The Islamic Republic’s murder of twenty-two year old Mahsa Amini on September 16, 2022 sparked a popular uprising which has posed the greatest threat to the ruling theocracy in its forty-four years of existence. An unhesitatingly violent political system, the Islamist regime has killed and injured thousands of unarmed young protesters. The mass demonstrations which initially confronted the regime have subsided for now, perhaps leading some in Washington to believe that the regime has survived the popular rebellion. Yet the regime is far weaker and more vulnerable than it appears and could be on the brink of collapse as Iranians continue their campaign of revolutionary civil disobedience, stressing a dispirited and fracturing security establishment critical to regime survival.
The regime’s codified system of gender apartheid, especially its draconian dress code for women, is meant to not only control the female population, but all of Iranian society. The compulsory hejab is critical to the regime’s ideology and hold on power, and any challenge to the regime’s “morality” laws are a threat to the regime’s very existence. Hence, the persistent mass resistance of Iranian women to the regime’s social restrictions, including women appearing in public without the hejab, are taking a heavy toll on the security forces, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who are urged by their commanders to beat and kill the innocent.
In addition to flouting the hejab, the public is resorting to other creative forms of civil disobedience, including public celebrations of pre-Islamic national holidays including Chahar Shanbeh Suri (Scarlet Wednesday), Norouz, and Sizdah Bedar, the thirteenth day of the new year.
Moreover, Iranians have flocked to historic sites which have become national symbols of resistance to the Islamist dictatorship, such as the tomb of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the ancient Iranian nation-state. The regime has tried to prevent celebrations at Cyrus’ tomb for years without success, and now appears to have given up on preventing such gatherings.
Iranians have also held celebrations and demonstrations at the tombs of national poets such as Hafez, Sa’adi, and Ferdosi, mostly without the intervention of the security forces. Thousands of Iranians have also visited the former homes of the popular Pahlavi dynasty, which governed Iran from 1925-1979.
The regime appears to have withstood the uprising so far by responding to the uprising with brutality, shooting demonstrators in the eyes, poisoning schoolgirls, and committing other horrific acts of torture in its jails. Several young Iranians have also been executed as a warning to the wider public. On paper, the regime appears as an invincible force. It commands hundreds of thousands of heavily armed security forces, some of them fanatically devoted to Khamenei and his regime.
But the public’s resistance to the regime through civil disobedience has created tremendous stress on the security forces, especially the IRGC, which now faces internal splits that could lead to a loss in cohesion and command and control. The elderly and ailing dictator Ali Khamenei may no longer be able to completely rely on force and terror alone to maintain power.
The regime’s future does not look bright. In a January 3 classified briefing, nearly forty-five senior IRGC and security officials provided a grim picture of regime instability to Khamenei. The leaked forty-four page report of the briefing, reviewed by the National Union for Democracy in Iran (NUFDI), offers a detailed state of dissent and low moral within the IRGC (though the report cannot be verified with absolute certainty, it matches other reporting on low morale and defections from the regime).
Many of the IRGC personnel are refusing to fire on protesters, with some feeling shame and sorrow at the prospect of killing their fellow countrymen. Some of the imprisoned demonstrators against the regime are actually the wives and daughters of senior IRGC commanders. In addition, thousands of the clerical Basij paramilitary organization have left the force rather than engage in violence.
Perhaps most alarmingly for Khamenei, IRGC forces have made three attempts to fire artillery at targets in the capital of Tehran, including at Khamenei’s own residence. Systemic corruption within the regime and dissatisfaction with Khamenei’s choice of his son Mojtaba as his successor are also causing internal fissures within the regime
No one can predict how and when the Islamic Republic will collapse under the weight of the national revolution. The regime has not exhausted its ability or willingness to kill large numbers of unarmed civilians. But the Iranian people will refuse to give up until the Islamist theocracy is gone. The revolutionaries will find new and innovative ways of challenging the regime and destroying it through a death of a thousand cuts. Large-scale demonstrations and even armed action by the IRGC against Khamenei’s ruling circle are distinct and increasingly real possibilities.
The Biden administration should recognize the realities in Iran and encourage defections from within the regime, especially the IRGC. The fall of the regime will not only lead to a better future for the Iranian people, but greater stability for the Middle East and the entire world.
Alireza Nader is the Engagement Director at the National Union For Democracy in Iran (NUFDI) , a nonprofit, nonpartisan Washington-based organization representing the Iranian-American community in pursuit of a U.S. policy towards Iran based on human rights and democracy.