Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar: The Protests in Iran

Wednesday, January 11, 2023
Dilara Senkaya/REUTERS

CEO, Nonviolent Initiative for Democracy

Associate Professor, The Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University


Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, CEO of the Nonviolent Initiative for Democracy, and Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, associate professor at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, discuss women’s role in the Iran protests, the political and religious aspects of the movement, and what it means for the future of political Islam and Iranian women. Ray Takeyh, CFR’s Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle East studies, moderates.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar Series. This series convenes religion and faith-based leaders in cross-denominational dialogue on the intersection between religion and international relations. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.

The webinar is on the record, and the audio, video, and transcript will be made available on CFR’s website,, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We’re delighted to have Ray Takeyh with us to moderate today’s discussion on the protests in Iran. Ray Takeyh is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle East studies at CFR. His areas of specialization are Iran, U.S. foreign policy, and the modern Middle East. He served as a senior advisor on Iran at the U.S. State Department, a fellow at Yale University, and has held other positions. He’s the author or coauthor of six books. Most recently, his last one was The Last Shah: America, Iran, and the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty.

So, Ray, thank you very much for doing this. I’m going to turn it over to you to introduce our speakers and to moderate the conversation.

TAKEYH: Yes. Thank you very much, everybody, for joining. Today we have two terrific speakers.

Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, besides having a very timely last name, was a former parliamentarian in Iran, of the reformist variety. And today she’s the CEO of the Nonviolent Initiative for Democracy.

Professor Tabaar is a professor at Texas A&M’s Bush School. His specializations are international security and Middle East politics. He’s the author of many timely and important books.

I want to delve right into this discussion. And I want to begin with Parliamentarian Haghighatjoo. In forty-two years since its inception, the Islamic Republic has faced many different kind of protests from many different kind of factions. And the question that usually comes up is why are the current protest that began in September, with the death of Ms. Amini different—or, are they different in any way? Please.

HAGHIGHATJOO: Hello, everyone. Thank you so much for inviting me. And thank you, Ray, for introducing me. I believe this movement is different from the previous movement for several reasons. First of all, as many may know, that Iran’s constitution is a discriminatory constitution. It discriminates against minority groups, including women, ethnic groups, and religious groups. So women have faced difficulty for the past forty years. And I think in, recent events before September 2022, the morality police violated women, brutally cracked down on them on enforcing the hijab law. And I think women reached the point, after the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police, that enough is enough.

So one important aspect has been women’s issues. Women have been the face of the movement. Also, the majority of people in the country are dissatisfied with how the regime runs everyday life, has been deteriorated. And I think everyone, to some extent, felt the anger. And different groups came together. There is very limited space on social, economic, political area in the country. So youths also joined with women and the movement [women] have created. I think another point is that the current movement, I believe, calls for fundamental change, which we can read as a call for a regime change. Even though different people joined the movement for different reasons, and some may want improvement of rights they would like, I think a great number of people really want fundamental change.

TAKEYH: Thank you.

Professor Tabaar, do you see this movement this same way? And do you believe that it can be durable? What is your perspective on the nature and the resilience of the movement?

TABAAR: OK. Thank you. First of all, thank you, Irina and Ray, for the invitation and for the introduction. It’s great to be here on this panel with Fatemeh.

I agree with Fatemeh that this is a very radical and widespread movement. It’s multiclass. It has affected different segments of the society, different strata in the society, different parts of the country we see being involved in this movement. Also, she’s absolutely right that this is probably one of the most radical movements that the Islamic Republic has been facing since 1979. There’s no call for reform, for gradual change. If anything, the protesters are calling for a completely different political system. So in that sense, it’s quite different.

Another element that is very different in this movement, which is kind of related to this section of CFR, Religion and Foreign Policy, is the role of religion in this movement. There doesn’t seem to be any role for religion in this movement, which is quite astonishing for a country in which religion always played a major role. This time around, we don’t see any reference to religion, or very few, in the slogans, in the protesters’ platform. Not much. We don’t see clerics to be an influential part of this movement.

So that’s another element. In fact, many social scientists in Iran have been writing commentaries and organizing events discussing this phenomenon, that why is it that suddenly the society has become so secular? And in some ways, some of them even argue that this could be potentially a far more significant development than even the ’79 revolution. So in that sense, this is quite remarkable, what you see. To what extent this is temporary or not, this role of religion, we have to see. But in that sense, it is different.

