So what keeps Iran’s Supreme Leader awake at night?

The biggest threat to the survival of the Islamic Republic might not come from sanctions imposed by the west, but from growing divisions that are disintegrating the regime from the inside.

Iranians celebrate the 34th anniversary of the 1979 revolution. Demotix/Hanif Shoaei. All rights reserved.Iranians celebrate the 34th anniversary of the 1979 revolution. Demotix/Hanif Shoaei. All rights reserved.

In post-revolutionary Iran the month of February has a lot of symbolic significance for the state. Every year the ten fateful days in February which resulted in the victory of the revolution in 1979, are commemorated as Dahe Fajr, ‘the Ten Days of Dawn’. However, this year ‘Dawn’ is celebrated at a time when the sun is unlikely to rise over the Iranian political horizon.

This year the regime celebrates its anniversary at a point when ideological fatigue overshadows its revolutionary zeal and when internal factionalism is eroding its foundations. As the Islamic Republic is celebrating its 34th birthday, it is facing some fundamental challenges. The main instability is not caused by the ongoing economic crisis nor is it caused by international pressure and the looming threat of war. The root of instability lies in the very corridors of power in Tehran. 

Over the last year or so there have been many discussions about the impact of sanctions and the ways in which they are supposed to destabilize the Iranian regime. It is not a secret that the tightening of existing US-led sanctions against Iran has already begun to affect the economy.

Useless sanctions?

It is reported that Iranian oil revenues have fallen around 45 percent in the last twelve months because of sanctions. Since October 2012 the country has been facing a backbreaking currency crisis. In a remarkably short period of time, the Iranian Rial has lost over 70 percent of its value and the crisis is getting worse by the day. At the same time the IMF has confirmed that Iran’s economy has gone into recession for the first time in two decades.

This hyperinflation has been making everyday life insufferable for the weaker segments of society. Iranian consumer prices are rising at over 70 percent a month and many households can no longer cope with it. More long-term problems such as youth unemployment, corruption, extreme class division and nepotism are worsening in the economic downturn.

Nevertheless, the question is whether the current economic conditions will be an existential threat for a regime which has proved itself to be exceptionally resilient. The short answer is no. Despite the fact that the ongoing economic crisis will add to the workload of the security apparatus and the controlling mechanisms of the state, the bad economy alone cannot threaten the continuity of the Islamic Republic. Just in the same way that North Korea and Zimbabwe are surviving sanctions and embargoes, the Islamic Republic will also find a way. 

After all, despite all restrictions, the country sits on about $10 trillion of oil reserves and another $3.5 trillion of gas reserves. Hence, in a world of ever-increasing demand for oil, the state will generate enough resources, be it through the black-market, to feed its essential bureaucracy and security apparatus - and to prevent any forceful political transition.

Although the economic crisis weakens the regime, its importance is overstated. Just in the same way that the sanctions that created an economic crisis in Iraq did not lead to the disintegration of the repressive regime of Saddam Hussein, so the Iranian regime will survive.

The threat of the war is not existential for the regime either. Despite pressure from Israel, Washington is still reluctant to consider military intervention. Even if they were to go ahead with it this year, the possibility of a ground invasion is totally out of the picture. Indeed, the regime’s continuity is not going to be threatened by a tactical airstrike upon a few nuclear sites up and down the country.

The threat of internal divisions

However, what keeps the Supreme Leader awake at night on the eve of the 34th anniversary of the revolution is the extreme factionalism, which is disintegrating the core of the establishment. Exhausting factionalism now more than anything threatens the stability of the regime.

Internal political divisions are far more dangerous to the regime than either economic crisis or external intervention. Over the last few years political rivalry between many powerful factions of the regime has gradually eroded the very foundations of the state.

