Iran is spinning out of control, just like the last days of the Shah
The last days of the Shah of Iran have become a cautionary tale. The absolute ruler of Iran, who had the best equipped army in the Islamic Middle East, extreme oil wealth, and the backing of the United States, spent his final years watching everything he had once taken for granted spin out of control, seemingly unable to act. It was a miserable process that ended, legend has it, in him fleeing Iran in a plane that struggled to take off because it was so stuffed with gold and any other valuables that he was able to trouser at the last minute.
The Iran we know today — the Islamic Republic — was born from the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah; its lessons are imprinted onto its leaders. As protests strafe the country, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his coterie are undoubtedly acting — but increasingly in a panicked and thoughtless fashion.
The country they lead is facing two severe challenges. Publicly, Iranians have been protesting on the streets since Mahsa Amini was killed in police custody on September 16 last year. The demonstrations are national and cross class and gender. The regime is reacting with customary brutality, but still the protests continue. Those rebelling are mainly Gen Z’ers who have grown up in the social media age (despite the regime’s attempts to shut the platforms down). Leaks from Iranian authorities reveal that very often the interrogators simply don't understand what it is the protestors want — which explains why they are finding it so difficult to quell them.
Internally, the regime is facing a possible succession crisis. Khamenei is 83 and, rumour has it, suffering from illness — perhaps even cancer — just as the Shah was as he faced his own uprising. He might well be on the way out, though this must be treated with a certain degree of scepticism: ayatollahs are like Oxford Dons, they tend to march on forever. Nevertheless, behind the scenes, a very real battle is underway.
Khamenei wants his son Mojtaba Khamenei to succeed him, but understands that, as per the Iranian way of doing things, he needs a tight circle around him, from which he will be Primus inter pares. Mojtaba fancies a more solo approach to things. This has upset many of the power brokers in the establishment, not least the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, General Ali Shamkhani. This battle, in my view, helps explain the recent execution of the British-Iranian Alireza Akbari. As Iranian Deputy Minister of Defence from 2000 to 2005, it was Shamkhani, then Minister of Defence, whom Akbari served under. The two men were close – his execution, under accusations of being a spy, is beyond embarrassing for Shamkhani: it questions his very credibility and fitness for office as a man integral to Iranian national security.
In one sense, this sort of squabble is nothing new. Often, much of the behaviour coming out of Tehran looks whimsical or arbitrary because it is the product not of analysis or policy, but infighting. But in executing a British national it is not just Shamkhani that has been challenged but London. Iranians calling people British spies is nothing new. The tendency of some in Iran to blame the “Perfidious Albion” for everything is so established that it was satirised in a famous Iranian novel.
But reading the Iranian Judiciary’s own website account of Akbari’s case, which runs to over 2,000 words, it does seem that even the Iranians aren’t convinced. London, for its part, is outraged. For the first time last weekend, an MP (the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee) called for the closure of IRGC centres in the UK – something that Iranian dissident expats have long been calling for, as they see these outlets as a threat to their safety.
Not content with infighting and battling thousands of enraged Iranians on the streets, it appears that Tehran is determined to fight on as many fronts as it can. Like the late 1970s, it all seems to be getting out of control.