But the question that is this going to lead to any major change? In the short term, if by change we mean political change, a change in the regime, probably not. We have already witnessed that the street have—that protests have kind of declined in the past couple of weeks. So in that sense, maybe not. But this is a long-term challenge. This is a long-term challenge between the state and the society. And even the strategies of the regime understand and they’re quite outspoken that this is going to be a long-term issue that they have to deal with. What they’re going to do to amend or to reduce this tension with the society, we’ll have to see. But, as I said, this is long-term.

But let me just say one final point. And that is, the challenge that the protesters have faced is that they were not—or, they haven’t been able to bring the silent majority out. This hasn’t happened. This is the majority that sympathizes with the protesters but, for a variety of reasons, has decided not to come out yet. That’s why we haven’t seen the political changes that many people were expecting.

TAKEYH: It is often suggested when you’re looking at this movement, and I’ll start with Ms. Haghighatjoo, it is suggested that it lacks organization, it lacks structure, and it lacks leadership. I’m going to ask you two questions. I think that’s true. Is that necessary for the movement at this stage? And second of all, is—does it need to have that at some point? And how will it have that in an internally repressive society?

HAGHIGHATJOO: Yes. I think the main shortcoming of the movement is lack of leadership. Clear, united leadership. That doesn’t mean that at the street level there is no leadership. There are several reasons for that. The one main issue is the regime cracked down heavily. Over thirty thousand people got arrested. Many of them are those who have a potential [for] leadership. So if I look at any prison in Iran, we could see those who have leaders. So basically one scenario can be seen as leaders are forming from within prison. Just to name a few, I can say Narges Mohammedi can be one of those really who has a great potential vision, aspiration to be leader.

Outside of the country, as we’ve seen—and it’s unique for the past seventy years—diaspora has played an important role in supporting the movement. But as we know, eighty thousand people attended the Berlin rally. Over fifty thousand people rallied in Toronto in October. But basically, still we don’t see a unified leadership because of different issues. One is historical fear, which goes back to 1979 leadership that Khomeini and its allies that have a long-lasting network throughout the country, could take over and purge these ideological differences, personality differences, and sometimes lack of a great leadership, and also the Iranian security forces manipulation. A combination of these several factors do not allow the opposition outside of Iran to come together and get united. Even if there have been some efforts, I don’t see it.

So for now, because the regime for the past two decades has invested on security forces literally to crack down on political parties, organizations, civil society, journalists, press. So they have been trying to monitor everything, to question them, make them silent. So I think because of the level of repression, as you mentioned, it is difficult to form a leadership corps inside the country. So there are dots. People are working around the country. But they are not able to connect together because of that. So for now, maybe that is OK. Also, I don’t see it is necessary that in a daily or weekly pace people come to this different way of non-cooperative behaviors, actions, can also help the movement to grow in next couple of years.

But I think if we want—if we want to see this movement to continue, it has to have leadership. And I think it is important, those who are in diaspora get together for leadership, but I feel the main leadership has to come from within Iran. I don’t want to separate between Iran—inside Iran, outside Iran. This is a way that the security forces in Iran like to do. But connection inside Iran is very important because they know daily things. Outside, they can create a strategy for this—a shared strategy that people inside Iran can understand as well. So, I believe at some point in the near future really we need to have a leadership for the movement to succeed.

TAKEYH: Thank you.

Professor Tabaar, I want to ask you about the performance of the regime for the past three months. Because there is a record of its performance. And it seems to me that the regime has—in some way, has lost its footing, has lost its narrative. It’s for the hijab, it’s for a loose hijab, it’s for restriction of hijab. Different people are saying different things. The prosecutor’s saying one thing, the head of judiciary another thing. If you can assess the performance of the regime, particularly focus on the security services? Because at this point, the Islamic Republic has only security services as a means of its prolongation in power. But this is also, in many ways, a conscript force. How do you assess the performance of the regime and the reliability of the security services as it continues to face domestic dissent?

