deaths of thousands at the hands of the government, who’s to say they would flinch at killing thousands more? Foreign intervention on behalf of revolutionaries would be even worse. With its aforementioned rugged terrain, Iran would be absurdly difficult for a country like the United States to invade and occupy. The U.S. would likely emerge victorious but would be faced with yet another impossible nation-building project. In short, imagine an Afghanistan-like disaster in a country with twice as many people. 

Iran’s current situation is dire. Beyond grievances with the social-political system, Iranians face widespread poverty [6], unemployment [7] and inflation [8]. Some today may say that they’ll gladly give up their last vestiges of comfort for genuine change. While seeming noble, this rhetoric is ultimately imprudent. The best Iranians can hope for, at least as of me writing this, is reform within the Islamic Republic. And while reform is a gargantuan task on its own, it’s just a wee bit more tenable than total revolution [9]

Works Referenced