Dr.Yahya Bouzidi and Mahmoud Hamdi Abo el-Kasem
Since mid-September 2022, the Iranian street has witnessed unstoppable protests, demonstrating popular rejection of current living conditions in Iran. In spite of the government’s maximum crackdown, including merciless killings and extrajudicial executions to hamper the protests and curb the rising wave of popular anger, the protesters have remained defiant. As the struggle between the political system and the protesters escalates, the silent majority is still playing the waiting game and remains undecided. Although the majority of this bloc is affected by the government’s policies, it remains to be seen whether or not the political system will be able to contain it, or whether or not this bloc has the potential to radically change or widely reform the Iranian political system.
As the political system is facing one of its worst crises since the revolution, several points came to the fore, particularly whether or not the political system has contributed to escalating the now non-peaceful protests after it blocked political participation. In this context, the regions that witnessed the least participation in the 2021 presidential election are clearly the center of the recent uprising against the political system. The 2021 elections were rigged to maintain the political system and the 1979 revolution, and accordingly enable the “hardliners” seizure of power in the post-Khamenei era. The most impactful factor that could contribute to shifting the current protest momentum into popular anger against the political system and changing the equation between the protesters and the political system is the silent majority whose position will play an important role in the future of the uprising and the political system. Its involvement will also help in settling the prevailing uncertainty in Iran at this stage that seems similar to the period before the 1979 revolution.
How Can the Protests Hinder the Power Transfer Plan to the Third Supreme Leader in Iran?
In fact, these protests are taking place at a critical time for the “Islamic Republic.” The Iranian supreme leader was planning to prepare the ground so as to preserve the country’s revolutionary and ideological principles. Already, in coordination with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC ) and the deep state, the supreme leader has taken steps to secure the second phase of the revolution, or rather the smooth transfer of power in case of his death. However, with the domestic momentum against the system, this transfer may face a dilemma in case the entire system collapses.
The political system has committed a serious mistake that has led to the current legitimacy crisis Khamenei and his followers face, hindering the transition of power which is being planned behind the scenes. For over 40 years, the revolutionary system achieved some level of popular legitimacy by preserving some democratic standards that granted the Iranian people modest participation in the political system. The purpose of holding cosmetic elections, in which people choose through the ballot box the president and the political current that monopolizes the executive and legislative powers, was to grant mass participation. This was done to calm tensions, absorb public anger and meet certain demands within the framework of the political process. In addition, creating conflict between two opposing currents, which does not exist in reality, could also help in absorbing the anger and demands of the masses with every electoral process, especially through the transfer of power between these two currents, in a clear charade to maintain power. The electoral process was effective in achieving internal stability to some extent.
Although the unbalanced standards and rules make this democratic process meaningless, this formula set forth by Khomeini had effectively de-escalated tensions and absorbed the anger of the masses. However, in the last presidential elections in June 2021 and in the parliamentary elections in February 2020, the system interfered blatantly through the Guardian Council to ensure that the “hardliners” dominated the executive and legislative branches. The system firmly excluded all the qualified “reformist” candidates from participating in the elections. This exclusion was part of the supreme leader’s strategy to change the political scene in Iran. He aimed to restore the momentum of the 1979 revolution through the so-called “Second Phase of the Revolution,” also known as the “Second Step” which was announced by Khamenei and adopted by Raisi and to unify the currents of the ruling institutions at a critical stage in Iran’s history so as to pave the way for the smooth transition of power, which will likely be similar to the transition which took place after the death of Khomeini.
The crude manipulation of the electoral process led directly to the masses’ reluctance to participate in it. These two recent elections witnessed the least popular participation in Iran since the 1979 revolution. What is necessarily known is that when legitimate channels to express opinions are closed, people will resort to other peaceful or non-peaceful methods, as is happening now in Iran, with popular protests erupting after the killing of Mahsa Amini. These protests embarrassed the government and destabilized the political system.
As the political system worked to enable the “hardliners” to take power to unite the system behind one man and to secure the transfer of power after Khamenei, it miscalculated and opened the way for the masses, for whom participation was closed, to take to the streets to express their discontent. The region which witnessed the least political participation has seen the greatest protest momentum. In addition, the plans to promote a new revolutionary generation to positions of power have failed miserably because the new leaders have proven to be far from satisfactory. This new elite has opted for ideological rhetoric and dictates without addressing the core crises facing the Iranian people. It presented a program which failed to realistically address the mounting crises in Iranian society. In addition, this hegemonic approach has put at risk the political system’s natural balance that ensures some rationality in decision-making. Accordingly, there has been no room for constructive criticism to introduce reforms.
This elite’s discourse has not keep pace with the aspirations of a generation that did not experience the revolution. Although it was so close to returning to the nuclear agreement, the Iranian government was unable to resolve its differences with the West. This agreement entails many economic benefits which the Iranian government could take advantage of to fill the political legitimacy gap it has faced since it was formed. To continue with its confrontation and resistance policies, the Iranian government adopted traditional policies to overcome the sanctions. However, these policies did not yield the necessary benefits to improve the deteriorating internal conditions or circumvent the external pressures and sanctions amid the international changes that isolated the political system.
Historically, political systems destroy themselves from within and their parties compete with each other before their opponents overthrow them. The recent Iranian elections and their aftermath revealed the ruling establishment’s ineffective and outmoded nature and its inability to adapt. These events also demonstrated that the government’s policies and choices eroded its popular support even among its closest supporters; it faces the biggest crisis of legitimacy since the revolution. The protests indicate that there is a volcano of popular anger and that the new generation is unconvinced of the revolutionary rhetoric and ideological restrictions. It aspires for a future in which the state has no control over societal beliefs, values and dress codes. It also aims to participate in shaping the reality of Iranian society and determining the role of the state at home and abroad. The government will face a serious predicament in the foreseeable future amid the mobilization of popular protests and the current instability. If the Iranian people maintain the protest movement and organize themselves and present field leaders who are able to mobilize the masses behind a convincing alternative to the status quo, the smooth and safe transition post-Khamenei will be at risk, and the survival of the “Islamic Republic” itself would be at risk.
