Saeid Golkar is a UC Foundation assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. He is also a nonresident senior fellow on Middle East policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change in the United Kingdom. Golkar is the author of a book on the Basij, the paramilitary militia of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, titled Captive Society: The Basij Militia and Social Control in Iran (Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Columbia University Press, 2015). Diwan interviewed him in late November to get his perspective on the ongoing protests in Iran.
Michael Young: The protests currently taking place in Iran appear to be of an entirely different nature than those that have taken place many times in the past decade or two. What is it about these protests that makes them different? Are we in a revolutionary moment?
Saeid Golkar: Despite many similarities, there are several differences between the 2022 protests and the previous rounds of protest since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. There have been waves of popular resistance since the Islamic Republic’s foundation in the 1980s. There were not many protests in its first decade, as the populist and Islamist regime was able to mobilize millions of Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war. However, after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the end of the war, the Islamic Republic gradually encountered several waves of protests, beginning in 1991 in Mashhad, then in Qazvin and Islamshahr city in 1993 and 1994, continuing with the student protests of 1999 and 2003, and more importantly the Green Movement in 2009. The protests continued this past decade, in 2017–2018, before President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran, and in November 2019, when the Islamic Republic killed up to 1,500 people in only two days. While the student protests and the Green Movement were mainly middle-class movements demanding reform of the system and directed by the reformists, the 2017–2018 and 2019 protests were primarily formed by the Iranian lower classes protesting against economic hardship and stagnation, for example the rise of the oil prices in 2019.
What is currently taking place is a movement that has brought together many people from the different strata of society, from the Iranian lower to middle classes and upper classes, spreading widely throughout the country. Unlike previous protest, the goal of the 2022 revolution is not for economic relief or reform of the system. It is, first and foremost, aimed at abolishing the Islamic Republic as a regime. The movement’s ideology has changed, with the slogan: “Women, Life, Freedom,” reflecting a new paradigm in the Iranian popular consciousness. In this movement, life is a crucial concept, unlike in 1979, when martyrdom in the path of God was the ideal. Unlike previous movements, the role of women, especially in primary and higher education, has been massive, especially when compared to the past, when uprisings were male-driven. So, the 2022 protests are a paradigm shift in terms of social and political protest: Iranians are now seeking to dismantle a regime based on martyrdom and replace it with one that values life and liberty.
MY: You have written about the Basij, the paramilitary militia that is a part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). How has the IRGC, and the Basij in particular, performed during the ongoing protests? In other words, have they found a strategy to successfully repress the protest movement?
SG: The Islamic Republic is one of the most brutal modern dictatorships, which has relied heavily on the security forces, especially the IRGC and its civil militia branches, the Basij. As the protests spread throughout the country, the Basij was immediately deployed to support the police in suppressing people. It has organized its members into 22 different organizations, including university students who have actively identified and suppressed dissident students at Iranian universities. On the street, the Basij employ security and military groups, including the Fathin, Imam Hossein, Imam Ali, and Beit al-Moqadas units. So far, out of the 56 members of the security forces killed during the protest, 31 were Basiji, which points to their strong presence in the street. Since the Basij has more than 50,000 offices throughout the country, its members have also been used to identify people who write anti-regime graffiti on walls or chant slogans from the roofs of their homes.
In addition to the Basij, we have evidence the IRGC has also been deployed to suppress the people because of how widely the protests have spread. While in Kurdistan, Sistan, and Baluchistan, the IRGC ground forces have been deployed with heavy weapons to stop protests, in other parts of the country IRGC provincial units have deployed their personnel to the streets to help the police and the Basij. The regime has also used Iranian criminals and thugs to maintain power.
As the Islamic Republic has gradually lost its legitimacy, and become incapable and incompetent, it has become a police state. Right now, the Islamic Republic’s primary strategy is “victory with terror” (nasr bil ru‘b), a reference to the Prophet Mohammed’s hadith. Following this strategy, the regime has used extensive violence. The security forces’ brutality has included direct shooting, harsh beatings, torture, rape, taking hostages, stealing the bodies of dead protesters, and terrorizing neighborhoods by sending thugs to destroy people’s property. This has been successful to some extent. Some people stopped going to the street after seeing the regime’s brutality. However, it has not eliminated the protests entirely. There have been sporadic protests around Iran for 70 days after the death of Mahsa Amini.
MY: One thing that appears to be in evidence is that the pillars of the Islamic Republic, even symbols of authority that had been thought untouchable, no longer appear to enjoy any legitimacy among a significant portion of the Iranian population. Something seems to be broken. How can supporters of the system put it back together again?
SG: The regime’s legitimacy derives from four primary sources—tradition, charisma, the rule of law, and good governance. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has never been a charismatic leader, even when he first took power in 1989. While the Islamic Republic has gotten some part of its legitimacy from religion and Islam, it cannot rely on religion anymore. First, Iranian society has become massively secular and religion has lost its importance for most people. A main target of protestors is seminary schools. Most Iranians firmly ask for the separation of mosque and state and the return of clerics to the mosque.
