In Iran the government continues refusing to admit what their internal problems really are. To the outsider Iran may appear to be what it has been for thousands of years; the local superpower that tried and discarded absolute monarchy, democracy and constitutional monarchy in favor of (since the 1980s) a religious dictatorship. That has not worked out either. That was made public recently when an Iranian Defense Journal backed by the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) published an article describing Iran’s internal problems accurately, and admitting that the only solution was to effectively deal with the corruption and mismanagement of the government that caused growing popular unrest. That popular anger and street violence has been building for two decades. In 2009 it led to popular protests over rigged parliamentary elections. According to the government, those elections weren’t rigged, they were legally “guided.” That much was true, but it was not popular and the growing corruption, mismanagement and poverty continued despite repeated promises to address these issues. More widespread and violent demonstrations in 2018 and 2019 required unprecedented IRGC violence to suppress. The recently published article admits that another round of protests would likely be even more violent and would require a more violent IRGC response that could trigger nationwide chaos and the end of the “Islamic Republic.” The article did not include how protestors also accused the IRGC as being part of the corruption and mismanagement. The IRGC prefers to ignore that for now but the admission that the corruption and government misrule were fundamental problems that had to be addressed. The IRGC seemed to be saying to the government; “you go first.”
The “Islamic Republic of Iran” replaced the constitutional monarchy in the 1980s. The constitution stipulated that the Guardians Council would preside over and guide a parliamentary democracy where candidates for parliament had to have Council approval. The religious leaders promised an end to the chronic corruption and mismanagement in government would end and Iran would enter a new age of prosperity and piety. The IRGC was created as a second army to protect the Islamic Republic from enemies internal and external. All these assurances did not work out as planned.
The current protests actually have their origins in the optimism that accompanied the American response to Islamic terrorism after 2001, and especially the overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. At that time the ruling clerics allowed a reformer to run for president. Mohammad Khatami got elected but by 2004 admitted that his plans for reform had been blocked. The Guardians Council, composed of unelected religious leaders, can veto any legislation passed by the parliament, and have done so repeatedly. The Guardians Council increasingly would not even allow suspected reformist candidates to run for parliamentary elections, so more Iranians did not vote, giving conservative members of parliament control. By 2005 the majority of the population viewed their government, controlled by the Islamic conservative minority, as illegitimate and corrupt. That corruption developed quickly after the 1979 revolution, starting with religious organizations seizing the enormous wealth of the departed royal family and many wealthy royalist families. These businesses have been run, badly in many cases, for the benefit of Islamic conservative religious leaders, their families and followers. The IRGC now gets a growing share of this plunder.
The economy has become less efficient and productive. This has a negative impact on most Iranians and they are not happy. By the 1990s there was more violence in the streets, as gangs of young men fought each other over reforms. The IRGC had organized street gangs, composed of Islamic conservative young men who were paid to break up pro-reform demonstrations by force and attack any groups that openly opposed the rule of the Guardians and senior clergy. Back then it was feared that a series of street brawls would escalate and lead to another mass revolution like the one in 1979. By 2018 there were riots and attacks on local religious leaders in towns and cities that did not have a lot or religious conservatives, or a local IRGC militia unit (the Basj, which provide the manpower for pro-government street gangs).
The security forces plus the Basj and pro-government thugs were able to crush the 2009 protests and the larger outbreaks that followed in 2018 and 2019. Since 2009 it was noted that many pro-government enforcers had become less loyal and reliable. The corruption among the senior clerics, and especially their families, was noted by the less affluent enforcers as was their own lack of prosperity. Because of the Internet and cell phones, and despite government censorship efforts, everyone has a good idea of what is going on around the world. The government had promised not to censor the Internet in an emergency and has done so anyway. This is seen as another reason to keep the protests going. The government has been unable to stop the protestors from getting video and phone calls to media (or anyone else) outside Iran. In this way the government propaganda that the uprising is being caused by “foreign agents” was revealed as another bunch of lies. For a government that has been losing credibility for decades, and especially since 2001, the latest round of lies and violence directed at the Iranian people had more of an explosive than suppressive effect.
The IRGC leadership has done the math and allowed the publication of the Defense Journal article, to let everyone know that the IRGC could see where this was going and that eventually the IRGC would not be able to hold the country together using force. Thousands of civilians were killed, wounded or “disappeared” by the IRGC violence and a growing number of victims were Iranians who had once been considered pro-IRGC. The 2018 demonstrations were shocking because many of them took place in provinces that had long considered pro-Islamic Republic and recruiting areas for most IRGC personnel.
More surprises came in late 2020 when the Guardians Council said it was ready to sign military and security agreements with Gulf Arab states. No details were given. Details are very important, but so is the Iranian history with treaties and agreements. Iran tends to treat these documents as “subject to interpretation”. That means Iran will often reinterpret these deals without telling the other signatories. That does not always work, as was obvious when the Guardians Council also approved negotiation of the 25-year military/economic cooperation deal with China. When it comes to applying “subject to interpretation” conditions to treaties and economic agreements, China has no peer and Iran was agreeing to this deal, that was signed in March 2021, because Iran was desperate and China was willing to take advantage of Iran in return for vague assurances of military and diplomatic assistance. IRGC leaders were dismayed by this China deal but kept quiet about it because the Islamic Republic had few other options left. Getting sanctions lifted is not as easy as it was in 2015 because Iran proceeded to exploit that treaty to increase their IRGC run military operations in foreign countries.
Some additional sanctions were lifted even after the U.S. began enforcing economic sanctions in 2017. In October, 2020 countries still observing the 2015 treaty were aware that by the terms of that treaty UN arms sanctions on Iran were now lifted. These sanctions had been in force for thirteen years. Technically Iran could now freely import and export weapons from China, Russia and several European nations. In practice that proved difficult because in 2017 the United States declared Iran in breach of the 2015 treaty terms. The Americans revived economic and military sanctions in 2018 and has been very effective at enforcing them. But it’s not just the Americans who no longer trust the Islamic Republic. Even the other nations that tried to maintain the 2015 treaty were not willing to take any risks doing so. This ambivalence was the result of continued protests by Iranians and the Israeli discovery and removal from Iran of tons of documents describing the Iranian nuclear weapons program. The daring Mossad operation that carried this mission out was assisted by anti-IRGC Iranians. Iran denounced the Mossad operation as a fraud but the chatter inside Iran and examination of the documents by experts form many countries demonstrated the documents, and Iran’s nuclear weapons program was real and still functioning. That was why the Americans pulled out of the 2015 treaty and the European nations who refused to join the Americans did little to aid Iran after 2018.
The IRGC was overwhelmed by all these setbacks and is seeking solutions, from just about anyone. That includes cooperative foreigners.