With Iran currently gripped by a period of sustained violent protest, NGS risk analyst Edward Bach considers the likelihood of regime change and the global and regional implications of the recent protests and of any new regime in Tehran.
Iran has been gripped by a sustained wave of nationwide protest which has represented one of the bloodiest challenges to Iran’s clerical rulers since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The protests were ignited after the ‘morality police’ apprehended 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for not wearing her hijab “properly”, Amini was subsequently bundled into their police van before dying in police custody on 16 September. Amini’s death immediately triggered nationwide opprobrium, compelling tens of thousands of Iranians onto the streets in protest against the regime. Protestors in scores of cities across Iran chanted Amini’s name whilst decrying the regime, whose civil law has enshrined the second-class status of Iranian women. The conflict is becoming increasingly bloody: swathes of Iran (particularly northern regions) are devastated, whilst Human Rights Activists in Iran, a US-based group, has recorded 451 protestors and 60 security forces killed. The Iranian government has vowed to show “no leniency” to protestors, with as many as 18,000 people having been detained in relation to the unrest.
Significance of the Protests
As the protests have developed to the extent that they are now unprecedented in scale and longevity under the Islamic Republic, they have emerged as a continuation of a broader anti-regime trend. Whilst protests have not (yet) ground cities to a halt, they have been consistent, frequently emerging on university campuses nationwide. The protestors are mostly young; many are radical. Two-thirds of Iran’s population is under 30, representing a powerful bloc within which the majority of the movement’s most militant support rests. The movement deliberately does not depend upon a definitive figurehead whom the regime can kill, detain, or place under house arrest. Instead, it relies upon numerous disparate social media networks to orchestrate protest activity, making it more difficult for the regime to crack down upon.
Though the initial focus and ignition of the movement is on women’s rights – the principal protest slogan is ‘women, life, freedom’ – the movement has morphed into a broad anti-regime phenomenon which resonates across Iranian society. Footage of activists chanting mocking slogans of the regime has been widely disseminated on social media. One clip shows protesters replacing the regime’s official ‘Death to Israel’ slogan with ‘Death to the dictator’ – a rehabilitation of the slogan used in 1979 to topple the Shah. Although the movement has been spearheaded by young people, the anti-regime pro-secularisation message is increasingly transcending sect, class, and age differences. Innovative polling conducted by the Group for Analysing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran, indicates that overall, 71% of men and 74% of women disagreed with the mandatory imposition of the hijab. This sentiment is shared by 78% of respondents aged between 20 and 29, 68% between 30 and 49, and 74% aged over 50. The data paints a picture of a unified Iran in opposition to the imposition of the hijab and with the broader message that the hijab represents.
In the Islamic Republic the hijab is not simply a piece of cloth; it represents a core tenet of the regime. The hijab is the most visible manifestation of the Islamist ideology which underpins the regime, the notion of opposition to the mandatory imposition of the hijab is opposition to the regime. Images of women and girls taking off their hijabs have become powerful symbols of anti-regime dissent. The virtually identical levels of support the anti-hijab movements elicit from both men and women indicates the broader symbolism of the hijab with the regime. Such images are also symptomatic of the broader divergence between the regime and the Iranian people; of those who are against the compulsory imposition of the hijab, 84% also want to live in a secular state, a notion fundamentally incompatible with the Islamic Republic. The demands of the protestors are not solely focused on the hijab, they are an existential challenge to the Islamic Republic.
Likelihood of Regime Change
As the Iranian people’s demands are incompatible with the Islamic Republic’s ideological and religious foundations, the protest movement intrinsically represents an existential challenge to the regime itself. Consequently, it is important to assess the likelihood the protests will result in the emergence a new regime and what form this would take.
The first thing to examine is how destabilising the protests have been. Although the protests have been genuinely sustained and nationwide, they have not yet been of the scale to constitute an existential short-term threat to the regime. The largest demonstrations have thus far attracted tens of thousands, but not the millions which toppled the Shah in 1979. The movement is also yet to ignite widespread labour unrest which was also so integral in 1979. This can be partially attributed to Iran’s bleak economic outlook, in which many Iranians simply cannot afford to risk their jobs to partake in an indefinite strike against the regime; even official media statistics indicate that 31% of Iranians now live on less than USD3 a day, the true rate may be much higher. Until the protestors can enliven more Iranians to partake in industrial and civil unrest, it will be difficult for the protest movement to destabilise the regime to such an extent that it topples it. Likewise, it is unlikely that the regime will make concessions to a leaderless movement that threatens the very heart of the theocratic system, until the protests demonstrate that they can totally disable the nation.
