Ed. Note: This forecast was asked and answered prior to the strike on Soleimani.
Iran offers a useful compare and contrast in terms of the theories in Q7 on how a bulge in unemployed fighting-age-males aged 15-34 facing an expectation inversion can create conditions for instability. There are more younger Iranians than they are older, there is a much higher rate of unemployment nationwide and the expectations of the generation have not been met as continued mismanagement by the regime results in domestic hardship conditions. The current uprising arose out of the last two conditions; an unsustainable gasoline subsidy was relaxed resulting in a shock-rise in prices.
Iran’s response to the protests was to wage a campaign of mass-violence, which I have found historically and by simulation is the accelerant to setting the fire of insurgency and revolution. Suppressing an ethnic minority by a state actor creates different pathways that may or may not result in revolution. But violent suppression of the majority, combined with economic woes and that unemployed fighting-age-male bulge is a classic recipe for instability.
But your question is “which is worse”? If the Iranian regime were too struggle there are two pathways it could follow which we can compare to historical cases.
In the Syrian Civil War, the Assad regime waged war on its majority population and we know what followed. There isn’t really a rational trade-off analysis of future risk vs. current status-quo when persistent deaths are occurring, the dynamics of that violence create their own self-fulfilling conditions for contagion. In the case of the collapse of the Soviet Union accumulating inability to serve the needs of the population, and fund it’s far flung expenses of empire, led to a collapse and peaceful regime change in relative comparison to the Syrian case.
Either pathway is a potential in Iran, the first has the enormous violence of a civil war where the state actor (at first) holds all the power. But a difference between Syria and Iran that is important to note is that although Iran is very ethnically diverse (more so than foreigners typically realize) it also has an enormous anchoring effect of its population to view themselves as Iranian and tied to the Iranian culture.
In system dynamics there’s a structured called a double-anchor of expectation. This is where a current expectation reacts quickly to current events, but it is tied to a “deep anchor” that forms over years, decades, or generations. Even if the swing at the contemporary anchor is sharp, the deep anchor can mitigate that swing and if the stimulus that causes the sharp increase is removed the deep anchor pulls the current expectation back to its status quo.
How this relates to your question is even if violent instability rises in Iran I don’t see it falling into ethnic separatism and inter-ethnic rivalries of Syria or the Balkans. That deep anchor of “being Iranian” conveys enormous information on the borders, the culture, and the people as a whole. In that sense the conflict is much more like a revolution where the non-state actor is seeking to replace the regime in the current country, but not inherently reconfigure the country.
Additionally, Iran benefits from having mostly weak neighbors in Iraq and Afghanistan neither of whom are in a position to intervene cross-border, being unstable themselves, or share sufficient ethnic homogeneity to exacerbate or gain opportunity from the tensions. I don’t see ISIS for example getting far in there as they’d hit the Great Shia Wall in Iraq that runs from Baghdad south through Najaf, Nasiriyah and Basra far before providing anything but a limited clandestine terror threat in Iran.
There simply won’t be the multiple to hundreds of warring militias with different ethnic agendas arising as they did in Syria. You may have some opportunistic efforts alongside current resistance movements in Sistan & Baluchistan, some Kurdish groups – but they won’t enjoy the large popular support; or present the fracturing risk, as the main sides in Syria.
Foreign powers more distant may of course intervene clandestinely to support one or another faction, and in this regard Russia, Turkey, and the US are the players picking sides. But I don’t see any of these countries risking direct intervention.
What this means for risk of violence is that there is far more likely to be “front-lines” and “regions” to differing sides, and at the intersection of those is where the violence will be highest (think of the US Civil war or Revolution). Further away from those lines the violence will be less. This is quite different from a house-by-house level of violence found in Rwanda, the southern campaign of the American Revolution or the border states in the US Civil War where you can’t trust neighbors.
The challenge, and risk of violence, is that Iran has built up a superb counter-insurgency capability second perhaps only to the United States consisting of mercenary Afghan groups, paramilitary Basji, Iraqi PMF’s they can call in coordinated by their own QODS arm of the Revolutionary Guard and a brilliant commander in Soleimani. QODS also enjoys heavy influence with a broad industrial base and sufficient political networks. This means any revolutionary of the people, unaided by a state faction, against the state has a low risk of prevailing.
A less dangerous scenario is the USSR collapse. If economic conditions worsen, and a key core faction supporting the regime breaks away, that might be enough to lead to a collapse & reconfiguration of power away from the Islamic Republic and to a different model, without necessarily having to go through anything more than a few coups (ala the Soviet collapse.) I’m not prepared to make a call on whom might go but consider a hypothetical where Soleimani breaks with the civilian rule of the Grand Ayatollah. This kind of “fracturing within elites” could result in regime change with limited, point level coup-style violence, and avoid something closer to civil war. I just don’t have a forecast as to the likelihood of that.
But if I had to make an overall forecast of what style of regime change would prove successful, I’m going to go with a fracturing of the elites and USSR style collapse over a Syrian civil war style gaining much traction. (See Q17 of how Iran’s foreign empire can play a role in these scenarios.)