The protests in Iran seem to have died down—or been brought under regime control—for the moment. It is still unclear, however, how this latest set of popular protests will affect the regime, whether new protests will emerge at a broad level, and—if so—how the impact of such protests and the regime’s reaction will develop.
It is all too easy to either exaggerate to underestimate that level of popular opposition to the regime, and the ability of the regime to deal with such opposition. The fact is, however, that it is far from clear how any future protests and opposition will develop, or how much support the opposition in Iran really has. Iran scarcely permits the kind of polling that would expose its internal divisions, and many Iranians would be more than cautious if such polling was ever attempted.
At this point in time, most protests are also hard to characterize. There are no clear numbers or detailed reports on the exact nature of most protests. Many questions remain about the motives behind any given event and who took part. There are also few indications that any organized opposition lead to given protests or gave them substantial purpose and structure.
At least to date, the uprisings in Iran have not come close to the level of protests that overthrew the Shah in 1978 and forced him to leave the country in January 1979. They have been broader-based than the protests against the Iranian election in 2009, which led to “Green Revolution” in 2009-2010. The regime's effort to suppress such opposition also indicate that Iran has steadily improved its internal security and ability to repress its people since 2009, and that no one should underestimate the ability and willingness of the Supreme Leader, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, and the Basij to use force against their people.
The regime has reacted quickly to repress the uprisings, and so far, it seems to have reacted effectively. The regime has blamed the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and outside media and reporting, for attempting to start and support such protests. It has accused and arrested many protestors, and carried out large demonstrations in support of the regime. As in 2003 and 2009, the Supreme Leader and his supporters have shown that a regime that controls the security forces, the justice system, the media, and much of the economy can do much to resist any popular movements or opposition, brand them as enemies and traitors, and control broadcast and printed media and at least some of the Internet.
Events have made it clear, however, that the protests had a relatively broad geographic base, and were driven more by broadly popular causes like jobs, income, corruption, and resentment of Iran's privileged elites than more narrow concerns like democracy or human rights.
There also are many good reasons why parts of the Iranian population see Iran’s government as failed and repressive regime, but it is important for those outside Iran to understand that there are no reliable indicators as to how many people actually oppose the regime, why they oppose it, or how serious their opposition is. It is equally hard to know how many Iranians support the regime, what aspects of it they support, and how many simply “go along to get along.”
Please note that an accompanying PDF with full graphs, charts, and figures is available for download on the CSIS website at https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/180112_The_Crisis_Iran.pdf?436140qcZULx2.FP2LQLcbaW0c4ZC5Y.