TABAAR: First of all, you’re absolutely right. They have lost the narrative. They know this. And that’s why they are trying to come up with a long-term solution to fix this problem. And that is, instead of relying on religion they’re using other forms of narratives—national security, nationalism, patriotism, and other things. And they keep saying this is not about veiling. This is not about hijab. And by losing narrative, it’s not just within the opposition. Losing narrative, as you said, even among their supporters.

But the security forces, there have been some signs of tensions within the security forces, but overall we do not see any crack within the security forces, which is the key for any revolutionary movement to succeed. We don’t see that. And they’re not conscript. They are actually well-paid members of the regime. So, so far, yes, there are some supports that security elements have been tried and they have been criticized even by their own family members. But so far, they have managed to crack down on protesters. But again, this may not be a long-term issue.

But here is what the regime is doing to reduce the tensions and the reliance on security forces in the short term. And that’s exactly what you were saying about how they are framing this—the tension about veiling and hijab. That’s why we’re seeing different signals from the regime because they want to reduce the state-society confrontation. They don’t want to have the morality police in the street having tensions, physical conflicts, with the citizens that sparked the very movement a few months ago. They want to reduce this.

So in order to do that, they’re trying to redefine the veiling issue. And a few days ago—so, a few weeks ago, you were right—I think it was the Justice Department announced something—made a statement that basically they put an end to the morality police. It was not clear exactly what they meant. And I think it was ambiguous by design. And then a few days ago, the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei said that the compulsory veiling is very much part of the core part of Islamic law, and the state has to enforce it. Yet, he actually lowered the bar by saying that those who are not properly veiled, partially veiled, or he used the word—he said a hijab is ayefa and they have—they’re veiled weakly, or whatever, however you can translate this. And they are—they should not be seen as subversive or anti-regime elements.

Which is interesting because up until recently the morality police were after anyone who was not following this strict dress code. But now Khamenei is reducing that and saying—basically signaling that only those who are defiantly unveiled, those who come out and are not veiling, they should be targeted. Which is—again, it’s a new development. We’ve seen in the past couple of weeks, past few months, when the movement started, more and more women are coming out completely unveiled, which is very new.

And so the regime is now trying to target these citizens, those who are completely unveiled coming out. But even in targeting its citizens, it’s trying not to do it directly through the morality police, but using different enforcement mechanisms, including forcing businesses not to provide service to women who are not veiled. So they are coming up with different ways.

So going back to your main question, they are making some tactical adjustments. You can see this as concessions, but they’re not really concessions. The regime is very careful to make concessions without being seen as making concessions, because they don’t want to do what the shah did, that basically giving an inch that would embolden the population. And yet, they are trying to be flexible, come up with different ways to divide the protesters and reduce potential tensions in the short term, until they can figure out that war of narratives that you mentioned earlier.

TAKEYH: I’d just one more quick question to Parliamentarian Haghighatjoo. The opposition may not need the clergy, but the regime does. And they keep going to Qom looking for it. Have the general Ghalibaf, the head of parliament, was there talking to Ayatollah Javadi Amoli, Jeralzi, Hamdani, and they’re not getting it. What they’re coming back is criticism. At the end of the day, their security forces, if they’re loyal to regime, they’re loyal to the religious ideology of the regime. Can the regime afford not to have a clerical community that is very critical? And one of the parliamentarians, I think it was Abbasi or whoever, says, look, you got to stop criticizing us and offer a solution. You mentioned the resilience of the movement. How is the resilience of the security forces if clerical approbation outside the national government is not offered?

HAGHIGHATJOO: This is really important point, as you mentioned. Clergy—

TAKEYH: All my points are important. This is a particular important one.

HAGHIGHATJOO: Yes. (Laughter.) Absolutely. I mean, clergy has been a key element and key supporter of the regime, basically the foundation of the regime. And Khamenei himself, other people around him, have tried directly, indirectly, to engage them, to bring them to the core of supporting the regime. But they did not lead the support to them. And this is very important. Unfortunately, for several reasons. First of all, they don’t listen to people. For instance, even Ayatollah Sistani, who is a great marja al-taqlid for Shia community. So I felt indirectly that he has been trying to provide some advice, but he says, unfortunately, nobody listens. Or other people, other clergy, so they have been requesting reform.

