After months of ever-growing protests and strikes targeting his despotic rule, the Shah of Iran desperately tried to appease the masses in a Nov. 6, 1978, televised broadcast. “I heard the voice of your revolution,” the shah said as he acknowledged past mistakes and promised to amend his ways. But rather than save his rule, that was the moment, according to the narrative of the revolutionaries, that the shah sealed his own demise.
What the shah did in 1978 is what the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran refuse to do today as Iranians express outrage at Mahsa Amini’s death.
What the shah did in 1978 is what the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran refuse to do today as Iranians continue to express outrage at 22-year-old Mahsa Amini’s mid-September death in a hospital days after Iran’s "morality police" detained her for allegedly violating the country’s strictly enforced Islamic dress code. Because they think the shah’s attempt to meet protesters halfway was his most decisive mistake, the hard-line rulers of Tehran have for more than 40 years ruled by the maxim of never giving an inch — lest the entire revolutionary regime fall.
Iran, according to Amnesty International, has instead chosen to beat, arrest and even kill the young Iranian women and men who have dared to demand justice. But rather than be silenced, the demonstrators have shifted their slogans away from just ending the mandatory hijab to ending the Islamic Republic as a whole — precisely because the regime never gives an inch when the people demand their rights and dignity. The slogan "Zan, zendegi, azadi" ("Woman, life, freedom") is itself a brilliant, positive vision for Iran without clerical rule, as compared to the negative "Down with the dictator," a slogan used against the shah in 1979 and later against the clerical rulers.
Therein lies the irony of the lessons Iran’s current leaders drew from the shah’s perceived softness: By stymying reform, narrowing Iran’s political spectrum and imprisoning dissenters, the Islamic Republic has ensured Iranians increasingly have no faith in reform and caused them to conclude that they have no choice but to ask for much more: the end of clerical rule.
Rather than fizzling out, protests have intensified over the past three days. Yet, despite the inspiring courage of the protesters, there are few signs that they will, in the immediate future, succeed in overthrowing the regime. No clear leadership for the movement has emerged, and the regime’s willingness to use brute force is unshaken. The senselessness of the regime will unfortunately ensure that there will be more Mahsa Aminis and an abundance of reasons to protest.
Proponents of former President Donald Trump’s maximum-pressure strategy are rejoicing and probably view the protests as a vindication of their policy. As their reasoning goes: The more the United States strangles the Iranian economy and impoverishes the population, the more likely people will feel no choice but to revolt. Note Rudy Giuliani’s 2018 speech to an organization affiliated with the formerly terrorist-listed organization the Mujahedin-e Khalq (a key supporter of sanctions): "The sanctions are working...we saw a man trying to sell his internal organs for 500 American dollars...these are the kind of conditions that lead to successful revolution."
But as Esfandyar Batmanghelidj of the Bourse & Bazaar Foundation pointed out, the destruction of economic life through sanctions has made protests more frequent, yet less likely to succeed in bringing the regime down. An impoverished population has more reasons to protest, but it simply cannot afford to sustain protests for long, making it easier for the state to quell them. Batmanghelidj argues that the state also has an easier time painting the protesters as serving the interest of the foreign state causing economic misery through sanctions.
Proponents of former President Donald Trump’s maximum-pressure strategy are rejoicing and viewing the protests as a vindication of their policy.
There is little doubt that U.S. sanctions have helped devastate Iran’s economy. Cutting Iran’s oil exports by 80%, the sanctions contracted the Iranian economy by almost 12% between 2018 and 2020, according to Hadi Kahalzadeh of Brandeis University. The number of poor Iranians increased from 22 million to 32 million, and the Iranian middle class — the backbone of the country’s democracy movement — shrunk from 45% to 30% of the population.
Still, despite sanctions weakening the Iranian society, the fearlessness of Iran’s youth may eventually overcome the brutality of the regime. If so, the Iranian people will then be faced with the challenge of ensuring that the collapse of the government paves the way toward a democratic future. People shouldn’t sacrifice their lives to replace a tyrannical government with another — or simply change the last name of the dictator ruling them.
But more often than not, revolutions fail to lead to a democratic future. In 1979, the Iranian people overthrew a shah only to be stuck with an ayatollah. The Arab Spring in Egypt brought about a similar outcome. In Libya and Syria, the Arab uprisings created something even worse: failed states and civil war.
The kinds of sanctions that Giuliani praised may cause an even greater challenge for the protesters, as empirical evidence suggests that strangling sanctions make democratization less likely. Dursun Peksen and Cooper Drury showed in a study from 2010 that “both the immediate and longer term effects of economic sanctions significantly reduce the level of democratic freedoms in the target” countries. The longer-term effect is particularly devastating as the building blocks of a future democracy — from human capital to institutions and respect for legal and moral norms — are eroded.
In Iraq, sanctions all but destroyed secular opposition to Saddam Hussein. Lee Jones, author of “Societies Under Siege,” told The Atlantic in 2018, “The only thing that survived were tribes, which became the core of al-Qaeda and ISIS, and Shia clerics that formed the basis of Shia political parties.”
A study I co-authored in 2012 showed that out of 35 authoritarian states that successfully transitioned to democracy between 1955 and 2000, only South Africa did so while under broad economic sanctions. Of the 12 states that were under embargo-level sanctions during this period, only one, South Africa, transitioned to democracy.
Evidence suggests that strangling sanctions make democratization less likely.
This suggests that the challenges Iran’s young protesters face are not limited to the repression and the never-give-an-inch mantra of the ruling clerics, but also include the confrontation between the West and Iran that has brought about some of the most strangling economic punishment in the history of sanctions.
If Iran’s youth prevail, it will be the self-interest of most states in the international community to help ensure that the building blocks for democratic transition are swiftly restored in order to help avoid a repeat of the tragedy of the 1979 revolution.
But, perhaps more importantly, if the regime succeeds in quelling the protests, Washington must continue to condemn the Iranian government's human rights violations and work through multilateral forums to hold the regime accountable. And in order to avoid punishing the Iranian people (and Iran's long-term prospects for democratization) for the actions of the Iranian government, Washington must also seriously rethink its preference for broad-based crippling sanctions.