Reza Marashi, Research Director, National Iranian American Council

Revolution or civil rights movement? That’s the question I’ve been asked repeatedly as the latest round of protests in Iran commenced. But it’s not the first time I’ve tried to explain what even many inside Iran had trouble explaining. In 2009, I served in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the State Department and was one of a small handful of people who covered the post-election protests from start to finish. Days in, we were asked to clarify how things would end – an impossible question to answer. However, after taking a step back and examining the situation dispassionately, we gave our superiors an assessment that proved correct. Broadly conceived, the core elements of our advice eight years ago remain true today. A few key points illustrate why.

First, we highlighted that there are essentially four pillars of stability for the ruling system in Iran: legitimacy in the eyes of the population; efficiency in managing the affairs of the state; unity amongst political elites; and the government’s monopoly on violence. In 2009, the first two pillars were damaged and exacerbated by cracking down on protestors. Political elites remained at odds to varying degrees until most factions coalesced around Hassan Rouhani four years later in the 2013 presidential election. However, the government’s coercive capacity remained intact – and eventually was on full display.

Fast-forward to the present, and the status quo is arguably a more challenging scenario for protestors. Government legitimacy and efficient management remain damaged, but political elites are thus far not at each other’s throats like they were in 2009. Perhaps more importantly, few would dispute the notion that Iran’s government will once again use force against protestors if survival of the system is thought to be at stake. What’s past is prologue...

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