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Iran’s Regime Stands on the Precipice: Will It Fall?


According to analysts, several indicators currently signal the coming downfall of the Iranian regime. The most prominent of these are: suppression of civil liberties, increased control over the media, increased censorship of citizens, increased military presence in public places, escalating use of violence against demonstrators, detention of political opponents, travel restrictions, and even greater corruption and nepotism than usual.

But do these indicators, all of which are standard behaviour for the regime showing its brutal nature, point to its imminent collapse? Those members of Iran’s long-suffering population with a better memory are concerned at the potential results of any changes, worried about whether these will genuinely lead to democracy this time or simply replace one dictatorship with another, as happened after the revolution which overthrew the Pahlavi regime in 1979, bringing the Mullahs to power.

According to a study by Canadian academic Lucan Way regarding the use of the power transfer model in the post-communist period, the data show that simply overthrowing the leader rather than demanding regime change destabilises and undermines an authoritarian regime by 50%. By contrast, attempts to democratise the regime as a means of changing or reforming it, result in a 100% increase in the chances of authoritarian regimes continuing to cling to power. These major differences lead to widespread underestimates of the consequences of any of the factors that we previously believed affected the downfall of authoritarian regimes.


In this regard, Iran faces three options:

According to the first option, Khamenei could be replaced by another senior clerical figure from the current leadership, thus continuing with the same regime. With option number two, the current leadership would be replaced by a democratic system, with regular genuine elections to appoint democratically elected presidents.  Finally, option three would see the current leadership losing power in favour of another elite group, replacing one authoritarian regime with another.

Based on these three options, if Iran’s Guardian Jurist and so-called Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, fears that he will be punished for his crimes after the fall, he will be more inclined to start a civil war to protect his own power base. Meanwhile, if the Iranian regime fears that it’s in danger of being overthrown and replaced by another tyrannical regime, its leaders and personnel are well aware that they will face a greater possibility of being punished. Therefore, we cannot imagine that the current regime will easily relinquish power without taking into account the price it’s likely to pay for doing so following its downfall.

As for all Iran’s oppressed ethnic colonised peoples, including the Ahwazis (Arabs), Turks, Kurds, Persians, Baluchis, Turkmen, and Caspian people, they are keenly aware that none of the Middle Eastern countries where authoritarian regimes have been overthrown since the Second World War have yet succeeded in establishing the democratic systems of governance that were the objective of ousting those regimes. Indeed, despite the global expansion of democracy and its establishment on a larger scale worldwide since the Cold War, the regional results and statistics indicate more pessimistic expectations regarding the contemporary Middle East.


Domestic upheaval does not bring down a fragile regime

It is clear that a fragile authoritarian system like Iran’s cannot fall through domestic upheaval alone. Rather, such a collapse usually occurs after the intervention of other factors, such as regional and international elements. In the current circumstances, domestically, the Iranian state is characterised by repression, political instability, poor economic performance, social tensions, and abysmal governance.

There are also many political and social theories that support these observations on the regime’s weakness and point to the possibility of its upcoming collapse. For example, the theory of neopatrimonialism argues that states collapse when ruling elites become corrupt and overly powerful, using their political and economic advantage to enrich themselves and their fellow citizens at the expense of the people. If we look at the current situation in Iran, these issues have played a fundamental role in the popular protests, which have continued to push the regime towards social collapse, with a complete lack of public confidence in the government, and anger over rising poverty levels leading to civil unrest and to the eventual failure of the Iranian state.

Another theory revealing something about the situation in Iran is the ‘resource curse’, which states that the abundance of natural resources that Iran seized after annexing surrounding regions such as Ahwaz, Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Baluchistan, the Caspian, and Turkmenistan to its lands, actively increased the extent of economic inequality, with the government’s disastrous mismanagement of these resources and lack of accountability pushing the Iranian state to the brink of collapse.

As the fragile state theory points out, with the Iranian state unable to provide basic services and protect its citizens, the population can become disillusioned and eventually lose faith in the government, leading to the collapse of the state.

