Helicopter gunships pump bullets into protesters. Torture chambers and grimy police cells drip with the blood of brave young women and men who simply want a better future. Iran and its long-suffering people have been here many times: in 1999, 2009, and 2019. I recently predicted nothing would change in 2022 . But some people who know Iran better than me beg to differ.
Mohsen Sazegara is one of them. “This time it is different,” he tells me. “I believe the regime will fall within a couple years. It could be within a few months.”
Really? You might well ask, who is he, and how does he arrive at this astonishing conclusion?
Sazegara, 67, was a key figure in the regime when it swept to power in Iran 43 years ago, promising to end the graft and decadence of the Shah years.
He returned to Tehran with the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, and was one of the founders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Sazegara held various government positions in the first decade after the revolution, including as the director of Iran’s National Radio and deputy in the Prime Minister’s Office for internal political affairs. But what came next was immeasurably worse than the Shah: a corrupt, joyless theocracy with an endless capacity for violence.
By 1988, Sazegara decided the revolution had lost its way. He shunned government roles and began publishing three newspapers that were quickly shut down by the authorities. He became a leading figure in the Reformist Movement and the Green Movement. He was imprisoned four times, before fleeing to the US where he is now attached to the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
Watching protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini on 16 September at the hands of the “morality police”, Sazegara is amazed – and encouraged.
“There are two reasons why these protests are different,” he says. “First, this is the biggest challenge the public has made to this regime, and this is acknowledged in internal meetings. And the second is that these are the longest-lasting protests. They have continued for seven weeks. The authorities had planned to track down and stop the protesters in a few days.”
How has this happened?
“First of all, there’s the very clever strategy that the young generation has chosen… they’re not going for protests at a certain time and in a certain place. They are diversified, they are decentralised, they are everywhere, at different times in every neighbourhood. So, although they have arrested thousands of people, they can’t identify the leaders. This is how they suppressed the earlier protests, by recognising the leaders and arresting them.
“It’s very different from three years ago when they suppressed demonstrations in just five days. And the movement is spread geographically all around the country.”
How do we know it won’t still end with the usual repression and horror? In 2009, there were nationwide protests when hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “won” re-election amid widespread allegations of voter fraud. After mass detentions, human rights campaigners said thousands of men and women were raped and tortured.
In 2019, more huge protests flared in what was known as Bloody November. They were prompted by fuel price rises but swiftly morphed into calls for the overthrow of the regime. The movement failed. More than 1,500 protesters were killed by security forces.
Again, this time, all eyes are on the regime’s 150,000 well-armed enforcers in the form of the IRGC. Will this feared organisation declare war on the protesters? This, says Sazegara, is the “million dollar question”.
He has an insider’s knowledge of this shadowy institution, which has morphed from the theocracy’s own personal bodyguard into a purveyor of overseas terror and organised crime, with tendrils in much of Iran’s economy. Sazegara says misapprehensions about the IRGC are clouding people’s view of what is likely to happen next in Iran.
Some pundits have predicted that splits between the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and the IRGC, mean that when the 83-year-old cleric dies, the Revolutionary Guard might take over; Iran would become like Pakistan, a military dictatorship in all but name.
“I don’t think this will happen for several reasons,” says Sazegara. “First of all, the Revolutionary Guard is not like the army of Pakistan or Egypt. It can’t make a concerted decision to conduct a coup.
“It is a very diversified organisation. It’s involved in military actions, but it also has an intelligence arm. It’s involved in businesses and running companies. It’s involved in terrorist activities outside Iran. And it’s involved in mafia activities.”
Real power, says Sazegara, still lies with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who combines clerical authority with the Machiavellian skills of an ex- president. “He’s the devil,” Sazegara says matter-of-factly. “And he micromanages. And he has his other loyal army of 100,00 clerics. There are praying Imams in every part of the Revolutionary Guard. There is a representative in every garrison.”
In return for their muscle and loyalty, IRGC chiefs, who are appointed by Khamenei and his second son and predicted heir, Mojtaba Khamenei, have been allowed to sink their tendrils into a vast network of businesses, ranging from oil and gas projects to construction and telecommunication worth billions of dollars.
With the “devil” in charge, and pulling the strings of IRGC leaders, why is Sazegara optimistic about regime change?
It comes down to the nature of the protests – and protesters – this time around.
Some Iran watchers say the opposition to the regime has been held back, at least till now, by ethnic divisions.
Allan Hassaniyan, a lecturer in Middle Eastern politics at Exeter University, is from the town of Saqqez, in Kurdistan Province of northwestern Iran, the birthplace of Mahsa Amini, the victim of Iran’s morality police.
“Iranian society is very divided along ethnic lines,” he says. “And very many Persians are opposed to integration for fear they will lose their power and privilege,” he says. “Many are not willing to join the protests”. He says the regime has fanned these divisions, employing its state media to pump out propaganda against the Kurds, Baluchis and others.” The tactic has been “divide and conquer”.
Over time, the regime has “institutionalised chronic racism towards non-Persian, non-Shia religious and ethnic groups,” he says.
But Sazegara thinks attitudes are changing. The generation Z-driven protests gripping Iran are not only more widespread and longer-lasting; they are strengthened by unprecedented inter-ethnic solidarity.
“Yes, they’ve tried to divide Iranians by telling lies about the Kurds and everyone else in order to stay in power. But in just one week that disappeared,” he says. “When Mahsa Amini was killed, she was the girl from Kurdistan. But soon the slogan, ‘women, life, liberty’ was translated from Kurdish into Farsi.”
At the start of October, Iranian forces, with helicopters, killed scores of protesters in the poor, southeastern province of Baluchistan. Sazegara says this massacre produced a national outpouring of support for this poor, Sunni-majority area.
He notes that Iran’s biggest minority group, the Turkish speaking people, have also been seen chanting in support for the Kurds, a community with whom they’ve been in conflict for hundreds of years. “I have never seen such a unity,” he says. “And I think that this is because of the young generation leading the protests. They are prepared to sacrifice their lives.”
At least 300 protesters have been killed and 14,000 arrested since the current unrest began, according to the campaign group, Human Rights Activists in Iran.
Over 60 per cent of Iran’s 87 million population is under 30 years of age. The attitude of those born since 2000 will have a particular influence. They are, in the words of academic Asef Bayat, “pragmatic and non-ideological with a clear aversion to violence, a distrust of officials, and a dream of living in the West”.
But even the channelled anger of the internet-savvy Gen Z won’t, by itself, be sufficient to topple the regime. Sazegara hopes – he believes – the regime will crumble under what he calls “three pillars of civil resistance”.
One pillar is the ongoing protests.
The second is defections from the regime, which he says, have begun already. The IRGC relies on the Basij, its volunteer-based force, to do its dirty work against civilians.
“There were supposed to be two million of them. In reality, there were only 150,000. But in the past six weeks, they’ve only managed to bring 20,000 out onto the streets,” he says. “That’s why they’ve been paying thugs and criminals in plain clothes and dressed as policemen to beat up young people.”
He says internal reports suggest that inside the police and Revolutionary Guard itself, there are already signs of disobedience.
“They don’t want to kill their own people. They are dissatisfied as well, with the corruption and economic problems. The people low down are not the ones making lots of money. Last week, the authorities said they’d increase the salary of the Revolutionary Guard and police by 20 per cent. But that doesn’t work. The inflation rate this month is 48 per cent.”
He says the third pillar of civil resistance needed to bring down the regime consists of “non-cooperation, strikes, non-payment of bills, and boycott of goods that enrich those in charge”. He says there are already signs of industrial action in the country’s transportation and energy sectors, although these have a lot further to go.
“When all three pillars of civil resistance are underway, the regime will fall. This is a revolution. This is the end of the road for the regime. It is not reformable. We tried that 25 years ago. I was one of the activists in the reform movement. With the type of regime and this type of leader, you can’t reform it.”
What does he think will replace it?
“I think the replacement will be defined by that phrase – ‘woman, life, liberty’,” he says.
“And liberty, of course, means democracy, human rights, freedom of speech, freedom of political parties. So, the future actually will be a liberal democrat regime. It could happen in a few years. Or maybe a few months.”
Some opponents of the regime think, however, that key requirements for regime change are still missing.
Kian Tajbakhsh, a former inmate of Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, and now a political scientist at Columbia University in New York, took part in the 2009 uprising. Those demonstrations, unlike the current ones, were protests for political reform organised by the urban middle classes. Ten years on, unrest in 2019 was fuelled by economic discontent. “What’s different now is that you have a young generation that has simply had enough. And that’s fantastic, Tajbakhsh says. “The protests are very widespread and very deeply felt.”
But crucially, he thinks, the current protests have yet to morph into a “social movement”. He says that without leaders and structure and aims, this anger can’t make this transition and bring about political change.
”For this to happen the protest will have to grow to include the other groups – the urban middle classes, major sectors of the economy, such as energy, transport and the urban merchants, and we haven’t seen that yet.” In addition, he says the security forces would have to step aside.
Currently, there are no viable opposition political structures to take up the reins. Tajbakhsh says that the reform movement is marginalised and as reviled by the Generation Z protesters (who dismiss it as craven and cowardly), as it is by the authorities.
He predicts, however, that while regime change is not imminent, the current protests will lead to opposition forces from different sections of society coalescing into an effective social/political movement over the next five to 10 years.
What can the West do to help? Here there seems to be more consensus.
Sazegara thinks Britain, France and Germany should immediately increase pressure on the beleaguered regime by evoking the “snapback” clause that allows them, as remaining signatories of the international nuclear containment deal, the JCPOA, to reinstate full sanctions on Tehran without need for UN Security Council approval. Iran has, after all, exceeded uranium enrichment agreements.
Tajbakhsh is blunter: “I think the JCPOA should be junked. I think that Tehran sending drones to Russian for use in Ukraine should be a wake up call to Europe about what this regime really is: indecent and utterly hostile to all liberal democracies. The idea that the West can negotiate with Iran while it is doing this to its own people is ridiculous.”
In what might be an attempt to preempt this and keep the JCPOA alive as a source of leverage, the regime’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian announced on Wednesday he would travel Vienna imminently to meet with the International Atomic Energy Agency and EU officials.
“And then, when they’ve reintroduced sanctions, they [Britain, France and Germany] should expel the Iranian ambassadors from their capitals, maintaining only second-tier representation” Sazegara says. “This will send a powerful message to the Iranian protesters that Europe is on their side.”
A peaceful, secular Iran would transform the lives of its young, educated population and provide a desperately needed fillip for a world whose future has rarely looked darker.
Britain and the US not have only an interest in encouraging regime change, but a moral responsibility. British Petroleum (ne the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company) and the CIA were behind the overthrow in 1953 of the last democratically elected Iranian leader, the reforming Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. Their coup, and the installation of the corrupt regime of the Shah effectively paved the way for the Islamic revolution.
If Sazegara is right, the Iranian people could be on track to undoing that fateful meddling. Even if change takes longer, Iran’s Generation Z appears to have made the first cracks in the dam.