The protests in Iran sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini are still going strong after more than a month. Amini’s death after being arrested by the “moral police” has become a new symbol of the Iranian people’s fight. Young women are leading the charge in the protests, which are largely participated by Iranian youths. The participants and supporters are calling the protests a “women’s revolution” or a “female-led revolution”.
This round of protests in Iran is undoubtedly unique. For example, the protestors are boldly attacking Iranian leader Ali Khamenei and the political system of the Islamic republic. Meanwhile, women are going out on the streets without donning hijabs. Clearly, Iran needs change.
The Islamic Republic of Iran remains stable, and the current regime has not reached a critical stage. Change in Iran will not happen overnight.
However, no matter how much the protesters and supporters, as well as the international community who are unhappy with the Iranian regime, want change, the protests are still a far cry from a revolution. The Islamic Republic of Iran remains stable, and the current regime has not reached a critical stage. Change in Iran will not happen overnight.
External forces cannot change Iran
In stark contrast to how big powers such as the US, Europe and NATO reacted to the Arab Spring protests in Egypt, Libya, Syria and more, the Iranian protesters have only received verbal support and no material aid despite repeated calls for external support since protests began. The hope of Iranian protesters and their supporters of overthrowing the Islamic republic with external intervention is destined to be dashed.
Why is this so? This is because other countries and organisations fully understand that the current regime is firmly in control of Iran, and would not throw their lot in with the hapless protesters. The experiences of the US and NATO with Iraq and Afghanistan is enough to quell any intention of forceful intervention. The fact is, no country in the world would hastily take military action against Iran, which is capable of strong resistance, when their core interests have not been severely violated.
... there are certain prerequisites needed for Western powers to start a colour revolution in other countries.
To put it simply, the external parties would not militarily support the protests for change in Iran, and there is also little hope that they will initiate a "colour revolution". As seen in the past, there are certain prerequisites needed for Western powers to start a colour revolution in other countries. For instance, the target country must have longstanding, close ties with Western powers, strong opposition leaders, a large number of people who can take to the streets, and widespread support — all of which are non-existent in Iran.
In fact, while some Western powers dislike or even detest Iran, their priority would not be to overthrow the regime. Their greater hope is for the regime to change its attitude towards them, especially now with intensifying great power competition. It is easy to see why even after the protests broke out, Western countries continued to push for nuclear talks with the Iranian government.
There were practically no reports about the Iran protests in China’s mainstream media...
Meanwhile, Russia and China have long maintained good diplomatic relations with Iran. In recent years, Iran’s relations with Russia and China have deepened, into what international discourse deems as a “trilateral alliance”. There were practically no reports about the Iran protests in China’s mainstream media, which instead focused on Khamenei’s comments on 3 October about the unrest. The rapid development of official relations between Russia and Iran this year is also evident, especially after the war in Ukraine broke out.
Indeed, there is no chance for any external force globally to drive change in Iran.
Change in domestic forces
More and more Iranians have grown dissatisfied with the current situation in their countries in recent years. However, there is no prominent opposition party or opposition leader in the current Iranian regime, posing a key hindrance for the Iranian protests to triumph.
Conservatives and reformists are part and parcel of the discussion of Iran’s politics. Before the death of former president and prominent reformist Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — who, like Khamenei, was a right hand man of former leader Ruhollah Khomeini — the reformists were well placed to challenge the conservatives. However, the reformists were left leaderless and weakened after Rafsanjani’s death on 8 January 2017. Hence, few Iranians would place their hopes in the reformists even amid the current protests.
... revolutions — even the successful ones — come at a high price for the country and the people, not to mention the unsuccessful ones...
Almost every protest that has broken out in Iran since 2009 has been suppressed, leaving the people’s demands largely unmet. The Iranian society has become like a balloon that is constantly being inflated — if Iran’s social problems remain unresolved, Iranian society will one day explode.
And this “explosion” will be the revolution — if this happens, there will definitely be foreign intervention.
It remains uncertain whether there will be a revolution in Iran, and if so, when. In general, revolutions — even the successful ones — come at a high price for the country and the people, not to mention the unsuccessful ones, such as the Arab Spring in Libya, and Egypt returning to its old political system after years of turmoil.
The Iranian people want change, but not by means of a revolution if possible. In fact, the alternative would be to implement reforms within the regime. The continuation of the regime is the top priority of any ruler, and most would choose to introduce reforms rather than risk a collapse of the regime. Also, divisions within the ruling group that were masked by prolonged periods of individual rule often surface with the resignation or death of the long-time ruler, especially in the absence of a widely accepted successor.
Iran will inevitably face this situation after its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei steps down. In the post-Khamenei era, Iran’s ruling class will be more receptive to the people’s cries and drive change. Reforms within the regime are more likely and would often come at the lowest cost.
China-Iran relations amid protests in Iran
While Iranian officials claim that hostile forces are always thinking of ways to trap Iran in a state of chaos and unrest, the current protests in Iran are clearly driven by internal rifts. Besides Iranian decision makers, countries hoping to develop bilateral relations with Iran should also pay attention.
Official China-Iran relations have developed relatively well in recent years, notably in mutual political support. Iranian officials have openly and consistently supported the Chinese government on issues involving Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong. Even when China’s anti-Covid policy stirred up controversy domestically, Iranian officials were never critical. Hence, it is understandable for China to refrain from commenting on the ongoing protests in Iran. Since China’s news platforms are controlled by the state, there are very few reports on the protests in Iran in mainstream Chinese media.
China’s silence in dealing with the internal affairs of Iran and other countries has become a new reason for the international community to be dissatisfied with China.
But China needs to understand that there is a growing divide between the Iranian regime and the people, as the number of Iranians dissatisfied with the current situation in the country grows. The increasingly frequent mass protests also illustrate the current challenge the Iranian regime faces from the people.
Specifically, women, university and secondary school students, workers and lawyers are participating in the mass demonstrations. Some shops have also closed in protest of the situation in the country. While fewer people took to the streets to protest this time, the existing Iranian regime is under even greater pressure to reform itself as the younger generation grows up and social problems rear their ugly head.
How should we deal with the different voices in other countries, especially those that could undergo reform? This is indeed a question that China has to consider. Presently, China’s silence in dealing with the internal affairs of Iran and other countries has become a new reason for the international community to be dissatisfied with China.
If these countries are coincidentally on the verge of reform, their dissatisfaction with China’s response may affect the development of bilateral relations after the reform. After all, these protestors and their supporters may become the country’s future leaders.
While it is necessary for the Chinese government to maintain and even deepen its official relations with Iran, there is also a hidden danger in continuing to turn a blind eye to the cries and demands of the Iranian people. The Chinese government should seriously consider how they should deal with Iran, a country where mass demonstrations have become a regular phenomenon.
Related: Iran seeks greater regional role through full membership of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation | Deepening China-Iran relations could change global geopolitics | Chinese academic: Can China challenge the US’s standing in the Middle East? | Chinese academic: Beijing does not want China to replace the US in the Middle East