I remember the overthrow of the Shah quite vividly. Television coverage of young radicals with guns out on the street demanding the end of corruption, a more open society and a better distribution of wealth. The Shah fled and Ayatollah Khomeini flew into a tumultuous welcome. Then the state clammed up and the revolution ate its children. For over forty years now Iran has presented an austere face to the outside world, a theocratic monolith prepared to face off to all comers. That vision is what we have grown up with but now there are signs their monolith is cracking.
A nation of nearly 90 million, Iran is a sizable force in the Middle East. But that 90 million is not a homogenous block something like 40-50% ( depending on whose numbers are used ) are not Persian. The Kurds are the best known minority and are kept under tight scrutiny, but Azeris, Baluchis, Arabs are none of them especially happy and are Sunnis in a Shia state. And the Shia state makes sure they don’t get the wrong ideas. But the Shia state itself is looking unstable.
The generation that pushed the fall of the Shah are now well into their sixties, below them sit younger generations who are less than enamoured with the state of Iran. This blew up in the last year after heavy handed thuggery by the morality police. Iran got a taste of what is bubbling below. Public disorder, belittling of the clergy ( knocking turbans off was a favourite ) and demand for change became common. Slowly the authorities cracked down and restored order, but it could go off at any time again. Meantime 5 million Iranians in a worldwide diaspora also help to keep the regime on its toes.
The regime of course is not without strengths the Revolutionary Guard is a back stop on which the ayatollahs can call in times of danger. Many young people work for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and its business offshoots, so it is not a clear cut generational fight. The regime also has a security apparatus which keeps its grip on power. But that grip remains tenuous, while the regime has been singing the praises of Hamas, at a football crowd it was the opposite.
Moment courageous Iranian football fans tell pro-Palestine supporters to ‘take that flag and shove it up your a***’ during attempt by regime backers to rally for Hamas at a football match | Daily Mail Online
Maybe this suppressed anger explains the reason Tehran is not going all out against Israel. The ethnic and social divides make it too dangerous to get involved and the regime must keep the home front stable.
But how long can it do so ? Iran can either increase the repression and risk that everything blows up much like the Shah, or it can relax and risk the dissolution of the Revolution as the ayatollahs fade slowly into the background. And perhaps now there is a third consideration, as Israel once it has sorted out its own local difficulties, might just want to take Iran down a peg or two. Nobody seriously believes Hamas had no help from Iran, and an eye for an eye is very much the Middle Eastern way. Both the US and the other regional power the Saudis would shed no tears. So one way or another the Iranian monolith is feeling the pressure and change beckons. The unknown is what happens next. The Middle East is full of tragedy started by unintended consequences.