The Silent Majority in Iran – Between Containment and Rebellion
As the present protests have been ongoing for four months, the political system rushed to mobilize its anti-protest supporters to launch a rally in Tehran. Through this rally, it sends internal and external messages that it still has legitimacy through its popular base. On the other hand, the pro-government rallies have seen a poor turnout, with mainly women and children participating. The national protests continue to destabilize the political system and contributed toward changing the policies of Western governments toward Tehran. Nevertheless, the anti-government protests have not convinced everyone of their ability to change the Iranian political system.
Most observers of Iranian affairs believe that the current protests do not pose any existential threat to the political system. Some base this belief on the popular base (millions of people) of the political system, which is ready to defend and support it. However, this is somewhat inaccurate because this belief generalizes loyalty and neglects the silent majority which can be characterized as being with or against the system. The future of the protests depends on the latter’s ability to lure the silent majority to its side. The main challenge to the Iranian government is to convince the silent majority to stay neutral or silent by whatever means possible.
The Iranian political system definitely has a strong base which believes in its ideas and policies. However, the size of this base is not as significant as the ruling establishment has propagated, regardless of the field data. For example, the numbers of employees in the various political, security and civil state structures and institutions do not reflect the reality of the popular pro-government base; many of these employees or at least some of them have a pure interest –based relationship and they will not defend the government if their interests are not met. The manifestations of corruption that are eating away at the Iranian economy, which senior state officials have been involved in, is one indicator of this.
The decline of electoral participation and the escalation of national protests reflects the erosion of the political system’s legitimacy and the loss of many electoral bases. It is worth mentioning that the largest participation in the elections was considerably generated from the “reformists” (the opponents). The less the “reformists” oppose the political system, the more popularity they lose.It is noteworthy in this context that Khatami’s denial of the excesses of the security services was one of the main reasons for the student uprising in 1998. However, “reformist” hopes were too high at the time as the economic situation had remarkably progressed after the end of the Iran-Iraq War and due to Iran’s gains from the second Gulf War and the development achievements of the late Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani. Therefore, the student protests failed to keep going and proliferate, and the silent majority opted to support the “reformists.”
After a decade, the Green Movement successfully attracted a segment of the silent majority to protest against the elections, especially due to the momentum of the electoral campaigns and the presence of a political leadership represented by Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. This movement revived the “reformist” project initiated by Khatami. However, the political system successfully neutralized the silent majority through intimidation and its severe crackdown. It had been helped in this respect by the societal division because a significant segment of society was convinced of Ahmadinejad’s populist rhetoric and policies.
In the following years, the Iranian government adopted an exclusionary approach against the “reformist” movement at all levels, and concentrated power in the hands of the “hardliners.” Instead of addressing the economic problems, the government firmly imposed religious practices in Iranian society. As a result, the country witnessed, from 2017 to 2021, factional protests around the demands of truck drivers, workers, defrauded depositors, retirees, and others. In spite of the factional nature of the protests, they had a national dimension as they spread across Iran’s provinces. On the other hand, the elections during this period witnessed the lowest participation in Iran’s history. These facts demonstrate the decline and erosion of the popular pro-government base and the readiness of the silent majority to protest against it through factional protests. Most of the silent majority rejects the government’s policies or, at best, is unsatisfied with its performance in various fields, especially with regard to the economy; the growing protests, which have been ongoing for years, reflect the significant discontent in Iranian society about the clerics’ authority. These realities prove that the silent majority is unwilling to support and sacrifice themselves for the sake of the political system.
The Iranian ruling establishment realizes this fact, and the crackdown against the protesters is to terrorize and urge the silent majority to stick to its position and not to participate in the protests. The leadership is also wary of taking any action that will pull the silent majority into the protests. As a result, it was keen to propagate its decision on the suspension of the morality police as a reformist response in order to convince the silent majority of its intention to carry out internal reform. Meanwhile, the government stepped up its crackdown so that the suspension of morality police was not to be understood as a sign of weakness and the beginning of other concessions. This explains the death penalty sentences and executions that have been carried out against some protestors.
Finally, regardless of the implications of the current protests, the main challenge for the Iranian establishment in the future lies in the ability of any protests to shift the silent majority from stagnation and isolation to activation. The political system’s popular base is diminishing due to its cumulative failures in various fields, especially in the economic and social ones. Further, many of its religious legitimacy sources have been eroded. Thus, any reform attempt inevitably requires a radical change to the political system’s structure and sources of legitimacy. This change is not only hard to achieve, and if it happens, it means a new political system will emerge in Iran.
It can be concluded that the government’s insistence on not changing the revolutionary discourse and its unwillingness to accept the idea of making internal and practical reforms and its continuation with political exclusion and ideological extremism conflicts with the aspirations of the Iranian people for further openness and modernity. This mindset and approach of the government reflects its inability to deal with the accelerating changes and growing demands of the Iranian people, especially amid the regional and international consensus against its belligerency and exporting of crises abroad. The influence of sanctions and pressures adds further burdens on the leadership; therefore, due to the violent practices against the discontented Iranian people, it will gamble on the shift of the silent critical majority to the ranks of the protestors. As a result, the political system will face an unprecedented crisis that will demolish the rest of its legitimacy and complicate its options in the future.
Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah