History might very well show that the people’s protests that broke out in September 2022 in Iran were the final opportunity for the Islamist regime to change political course. But as the past year has made clear, the regime in Tehran utterly failed to seize the moment.

From nearly the very beginning, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his cohorts were determined to present the protests, which erupted after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police, as some kind of foreign-concocted conspiracy. The regime’s paranoid messaging has remained consistent, even as many regime loyalists over the course of the last year have openly admitted that the demonstrations were a product of deep anger in Iranian society and not due to foreign interference. Thus, on the first anniversary of the protests, Minister of Intelligence Esmail Khatib, who is a cleric, said on live television that “over 50 foreign intelligence services” had pooled their resources together to support the 2022-23 protest movement in Iran. Khatib provided no evidence to substantiate the purported conspiracy.

Khamenei’s stubbornness

And herein lies the core of the regime’s predicament: its refusal to admit to having lost the trust of the majority of Iranian society. For sure, the Islamic Republic probably never enjoyed the support of most Iranian people since this political order was founded in 1979. But in recent years, its unpopularity has reached new heights — as has the willingness of the younger generation of Iranians to confront the ruling system. In that sense, the protests that began in September 2022 were a point of no return for the regime.

No doubt, the willingness to act in the most brutal of ways — including mass arrests and the murder of protesters — saved the regime from downfall; but it is now badly limping, despite public pronouncements of invincibility. And yet, Khamenei loathes to concede under pressure. To him, compromising with an angry public is tantamount to a slippery slope that ends with the collapse of the Islamic Republic, which he inherited in 1989, when he became supreme leader, and that he has since arguably micro-managed to the point of myriad crises.

There should, therefore, be no doubt: Khamenei was from the get-go the chief target of Iran’s protest movement. Neither President Ebrahim Raisi nor the Majlis (the parliament of 290 carefully vetted regime loyalists) are calling the shots, at least not on the issues that the Iranian people care about the most, such as political representation, respect for human rights, economic development, or a foreign policy that would end Iran’s isolation on the international stage. None of these issues are within the purview of Raisi or the legislature; rather, they are being directed by Khamenei and his protectors in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the armed custodians of the Islamist order.

Meanwhile, over the course of the last year, Khamenei’s policy preferences have once again shown how dangerously out of touch he has become with the Iranian public, fueling widespread grievances. He insists on forced hijab at any cost, even as most of society angrily rejects such antiquated religious dogma. He refuses to accept that there is a very clear line between the sort of anti-Western ideological foreign policy he espouses on the one hand and Tehran’s global economic isolation on the other; and he is blind to his own central role in upholding a damaging political culture of cronyism.

An ideological foreign policy

But Khamenei is not interested in validation from the Iranian people. The regime he shepherds is content with merely the idea of overcoming Western pressure. The government points to its successes in the course of last year of having joined such blocs as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and BRICS — both led by China and Russia — as evidence that it is breaking the U.S.-led sanctions regime on the country. In Khamenei’s words, “The world is on the threshold or the beginning of a transformation, which includes the weakening of the arrogant powers,” a reference to the United States and Europe.

That might well be, and no one will deny that Iran exports more oil today than it did a year ago, thanks in large part to growing Chinese purchases. Nevertheless, this extra oil income is hardly a panacea for the regime. On the economic front, nothing is more damning for Khamenei than the fact that foreign investors — including those from Russia and China — are basically staying away from Iran, while Iranians themselves are pulling record volumes of capital out of the country.

After 34 years as Iran’s single most important decision-maker, Khamenei still sees conspiracies everywhere he looks. This week, he said, “Our information tells us that the American government has created a crisis group with the mission to search for the points they think can be used to provoke a crisis in Iran.” The message from such unequivocal utterances is plain: Don’t look for the Iranian supreme leader to engage in any kind of soul-searching regarding domestic opposition to his rule or his chosen foreign policy adversaries. To him, the latter are solely responsible for why he faces any domestic opposition. 

What the opposition can do

For the vast Iranian opposition to Khamenei, at home and in the diaspora, a thorough rebuttal of this Khameneist claim has to be a priority. One occasion on the horizon that should not be missed is the March 2024 elections for the Majlis. Khamenei takes much pride in the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy ostensibly being rooted in elections as conduits for the people’s wishes. In reality, of course, elections in Iran are massively engineered by Khamenei’s office. Only those candidates he approves will be able to contest the 2024 elections. Khamenei has spoken about the need for maximum voter participation in 2024, a scenario he will then hype up as proof that his beloved Islamic Republic is legitimized by the people. So to prevent another “democratic” charade from happening, the almost hopelessly divided Iranian opposition needs to at least agree that this time around they will not let Khamenei take them for fools.

A second opportunity will be the 2025 presidential contest. Khamenei’s regime desperately needs to prevent these elections from becoming another major humiliation akin to the 2021 vote, when Raisi’s “win” was dismissed as a bad joke. In Tehran, only about 25% of voters came out, a historically low turnout.

And then there is the international pressure, especially from Iran’s usual regional rivals, the Turks and Saudis. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is pursuing a grandly conceptualized economic development plan aimed at recreating the social contract between the political elite and the Saudi people. In 2023, Turkey held both presidential and parliamentary elections, which saw huge voter participation and mostly undisputed victories for incumbent leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling coalition. These domestic and international factors will push the regime in Tehran to think how it can create a similarly successful moment to demonstrate its political “legitimacy.”

It is therefore unsurprising that in recent weeks, new reports emerged about how Iran’s badly marginalized reformists want to run in the elections and, apparently, are being encouraged to do so by the regime in part to boost voter participation. For example, Sobeh Sadeq, the official newspaper of the IRGC, is urging reformists to run. The only condition put forward is that reformist candidates make clear they believe in the regime and simply want to reform it, not topple it altogether — as the protesters have demanded. Clearly, the role of reformists in the system is to create excitement for the upcoming elections but no more than that. There is no evidence that Khamenei’s regime seriously intends to loosen its political control.


Alex Vatanka is the Director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute.

Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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