The demonstrations continued for several days, during which dozens of people were killed; but the regime’s grip was easily strong enough to ensure that Ahmadinejad served a second term. However, the fault lines had not gone away; indeed, they are magnified each year as the population grows younger, and enough of the youth grow up wanting change. This was reflected in the 2013 election when a moderate cleric, Hassan Rouhani, won power by a margin the establishment realised was too big to change.
This was not entirely because everyone longed for a liberal Iran, although that was a major factor. ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ translates into many languages, including Farsi, and the 2013 vote was also a rebuke to the wasted years under Ahmadinejad, who had increased the country’s international isolation and witnessed the economy shrink yet further.
Rouhani won again in 2017, but then for the election of 2020 the fix was in months before the vote. The Council of Guardians flexed its robes and disqualified almost 7,000 candidates from running, among them ninety sitting members of the Majlis. Millions of Iranians asked themselves, ‘What’s the point?’ and on election day stayed at home. The lowest turnout since 1979 resulted in a landslide for the conservative hardliners. The message was clear: one way or another, the ayatollahs and the Revolutionary Guard are staying in charge.
Which brings us to the present. Its leadership sees Iran as an isolated country beset by enemies. They’re not wrong. Some of the ideologues talk about a ‘Sunni circle’ surrounding Iran, with countries such as Saudi Arabia, encouraged by the Americans, actively working to undermine the Islamic Republic from within and without. This also has some validity, which is why the ayatollahs and Revolutionary Guard commanders could scarcely believe their luck when the Americans unknowingly delivered the historic Persian dream and secured their western flank by invading Iraq in 2003.
The USA removed the Sunni-dominated regime that had invaded Iran, and now once again the flat land of Mesopotamia is a buffer in front of Iran deterring potentially hostile forces and acting as a space within which force can be projected. The Bush administration’s naive belief that democracy would flourish resulted in the leaders of Iraq’s majority Shia population manipulating the system to ensure they now dominated the country. They were helped every step of the way by Iran, which drove our foreign forces by backing a variety of Shia militias in the civil war following the invasion. The roadside bombs which killed so many US and British troops were often made in Iran, and the militias were financed, armed and trained by Tehran. Iraq is not an Iranian poodle, but now its leadership often looks sympathetically towards its neighbour to the east.