By Alireza Nader
July 1, 2020
The Islamic Republic has been preparing for more nationwide demonstrations. Under the guidance of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the theocracy’s praetorians, are close to completely militarizing the political system. The ruling elite is also waiting to see whether the U.S. presidential election will lead to sanctions relief and a decline in unrest. Yet no matter who wins in November, Iran is likely to experience continuing turbulence. As Iran’s previous demonstrations have repeatedly revealed, the people’s economic complaints immediately become political. They are not demonstrating to fine-tune the Islamic Republic; they are demonstrating to end the theocracy. If massive demonstrations once again take to the streets, would a Biden or Trump administration offer sanctions relief in the face of mass killings?
Given the widespread hatred of the regime, Khamenei no doubt expects another massive popular uprising resembling the one he endured in November 2019. Khamenei survived the last round by giving shoot-to-kill orders to his security forces, resulting in the death of at least 1,500 Iranian protestors, according to Reuters. The next uprising is likely to be even bloodier given Iranians’ desire to challenge the regime and the security forces’ willingness to kill.
The immediate causes of potential unrest are Iran’s rapidly depreciating official currency, runaway inflation, and shortage of hard currency. According to Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, the value of Iran’s oil exports have declined from $100 billion per year to $9 billion this year due to U.S. sanctions. The official currency, the rial, now trades at 200,000 to the dollar, driving prices upwards and millions of Iranians further into poverty.
These developments have led to massive excess liquidity in the economy as the regime prints more money, which may drive inflation back toward 40 percent, if not higher. The regime is also reported to be running out of foreign currency and is likely to soon face a balance of payments crisis, which would lead to a shutdown of much of the economy. A leading indicator of the coming crisis is the regime’s inability to pay for key resources used in Iran’s agricultural industry.
Khamenei and the IRGC are aware that additional economic shocks will likely lead to major unrest. Their strategy is to create a state completely administered by the IRGC. While a sickly and elderly Khamenei would retain nominal command, the regime would more likely be directed by a select group of regime insiders, including a fanatical faction of the IRGC, judiciary chief and rumored Khamenei successor Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi, and Khamenei’s son Mojtaba, a major power behind the scenes.
In preparation, Khamenei and this group of regime insiders have appointed Brigadier General Hossein Nejat as the head of the IRGC’s Sarallah command, tasked with protecting the regime from internal unrest in the capital. Nejat has extensive experience crushing previous uprisings, and his appointment is the latest indication that Khamenei seeks only military solutions. The IRGC has also gained control of parliament through the selection of IRGC officer Muhammad Qalibaf as speaker, and has assumed command of the regime’s response to COVID-19. The IRGC may also run its own candidate for the presidency after incumbent Hassan Rouhani’s term ends in June 2021.
Yet it is difficult to imagine how the regime can escape its predicament. The scale of economic damage to Iran and the regime’s lack of legitimacy among the people are crippling. The vast range of sanctions arrayed against Iran will make it difficult to reach a new nuclear agreement and suitable economic relief for the regime.
Washington has enormous economic leverage over the Islamic Republic and should therefore adopt policies that will spur the only meaningful alternative to the current crisis: a transition to an Iranian democracy. To do so, the United States should pursue the following policies:
First, U.S. policymakers should provide funding in order to unite the disparate Iranian opposition movements and strikers within Iran, including labor unions, teachers’ associations, railroad workers, human rights activists, and civil servants struggling to survive amid a crashing economy. A massive strike coupled with outside encouragement and support might bring the regime to its knees.
Second, U.S. policymakers should focus on weakening the IRGC. U.S. sanctions have undoubtedly weakened the IRGC’s financial base, yet the regime’s top security forces still have the resources and confidence to counter a popular uprising. Washington should facilitate defections among top IRGC commanders and encourage them to challenge the regime publicly from abroad. The Artesh, or regular armed forces, are reported to be widely dissatisfied with the IRGC’s control over the state and economy, and may therefore be more open to defections.
Third, the United States should work with the Iranian democratic opposition to create a roadmap for defecting non-IRGC officials seeking a future in a post-Islamic Republic Iran. The security forces are likely to fight harder if they believe they do not see a future for themselves in Iran, and therefore some key officials may have to receive assurances.
Finally, Washington should actively aid Iranian protestors by disrupting regime communications through cyber operations, while facilitating opposition communications during widespread protests. The regime’s repression of the November 2019 uprising was successful partly due to the regime’s nationwide shutdown of the internet, which allowed the IRGC to kill and injure thousands of Iranians with impunity.
The United States cannot base its Iran policy solely on the hope of rejoining or renegotiating the 2015 nuclear deal. The Islamic Republic, impervious to reform and democratic evolution, will always remain a revolutionary state at odds with U.S. interests and security.
Foundation for Defense of Democracies