Can Iran move from rallies to regime change? Only with a clear plan, says renowned dissident

When nationwide protests persisted in 2022 in response to the death of 22-year old Mahsa Jina Amini after she was arrested by the regime’s so-called morality police, many wondered whether this time could spell the end of the Islamic Republic’s clerical rule. But it hasn't happened yet.

Inside Iran, Majid Tavakoli asks, 'What does it mean to come to the streets?'

Protestors wave Iranian flags and hold a banner that says "Women Life Freedom."
People listen to a speaker during a demonstration to denounce the Iranian government and express support with anti-government protesters in Iran, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 11. (Robert Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)

It's rare to hear from a dissenting voice from inside Iran, particularly now in the midst of yet another crackdown on anti-regime protesters.

But in April, to the surprise of many, prominent thought-leader Majid Tavakoli held a talk and Q&A on Twitter Spaces from inside the Islamic Republic. The topic: Why haven't the nationwide protests led to political change?

With just a few hours' notice, almost 200,000 listeners tuned in to hear the political activist's critique of the diaspora opposition's inability so far to go beyond the general slogans of the Women, Life, Freedom movement — a rallying call for protests in Iran and around the world. 

Tavakoli, who first rose to prominence after delivering a powerful speech on the steps of Tehran's Amirkabir University, forever etching him in the minds of Iranians as being at the heart of the 2009 student protests, argued that political change has not occurred due to the absence of a detailed and transparent "plan for victory."

"No one has any type of vision or conceptualization.… If I'm going to speak very clearly: without creating an image, the future is unclear," Tavakoli said.

Tavakoli also questioned the anatomy of the street protests, concluding that gathering publicly, without a clear purpose, could not trigger regime change.

"What does it mean to come to the streets? To break a few windows and doors? Capture a building? Capture Tehran? Should everyone march toward Tehran? Or capture a few cities? We have never talked about this."

A man in a polo shirt and jacket stands outside, smiling at the camera.
Prominent Iranian thought-leader Majid Tavakoli first rose to prominence after delivering a powerful speech on the steps of Tehran's Amirkabir University during the 2009 student protests. In April, he held a Q&A on Twitter Spaces from inside the Islamic Republic. (Submitted)

The emergence of a revolutionary anti-regime movement has been brewing for years in Iran. When nationwide protests persisted in 2022 in response to the death of 22-year old Mahsa Jina Amini after she was arrested by the regime's so-called morality police, many wondered whether this time could spell the end of the Islamic Republic's rule.

Asef Bayat, scholar and professor of sociology and Middle East studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, agrees the key ingredients for a revolution just haven't happened.

"It needs a continuous collective campaign that is able to put pressure on the incumbent state so that segments of the elites, including the repressive forces, defect or sympathize with the people," he told CBC News.

"Such a movement also needs some kind of organization, some kind of leadership, a vision of the future, and above all the confidence of the people." 

Change unlikely without military, IRGC defections

Tavakoli, 37, who has been arrested several times since 2006, previously said on Twitter that he has served a cumulative seven years in prison for his writing and activism. He was most recently arrested in the midst of the Mahsa Amini protests, and was released on bail earlier this year. 

Tavakoli and other analysts suggest that while Iranians want regime change, it cannot be done without a focused and transparent plan by opposition forces outside of Iran.

That's in part due to the regime's ability to keep military forces loyal — which analysts have pointed out is a crucial factor for the outcome of any revolt.

"What are your plans for the military? Do you have any guarantees that the military will stay in their barracks? They don't have an answer for that…. Who is going to think about this? Who will issue a plan about this?" Tavakoli said.

But, throughout the Islamic Republic's existence, neither the conventional military nor the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has ever taken steps to side with the people by turning against the state. As it did in 2009 and 2019, the IRGC carried out bloody crackdowns on its people in these most recent protests, killing hundreds and jailing tens of thousands — fulfilling its duty to safeguard the Islamic regime.

