Amir Taheri, an Iranian-born columnist, editor-in-chief, and author, spoke to a February 17th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the mounting pressure on the Islamic Republic from widespread unrest across Iran. The following is a summary of his comments:
The Iranian public's disaffection with the rulers in Tehran has reached a tipping point, setting the stage for regime change. Demonstrations are erupting across all strata of Iranian society, with citizens in more than 700 of the 900 towns in Iran involved in a variety of protests. These demonstrations, the sheer size and breadth of which are overwhelming the regime's forces used to crush dissent, have even spread to such European cities as Brussels and Munich. Since the street protests have increased in Iran over the past five months, the government's crackdown has resulted in more than 600 killed by security forces, eight executions, and over 20,000 people arrested, of which only half have been released. With inflation topping 80 percent, the currency in freefall, and a "brain drain" due to mass migration, economic conditions in Iran are "dire."
The escalating counter-revolution against the ayatollahs shows the "present regime can no longer save itself." Four of the five conditions necessary for regime change are present: (1) The regime's loss of legitimacy from rigged elections and from its failed promises made during the 1979 revolution to better the peoples' lives; (2) Loss of support for the regime from many former military and political officials; (3) The emergence of an alternate source of moral authority from human rights activists and cultural influencers; (4) Loss of support for the regime from part of the cohesive forces, e.g., refusal by some elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Forces (IRGC) to crack down on protesters. The IRGC, which has become a "business syndicate," is siloed into five different commands that can only communicate through the office of the Supreme Leader. From its formation post-revolution, it has morphed into a disunified jumble with ill-defined duties. It is "diplomatic, it is business, it is military [and] it is a money laundering system."
The fifth condition necessary for regime change "has not yet been assembled." However, Taheri stressed that the counter-revolution's success depends on this fifth condition – namely, the emergence of an alternative system to fill the vacuum that will be created in the wake of regime change. At present, the counter-revolution movement has only "horizontal leaders," but requires a "vertical leadership and structure" to hold the places seized and reassure Iranians. European powers also fear that a regime collapse could produce a migrant surge similar to Syria's, disrupt Persian Gulf oil supplies, or result in Iran's becoming a regional hub for terrorists who feed on failing states.
The critical task at hand is to focus attention on "persuading the different segments of the Iranian opposition" to rise above its divisions and unite. Although the different ethnicities among the various groups in the opposition have often been at odds with each other, they share a long history in the fabric of Iranian life. An encouraging sign is that they all agree the regime "must go" and that the next system be based on "respect for human rights. It must have normal relations with all other countries [and] respect differences in religion, in language, and so on."
Opposition groups are in the process of creating a "council of coordination" to offer a "credible" transition process – an impossibility under the current constitutional system which bans any referendum not approved by the Supreme Leader. A feasible alternative is to revive the Constitution of 1906. Its open system allows for Iran to become either "a monarchy or a republic." There are two leaders emerging: One is Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, the standard bearer of constitutional monarchy; and the other is a group of Iranian labor leaders who have issued a "twelve-point statement" containing details regarding freedom and equality.
The U.S. and the Europeans can assist the Iranian counter-revolution because Iranians "overestimate" the power of the West. "Psychologically," if the U.S. and European powers support the mullahs, it will discourage the Iranian opposition groups. The Europeans understand this, and because the U.S. had played an important role as a "facilitator" bringing disparate Iraqi opposition groups together, "the perception is that the U.S. has both the power and the will to help you." However, the Biden administration, with its attempts to keep channels open to the regime, is sending discouraging signals to the Iranian opposition.
With Iran's "long history of political activity and social progress," in particular the robust political activism of a women's movement that began 150 years ago, Taheri believes it is possible to create a "synthesis" among the positive forces for change: "The alternative is to go back to the Constitution of 1906, which is an open system. It allows Iran to become a monarchy or a republic. It allows referendums, it allows people a real choice." The debate is ongoing among opposition groups in meetings currently underway in London and Rome. Taheri depicts the Iranian people as "alive ... combative [and] proud of their cultural heritage" in a country rich in natural resources. Iran is "one of the top twenty most populated and largest countries in the world" with a population of 85 million, 15 million of whom are university graduates. Taheri is "very optimistic" about the future of the country.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.