Iranian Uprising: A Threatened Authority and an Indecisive Silent Majority


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

Editorial Team