Although division and competition are necessary for democracies, they can be lethal for authoritarian states. After all many authoritarian states have crumbled due to internal disintegration. Today, the authoritarian political structures in Iran are overshadowed by a clash of interests, but the antagonistic rivalries are no longer between the so-called ‘reformist‘ and ‘conservative‘ camps. Indeed, the presidential election in 2009 was the last nail in the coffin of the reform project. Since then the influential reform leaders have either ended up on house arrest and imprisonment or effectively become paralyzed.

In 2009, the Supreme Leader put all his eggs in the same basket by explicitly backing Ahmadinejad who claimed victory in one of the most controversial elections of the Islamic state. The vast majority of the conservative camp were united in supporting Ahmadinejad as well. However, shortly after the election, the sharp divisions between the various factions of the conservative camp started to unfold.

Fraternal hatred 

Over the last three years a multidimensional battle has been launched among various factions of the conservative camp. These bitter clashes have had some serious casualties for some of the most high profile people in the system, the main rivals have been the Majlis (The Islamic Parliament) and the government.

The current Majlis, which is primarily made-up of conservatives, has been making life difficult for the government. The Majlis has kept putting pressure on the president by blocking the government’s projects and impeaching nine cabinet ministers.

Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, has never hesitated to provoke and humiliate his powerful opponents. Some of these clashes have become very personal. The leading figures of the Islamic Republic, who according to the state’s discourse are selfless servants of Islam, keep publicly accusing one and other of corruption, deviation, venality and payola. People around these figures, such as family members and political allies, are not immune from these attacks. 

In early February, before the Majles impeached one of Ahmadinejad’s ministers, he attended the Majles with a ‘secret tape’ publicly shedding light on the corrupt activities of the Speaker’s brother. This paved the way for a furious personal clash between Ahmadinejad and the Speaker Ali Larijani, who is a member of one of the most powerful families in the Islamic Republic. Only a few days after this controversy, the supporters of the president in the city of Qom attacked Ali Rarijani while he was about to make a public speech on the anniversary of the revolution. These ongoing conflicts are disheartening for the constituency of people who still believe in the moral and ideological supremacy of the Islamic state.

As international pressure is increasing upon Iran, the Supreme Leader keeps calling upon the leading figures of the Islamic state to unify. He even publicly labeled as ‘traitors’ those officials who undermined the show of political stability. Yet, the situation is getting worse by the day and as the next presidential election looms, more clashes are threatened.

Silent crumbling

In the current situation, there are two significant factors worth highlighting. The first is the inability of the Supreme Leader to exert control. The Supreme Leader, who is supposed to have the monopoly of power, seems to have no capability to sufficiently address the problem. This is exactly where the danger lies.

Although political divisions always existed in the Islamic Republic, it has never reached this level. While Ayatollah Khomeini was alive he always had the final say and despite the fact that his successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei never had his charisma and credentials, he managed to control the political divisions until recently. Now the regime is in uncharted waters.

The second factor is the emerging ideological fatigue in the Islamic Republic. The current political situation portrays the fact that ideology, in its classical sense, no longer works to unite and mobilize the rulers and the ruled for the common good of the Islamic State. The revolutionary ideology, which is partly about collective morality and political unity, is now giving its place to its own antithesis. 

The Iranian political system is no longer about the supremacy of a top-down ideology. Indeed, extreme factionalism is exhausting the standardizing, unifying and mobilizing properties of the state’s ideology. The ideology is no longer compelling enough to homogenize even the leading figures of the state, let alone convince the masses to sacrifice even more for the ambitious policies of the state. Should political factionalism be contagious, there will be some grave consequences for the regime.

Should factionalism reach the security apparatus of the regime, in particular the Revolutionary Guards, then the Islamic Republic is facing an existential threat. The Islamic Republic can survive the economic crisis and international pressure as long as its core political and security establishment is not fragmented. Otherwise, the regime may get lost in the fog of its own instability.

About the author

Afshin Shahi is a lecturer in Middle East Politics and International Relations at the University of Bradford. He tweets @AfshinShahi