It has been three years since Iranian authorities downed Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in Tehran, killing all 176 passengers and crew. It took several days for officials to admit that the plane had been hit by a missile operator, who had believed it to be a hostile target.
The “accident”, as the officials described it, took place less than a week after Qassem Suleimani, head of the Quds Force – an elite branch within Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – had been assassinated by a US drone in neighbouring Iraq. The downing of the civilian plane had occurred amid heightened fears among regime officials of a military escalation against its mortal enemy, America.
Three years after Suleimani’s killing and the subsequent air tragedy, relatives of the victims who hailed from Iran, Afghanistan, Canada, Ukraine and Sweden, have yet to receive any justice. But the Iranian regime today appears to be feeling under siege much like it had three years ago – except that this time, the perceived threat to its existence is emanating from inside the country, rather than outside.
Although the nationwide protests that began last September were described as “surprising” by some, they came as little surprise to those paying attention. While they were sparked over opposition to compulsory veiling, they have much deeper causes. Perceptive observers of Iran have long known that the writing is on the wall for the theocratic regime.
Even if the protests hadn’t taken place at all, the regime’s fundamental failure is evident to any fair observer.
As it approaches its 44th anniversary next week, it has manifestly failed to realise its own founding promises for development and justice. Iran of 2023 is economically ruined (with the rial having dived to a record low of 44,000 against the dollar last month), diplomatically isolated and socially oppressive. More importantly, the regime is no longer seen as a genuine expression of Iranian statehood but feels, to many, like an alien group ruling over the country. This is most evident in the simple yet damning word many ordinary Iranians now use to describe their rulers: Inaa or “them”. Karim Sadjadpour recently argued in a New York Times essay: “While the Islamic Republic sought to subdue Iranian culture, it is Iranian culture and patriotism that are threatening to undo the Islamic Republic.”
But if the status quo can’t stand, what will the next chapter of the Iranian story be? Those on the streets claim that they are fighting for a revolution. Will they succeed?
Revolutions are notoriously hard to predict and in Iran of 2023, there are many variables at work, from the succession struggle expected to follow in the event of the passing of the 83-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to American and Israeli interactions with the regime over its nuclear and military programme.
In the broadest sense, three visions can be imagined for the future of Iran, each one of which has its own proponents. Let me start with the one with the least chance of materialising.
This is what I call the “North Korea scenario”. Mr Khamenei will embolden the regime by developing a nuclear bomb, further excluding anybody who doesn’t share his vision of a militantly anti-western and Islamist society, replacing the old hands with what he has called a new generation of “revolutionary devout youth”, and subduing society by engaging in 1980s-style mass executions. The chances of such repeat atrocities are very real and the international human rights community must be ready for such a scenario. But it’s unlikely that Mr Khamenei, or any likely successor, would bring about such a vision. Iran is much more integrated with the rest of the world than North Korea is, and the resistance to such a vision will come not just from the populace but from traditional state elites.
This brings us to the other two visions for a life beyond the Islamic Republic: one, democratic; the other, military-autocratic with a socially liberal veneer.
In the first vision, which I call a “South Korea scenario”, Iranians replace the regime with a liberal democracy in which elections determine the composition of parliament and various social factions and elites will fight their battles via the ballot box. Most Iranians who support this vision would like to compare themselves to South Korea, which is perhaps the best example of a non-western country that has concurrently democratised and prospered. Other examples include Indonesia and the Philippines, both of which succeeded in overthrowing their decades-old dictators and replacing them with a fragile but functioning electoral democracy. This vision is supported not only by those Iranians who have deep and genuine democratic commitments, but also by those who see this as simply the best path to stability and prosperity.
In the second scenario, a charismatic military figure – or a group of officers – takes charge and goes on to implement technocratic governance and accede to the several social demands made by Iranians without giving them political freedoms. In this Iran, people could dress how they like, eat and drink what they like, and enjoy the cultural products that they want, as long as they don’t cross certain political red lines. Women won’t suffer from extreme forms of discrimination as they do now. They will be allowed to hold the jobs they want and travel without a male guardian’s permission. More importantly, this Iran would drop its hostility towards the US and Israel and would abandon military and nuclear progammes that have led to sanctions and economic ruin. Many Iranian democrats would hate to admit it, but such an Iran would satisfy a significant part of the demands made by the current movement and will buy time with the populace for at least a few years.
The immediate future of Iran might very well be a battle between these two visions. Both have many followers and distinct advantages and drawbacks. Many proponents of the second vision are already ensconced in the echelons of power, chiefly the IRGC, which is already the most powerful economic and military power in Iran, although one that is far from cohesive. A prime example of such a figure could be Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the current speaker of the parliament, a former IRGC commander and perennially failed presidential candidate whose time as mayor of Tehran is remembered for its technocratic efficiency. According to a former Qalibaf aide I spoke to, most of those close to him believe he is a technocrat with no regard for Mr Khamenei or the Islamist ideology. It has been previously reported that he privately admires Israel due to co-operation between its military and civilian industries. When I covered the Iranian elite as a journalist, I repeatedly heard similar commentary from regime insiders, especially during the presidency of the similarly technocratic Hassan Rouhani.
The main advantage of the democratic vision is that it has deep roots in Iranian struggles for justice and freedom, dating back to the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-06. It is obviously most fitting with the slogan “Women, Life, Freedom” with its own roots in progressive Kurdish struggles. Iranian prisons are filled with proponents of the democratic vision, such as Narges Mohammadi and Nasrin Sotoudeh. This has also brought about this vision’s main drawback: lack of organisation.
However, while democratic advocates are barred by the regime from organising inside the country, those outside have no such hindrance. In response to popular calls for formation of an anti-regime “coalition” (Etelaaf), on January 1, 2023, several opposition figures, including former crown prince Reza Pahlavi, and activists Masih Alinejad, Nazanin Boniadi and Hamed Esmaeilion, took a small step: they published a joint new year message to Iranians that promised 2023 to be a year of “solidarity and organisation” that could bring about “freedom and justice in Iran”. Mr Pahlavi has previously spoken of Iran-based figures such as Sotoudeh as the country’s real hope for change.
The uphill task facing proponents of the democratic vision is to link up inside and outside Iran, organise their ranks and offer a viable alternative. The future of Iran may depend on whether or not they can manage it.