Not only clergy. Even within the system, within the security forces, [there is a] call for the reform. But unfortunately, the supreme leader, as a key decision maker, doesn’t basically accept those—doesn’t accept calls for reform. Which is this call for reform is—ranges from simple reform to wider reform. And I think that is—clergy now [are now in a] very hard position. In one point clergy have been targeted by the movement. And young—especially young people see them as an ally of the regime itself. So they are targeted by the activists, protesters. On the other hand, they have been targeted by the security forces, by the leaders. So they originally have been placed in a very hard position.

So maybe this is one reason also they are absolutely silent. They try to be—not support the regime, not support the—basically the protesters, because of the different position they have. I think gradually the regime try to move from the clergy to the security forces. For instance, if we see the combination of the government—and when I say government, as a general, the parliament, the executive office, even the judiciary—we see more and more military people compromise those institution. So they also—the regime will rely less. But definitely the regime needs clergy. And this is a hard position for the regime and for the clergy themselves as well.

TAKEYH: Thank you. I’ll open it up for questions. If you have questions, Irina can direct you to how to go ahead and pose questions to our two speakers.

OPERATOR: Thank you, Dr. Takeyh.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

We will take our first question from Azza Karam from Religions for Peace International.

KARAM: Thank you very much, indeed, to the distinguished speakers—Dr. Tabaar, Dr. Haghighatjoo, and Dr. Takeyh. A very, very interesting and stimulating presentation.

I request, if I may, for two specific clarifications. The first is, I heard a very clear point made by Dr. Mohammad Tabaar that religion has no role to play in this space and is not what has been motivating. At the same time, I thought that the whole point was about the veil, and imperative behind it, and therefore that created that whole setup. And then I heard very compelling conversations about the role of the clergy. So what is it? Is there no relationship? Is there some relationship? If there is, what is it? And sometimes being against the religion current in and of itself is a critical aspect of the religion engagement, or lack thereof.

But the other question that I had is really more nuanced if you could please, Dr. Fatemeh, highlight the point about the potential for leadership, alternative leadership, not only within the country. Because one of the questions I heard some of our Iranian colleagues and friends say as well, they’re arguing for regime change. They want the downfall of the regime. But who would it be then? If this regime falls, well, who’s going to take—what would it be? So that is a question I’m curious about your own read on.

But the other is, if we lack potential leaders from within or without, or ones who are obviously within and aligned with those diaspora, is that not a situation very similar to other contexts? I think of my own context in Egypt, with the conflict, and therefore how easy it was for the military to step in because of this so-called gap in leadership. Would anything like that—what would that actually imply for what’s going to happen now? Thank you.

TAKEYH: What does the day after look like? Dr. Haghighatjoo.

HAGHIGHATJOO: Yes. Thank you so much. First on veiling, unfortunately, unlike many other Muslim-majority countries, this regime tied hijab to its own existence, which is very bad idea in general. And even though other people, even within religious community, clergy community, wanted to ease—there is tension on that really. Some call that as an important point. Some, they say it should not enforce hijab. So there is tension on being needed to have hijab or not. But the final vote is for Khamenei. So Khamenei clearly stated hijab is mandatory and has to be enforced. Yesterday, the judiciary issued a statement. Even though their statement was absolutely illegal, they pointed out to several articles—legal articles, which are highly studied and those are really fake, not relevant to hijab. But anyhow, this is not the first time they do illegal action, right?

So because the leader said the hijab is mandatory and has to be enforced, judiciary jumped in, even though there is no—there is only one law about seventy lashes, up to twenty—up to two months imprisonment. But the judiciary has created something new, which is needed a parliamentary legislation. Without parliamentary legislation, they issued something which is, as I said, all of their action has been illegal for the past hundred days or so. So this is on religious side, which it’s not easy to really analyze that section.

On the leadership, yes, I think one reason that maybe not the majority of people joined to this current movement is fear of tomorrow, what tomorrow would look like, who is going to take over. Still the generation, this generation, has a memory of Pahlavi’s dynasty, that they thought, yes, by the revolution they are going to have freedom. And then from secular dictatorship country become a theocracy, another way even the worst form of dictatorship. But not now, knowing that what is going to happen in the future, I think this fear, plus the fear of crackdown on the people, prevent everybody to join.

