There will be a lot of moving parts in a post-Khamenei transition.
The Islamic Republic of Iran turned 44 years old about a month ago despite being in the throes of evolutionary regime change for over a decade. The unprecedented scale of nationwide protests last year, sparked by the killing of a young woman who ran afoul of the country’s dress code, only added fuel to the fire. Though the demonstrations were never enough to truly threaten the regime, they did force it into a more defensive position by, for example, softening the anti-hijab law. And after the poisoning of some 1,000 schoolgirls by what many assume were religious extremists, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the perpetrators should be given the death penalty.
The problem is that there’s only so much Tehran can do to placate the public. If it compromises too much on issues like the hijab mandate, it risks emboldening the masses into pressing for greater change. The government understands that years of public dissent are increasingly a threat to the clerical establishment. Meanwhile, it has expended many resources on a national security strategy to maintain and expand Tehran’s sphere of influence throughout the region.
The 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Syria challenged this strategy and forced Tehran to dedicate even more resources to prop up the Assad regime. Around the same time, the United States tightened its sanctions campaign against Tehran to halt its efforts at developing a nuclear weapon. Things got so bad that Tehran could no longer balance its foreign policy objectives with the imperative to manage its domestic political economy. And so, in late 2013, the government of then-President Hassan Rouhani entered talks that culminated in the 2015 nuclear agreement with the U.S.
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