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Veils are burning and the regime is cracking down. What is the endgame for the protests in Iran?

From a brutal crackdown to civil war, an expert looks at scenarios for how a current wave of protests might unfold.

It’s been more than two months. There are daily protests against the regime in Iran in several parts of the country and daily reminders of the regime’s brutality. There is a steady stream of condemnation from the rest of the world and a steady stream of invective from Iran’s leaders.

Increasingly, as the anger rages and the regime shows no sign of giving in, the question in Iran is: How — and when — will it end?

Yet the regime shows no sign of buckling or relenting in any way. Its security forces fire live ammunition in the streets. Nearly every day, the number of dead rises. The latest count by the Oslo-based Iran Human Rights group stands at more than 340 dead, 43 of them children. Journalists, filmmakers, actors, singers and athletes have been seized, the internet has been tightly restricted, and thousands of demonstrators have been arrested, among them a number of teenagers who have already been sentenced to death.

With no signs of compromise evident on either side, what are the potential endgames in Iran?

Scenario 1: crackdown

There have been ample signs that a large-scale crackdown may be coming.

And yet thus far, the government’s retaliation, though harsh and often lethal, hasn’t approached the levels of brutality seen in past uprisings. The motorcycle brigades wielding long-bladed knives against tightly packed demonstrators, so effective against the 2009 Green Movement, haven’t been in evidence this time.

Why hasn’t the crackdown been harsher?

One answer probably involves the fact that women and schoolgirls are at the forefront of so many of the demonstrations. For that reason alone, the regime may have made a calculation that the most brutal option was more difficult this time around. Initially at least, the police did not use assault rifles, although more recently videos on social media have shown them using shotguns to fire directly into the crowds.

Another explanation has to do with the sheer breadth of the movement. Demonstrations have erupted in more than 230 cities and towns across the country, in many cases as pop-up gatherings of a few hundred or a few thousand protesters, rather than the organized millions that filled cities in the past. That has made blanket police control more challenging.

An Iranian political observer who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal indicated there was another, more insidious reason the crackdown had been lighter than in the past. The security services, she said, were preparing for the long haul, and holding younger recruits back until they are needed for a more forceful response. A leaked tape circulated on social media suggested military planners were worried the rookies didn’t have the stomach to attack the mothers and girls protesting in their neighborhoods and, therefore, should be kept in reserve. It may also be that a historical memory is influencing the security services’ current tactics. In the revolution that overthrew the shah in 1979, demonstrators appealed to young soldiers to join them, placing flowers in the barrels of their guns; a video currently circulating on social media, showing women handing out red flowers in Tehran to security forces, indicates the protesters are using this tactic again.

Scenario 2: The protests peter out

In some ways, the protesters have achieved what they wanted. Women all over the country now walk the streets without veils, jog in parks and eat in cafes with men who are not blood relatives. All three activities are against the law, punishable by severe fines or detention, and yet in many places they are going unpunished. For these reasons, some protesters argue that the war has been won and that it would be irresponsible to risk more lives for the sake of other goals.

The most compelling argument against a long, drawn-out protest, however, involves the movement’s lack of leadership and organization. Ironically, it’s also part of the reason why it’s hard for the regime to snuff out the protests; there’s no obvious standard-bearer and no headquarters to shut down. Several Iranian analysts, having observed the failures of the leaderless Arab Spring, note that unless the movement develops a clear plan to take power, its decentralized nature may ultimately be its undoing.

Not surprisingly, supporters of the protests disagree. And there are some signs of a loose organization taking shape among youth and activist groups. A recent call for fresh protests was issued from seven cities, representing every part of Iran, each using the same language. “We will start from high schools, universities and markets,” the messages read, “and continue with neighborhood-centered gatherings and then move to the main city squares.”

Given how quickly the protest movement has grown and spread, it’s hard to imagine it will fade away completely and permanently. Instead, the movement may go into hibernation, only to regroup and rise again.