So I see—I believe Iranians are so talented. I believe Iranians have a leadership capacity inside the country and outside of the country. But still, everybody has its own narrative, its own ideology. Some people want return of dynasty. Some others want republicanism. But the reason is, basically, I think we have experience of religious dictatorial system and authoritarian regime. And this will be one great lesson that allows the next state to become a secular estate. I think this is the minimum agreement. Everybody has failed, even those who are inside the country. There is now a great call for not having supreme leadership out of the constitution or next regime.

But I think there have been efforts to create that leadership and create a clear future for post-transition Iran, which I believe and I’m hopeful that that will be shaped. But it may take at least a year to reach to that point that we have a clear leadership and united leadership.

TAKEYH: Professor Tabaar, do you want to take a crack at what comes next, and what does the day after look like?

TABAAR: Sure, but let me quickly respond to the first question on the issue of religion, that how can this not be about religion? This is about religion, but what I was trying to say is that for the protesters, religion is not being used to mobilize the masses, as it was the practice for a long time in Iran, going back to the tobacco movement in the nineteenth century, and later the constitutional movement, and the Iranian revolution in ’79. All until recently, every time there was a movement, you saw either the clerics played a leading role or religion in general was very much part of the language and discourse of the protesters.

But this time around, what we see is that this generation, this new generation of the protesters who came out in the past few months—this doesn’t not necessarily reflect the view of the silent majority that I said. But for those who came out, based on their slogans, what we saw was that they did not formulate their political actions and demands in religious terms. And again, this is a remarkable shift, at least according to many observers inside Iran. And you look at even the reform movement that Fatemeh was part of, you look at the Green Movement in 2009, religion and religious discourse was very much part of that. Trying to use this to mobilize the masses and also to undermine the cohesion of religion, for the very reason that Ray said a few minutes ago, that you need that in order to undermine the cohesion of the security forces.

So, and again, there was this belief that only a diamond can cut a diamond. You need to have this kind of a discourse. But for this generation of protesters, they seem to have just gone way beyond this. They don’t even bother to engage with this, not to mention the anti-clericalism that we see rising. A lot of clerics have been attacked. And that is why many pro-regime clerics this time decided to remain silent, because they don’t want to increase the resentment and the anti-clericalism that they see in the society. So that’s what I meant. I didn’t mean this is not about religion. It is about religion. But it is no longer being used, at least for the time being, by the protesters, the way it was in the past.

And then in terms of what is after. So, very quickly, this is the issue, that no one has been able to articulate a viable alternative so far. And that is why a lot of people—that is partly why a lot of people did not come out to join the protesters. There is a diaspora movement. As Fatemeh said, it was widely—it was divided for a long time. But they seem to have shown some form of unity in the past few months and weeks, some of them, some activists, and journalists, and athletes, and artists have gotten together, forming a coalition. But the question is, if we don’t know if they can translate that into a bigger political organization that is seen as legitimate inside Iran, that is credible, that can create—basically call for political action inside Iran. So we haven’t seen this.

If that happens, then yes. So far, it seems that this coalition has been more influential outside Iran, trying to change policies of European and Canadian and American governments, than affecting inside Iran, because it just started. So we’ll see. We have yet to see to what extent it will be successful. But again, the lack of an alternative, a viable alternative, is what keeps a lot of people at home.

TAKEYH: Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Chloe Breyer from The Interfaith Center of New York.

Who asks: If you could speak about the connection between or the influence on Afghanistan and Iran right now.

TAKEYH: Professor Tabaar, you want to start with that?

TABAAR: I’m not an Afghanistan expert but, quickly, yes. So it is—I think is one of the most important and understudied developments as far as it’s connected to Iran. The rise of the Taliban, a group that went almost into war with Iran in 1998, coming back to power now is going to be an important development in the long term. So based on the commentaries we saw when the Taliban came to power two years ago coming out of Iran, it seemed Iran had a completely—at least, the conservative establishment had a very different view of the Taliban this time around. They did not see them as the enemy that the group was twenty years earlier. This time they saw the Taliban as a potentially—as a potential anti-American ally. So they kept emphasizing that the Taliban was an anti-American group. They defeated the Americans. And therefore, they could be a potential partner.

