Dictatorships tend to fall the way Ernest Hemingway said people go bankrupt: gradually, then suddenly. The omens can be obvious with hindsight. In 1978 Iran’s corrupt, brutal, unpopular regime was besieged by protesters and led by a sick old shah. The next year it was swept away. Today Iranian protesters are again calling for the overthrow of a corrupt, brutal regime; this time led by a sick old ayatollah, Ali Khamenei. As Ray Takeyh, a veteran Iran-watcher, put it, “History…is surely rhyming on the streets of Tehran.”
Pessimists caution that mass protests have rocked Iran’s theocracy before, notably in 2009 and 2019, and the regime has always snuffed them out by shooting, torturing and censoring. Yet there are reasons to think that this time may be different; that the foundations of the Islamic Republic really are wobbling.