The protests in Iran now in their third month are a historic battle pitting two powerful and irreconcilable forces: a predominantly young and modern population, proud of their 2,500-year-old civilization and desperate for change, versus an aging and isolated theocratic regime, committed to preserving its power and steeped in 43 years of brutality.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the only ruler many protesters have known, seems to be facing a version of the dictator’s dilemma: If he doesn’t offer his people the prospect for change the protests will continue, but if he does, he risks appearing weak and emboldening protesters.
The protests were set off by the Sept. 16 death of a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, after she was detained by the morality police for allegedly improper hijab. Although Iranian opposition to the regime is unarmed, unorganized and leaderless, the protests continue despite a violent crackdown by the regime. More than 18,000 protesters have been arrested, more than 475 have been killed and 11 people have been sentenced to death so far. On Thursday, a 23-year-old man, Mohsen Shekari, who was arrested during the protests, was hanged.
However the protests are resolved, they seem to have already changed the relationship between Iranian state and society. Defying the hijab law is still a criminal offense, but women throughout Iran, especially in Tehran, increasingly refuse to cover their hair. Videos of young Iranians flipping turbans off the heads of unsuspecting Shiite clerics are popular on social media.
Symbols of the government are routinely defaced and set on fire, including, according to social media reports, the ancestral home of the revolution’s father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Laborers, bazaar merchants and petrochemical workers have gone on intermittent strikes, reminiscent of the tactics that helped topple Iran’s monarchy in 1979.
The ideological principles of Ayatollah Khamenei and his followers are “Death to America,” “Death to Israel” and insistence on hijab. Mr. Khamenei’s ruling philosophy has been shaped and reinforced by three notable authoritarian collapses: The 1979 fall of Iran’s monarchy, the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Arab uprisings of 2011. His takeaway from each of these events has been to never compromise under pressure, and never compromise on principles. Whenever Mr. Khamenei has faced a fork in the road between reform and repression, he has always doubled down on repression.
The rigidity of Iran’s hard-liners is driven not only by ideological conviction, but also by a keen understanding of the interplay between the rulers and the ruled. As Alexis de Tocqueville put it, “The most perilous moment for a bad government is one when it seeks to mend its ways.”
Mr. Khamenei understands that rescinding compulsory hijab will be a gateway to freedom and will be interpreted by many Iranians as an act of vulnerability, not magnanimity. That Iranians will not be placated merely with the freedom of dress, but will be emboldened to demand all the freedoms denied to them in a theocracy — including the freedom to drink, eat, read, love, watch, listen and, above all, say what they want.
There are signs of disarray within the ruling elite. While some officials have suggested the notorious morality police will be abolished, others have suggested this is merely a temporary tactic to restore order. “The collapse of the hijab is the collapse of the flag of the Islamic Republic,” said Hossein Jalali, a clerical ally of Mr. Khamenei and a member of the Cultural Commission of the Iranian Parliament. “Head scarves will return to women’s heads in two weeks,” he declared, and women who refuse to comply could have their bank accounts frozen.
The Iranian regime’s repressive capacity — at least on paper — remains formidable. Ayatollah Khamenei is commander in chief of 190,000 armed personnel of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who oversee tens of thousands of basij militants tasked with instilling public fear and morality. Iran’s nonideological conscription army, whose active forces are an estimated 350,000, are unlikely to take part in mass repression, but hopes from protesters that they will join the opposition have so far been in vain.
Until now the political and financial interests of Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards have been intertwined. But persistent protests and chants of “Death to Khamenei” might change that. Would the Iranian security forces want to continue killing Iranians to preserve the rule of an unpopular, ailing octogenarian cleric who is reportedlyhoping to bequeath power to Mojtaba Khamenei, his equally unpopular son?
The internal deliberations of Iran’s security services remain a black box. But it is likely that like the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries in 2011 some of them have begun to contemplate whether cutting loose the dictator might preserve their own interests.
The sociologist Charles Kurzman wrote in his seminal book, “The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran,” that the paradox of revolutionary movements is they are not viable until they attract a critical mass of supporters, yet to attract a critical mass of supporters they must be perceived as viable.
The protest movement has not yet reached that tipping point, but there are ample signs that a critical mass of Iranian society has doubts about the regime’s continued viability. “What the people want is regime change, and no return to the past,” said Nasrin Sotoudeh, a renowned human rights attorney and political prisoner who had long called for reform instead of revolution. “And what we can see from the current protests and strikes that are now being initiated is a very real possibility of regime change.”
Like many autocratic regimes, the Islamic Republic has long ruled through fear, but there are growing signs that fear is dissipating. Female athletes and actors have begun to compete and perform without the hijab — a criminal offense that has earned other women double-digit prison sentences — inspiring others to do the same. Political prisoners like Hossein Ronaghi have remained defiant despite imprisonment and torture. Rather than deter protesters their killings often lead to mourning ceremonies that perpetuate the protests.
If the organizing principles that united Iran’s disparate opposition forces in 1979 was anti-imperialism, the organizing principles of today’s socioeconomically and ethnically diverse movement are pluralism and patriotism. The faces of this movement are not ideologues or intellectuals, but athletes, musicians and ordinary people, especially women and ethnic minorities, who have shown uncommon courage. Their slogans are patriotic and progressive — “We will not leave Iran, we will reclaim Iran,” and “Women, Life, Freedom.”
The demands of the current movement are brilliantly distilled in Shervin Hajipour’s song, “Baraye,” or “For,” which has become the anthem of the protests and articulates a “yearning for a normal life” rather than the “forced paradise” of a religious police state.
Senior American and Israeli intelligence officials have recently stated they don’t believe Iran’s protests constitute a serious threat to the regime. But history has repeatedly illustrated that no intelligence service, political science theory, or algorithm can accurately predict the timing and outcome of popular uprisings: The C.I.A. assessed in August 1978, less than six months before the toppling of Iran’s monarchy, that Iran wasn’t even in a “pre-revolutionary situation.”
This is because not even the protagonists themselves — in this case the Iranian people and regime — can anticipate how they will behave as this drama unfolds.
Abbas Amanat, a historian of Iran, observed that one of the keys to Iran’s civilizational longevity, which dates to the Persian Empire of 2,500 years ago, is the power of its culture to co-opt its military invaders. “For nearly two millenniums Persian political culture, and in a broader sense, a repository of Persian civilizational tools, successfully managed to convert Turkic, Arab and Mongolian conquerors,” he told me. “Persian language, myth, historical memories, and time-keeping endured. Iranians persuaded invaders to appreciate a Persian high culture of poetry, food, painting, wine, music, festivals and etiquette.”
When Ayatollah Khomeini acquired power in 1979, he led a cultural revolution that sought to replace Iranian patriotism with a purely Islamic identity. Ayatollah Khamenei continues that tradition today, but he is one of the few remaining true believers. While the Islamic Republic sought to subdue Iranian culture, it is Iranian culture and patriotism that is threatening to undo the Islamic Republic.
Four decades of the Islamic Republic’s hard power will ultimately be defeated by two millennium of Iranian cultural soft power. The question is no longer about whether this will happen, but when. History has taught us that there is an inverse relationship between the courage of an opposition and the resolve of a regime, and authoritarian collapse often goes from inconceivable to inevitable in days.
Karim Sadjadpour (@ksadjadpour) is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on Iran and U.S. policy toward the Middle East.
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