Which is very interesting, because ideologically and ethnically the Taliban could not have been farther from Iran. At the time when Iran could have—and there was a cause, especially from the more moderate elements within the regime—that Iran could try to back the Persian-speaking ethnic groups, or the Hazaras, the Shia Hazaras. The regime decided not to, because they didn’t want to antagonize the Taliban and, more importantly, because it did see the Taliban as a potential partner. At some point, I even heard some regime strategy saying the Taliban could be a potential member of the axis of resistance. That’s how they see the Taliban.

But so far, it hasn’t materialized. And there have been some tensions between Iran and the Taliban because of what is happening—border issues, and the Taliban crack down on their own population, and other things. But it is an important development. And it can go both ways. Taliban could be a very serious threat to Iran in the long term. It’s a potent force. But at the same time, as I said, Iran—the current regime, the current ruling faction, is trying to cultivate a partnership based on anti-Americanism. So we’ll see if that will materialize.

TAKEYH: Thank you. I’ll go to the next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Charles Randall Paul from the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.

PAUL: Hello. Wonderful conversation. I have two quick questions.

One, has there in the last few years ever been a public opinion poll that could be considered legitimate for the citizens of Iran? And, number two, has anyone worked on a coalition of, shall we say, traditional, very strongly religious believers in Iran, and what we might call the liberal agnostic group, who merely want religious freedom? If you sense an American tilt on that question, you’ll see that the original Bill of Rights came about mainly because of a compromise between the adamant Baptists, who wanted to pitch their religion strongly in America and wanted to be allowed to do that, and the agnostics who did not want religion to control the government. And so they came up with the great compromise of “you can practice whatever you want, but you can’t be involved in government.” I’m wondering if there’s any thought at all going on in Iran of saying yes to religion with great enthusiasm, but also yes to freedom to not be religious.

TAKEYH: Let me piggyback on that, Dr. Haghighatjoo. It is also said that the regime enjoys 20 percent of support among the population. I have no idea where that figure comes from. How would you—and I realize it’s dynamic. It changes. How would you assess the core supporters of the regime? I mean, I see opinion—Etana does opinion polls all the time. I have no idea if they’re reliable. But how do you assess what—if at all possible—what level of support the regime continues to enjoy? And from which segment of the population?

HAGHIGHATJOO: Thank you. So on public opinion, yes, there have been some reliable public opinion [polls] many have done inside Iran and also outside Iran. General understanding from that public opinion showed a trend that Iranians have become less and less religious. And we’ve seen footage of videos. We hear stories that compare that polling. And some of these polls have been done by the regime itself.

And regarding yes to religion and yes to freedom of religion, I think we see that very interestingly. Mr. Abdul Hamid, leader of Sunni in Sistan and Baluchistan, has played a great role in the past hundred days. Which is this very unique role. I haven’t seen any other religious leader play the role he has played. And every week they come out after Friday prayer. In his speech many times he supported Iran is for all citizens, regardless of if they are religious or not.

And even he mentioned name of Baha’is, that Baha’i has a right to practice, and that right has to be preserved. Which, in some religious communities, Baha’is don’t have the right. And even if we look at today the Iranian constitution, Shia has absolute right. And to some extent, Abrahamic religion has some right. But some religions, such as Baha’ism, has no right at all. Even if they confess they are Baha’i, they will be barred from going to school, as simple as that. Or have a profession, or so on or so forth. It’s a very basic thing. They are denied—they seek a right. I think in general in society, we see people are more tolerant toward different type of religious spectrum.

On core supporters of the regime, I think analyzing elections in the past twenty years shows almost what is the core element of the regime. Which is if we analyze election results, which we have done before a couple of times, that number comes to 10 to 15 percent. But this 10 to 15 percent, some are traditional religious people. They feel support of the regime is part of their religious duty, basically. They buy what—they buy regime’s narrative on use of religion. Some supporters of the regime who have benefitted financially, also I think that is another part. And as we see one reason that security forces especially—(inaudible)—have been a great core for the regime is because of these financial and political gain that they have gained throughout these twenty-plus years. This is the core, from my point of view.

TAKEYH: Professor Tabaar, do you agree that it’s 10 to15 percent? And is it situated in a socioeconomic class, or it’s more diffused, as Dr. Haghighatjoo suggested?