Scenario 3: civil war

So far, the protests have been an internal movement led by Iranians in Iran. No outsiders have been involved. But the diverse ethnic makeup of the country, its religious complexity and the deep ideological divisions between those in power and those in the streets could, with outside interference, devolve into a brutal civil war.

It’s a scenario some observers think is inevitable. So many players over the years, both inside and outside Iran, have advocated for regime change. Now they may see their chance.

Already, arms smuggling to anti-regime elements in the southern oil-rich province of Khuzestan has picked up since the protests began. Long viewed by Iran’s neighbors as a prize ripe for picking, Khuzestan has a large Sunni Arab population with a reputation for restlessness. Saudi and Israeli clandestine funding is supporting separatist movements in the region, according to European court documents. Israel and Saudi Arabia have made no secret of the fact that they would welcome a different government in Tehran.

Then there are the opposition groups outside the country that have spent years offering alternative scenarios for governing Iran, and which may now see a chance to put them into action. These include monarchists, who back the former crown prince of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, currently living in exile in the United States. Pahlavi nostalgia is high among the successful diaspora living in Los Angeles, and the prince enjoys a following inside Iran, with some calling for the return of the monarchy during demonstrations in 2019.

An utterly different group, the MEK or People’s Mojahedin, is another significant opposition force with activists both inside and outside Iran. Also known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the MEK is a cult-like militia that the U.S. and U.K. governments once branded as terrorists but now view as a useful group to work with. The MEK became best known for leaking Iran’s nuclear plans in 1992 and for its effective lobbying during the Trump years, when aides to then-President Donald Trump, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and then-National Security Adviser John Bolton, viewed the group as the best alternative to the Islamic Republic.

Viscerally opposed to each other, the monarchists and the MEK both have access to funds as well as to officials in the U.S. and Europe.

Should any of these players get involved with local groups that see the protests as only the first step in a bigger fight, it could ignite a nasty conflict inside Iran.

If that does happen — and handguns and rifles arrive in growing quantities across the borders, then the protests led by young women swinging their hair could be just the first act of a far more significant upheaval in Iran. And if a next act features armed groups, a civil war could turn the country into an inferno.

Scenario 4: wild card — an ailing supreme leader

The protests are coming at an awkward moment for the ruling elite. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the most powerful figure in Iran, is 82 years old and rumored to have cancer. Behind the scenes, a competition for succession is already in full swing. Khamenei’s death would unsettle an already tense and dangerous situation.

While Khamenei is still alive, the protesters’ demands to terminate the Islamic Republic and remove the supreme leader are putting pressure on the clerics to act. They need to find a solution to the turmoil in the streets, but equally important, they must strengthen their hand against the Revolutionary Guard, which is increasingly threatening their control.

That’s because the Revolutionary Guard is the heavyweight in this brawl, the fiercest of Iran’s security forces, and a group that sees opportunity in capitalizing on the unrest to tighten its hold over the regime. If Khamenei were to die, the Revolutionary Guard would impose a curfew, send tanks into the streets, and ensure the government didn’t devolve into chaos.

Khamenei has always said that a smooth transition would be important to his legacy. One option would be the appointment of a council that would include hard-liners, reformists and other representatives; but the Revolutionary Guard might just seize power and appoint a figurehead as supreme leader, someone to rubber-stamp the the Revolutionary Guard’s rule. That would almost certainly spark a messy and perhaps violent period of transition.

Of course the protesters will also see opportunity in the death of the supreme leader — an opportunity to push their demands and appeal to the international community to help them change Iran’s trajectory. And the hope for Iranians is that with a population that is 96 percent literate, and which has for decades experienced the pitfalls of bad leadership and bad management, the protesters may now be able to win some of those demands. It is no small thing that these peaceful demonstrations have now touched every corner of the country, supported by men but led by women — and that fact alone gives rise to the hope that what ensues is not a bloodbath but a new form of inclusive peace and democracy. The outside world would help by lifting many of the punishing sanctions against the country.

In this scenario, the bravery of those standing up to the regime and their insistence on peace, rather than violence, could transform that hope into a blueprint for a new form of government.

It may be a long shot.

But it is possible.

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