A young populace opposed to theocracy will eventually triumph.
Iran has admitted to the existence of a second uranium enrichment site that can house 3,000 centrifuges, enough for a nuclear weapon but not enough for nuclear power. This comes three months after Ahmadinejad held a meeting in Qom where he told high-level officials that a “new revolution” has begun, since which Iran has been acting more aggressively. While the crisis with Iran is getting more frightening and has the potential to cause incalculable damage, there is a reason for optimism: Over the long-term, the regime cannot survive.
Between 60 and 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30, helping to create a population opposed to the theocratic rule of Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad. The regime’s unpopularity with the large majority of the population became evident after the fraudulent presidential elections of June 12 when millions of Iranians protested in the streets. Demonstrations demanding democracy and civil rights continue to be a daily occurrence. On Al-Quds Day on September 18, millions of Iranians marched against the regime. The security forces were unable to disperse the crowd and were unwilling to carry out massacres that could provoke an even greater backlash.
The regime’s use of anti-Western propaganda to try to elicit support is failing. Often, when regime figures give speeches, the crowd responds to declarations of “Death to America” by shouting “Death to Russia,” expressing their anger over that country’s close ties to the regime. There are also chants against Hassan Nasrallah, Hugo Chavez, and Vladimir Putin, and video is available of demonstrators tearing down a Hezbollah banner. Slogans about not being willing to die for Gaza or Lebanon are being used by the protestors, who are also criticizing the regime’s sending of money to the Palestinian territories.
The popular resistance to the government has even caused the brutal security forces to flee during clashes. Numerous videos and photos from inside Iran show crowds attacking members of the Basiji militia and then burning their motorcycles. People have also attacked Revolutionary Guards personnel and spray-painted their bases, stormed Basiji outposts, and even tried to assassinate members of the security forces and figures connected to the regime, such as the shootings of two judges and an ayatollah aligned with Ahmadinejad in Sanandaj in September.
This internal conflict has also caused a split in the regime’s own ranks. Seventeen ayatollahs, including Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani of Iraq, the most powerful voice in Shiite Islam, and Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a senior cleric in Iran, rejected Ayatollah Khamenei’s declaration of when Ramadan officially ended. This may seem to be a minor dispute on the surface, but this is an unprecedented rejection of the legitimacy of the Supreme Leader.
Montazeri and other ayatollahs in Iran have even issued fatwas against the legitimacy of the regime and have called for the release of political prisoners, free elections, and other sweeping liberal changes. Even more conservative members of the regime like former President Rafsanjani are becoming leaders in the opposition, and a member of the Assembly of Experts, which chooses the Supreme Leader, is under pressure from his colleagues for condemning the regime.
The security forces are also showing fractures. Unverifiable reports of resignations of Revolutionary Guards personnel continue to surface. Sixteen Revolutionary Guards soldiers were arrested following the presidential elections after they secretly met with senior army officials to discuss a plan to support the people, and 30 to 40 soldiers in the regular army were arrested in Augustfor their involvement in the unrest. Demonstrators frequently report that the local police act friendly with them, and sometimes even help them fight back the Basiji attackers.
The regime is also extremely weak due to a steeply declining economy that is bound to get much worse if additional sanctions are imposed and companies and individuals continue to divest from Iran. About 90 percent of the regime’s revenue comes from oil sales, resulting in a financial crisis due to the drop in the price of oil. The regime is also facing a problem of increasing domestic consumption of oil. One report concluded that by 2015 all exports would have to be suspended in order to satisfy internal demand absent major foreign investment allowing them to pump huge amounts more. In addition, Iran imports 40 percent of its gasoline, leaving open a major vulnerability to sanctions.
If companies providing Iran with gasoline and refined petroleum products are denied government assistance and are hit with sanctions, the regime’s final pillars may collapse. Workers are already in an uproar over gasoline rationing and are going months without pay, and nationwide strikes in critical sectors will be inevitable if the situation gets much worse.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the regime can’t cause a catastrophe before it collapses, and the regime can delay its end through brutal security measures. Iran’s economic and political vulnerabilities need to be exploited by the West as the regime’s nuclear program advances. Should the regime succeed in reaching the ability to quickly produce nuclear weapons or even creates actual weapons, it won’t be because the West lacked any leverage, but because the West lacked imagination and will power.