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Journalist and former political prisoner Nejat Bahrami, who previously served as a deputy minister at the Ministry of Education, says he often heard from high-level officials and senior authorities who said they had no hope of reform from within the system.

"They would signal to me that if there is a trustable alternative outside of the country, they would be more willing to help that force for the collapse of the Islamic Republic — to save Iran," Bahrami said.

"Like average people in Iran, many of them are under enormous economic pressure and lead incredibly difficult lives. And they have long distanced themselves from the ideology of the Islamic Republic."

But Bahrami contends they need assurance about the security of Iran's future. He says over the years the regime has instilled doubt into hearts of many that radical political change would cause chaos, uncertainty and civil war.

That's a common tactic, said Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University.

"One of the most important parts of the playbook of any authoritarian regime from China to Iran … is to ensure that a viable alternative doesn't emerge. The argument they always make is: Either us or chaos; there's nobody else," he said.

A way forward

Milani says regimes like Iran's seem invincible when they're in power, but can fall quickly.

"That's how authoritarianism falls, first gradually then suddenly. The 'gradually' has long started — the 'suddenly', I don't know when," said Milani.

A person waves their arms in front of a fire in the street during a protest as other masked protesters look on.
Iranian demonstrators taking to the streets in Tehran during a protest days after Amini died in custody. (AFP/Getty Images)

But while there have been novel and unprecedented diaspora efforts to unify against the regime under the umbrella of Women, Life, Freedom, there have since also been rifts

Bayat says people and groups today seem to want to be clear about what they are getting into, because of Iranians' experience during the Islamic Revolution. Exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini swept to power in 1979, reneging on all his commitments — and created an authoritarian theocracy instead of promised freedoms and prosperity for Iranians.

"I think it is possible to agree on basic minimum principles and work on them as the basis of a united front, albeit with the acknowledgement of differences. The rest is honest and patient negotiations with the intention of working together," Bayat said.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad, director of Berlin-based Centre for Middle East and Global Order, said that for the revolutionary process to progress, there needs to be an acceptable political alternative vision – primarily drafted by domestic opposition forces.

"A credible political vision not only when it comes to political issues, but also economic issues as to how a future system will be organized," Fathollah-Nejad said. 

Tavakoli emphasized that any serious opposition forces, wanting to bring about political change, need to be accountable to the Iranian people — by providing details about their plans for a future Iran.

"Even if nothing is worse than the present situation, a political force has responsibilities. You can't say that because nothing is worse than the continued status quo, that whatever happens, happens," Tavakoli said.

Demonstrators dressed  in red cloaks  and hoods  hold placards reading 'Women, Life, Freedom.'
Demonstrators hold placards reading 'Women, Life, Freedom' as they demonstrate against the persecution of women in Iran, on Whitehall in central London on March 8. (Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images)

"Those of us who stand between the past and the future, those of us who don't want the past, but haven't yet obtained the future. What do we need to do?" Tavakoli continued.

Paying attention to the voices of the opposition within Iran is crucial for the diaspora's understanding, Milani said.

"I read Mr. Tavakoli's tweets regularly. When I read Toomaj Salehi's poems, Narges Mohammadi's writings, Nasrin Sotoudeh's writings … the notion that these people are somehow missing something that the opposition outside can teach them, is absurd," said Milani. 

Hedie Kimiaee, a journalist who was forced to leave Iran just over a year ago, says Tavakoli's recent Twitter talk was meant to be a brutal wake-up call for diaspora opposition activists on the realities of the protest movement on the ground in Iran.

"It was like a ray of light overshadowed the atmosphere on Twitter and social media," she said.

But for now, experts have noted Iran seems stuck between its revolutionary moment and a full-out revolution.


Nahayat Tizhoosh

Freelance contributor

Nahayat Tizhoosh is a freelance journalist formerly with CBC News Network's Power & Politics.