Are we witnessing the final days of the Islamic Republic of Iran? Judging from mainstream press coverage, it certainly seems so. Reacting to the street protests that rocked Iran after the death of the dissident Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri in late December, veteran Iran observer Robin Wright asked whether “it is time to start wondering out loud whether Iran’s uprising could become one of those Berlin Wall moments.” While this is a tempting thought, given its implications for US-Iran relations, an obituary for the Islamic Republic is premature. What is required now is less of a projection of our own biases and preferences onto Iranian politics and instead a more sober analysis of the internal balance of power and the strengths and weaknesses of the regime and its domestic opposition.
There is little doubt that Iran’s clerical oligarchy has been severely stunned and badly bruised by events following the disputed June election. The regime has suffered a huge blow to its legitimacy, and its management of the crisis has made matters worse. At the elite and societal level, unprecedented dissent and opposition have emerged as a confused regime increases state-sanctioned violence and begins a slow drift toward hard authoritarianism/semi-totalitarianism. However, despite this body blow, we are still a long way from witnessing the demise of the Islamic Republic.
Iran is a rentier state, which means it pays its bills by the sale of oil rather than through taxation. This gives the regime a significant degree of autonomy from society and immunizes it from societal pressure. This system also fuels an extensive patron-client network that allows the regime to buy the allegiance of millions of people whose livelihood is tied to its survival. The regime also retains ideological support in rural and poorer areas of the country, where more pious segments of the population are dependent on state-controlled media, with limited access to the Internet or satellite TV.
Furthermore, there exists a loyal group of hard-core devotees who have internalized the regime’s core propaganda line, to wit: recent street protests are foreign-funded and orchestrated; Iran’s domestic problems are caused by the machinations of the United States and Israel; and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is God’s representative on earth. Exact figures on the size of this core group of ideological supporters are difficult to ascertain, but they are substantial in number, and many are willing to lay down their lives for the Supreme Leader if called upon.
Finally, the Islamic Republic retains solid control of key institutions that pertain to the use of violence, the administration of justice and economic production. There is little evidence that this control has weakened. However, there are deep divisions among conservatives, many of whom despise President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his economic mismanagement and reckless foreign policy. Moderate conservatives are also upset at the severity of the human rights crackdown, and a recent parliamentary investigation has blamed the notorious public prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi for overseeing the abuse of detainees at Kahrizak prison. He might be sacrificed in a gesture to the opposition, but given his close ties to the Supreme Leader, this is far from certain.