Is regime change in Iran imminent?

Published: January 15, 2020
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The writer is the Director of the Nerve Center. He works in the foreign, security and development policy domain

The writer is the Director of the Nerve Center. He works in the foreign, security and development policy domain

The recent US actions against Iran, according to many Middle East experts, have united the Iranian nation, silenced dissent and given a renewed strength to the Iranian regime.

Experts argue that the assassination of Gen Soleimani is reflective of the US inability to cause a regime change in Iran. With the images of thousands of people coming out in support of Gen Soleimani and the Iranian regime, the analysts may have a point.

Except that it’s based on wrong premises and backed by unreliable evidence gathered through assessment of the micro trends in the region. Using the appropriate data sets, especially a mix of macro and micro trends for projections, suggests an entirely different threat matrix that does not place the US as the foremost threat to the regime. More importantly, data suggests that regime change in Iran is almost imminent. The real threat facing the Iranian regime today is similar to what the Soviets faced in the mid-1980s — internal meltdown.

This is because the Iranian regime is at war with changing time, technology, economy, and more importantly, its own people and history. The situation in Iran is imploding because of two structural changes in the global power dynamics that may force either a regime change in Iran or some major level reforms which would be parallel to a regime change.

The first issue is the shift in the structures of global power due to power diffusion. Under this, the state and authority as we know it has collapsed with power shifting away from state actors to non-state actors and individuals.

The state does not possess the monopoly on resources, public service delivery or even national narratives anymore. Therefore, the state as per the Westphalian definition does not exist. In such a scenario, the ability to exert a tight knit control over the populace is politically and economically impossible for the Iranian regime.

The spending on Iranian state security apparatus to keep the state in power is unsustainable in sheer economic terms let alone in political terms.

Secondly, in this increasingly interconnected world, remaining isolated is the Iranian regime’s foremost threat. Despite overwhelming support for Gen Soleimani and national unity, how long will the regime stay protected before dire economic conditions, social depravity and dissent due to international isolation kick in?

The Iranian GDP shrunk by 9.5% in 2019. Inflation increased from 8.1% in 2017 to 51% in 2018 and is almost 31% in 2019. Coupled with deep-rooted corruption and incompetence of state-led institutions, the economy and state are being driven into the ground. The pie is getting smaller and that will not bode well for the Iranian regime.

The Iranian regime survived for decades because in the post-revolutionary years, Iran benefitted from rising oil prices that stabilised the economy and consequently, the regime.

However, as it was with the Shah, the current regime set itself in the same trap. There were three key reasons why the Iranian people (both liberal and Islamists) overthrew the Pahlavi dynasty: the Shah’s repressive tactics, two years of economic crisis, and the timing of the two happening together.

What we witness in Iran today is a similar situation where the regime has suffocated the civil society, and with failing economy the future does not look well-timed. This is backed by data on the protests in Iran that is critical evidence in my argument against the survival of the regime. There have been 4,200 protests inside Iran from January 2018 to October 2019.

The key reasons for protest include economic conditions, inflation, curb on civil liberties and excessive control of the state. The protests have seeped into the rural areas in a stark resemblance of the 1970s protests all over the country that led to the revolution. What the Iranian regime fails to see is that it has spread itself out too thin in a classic Soviet-style Cold War era days. Unfortunately, it did not work for the Soviets, and is unlikely to work for the Iranian regime either.

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