Despite the definitions and theories that I mentioned here, however, there are several other domestic factors in Iran which have a decisive impact on the regime’s potential survival or fall. Most notably among these are the state’s vast military and security forces. The Iranian regime has poured massive resources into building an immense and powerful military machine dedicated to protecting the regime and the status quo, which means that bringing about the regime’s downfall is not a simple matter. Rather, the situation requires the use of other methods, including local politics through protests, to pressure the regime to liberalise and respect its citizens’ rights, which may weaken its grip on power, as happened during the era of Iranian President Khatami from 1997 to 2005. At that time, public pressure, protests, and campaigns effectively helped to raise awareness of the Iranian regime’s human rights violations and its failure to respect its citizens’ rights, eroding the government’s authority and ultimately leading to a weaker, more fragile state structure. This also provided a platform for all of Iran’s people to make their voices heard and express their discontent with the regime. Again, however, it also leaves the regime in power.

Another factor mitigating against the possibility of the regime’s collapse is the continuing strong bond between the regime and the dominant Persian ethnicity in Iran. According to the ‘selectorate’ theory, which uses continuous variables to classify regimes by describing the proportions of alliances within the total population, there is a significant historical relationship between the dominant Persian ethnicity and the ruling leadership in the so-called Islamic Republic. This relationship has also been exemplified by the previous absence of the dominant provinces in central Iran from the four decades of protests preceding the latest uprising.

In this section of the article, the focus will be on regional and international factors separately:

 The contributions of external factors to the regime’s weakness and the collapse of the Iranian state depend to a large extent on the specific context and circumstances of the particular nation-state. In general, however, external factors can contribute to weakening and undermining the ruling power and helping bring about the collapse of the state in several ways, including the imposition of severe economic sanctions by cutting off the regime’s access to basic resources and depriving it of much-needed revenue, especially military spare parts, as well as embargoes, foreign interference in domestic politics, and an influx of refugees.

 This situation could also hinder the regime’s ability to provide essential services and support its population, leading to broader social unrest and instability. Hardline economic pressures can also further weaken the government by usurping control over the nation-state’s resources and political decision-making process, leaving the regime without the power to act in the interests of its citizens. Foreign interference in domestic politics can also weaken the regime by creating internal divisions and power struggles, as well as weakening its legitimacy and authority. Finally, an influx of refugees can weaken the ruling power by squeezing the nation-state’s already limited resources and infrastructure, while creating social and political tensions in the host country.


Regional role

Support from regional countries for increasing economic pressure on the regime and diplomatic and media pressures are certainly among the factors that could accelerate the downfall of Iran’s regime. International policies to implement economic sanctions and isolate the regime politically must start from neighbouring regional states, which could make the regime more vulnerable to collapse. For example, the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia led to widespread Arab media support for the civil movement in Iran which has had a tremendous impact on the Iranian regime’s stability.

The role of other countries’ regional politics in the downfall of the Iranian regime is fundamental in achieving it. For instance, if other countries in the region provide political and financial support to the opposition, especially to the non-Persian minorities who collectively make up the majority of the country’s population, this is likely to encourage more people to participate and pressure the regime to make meaningful changes. In addition, if countries in the region support human rights in Iran, this could increase pressure on the regime to reform or face isolation from the international community. Finally, providing humanitarian aid to those affected by the repressive policies in Iran could also further weaken the regime’s grip on power.


The international community

The social situation in Iran, especially since the 1979 revolution, has also been affected by other external events, with the conditions there exacerbated by external pressures such as economic sanctions or media interference. For example, suppose the international community wants to change the regime. In that case, it must intervene in Iran, just as US and UN intervention has helped to bring about regime change and topple tyrants in Iraq and Libya, and as the EU’s intervention in Ukraine is helping its government to resist (Iranian-backed) Russian annexation.

If the international community were to stop providing aid to Iran’s regime, this might help weaken it and eventually bring about its collapse. For example, despite the current sanctions on the regime, it was discovered that 40 of the 52 components in an Iranian Shahed-136 drone shot down in Ukraine were manufactured by 13 American companies, and the other 12 were produced by Canada, Switzerland, Taiwan, and China.