TABAAR: So there have been some public polls, and some government-sponsored polls. And there were some reports that, based on some government-sponsored news agencies such as Fars, that were classified but they were kind of hacked. A few weeks ago they came out. And they showed that—we see different figures, but something about 15 percent, the regime has the core supporters. Again, it kind of fluctuates. Sometimes it’s less. Sometimes it’s more based on what kind of threats they feel, religious or political.

But I don’t think this has necessarily any specific, let’s say, social base. I think it’s widespread, fragmented. Different parts of the society, different parts of the country. But I do think a significant portion of it is among the core, basically, those who get the financial support from the regime—the families of the Revolutionary Guards, the security apparatus, and those who have specific, vested interests. So this is more about the just political and economic interests that they have connected directly to the regime. I don’t think it’s necessarily ideological, unless they fear that the day after could be an anti-regime government. At that point, yes, we do see, as Fatemeh said, some traditional religious segments of the people, they show some reluctant support for the regime because they fear an alternative.

But relatedly, let me just say that this was a—this was—the second question was really, really important. And that is, if we see the alliance between more religious people and the liberal/agnostic people. We do see the rise in resentment among many religious people who are kind of apolitical. And they see that they go out to the streets and they see that a lot of people hate them, because they see them as being part of the regime. They’re not part of the regime, but they’re being part of the regime. So there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that shows more and more religious people are actually advocating for a secular government, precisely because they want to be left alone. They don’t want to be seen as part of the regime when they are not.

And also, they are tired of the state control of their religiosity. It’s widely said that when the revolution happened one of the famous figures, clerics, at the beginning—right after the revolution said: The first casualty of this—in this revolution is Islam itself. And this is true, because a lot of clerics, a lot of religious institutions, they lost their independence. Because suddenly you have an Islamic government that wants to control the official narrative. So, I mean, in that sense, we see a rise. But recent—one of the figures who came out during this movement a few months ago was Fatemeh Sepehri, a religious figure. And she was very critical of Ayatollah Khamenei. And she’s now in prison. She’s fully covered with shutters. So there are a lot of religious people who are part of this movement, precisely because they want to be left alone in their religiosity. So they’re advocating for a secular government and for freedom, so.

TAKEYH: Thank you. I’ll take the next question, as we’re wrapping up. So, next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question is an anonymous submission.

They ask: There is a critique in some quarters that the protests inside Iran have lacked the necessary intellectual and ideological rigor to persuade and invite the more learned layers of Iranian society to itself. There has been violence, vulgar language, lack of informed intellectual figures. Reliance has been on celebrities, stars, sportsmen, et cetera. Outside Iran, the discourse has similarly been divisive and pretty violent, plagued with personal attacks, defamations, et cetera. What is the way out of this?

TAKEYH: Thank you. Please, Dr. Haghighatjoo, if you—

HAGHIGHATJOO: Yes. I think there was also another question that what we can do—what NGO outside of Iran can do to support. I think to answer these questions together is, advocating for nonviolent action, strategy, and tactic. Exactly once people advocate for violence, that is basically super problematic. First of all, that creates fear of future, like some of these who have been engaged even in cracking down on the people. They may continue to crack down because they think what will happen to them after the regime. So they would try to fight to the last person. This one point.

The second point also encouraging violence, as Erica Chenoweth research shows, that 55 percent of nonviolent—first of all, 55 percent of movement in general got succeed to change a regime. And nonviolent movement succeeded twice than violent. So encouraging peaceful transition to democracy is very important. And I think opposition outside of the country has to advocate for peaceful transition. Absolutely I disagree with those who advocate for eye for eye understanding and usage of violence. At the end of the day, the Iranian government has the upper hand on use of violence. And basically they try to find a way and excuses to crack down more on people. And that really is in favor of the regime itself. And it’s not provided any support for the protesters.

TAKEYH: As we wrap up, let me ask Professor Tabaar and also Dr. Haghighatjoo, tell me how this ends?

HAGHIGHATJOO: I could not understand the question.

TAKEYH: I’ll start with Professor Tabaar. Tell me how this ends?