The Islamic Republic also is a highly incompetent regime. It was shaped around the superiority of ideological commitment over expertise, so it gradually marginalized experts and replaced them with big-mouthed, ideologically reliable people. This intensified in 2019 after Khamenei issued his second manifesto for the regime’s survival and, more importantly, sought to prepare for his succession. Since then, a new generation of committed managers and bureaucrats has been promoted, mainly drawn from the ranks of the Basij. As a result, the Islamic Republic cannot provide good governance and deliver on the promise it made to Iranians.
Incompetence in the state goes hand and hand with the lack of the rule of law. As a result, the Islamic Republic has a low standard of justice compared to other nations. In 2021, it ranked 119 out of 139 among countries implementing the rule of law. Massive corruption, mismanagement, and lack of constraints on government powers have led Iranians to conclude that the entire system should be overthrown.
MY: This comes at a bad time for the regime. Even if Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains in place for the foreseeable future, we are still nearing a transition that will follow his passing from the scene. How might things develop in that context?
SG: It is essential to consider what would happen once Khamenei dies, especially in the context of the ongoing protests. My understanding is that even before the 2022 protests, his death was seen as a chance for the Iranian people to change the course of the Islamic Republic’s history. We know that since 2019, Khamenei has done many things, including marginalizing so-called reformists and pragmatists by engineering the parliamentary and presidential elections to ensure a swift and quiet succession after his death. He is 83 years old, and the possibility of his death is always there. He does not want to repeat Khomeini’s mistake in 1989, when the country was unprepared for succession at the time of his death. So, Khamenei is trying to micro-engineer the succession.
We know that he is not a popular leader anymore, he wasn’t from the beginning, but since 2009 he has gradually lost his social bases of support. Right now, very few people believe he is a legitimate leader. Most people who support him do so because of the financial benefits, not because of any love for the leadership. Most people fear Khamenei because of the security apparatus. So very few people genuinely view him as a legitimate successor to Khomeini. But, if you put it in a larger context, you will see that more Iranians oppose the concept of Velayat-e Faqih [the Guardianship of the Jurist, whereby the supreme religious leader also holds supreme governance authority] and the idea of preordained succession, as opposed to allowing more representative and secular figures to reach office.
What will happen once Khamenei passes away? The first thing that will happen is the Assembly of Experts will convene as soon as possible and try to elect a new supreme leader. Without any doubt, the IRGC will push for their candidate, and we know that the IRGC favors both Mojtaba Khamenei, Ali Khamenei’s son, and the current president, Ebrahim Raisi. Khamenei’s death will also push people to take to the streets, and with the elite divided between Mojtaba, Raisi, and others, there will be hesitancy within the security forces. The security institutions know Khamenei is in power today, which creates peace of mind. The IRGC or Basij members know that if they beat or kill someone for spray-painting a slogan, Khamenei will not take them to court. However, during the succession, when nothing is clear, the forces cannot know to what extent the new leadership will stand behind them or regulate their activities. This uncertainty will create momentum for protests. Even if the current protests have been dispersed by then, there will be a substantial popular movement when they announce Khamenei’s death. His death will be mostly celebrated, and only a tiny minority will mourn him.
When I think of that moment, it brings a smile to my face, to be honest. I hope it happens as soon as possible. Second, I think we will see gaps among the elites and conflicts among factions trying to secure their position. Third, this will create unpredictability for the security forces and motivate people to take to the streets, creating new momentum for protests. The gaps among the elites and the unpredictability of the security forces must be magnified through international solidarity with the Iranian people.
MY: Has there been any role for monarchical forces in the protest movement?
SG: Some protesters have demonstrated using the flag of the Pahlavi dynasty, and pro-monarchical slogans have been chanted several times, however this is less the case than in 2019, for example. While the monarchy has support in Iran, we don’t know the exact numbers. I believe sympathy for the shah is merely designed to mock the clerical regime that overthrew him and for 43 years blamed him for any shortcoming in the country. Most of the monarchical slogans refer to Reza Khan (1925–1940), who was able to transform Iran in a short period of time and build a modern national state, of course by brute force. One of Reza Shah’s policies was to marginalize the clergy, which later ruled Iran. The slogan “Reza Shah Rohat Shad” [Reza Shah, May You Rest In Peace] reflects approval of what is seen as his prosperous and benevolent rule and policy toward the clergy. There is also a saying that Reza Shah should take the clergy’s heads instead of their turbans.
MY: What do you see as the outcome of the protest movement?
SG: The outcome of these protests depends on many variables, including the sudden death of Khamenei or the level of the security forces’ desire to continue to kill Iranians. However, even if the regime survives, Iran has changed dramatically, both for the regime and its people. The Islamic Republic has lost confidence and people have become angrier and less scared. One wise man said that when you hit two eggs together, one cracks. But we don’t know which one will crack. I hope the regime is overthrown. We shouldn’t forget that a revolution is a marathon, not a sprint.