However, every passing day (and every effort from the regime to quell demonstrations) widens the divergence between state and society, whilst also intensifying the protestors’ zeal to topple the regime. The government, most notably Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has vowed to “no leniency” to the movement. On 26 November, Khamenei gave an inflammatory speech which he ended by quoting a Quranic verse, seen by many as an affirmation of his refusal to negotiate. Moreover, the months leading up to the protests had been characterised by a tightening of Iran’s already repressive moral code. Iran’s parliament has even passed a law allowing the persecution of demonstrators as “enemies of God”, punishable by death.
Nonetheless, it is rumoured that reformers within the regime would be willing to concede certain repressive and draconian moral policies in order to safeguard the regime. Authorities have also hinted that the morality police, the body responsible for Amini’s death, may even be abolished, though this has been met with scepticism by protestors. Wall Street Journal sources have stated that President Ebrahim Raisi and Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani have discussed implementing nebulous “liberalising measures” with reformist leaders. It is unclear the extent to which such sentiment is shared amongst key figures in the regime, and more importantly, whether the regime can be induced to move away from its repressive and draconian moral policies.
In recent years Iranian regional clout has massively expanded, using this to exploit the breakdown of Arab states and ties to other Shia communities. One common vehicle utilised to this end is the ‘Axis of Resistance’, an unofficial alliance of Iranian-led or backed militant forces, such as Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels, who have been influential in recent conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Such initiatives have brought Iran into conflict with Saudi Arabia, whose bilateral relations are pivotal in shaping the Middle East. Iran also has extremely complicated relations with many Western nations: tensions have persisted for decades with the United States, which has imposed sanctions on Iran following its admission of enriching uranium to a level sufficient to produce nuclear weapons. Consequently, any form of regime change in Iran would have wide-reaching regional and global implications. The form that these implications would take is dependent upon what type of regime would emerge in place.
One possible implication of the collapse of the regime would be the country being at the mercy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the likelihood that the leaders of the group would impose direct military rule. In such a scenario, the abandonment of Iran’s proxy wars seems unlikely. In contrast, an emergent new revolutionary democratic government may seek to severely constrain Iran’s role in proxy conflict. Some demonstrators have been heard chanting “No to Gaza, no to Lebanon”, illustrating the unpopularity of intervention in expensive international conflicts. The most radical scenario following a democratic revolution could even be the inversion of Iran’s regional status. If sharp domestic tensions were to emerge, it may condemn Iran to internal conflict escalating into a full-blown civil war which would tear the state apart. Instead of orchestrating proxies across the region, Iran may find itself a playground of foreign actors seeking to dictate affairs. In such a scenario, the most likely candidates may be the Gulf states who could bankroll and arm separatists in Iran’s south-west. Although such a scenario is unlikely, the notion of a fully democratic regime would have substantial ramifications in the region due to the extensive foreign influence Iran wields.
Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have long shaped the dynamics of the region. Coverage of the protests in Iran has elicited great excitement within Saudi Arabia, where even minor demonstrations in provincial towns have received extensive coverage. The antagonism and conflict between the nations has most obviously played out in Yemen, where Iran has increasingly supported the Shia Houthi rebels during their war against the Saudi-led coalition. Though this relationship has been repeatedly denied by Iranian officials, the evidence surrounding Iranian cooperation has become incontrovertible. Iran has been accused of shipping missiles to Houthi rebels, with US officials claiming over 9,000 weapons were confiscated along smuggling routes from Iran in 2021. Subsequently, Houthi rebels have developed their armed capabilities, carrying out dozens of attacks against civilian infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
It is difficult to ascertain the extent to which a change in regime would affect the Houthi movement. Although Iranian support has undoubtedly aided its effort, the movement is not wholly dependent on it. The Houthi rebel movement originally emerged as an insurgency in the 1980s, allowing the movement to develop extensive locally generated assets. A significant proportion of its arsenal comes from the looting of domestically available supplies and the incorporation of units from the Yemeni army. Therefore, although a regime change in Iran would diminish the capability of the group, in the short-term it is unlikely it would simply collapse at the hands of Saudi Arabia.
There are similarities to this notion in Lebanon, where Tehran has supported Hezbollah for decades. Since 1982, Hezbollah has acted as a major Shia Islamist political entity within Lebanon to the extent that some analysts have referred to it as a “state within a state”. Hezbollah has benefitted from extensive funding from Tehran, which has allowed the group to exponentially increase the sophistication of its arsenal whilst acting as a strong strategic asset extending Iranian regional influence. Were the Iranian regime to change and funding to dry up, as in Yemen, the short-term landscape may not be significantly altered. Hezbollah retains genuine popularity amongst influential Lebanese Shias to the extent that the group has become institutionalised. The group would still garner support from wealthy supporters and illicit business to fund operations.