So, the wish of Iran’s people is not only that other states should withdraw any support from the ruling regime but that the international community should actively refuse any recognition of its supposed legitimacy. As a result of such exclusion, the regime would be unable to secure international support. Instead, it would be forced to resort to increasingly repressive measures in order to maintain control, resulting in the same roiling unrest seen towards the end of the Pahlavi era.

 This underlines the crucial, pivotal role played by the international community in helping to weaken Iran’s regime and in creating conflicts of interest by supporting rival ideologies, imposing economic sanctions, and supporting a strong, all-encompassing opposition in Iran.

These competing ideologies may be the core and infrastructure upon which the international powers rely to create a situation of conflicting interests inside Iran. For example, the competing ideologies in Iran resulted in significant conflicts that emerged between the rise of religious rivalries -Shia fundamentalism at the expense of moderate Sunni religious institutions in Baluchistan, Kurdistan, and Turkmenistan – not to mention ethnocentric and nationalist differences between the ruling regime which relies on bolstering historical and deeply racist Persian nationalist affiliations that clash with the autonomous aspirations of non-Persian colonised nations in regions like Ahwaz, South Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, and Baluchistan. These competing ideologies may lead to the collapse of state authority.

Meanwhile, the economic sanctions imposed by the United States and other countries in response to Iran’s nuclear programme have weakened the economy, leading to increased poverty and widespread public discontent, which has led in turn to the emergence of strong opposition movements that highlighted the growing popular discontent and dissatisfaction with the regime and ultimately to the weakening of the government’s authority.



 It’s clear that the Iranian regime cannot be brought down through domestic upheaval alone; it’s probable that it will only collapse if the country is invaded or taken over by another state due to its strong authoritarian government structure, its fanatical so-called Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and its blindly loyal military. This being the case, there are several ways in which other countries wishing to help overthrow the regime and thus ensure regional stability can help the social movement in Iran. The most likely scenario would be a limited military invasion in which targeted attacks are launched on nuclear and missile installations and some economic facilities. While some suggest that a large-scale military assault would be required to bring Iran’s regime down, this is both excessive and highly unlikely to happen, as the West, especially the United States of America, does not wish to engage in another war, especially in light of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Another way in which powerful states can support the revolutionary movement in Iran is through the use of covert tactics or economic pressure more broadly to destabilise the country and make it vulnerable to conquest. In addition, the use of policies that have a significant impact on Iran’s internal politics and the installation of a puppet regime by a foreign power would effectively control Iran through financial interests, economic support, and military support.

Finally, to further undermine the regime, one could switch the focus from its political action in its central Persian heartlands and support the autonomous political movements of the country’s non-Persian ethnic minorities(majority in their regions) in the periphery. They are seeking greater national autonomy or self-determination for their regions to end the long decades of suffering due to systematic colonisation, ethnic oppression through sociocultural political and economic marginalisation and compulsory assimilation policies that devalued the culture, language and identities of these peoples, all of whom are deemed inferior to ethnic Persians. As a result of these policies, Iran’s non-Persian ethnic minorities have, for decades, been subjected to a profoundly racist minoritisation process by the rulers in Tehran, in addition to the regime’s customary repression, despite each forming the majority in their own regions, and they’re collectively constituting at least 70 per cent of Iran’s population.

The regime’s downfall could also be accelerated through intervention by foreign powers with efforts to create a rift between the regime and its military; as the end of the Pahlavi era showed, when an authoritarian state loses power over its army, its days are numbered. This could happen through a successful military coup, or if the military were to align itself with a foreign power.

In conclusion, although internal upheavals may have the potential to destabilise Iran, it is unlikely that they will be sufficient to bring about the collapse of the Iranian state. Therefore, it would require a foreign invasion (or at least a limited one) for change to happen in Iran.


By Mostafa Hetteh

Mostafa Hetteh is a researcher at Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies(DIRS). Hetteh tweets under @mostafahetteh  



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