It is hard to see a middle way prevailing in Iran, By Nicolas Pelham

Sharing is caring!

There are fantasists and there are doomsayers. For the first group, regime change is in the offing. Ahead of the Nowruz spring festival on March 20th 2023, they imagine, Iranians will converge on Tehran’s airport to welcome home a planeload of exiled dissidents, including Masih Alinejad, the female campaigner who championed abolition of the mandatory hijab, and Ali Karimi, a popular footballer. Crowds will line the streets to receive them in scenes reminiscent of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s return to Tehran in 1979. Within days the airport will change its name from Imam Khomeini to Mahsa Amini, in honour of the 22-year-old Kurdish woman whose detention for wearing a “bad” hijab and subsequent death in custody sparked a revolution.

Many mullahs will have fled. Some will seek protection from the militias they fostered in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The better connected will head to Oman or the United Arab Emirates. The outgoing and visibly ailing Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will flee to Beijing. A council of young Iranians will draft a new constitution and replace the symbol at the heart of the flag—a stylistic rendition of “God is greatest”—with the revolution’s slogan: “Women, Life, Freedom”.

The regime’s former foreign minister, Javad Zarif, will remain as a caretaker president after Ebrahim Raisi steps down, in a bid to ensure a smooth transition. He will curry favour abroad by stacking his government with exiles boasting doctorates from Western universities. He will halt the supply of Iranian drones to Russia and seek direct negotiations with America, not just on Iran’s nuclear programme and an end of sanctions, but on the reopening of an American consular office in Tehran for the first time in four decades. Western energy companies will be invited back to tender for contracts.

At home, Mr Zarif will try to placate protesters by abolishing the dress restrictions the mullahs imposed on women. “It’s a cultural matter,” a newly appointed spokeswoman (wearing no headscarf), will explain. Mr Zarif will also undertake to hold a referendum on whether Iran should remain an Islamic Republic. Western media outlets will pronounce Mr Zarif a new Gorbachev.

Iranians, though, will be less forgiving. Many will want no truck with apologists from the old regime. “For trial,” they will chant, as protesters continue to mass in the street. Some who tried to negotiate with the reformers, including Mohammad Qalibaf, the speaker of parliament, will be forced to make public confessions.Others may be less fortunate. Even after Mr Raisi recants his work as a judge sentencing thousands to death in the late 1980s, many Iranians will still demand his blood. Outside the capital, mobs will hound and, in some cases, lynch hapless seminarians, and molest women garbed in chadors. The words of Ali Ansari, an Iranian political scientist in Britain, will reverberate. “Iran’s leadership has rarely shown compassion,” he said on the eve of its collapse. “When the time comes, it can expect little in return.”

The doomsayers imagine a very different scenario. After months of dithering, the regime will send in its crack troops to deal with the dissent. The death toll will run into thousands. Classes will thin as schoolgirls who dared voice subversive chants disappear into re-education centres. Separatist uprisings in Kurdistan and Balochistan will stoke fears of instability and even of civil war, further dampening the mood for regime change. After a brief lull in enforcing the mandatory veil in order to restore calm, the morality police will return with a vengeance. Ending years of uncertainty, a triumphant Mr Khamenei will declare his son, Mojtaba, his successor.

The crackdown will also be felt abroad. With its back to the wall domestically, the regime will launch a series of regional military operations to divert attention from domestic dissent and promote unity against foreign foes. Targets could include border incursions into Azerbaijan, accused of harbouring Israeli intelligence networks; a flare-up of fighting around the oil fields of southern Iraq, where pro-Iranian militias hold sway; or unleashing missiles on Tel Aviv, Saudi pipelines or America’s fifth fleet in Bahrain. The price of a barrel of oil will surge above $200.

Many will wish for a middle path. But, given Iran’s polarisation, hardliners on both sides will have eased out the gradualists. Whoever wins, men with guns will exact a price as guardians of the Islamic or secular revolution. In the uneasy equilibrium between the three pillars of Iranian politics—the clerics, the people and the armed forces—it will be the military men who will have the casting vote on whether Iran’s future lies with the ayatollahs or the revolutionary women.

-Pelham is the Middle East correspondent, The Economist


Related Articles

Back to top button