Instead, Syria is the theatre which may see one of the biggest changes should the regime change in Iran. Iranian support has proven indispensable to Assad in Syria, where the IRGC has played a leading role. However, Assad’s alliance with Iran is based on a strategic affiliation, not an ideological one. Consequently, this leaves the alliance vulnerable when compared to other members of Iran’s ‘Axis of Resistance’. Moreover, IRGC is losing ground in Syria, where the withdrawal of Russian troops has contributed to the force facing frequent defeats at the hands of the Israelis. A regime change in Iran would likely accelerate the extent to which Assad would seek out a new powerbase, a move that is already underway. Assad has sought to cultivate links with Gulf nations, conducting a visit to the UAE in 2021, his first foot on Arab soil in a decade. A regime change in Iran and the evaporation of support from Tehran would likely push Assad further in the hands of the Gulf nations.
Likewise, a regime change may have significant implications on Iran’s relations with Iraq. Tehran is a key player in influencing political affairs in Baghdad, though has restrained its role due to the rise in anti-Iranian discourse during the recent Iraqi political crisis. The shape of new bilateral relations is contingent on what form any new Iranian regime may take. Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, Iraq’s new prime minister, holds deep ties with Iran, which is reflected in the appointment of several pro-Iranian figures into his cabinet, meaning ties may become deeper. This is especially likely if a new military regime spearheaded by the IRGC was to emerge, as in recent months it has been conducting missile strikes against exiled Iranian Kurdish groups inside Iraq. The IRGC has accused such groups of seeking to orchestrate protests inside Iran, with some commanders even threatening a ground invasion into Iraqi territory. However, a new democratic regime may instead opt to seek a less interventionist role, refraining from such interference inside Iraq.
A regime change may potentially have substantial regional implications on Iran’s relationship with the West. In recent months Iran’s relations with the West have deteriorated following the emergence of the extent of Iran’s strategic partnership with Russia: Iranian-made drones have been used by Russian forces to target Ukrainian civilians and civilian infrastructure, and US intelligence has also suggested that a deal has been concluded to manufacture Iranian drones on Russia territory. If a military regime were to emerge, Iran and Russia’s bilateral relations are only likely to deepen, which would in turn prolong Iran’s cold relations with the West.
However, were a new a democratic regime to emerge, it may precipitate a significant shift in regional geopolitics. The EU and the US have already issued statements of support for the ongoing protests in Iran, signalling a potential willingness to engage in warmer relations. Moreover, the US has already eased sanctions to allow for the greater provision of technology services in Iran to facilitate the greater dissemination of protest footage nationwide. A new democratic regime may wish to capitalise on such sentiment to seek a new warmer era of relations with the West, not least because US-led sanctions are crippling Iran’s economy. Tehran would also have the opportunity to exploit the recent tensions between the US and Saudi Arabia to become a strong regional partner with Washington, although it should be noted this would be contingent on an agreement on a new nuclear deal and the severing of ties with Russia.
Despite the scale and persistence of the protests, the current most likely scenario remains that the Islamic Republic will be able to withstand the threat from the movement. This is because the movement has not yet engulfed the nation to the extent that it constitutes an existential threat to the regime. This is particularly pertinent with regards to labour unrest, which if ignited to the extent of the 1979 revolutionary movement, would have the potential to paralyse the regime. Therefore, whilst the protests remain confined to mainly students and labour unrest to isolated incidents, the likelihood of revolutionary regime change is low. Consequently, whilst the regime remains fortified, the impact that the protest movement will have on Iran’s geopolitical position is relatively limited. The most likely scenario is that the statements of support for the protest movement from Western states will prompt a further deterioration of relations, which in turn will likely see the expansion of Iran’s bilateral cooperation with Russia.
The most dangerous scenario may entail the protests becoming overwhelming, facilitating the fall of the Khamenei regime, which could then be replaced by a military administration spearheaded by the IRGC. Such a regime would likely then initiate a brutal crackdown on dissent, detaining those responsible for stirring protest whilst disproportionately targeting women. The new regime would also likely destabilise the region through the intensification of Tehran’s direct and proxy conflicts. The most likely theatre for this initially would be Iraq, where recent missile strikes against exiled Iranian Kurdish groups may escalate into a ground invasion. It is likely such a military regime would also wish to indirectly target Saudi Arabia via one of Tehran’s proxy conflicts. This would probably lead to the increased equipping of the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have previously conducted attacks on Saudi Arabian infrastructure projects.
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Author: Edward Bach, Risk Analyst, Northcott Global Solutions
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