TABAAR: Let me just start by saying that the last point that was raised is very critical, very unfortunate. And that is how this movement—part of this movement gradually became vulgar and has no intellectual—I would even go further, and say part of it is very anti-intellectual. And many of—some of the leaders outside or some of those activists inside, they even kind of brag that this is an anti-academic, anti-intellectual movement or approach that they have adopted. And the kind of language, as I said—

TAKEYH: By the way, there was plenty of vulgarity in the 1979 revolution.

TABAAR: But not—maybe it’s because of the social media, I don’t know. But this level—

TAKEYH: I saw a lot of things about Pahlavi and others during the 1979 revolution. But go ahead.

TABAAR: But I don’t know if people attacked each other the way they are doing now. I mean, as soon as somebody’s coming out and saying something that the other side sees as a little bit too moderate, or people are being accused of being different things. So this is—this is pretty vicious. And actually, I think that this has partly affected those silent majority, again, not to come out. And again, even in the media, people are just broadcasting this, which is surprising.

So what is the way out? So—(laughs)—

TAKEYH: No, how does this end?

TABAAR: How does it—

TAKEYH: What happens?

TABAAR: From who’s perspective? I’m not super optimistic, as this is becoming more violent, I think the regime has an upper hand in the short term. But in the long term—

TAKEYH: So in your perspective, it ends with the regime restoring its authority in some respects?

TABAAR: In the short term. But, no, in the long term, no. There is no easy out for the regime this time around. So how’s this going to end? Let me just very quickly say, my fear is this could—there could be a diversionary war in the region that is caused by either the regime or neighboring countries miscalculating, like 1980 Saddam Hussein, and that could help the regime to restore order. That is my fear.

TAKEYH: Dr. Haghighatjoo, very quickly, how does this end?

HAGHIGHATJOO: Well, I think the current situation will continue unless the opposition is able to form a core leadership to convert it to post transition. I don’t see any chance for reform from within the system because Khamenei and—Khamenei blocked it. So I think this cat and mouse fight will continue for a while. This is a long-term trouble. I think at least will take two years to go.

TAKEYH: Just a brief follow-up, Ms. Haghighatjoo. Do you see a role for your former reformist colleagues—Abdul Nouri, Tajzadeh—do you see a role for them in this movement and in the future of Iran?

HAGHIGHATJOO: (Laughs.) I don’t know for future of Iran. As you know, that right now the regime itself and the opposition try to tack to the middle, which is the reformist. And that places them in a hard situation. For instance, as you say, Abdul Nouri a couple of weeks ago issued a letter criticizing the leader. And he was called to the security forces for interrogation, even though he has defended. I think—I doubt Khamenei will basically compromise. If Khamenei would compromise, I would see a role for the reformists. But I think as many activists, politicians, journalists, including former Speaker of the Parliament Mehdi Karroubi stated, maybe the best opening for change occurs in the days and months after Khamenei dies.

TAKEYH: Thank you. I’ll turn it over to Irina to wrap us up.

FASKIANOS: Thank you all very much for doing this. We really appreciate it. It was an excellent conversation. And I’m sorry we couldn’t get to all of your questions. We will just have to reconvene.

Just a reminder, you can follow Ray Takeyh at @raytakeyh, and also on the website. We also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy program on Twitter @CFR_religion. And do email us at [email protected] with any suggestions or questions for future webinars. And just a quick announcement, we will have our next webinar, our Social Justice Webinar, on U.S. immigration and repatriation on Thursday, January 26, at 12:00 p.m. Eastern Time (EST). So keep a look out for that invitation.

Thank you all, again, for being with us and thank you to our distinguished speakers.

HAGHIGHATJOO: Thank you, Ray. Thank you, everyone, for inviting me.

TAKEYH: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: It was a pleasure.

Top Stories on CFR


Far-right advances in the European Parliament elections have destabilized politics in France, a longstanding pillar of the European Union, and highlighted fault lines in the bloc.


Outright seizure of the Russian Central Bank’s hundreds of billions in frozen assets is currently off the table, but it is still possible to obtain large sums for Ukraine from the interest income on these assets.

Election 2024

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential contenders are saying about foreign policy. This Week: President Joe Biden spoke with Time magazine about the importance of alliances to U.S. security.