The pictures coming from Iran these days are both moving and misleading.

Moving as they display the strength and courage of a new generation of—mostly young —Iranians that clearly want to shake off the yoke of a repressive regime. Born out of the shock over the death of Mahsa “Jina” Amini at the hands of the so-called morality police and largely driven by women demanding equal participation in their own society, the demonstrators want to achieve what decades of on-off “reformist” policies and recurring outbreaks of protests could not.

Cornelius Adebahr
Adebahr is a nonresident fellow at Carnegie Europe. His research focuses on foreign and security policy, in particular regarding Iran and the Persian Gulf, on European and transatlantic affairs, and on citizens’ engagement.
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Yet, they are also misleading as they suggest that change is about to happen.

So, what are the chances of the marchers succeeding in their calls for Jin, Jiyan, Azadi or Zan, Zendegi, Azadi—“women, life, freedom” in Kurdish and Persian, respectively?

If anything, the way the revolution of 1978–79 against the Shah unfolded to become an Islamic one, is a cautionary tale. Other examples from the past decade of attempts to topple a ruthless dictator, from Belarus to Syria to Venezuela, aren’t particularly encouraging either.

Still, that is not to say that people and governments across the world shouldn’t show their solidarity and do what they can to support Iran’s peaceful transition toward a free, democratic, and prosperous society. It just takes a lot more than continued street protests and calls for sanctions for positive change to set in.

Clearly, the current protests differ from previous waves as they unite people from all walks of life in cities across the country, not asking for reforms but showing their outright contempt for the Islamic Republic. However, in contrast to the Green Movement of 2009, for example, and similar to the hardship-driven riots between 2017 and 2019, they lack any sort of leader or political agenda.

Precisely because of the anti-system slogans chanted at these marches, the regime is determined to not budge an inch. It has honed its capacity to effectively suppress dissent, through the decade-long stifling of civic activism, increased Internet control, and vigilantism as much as through violent police tactics, sending its plain-cloths thugs to do the dirtiest work, if necessary. It has even resorted to the “preventative” arrest of lawyers, journalists, and civil society actors to nip the movement in the bud.

Even with some unlikely concessions on the initial question of “proper attire” for women, the genie is out of the bottle. With apparent disregard for human life, the regime has made clear that it is not up for any substantial reform along the lines of what people demand.

Moreover, those responsible for the brutal crackdown have their backs to the wall, knowing that—as the death toll rises—they are unlikely to get off scot-free unless they prevail. They do not want to be the pawn offer should the highest echelons of the system decide that some accommodation is necessary, nor do they wish to be held accountable after a possible overthrow.

As it happens, the supreme leader’s age and much-rumored health make any concession rather unlikely. In office for over thirty-three years, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has spent the past years making sure that the system will survive his death. Allowing the hardline takeover of all branches of government with last summer’s staged election of President Ebrahim Raisi—who duly tightened the Islamic dress code this August—was intentional, not a misstep about to be corrected.

Add to this the lesson Iran’s revolutionaries internalized from the dissolution of the Soviet Union (how long did Mikhail Gorbachev remain president after he introduced substantial reforms?) and the counter-example of China (with Deng Xioaping crushing the Tiananmen protest to maintain the party’s power), and it becomes clear that this regime will not go with a whimper.

Of course, the current protests could be the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic. For this to happen, however, they would not only need to be sustained in the face of unrelenting brutality, but become a movement organized around a program—ideally going beyond “death to the dictator”—and some leadership structures. Whereas the Islamic revolutionaries of 1979 could rely on the network of mosques and the clergy inside the country, there is nothing comparable today that could help channel the unrest.

Lacking such organization, the demonstrations could either be crushed, as in the past, or become more violent as people become more desperate. Moreover, those fundamental grievances that go beyond freedom and human rights inside the country could become more prominent. And that’s even before thinking about how neighboring countries and regional powers near and far might want to take advantage of a weakening of the Islamic Republic.

While the regime’s paranoia of minorities in peripheral regions is often overblown, the most violent protests so far have taken place in the Sistan-Baluchistan province neighboring Pakistan. Also, Amini being Kurdish, her death has laid bare the Kurds’ long-standing gripes about being treated as second class citizens. Likewise, Arab-populated provinces in the country’s west have seen protests emerge regularly over social or environmental issues. Lastly, any armed resistance could naturally be supplied through weapons smuggling in border regions.

Not least fearing the country’s disintegration should the unrest succeed, the current leadership looks determined to persist. Already, the elite Revolutionary Guards are said to infiltrate police forces and the army to make sure these institutions do not waver. In turn, should it become necessary to ditch the regime’s Islamic credentials to win back the population, one should expect these elements to attempt a military takeover in the name of the Iranian nation.

Encouraging as the images of persistent protests are, it appears to be still a long way for the democratic dreams and hopes of the current generation of “revolutionaries”—as well as those among their parents and grandparents who marched for a free and liberal Iran back in 1979—to become a reality.