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opinion

Thomas Juneau is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has been rocked by massive and unprecedented protests in recent weeks: There are now demonstrators from all sectors of society, in large cities and small towns. As the government ramps up repression, it’s worth taking a look at the potential scenarios that could unfold, and how Canada should respond.

One possibility is that the regime – which is very experienced in these matters – will succeed in repressing the current wave of protests, returning the country to the status quo. Iran has seen increasingly large and frequent protests over the years; in this scenario, recent events represent a continuation of a trend – not a significant break.

But the current protests are unprecedented in their breadth and depth – to such an extent that going back to the status quo seems unlikely. A more probable scenario, and perhaps the most likely outcome in the short term, would see the regime survive – but only through the use of ever more brute force. This would have other effects. An already fractious regime would become increasingly prone to internal strife. The economy, already weakened by decades of corruption, mismanagement and sanctions, would struggle even more. Future popular explosions would inevitably grow in frequency and intensity, since the wall of fear that kept many off the streets is steadily collapsing.

Analysts have wondered for years whether the increasingly powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the regime’s praetorian guard, could one day remove the clerics from power and take control of the government. There is a low likelihood, however, of this third scenario emerging: The IRGC and the rest of the clerical establishment are joined at the hip. Nevertheless, the death of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who is reportedly in poor health, could lead to an intensification of the the IRGC’s already significant military, political and economic power – leaving the rest of the system increasingly marginalized. The IRGC will play a crucial role in the choice of successor: One option would be for the IRGC to support the nomination of a more pliable leader it could manipulate.

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The fourth scenario, the fall of the regime, is unlikely in the short term: The government seems to maintain control over enough coercive power to brutally quell the current protests. Looking ahead though, these demonstrations have arguably reduced the regime’s life expectancy. They have certainly further weakened its already shaky standing inside Iran.

This raises difficult questions, which the emotion of the moment must not block us from asking. There is currently no organized, democratic opposition inside Iran ready to replace the regime. There are millions of angry Iranians ready to brave bullets, but civil society has been systematically repressed. There is an exiled opposition, and though it has come together impressively in recent days, it remains fragmented. Many who are part of it are committed to democracy and deserve full support and encouragement. Yet precedent should act as a sober reminder that the U.S. and its allies have sometimes shown poor judgement in supporting exiled groups who hold a powerful megaphone but show a disconnect from the reality on the ground – and have a flexible commitment to democratic values.

This is not a reason to hold back support, but it is a reminder of the difficult and long road ahead for the Iranian population. It especially highlights the importance for Canada and its allies to sustain – and even increase – pressure on the Islamic Republic, identify genuine democratic voices, and support civil society inside Iran. This is no easy task, but it is necessary to push the balance of probabilities toward democratic change.

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