Saeed Rahnema is a retired professor of political science and public policy, and the founding director of the School of Public Policy and Administration at York University.
What is happening in Iran is the greatest challenge yet to the Islamic regime's legitimacy. The last time Iranians revolted in 2009, one faction of the regime was directly involved, protesting the rigged presidential elections. This time, the whole establishment is targeted. Despite claims by both factions who blame the other and foreign agents, this is a genuine, independent, spontaneous revolt by a wide strata of people, fed up with political, economic and cultural failures of the regime in the past four decades.
This is a revolt of the poor, the unemployed and the deprived that has been brewing for several years, as reflected in many work stoppages by people who were not being paid for months at a time only to get detention and lashes; in demonstrations and sit-ins of pensioners whose pay has been delayed for months following funds going bankrupt; in deep frustrations of university graduates without employment or hope; in the anger of lower middle classes whose meagre savings were stolen by phony religious trusts and banks that mushroomed as a result of deregulations; and poor peasants moving to shanty towns because of declining agriculture and water mismanagement. Hyperinflation along with rampant corruption and huge income gaps, signs of which ordinary people see daily in extravagant spending by the nouveaux-riche families of the establishment, have infuriated people and brought many to the streets.
Added to economic issues are political repression, lack of basic civil liberties and personal freedoms, the jailing of union leaders, journalists and bloggers, as well as cultural repression and state intervention in the most minute details of everyday life, from women's dress codes and young men's hair styles, to attacks on private gatherings and music concerts, or barring women from attending sporting events.
Downright failure of four decades of "Islamification" of the culturally vibrant Iranian society and the squandering of millions of dollars on numerous institutions for "propagation of Islamic culture," not to mention the unpopular state-run radio and television, and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, have been reflected in ever-increasing social ills, widespread addictions, early-age prostitution and youth homelessness.
Internal factional fights have intensified, and even a character such as former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad openly challenges the Supreme Leader and the Head of the Judiciary. Interestingly, they cannot touch him because during his eight years in office he allegedly encouraged widespread bribery, corruption and embezzlement by all officials while reportedly secretly documenting everything and hence the whole hierarchy lives in fear of disclosures of their thefts and misdeeds.
The regime is in a Catch-22 situation; retreat or crush brutally. A decision to crush the protests will further delegitimize it, build up more hatred and likely only lead to bigger eruptions. A decision to retreat would require introducing serious reforms that face major obstacles. The economy is in a bad shape as a result of mismanagement, corruption, the high costs of regime's military involvement in the region and funding of so many nonsensical Islamic cultural institutions, as well as sanctions. Moreover, there is a state within the state in Iran. Revolutionary and religious foundations that control about 40 per cent of the GDP do not pay any taxes, and are not under government and parliament's scrutiny.
Some premature excitement foresaw the regime on the verge of collapse. The ruling bloc is, however, comprised of a closely knit clerical-military-business oligarchy with extensive repressive and ideological apparatuses. The regime still has sizable support among millions who receive allowances from religious foundations and which can be used in "elections" and as rent-a-mobs in pro-regime demonstrations. But the regime is aware that it is being delegitimized even among many of these supporters. While the uprising seems to have once again been suppressed, it continues beneath the surface and the regime will not be able to kill it.
The Islamic regime in Iran has clearly shown it is incapable of reforming itself, and the people of Iran need to bring about change. However, no movement without organization and leadership can achieve much. Defeating this powerful oligarchy requires a united front of all opposition forces, who unfortunately are presently weak, divided and in exile. It also needs moral external support rather than interference. In fact, any support expressed by the triangle of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump will be dangerously counterproductive and only strengthen the Islamist militarists. As for the Canadian government, it should make any rapprochement with the Islamic Republic conditional on the release of political prisoners and protection of human rights. Canada also needs to make a serious commitment to preventing the regime's past and present officials from using Canada as a safe haven and repository of their stolen money.