What Would an Iranian Coup D’Etat Look Like?
With mass demonstrations ongoing across Iran nearly one month after the protest movement began, different elements of Iran’s Persian-speaking opposition agree on one thing. Street protesters, members of the exiled royal family, celebrities, and jailed Reformist leader Mirhossein Mousavi have all called for the Iranian military to come out of its barracks and intervene on behalf of the protesters. In other words, they are pinning their hopes for revolution on a coup d’etat.
Their pleas make sense. Iran has been stuck in a cycle of repression and conflagration, in which the Islamic Republic tightens its grip on power even as it alienates growing segments of the population. Protests have become more frequent and more radical, yet the security services have managed to keep the Iranian establishment in place and prevent any kind of counter-power from forming.
It comes down to the “boys with the toys,” as Iranian-American political scientist Shervin Malekzadeh is fond of saying. In theory, those boys’ loyalty could be turned, which would instantly leave Iran’s civilian leaders out in the cold. A military coup would also provide a ready-made leadership to take control of the situation, sidestepping the clashing interests and personality conflicts that have so far kept Iran’s various opposition movements in disarray.
The Iranian security services are designed to prevent such a scenario. After the 1979 revolution, Islamists kept the old monarchist army in place, while organizing a new Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) made up of revolutionary true believers. By placing the ideologically-motivated IRGC alongside the professional army, the Islamists were able to benefit from the expertise of the old regime while coup-proofing the new one.
Over the decades, some in the IRGC became dissatisfied with the direction of the Islamic Republic. Many old-guard corpsmen supported Mousavi and Reformism during the Green Movement of 2009, as the Iranian-American anthropologist Narges Bajoghli observed. In general, the IRGC is seen as more pragmatic and closer to its working-class base than the civilian religious establishment of the Islamic Republic.
Different opposition figures have different ideas of the IRGC’s potential role in a military coup. Retired footballer Ali Karimi called specifically on the regular army to protect protesters—which presumably means standing against the IRGC. At a televised event hosted by the neoconservative Hudson Institute in February 2020, former crown prince Reza Pahlavi called on IRGC officers to “peel away” and “facilitate a smoother transition” of power. As an ingenious dogwhistle, he used the Persian rather than English name of the IRGC, allowing both audiences to hear what they wanted to hear.
Any form of intervention would be easier said than done. The security services are held together by a shared sense of threat. While viral videos of youth beating up riot cops or setting them on fire help embolden protesters, they also make ordinary soldiers and policemen feel like there is a target on their backs. The Islamic Republic has played to these fears, arguing that specific grievances like the mandatory hijab are just a pretext for inciting chaos. To drive that point home, the authorities have even deployed women in “bad hijab” as riot police.
Further tying the Iranian military’s fate to the broader political regime, Washington has declared open season on IRGC brass. The Trump administration declared the IRGC a terrorist group in 2019 — the first time such a label had been applied to a nation-state’s military — then used the designation as a justification to assassinate Major General Qassem Soleimani. The Biden administration has enthusiastically agreed with the designation, and U.S. immigration authorities have applied the terrorist label to low-ranking conscripts.
However disgruntled the average corpsman may be, he has few prospects for a quiet retirement outside the Islamic Republic—at least if the U.S. government gets its way. Canada recently blacklisted the IRGC’s top ten thousand officers, a move that sends a similar signal, albeit one targeted at upper ranks.
Iran’s security services are held together not only by fear, but also by material benefits. The Islamic Republic has allowed the IRGC, the regular army, and the national police to turn their political power into massive economic investments. Because those investments are not consolidated, the military runs a greater risk of losing its economic privileges in a political transition, according to Iranian-American political scientist Roya Izadi. Men with guns have never been eager to throw away their own wealth.
Of course, nothing is impossible. As instability builds and stubborn hardliners refuse opportunities for a course correction, Iranian military brass may decide that they need to save the system from itself. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is reportedly ill, and the Islamic Republic’s choice of successor is intentionally unclear, which could present opportunities for a messy power grab in the near future.
A military seizure of power would likely look like the 2011 revolution in Egypt or the 2018 revolution in Sudan. Facing serious unrest in the streets, the Egyptian and Sudanese militaries decided to sweep away the political leadership and announce a controlled transition of power. Similarly, the Burmese military responded to growing discontent by announcing a move towards “disciplined democracy” in 2011.
If the military is the hand that giveth, it is also the hand that taketh away. The armies of Egypt, Sudan, and Burma eventually turned against and crushed their countries’ democratic experiments.
“By removing [Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak, the military hoped to preserve as much of the regime—and their privileged position within it—as possible,” wrote Amy Austin Holmes, who observed Egypt’s 2011 and 2013 upheavals, in her book Coups and Revolutions. “The military elites and civilian protesters agreed that Mubarak had to go and that his son Gamal Mubarak should not replace him. Beyond this, their goals diverged dramatically.”
Because the civilian opposition had been the main “protagonist” of the political process, Holmes noted, it was also the first target for post-revolutionary crackdowns.
Burma’s recent history demonstrates another danger. While the military negotiated with traditional opposition parties in the capital, it oversaw escalating repression against minorities on the periphery, such as the Rohingya people. Prime minister Aun San Suu Kyi, elected as the cosmopolitan voice of change, was left as a hapless spokeswoman for ethnic cleansing.
Persian-speaking liberals may be willing to adopt the Kurdish socialist slogan of “women, life, and freedom,” which is certainly a step towards inter-ethnic solidarity. It is less clear how, once sharing power with nationalist army officers, these liberals would respond to assertive demands from armed Kurdish parties.
A partial military revolt is an even more explosive possibility. Syria’s crisis unfolded this way. As the government cracked down on protests, mid-level officers defected from the Syrian military to protect the demonstrators. However, the core of the security apparatus stuck to the regime, sparking a full-blown war between loyalists and mutineers calling themselves the Free Syrian Army.
As both Islamists and Kurdish leftists learned, well-organized political movements could take advantage of the chaos to create islands of self-rule. (The leftist project seems far more successful than the Islamist one.) For the rest of the country, civil war destroyed any hope of a brighter future. The old Syrian government managed to hold onto the capital and take back major cities through extreme brutality, leaving most Syrians under a poorer and more chaotic version of the previous police state.
A split between the regular army and IRGC could lead to such a bloody conflict. Earlier this month, an Iranian air force captain posted a video threatening the national police chief — an IRGC man — for harming civilians. He was arrested almost immediately. The Islamic Republic’s supporters have constantly raised the specter of “Syrianization” as the result of rebellion. It is both a warning and a threat.
Again, nothing is impossible. A competent civilian opposition could take advantage of military discontent to win power. Doing so requires clearheaded vigilance, coherent organizational structures, intense movement discipline, and shrewd political skill. Unfortunately, righteous chants and words of solidarity from foreigners are not enough to win the game of hard power.