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Peter Jones is a professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

The present turmoil in Iran is the most serious threat to the Islamic Republic since it was founded in 1979. Fed up with hypocrisy, corruption and brutality, ordinary Iranians are courageously demanding the end of the current order. Can they succeed?

One key element of the situation will be what the regime’s Revolutionary Guards decide to do. They have the capacity – and the will – for tremendous repression. Right now, they seem determined to stick with the Islamic Republic.

The Guard is separate from the military. While Iran, like any other country, has armed forces for its defence, the Revolutionary Guard is an additional force that defends the tenets of the Islamic revolution itself. Smaller in number than the regular military, but still large and much better trained, equipped and paid, the Revolutionary Guard is a critical institution in Iran.

The religious establishment, understanding how much it needs the Guard, has allowed its leaders to feast at the table of Iran’s corrupt system. The Guard is one of the country’s most powerful economic actors. Both ideologically and economically, it has an interest in the continuation of the system. If leaders of the Guard conclude that change is likely, they may prioritize their own economic interests over the defense of the revolution. This would be analogous in some ways to what happened when powerful elements of the KGB and other organs of the Soviet state turned away from communism and toward crony capitalism when the collapse of the USSR seemed inevitable.

Splits within the Guard leadership are thus something to watch for. If (and it’s a very big “if”) unrest does lead to the end of the Islamic Republic, and elements of the Guard join the protesters while also acting to protect their own economic interests, what kind of Iran might emerge?

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The Iranian people – especially women – would likely have more freedom over their personal choices. This would be a great relief to a people repressed for decades. But don’t confuse this potential scenario with democracy. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s pre-revolution regime also featured a progressive social order that hid a repressive, corrupt and undemocratic system, especially in the latter years of his rule.

And what of the nuclear issue? Many forget that Iran first sought a nuclear weapon option under the Shah to strengthen itself as a regional hegemon. The revolutionary government abandoned the effort, only to revive it after Iraq attacked Iran (including with chemical weapons) in the 1980s and Western countries chose to back Iraq. There is little reason to expect that a post-revolutionary government would abandon Iran’s progress in nuclear development, though it might be willing to re-enter some version of a deal that allows the international community to verify that Iran is holding technology that is just shy of an actual nuclear weapon.

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What of regional issues? The Shah had good relations with Israel, but differing Islamic traditions and ancient ethnic tensions have always made relations between Iranian and Arab leaders tricky. Would a post-revolutionary Iran have ties with Israel? Perhaps, in time; business is business. There is no reason why Israel and Iran should be antagonists, beyond the revolution’s ideological hatred of Zionism. If the Guard leadership leans toward economic interests rather than ideological ones, good relations with Israel are quite possible.

Would Israel want that? The underlying reason for Israel’s increasing ties with Arab states in the Persian Gulf is a shared fear of revolutionary Iran. But if the chance of a relationship with Iran were to re-emerge, my bet is that Israel would take it.

More broadly, if Iran’s bitter view of the West were to end, Tehran’s current embrace of China and Russia (owing to the fact that they are the only important countries prepared to have relationships with Iran) would cool as Western countries returned. If relations with Israel improved, Iranian policies in countries such as Lebanon and Syria could change, which might help stabilize those conflicts. Support for Palestinian groups that reject Israel would end.

Do not expect, however, a democratic, de-nuclearized Iran. The forces that could topple the regime – if they decide to throw in their lot with the general Iranian population – have little interest in democracy. While we cannot know exactly how a change of regime in Iran would play out, expect one in which ordinary people live freer lives on a personal level, but still within a controlling and corrupt system.

Expect an Iran that remains close to nuclear-weapon capability and a worry to Arab states, but about which the West is less concerned because it no longer threatens Israel or opposes the world order we champion. Expect Western countries to put aside their decades of calls for democracy and be quietly willing to work with the new regime, just as they did with that of the Shah. Plus ça change.