Facing weeks of unprecedented protests, Iran's regime is now in a bind.
If it suppresses the demonstrations more it could create a chain reaction in which the protests get worse because the people's anger grows over a crackdown.
On the other hand if the regime appears weak and doesn't do anything the protests may create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people to feel free from the regime's grasp and then push for the regime to fall.
Iran's regime is smart and sophisticated. It has survived for decades ruling over a country in which many people despise it.
Opposition comes from many minority groups and regions and also from people who prefer Iran to be a more modern society, rather than run by theocratic men who chase after women for not covering their hair.
Unprecedented interview in Iran
A recent article in Tasnim News, a network close to the IRGC, illustrates the problem Iran's regime faces. The article included an interview with Hujattul Islam Hajj Sheikh Ali Saeedi.
This man was appointed in 2108 to the position of head of the Ideological-Political Bureau at the office of the Commander-in-Chief of Iran's Armed Forces.
The article explains why they interviewed this man. It says that many people protesting in Iran today "neither knew who Mahsa Amini was nor what the issue was." The point they made was that there is widespread anger in Iran, and that some protests are legitimate, but many are being exploited.
The article uses some conciliatory language, referring to "bitter and unfortunate events." The article has sympathy for peaceful protests, it says. But it says "violence that overtook the people's protests should not make them ignore the protests and forget the discussion about them. A pathological and reformist look at the processes and seeing the generation that is growing in the context of virtual space is one of the necessities of governance."
This word salad of a sentence is a way for the regime to say that they are concerned the young generation is getting away from them. Most of the protesters today are students and teens.
In the interview with Ali Saeedi, he draws a comparison between protests in Iran, to more generalized issues.
He said that "if an accident occurs, if a person or persons are guilty and negligence has occurred, they should take responsibility for their mistake and say that we are ready to accept any punishment. In some countries, we see that a minister resigns because of an incident that happened in his subordinate. This culture should flow in our administrative and government system, so that if there is a fault in a system, the officials of that system will take responsibility for that fault. People will be convinced when they see the honesty of the officials."
This sounds like he is blaming someone in the government for the death of Amini. "What to do here? First of all, the speed of informing and mastering is also very important here. In the case of Mrs. Mehsa Amini's death, which was a bitter incident and hurt public opinion, such a thing should have been done quickly."
Ali Saeedi argued that even if someone is not clearly at fault and her death was an accident, then someone should be critiqued and should resign. Clearly, this is a sign that many members of the regime think this was not handled well. They are sensitive to the murder of a young woman and especially a woman from the Kurdish minority, because they know that people take this seriously and they cannot pretend she was a dissident or "terrorist."
Even Tasnim's official line on this, in the introduction to the article, notes "everything started from a tragic event, with the death of a young woman named Mehsa Amini, many people were upset and everyone reacted in a different way to this incident...After the death of Mrs. Mehsa Amini, protest gatherings were held in Tehran."
Could dissent become more acceptable in Iran?
The article is basically saying that protests are fine and people have a right to protest; but that the riots and violence are not acceptable. This is conciliatory language from the very top.
In the interview, there are more nuggets of interest for those who wonder whether cracks are openly appearing in the regime.
A history of regime mistakes
Ali Saeedi compared the event to other regime mistakes. He said that it would have been better for the medical examiners to announce the results of the investigation into Amini's death earlier.
"Maybe we would have seen less tragic events after that.... Later, the medical examiner announced in the first stage that there were no traces of beating in the skull of this woman. But anyway, people are waiting for the medical examiner to announce his opinion." This is a clear questioning of the official narrative.
The interviewee then turned his attention to the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in 2020.
He said the government made mistakes; it said "first one thing...and then something else."
Indeed, contradictory and incorrect news and narratives were published, he says, comparing it to "fake news."
Then he moved on to the downing of the Ukrainian airliner in January 2020 when the IRGC shot down a civilian plane.
"The same happened with the Ukrainian plane crash. It is necessary to form a committee or council with a combination of radio and television and other members under the supervision of the Supreme National Security Council so that we do not witness the emergence of false and flawed narratives. The news should also be conveyed to the people quickly and urgently."
He went on to say that in the beginning of the "revolutionary" era in Iran, the period of 1979, that "figures from different and even opposing intellectual and political groups appeared, spoke their words and criticized each other. Those debates were very good. People were also persistent. One of the solutions can be the revival of these debates and conversations."
He proposed a real change in Iran in which protests are protected and people can speak more freely.
"It is necessary to give value and opportunity to trade unions and any groups and institutions that are similar to these so that they can do these things and finally prevent protest from turning into convulsions and conflicts."
The danger of protests for the regime
Ali Saeedi warned that protests can be hijacked and turn violent.
"For example, people have come to the street for water and say they want water, but suddenly some people jump on these protests and riot."
He encouraged officials to protect the right to protest and the right to gather.
"Institutions and officials should also be receptive to protests and take responsibility for ensuring the security of protesters. Even if a gathering has taken place without prior coordination, they should be guided so that their words and lives are not threatened...Maybe this will take time, but by amending the laws and creating a culture among the officials and the people, we can witness gatherings and protests in the future where the people will convey their words to the officials directly and clearly and in complete security, demand and follow up. Of course, it should not be overlooked that the presence of officials among the people is very important in this regard. Provincial trips of Ayatollah Raisi, the country's highest executive official, and direct meetings with the people are somewhat effective and useful in fulfilling this demand."
In this unprecedented interview, the media and the interviewee are suggesting a real reform in Iran in terms of approaching protests. This is a major shift in how most authoritarian regimes deal with demands from the people.
In other regimes such as Turkey, Russia and China no articles appear like this in which officials argue for listening to protests.
Iran's regime is trying to be flexible because it understands that it faces a crossroads today. If it crushes the protests with mass killings, as it did in 2019 and other instances, it will lose a generation. If it listens it might get to survive another decade or so. The regime knows that it is facing a real test.
It also knows that the Iran deal which it was able to get in 2015 may not be on the table and that its allies in Moscow and Beijing may not be able to come to its aid because they face hurdles of their own at home. Iran's regime understands today that it doesn't have the wind in its sails it had back in 2009-2015 when a new US administration was working to secure the deal and Iran was on the winning side; today it faces real hurdles at home.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.