There is an ongoing discussion about a potential coup d’état against the Islamic Regime in Iran. Protestors have been heard chanting “be our ally” during anti-regime protests as they sought support from the military. Evidence of dissent and dissatisfaction in the armed forces during the 2022 uprising suggests that a coup may be a matter of discussion within the organization. The feasibility of military action requires more attention as it could accelerate the fall of the Islamic Regime. For the armed forces to back the Iranian nation against the regime, certain conditions must be met.
Firstly, the army needs assurances that, in the case of a coup, the West would not hinder but rather support its efforts. But beyond that, a successful coup d’état requires a unifying authority to rely on. Prince Reza Pahlavi’s monarchic heritage and military background enable him to be that authority.
The recent campaign to give the Prince the power of representation is a milestone in facilitating this imperative. Further, a recent study from February 2023 on the political views of Iranians demonstrated that nearly 80% support Prince Reza Pahlavi, with nearly 60% favoring the return of the constitutional monarchy. Iranians asked Prince Reza Pahlavi to act as their representative in international organizations. They demanded that the Prince ought to be consulted by Western powers on any decision that would affect the future of Iran. Prince Reza Pahlavi is deemed the most trustworthy opposition figure to unify and coordinate Iran’s political diaspora.
The Prince responded enthusiastically to calls for leading the uprising and his return to Iran by speaking at the European Parliament and consulting officials from the EU. He made it clear that for any meaningful cooperation in the Iranian diaspora, three minimal principles ought to be respected: Iran’s territorial integrity; secular democracy; free and fair elections to decide on the specifics of the political system (e.g. monarchy or a republic). Thus far, the Prince is the only opposition figure with a transparent agenda for the transition period.
It is a widespread belief among Iranians that army officers hold a proclivity toward the Pahlavi dynasty and the sentiments of the uprisings. The army was established by the first king of the Pahlavi dynasty, Reza Shah, and has always been held in suspicion by the Islamic Regime’s intelligence services for its said monarchic inclinations. In November of 2022, a document with orders to “increase security and supervision” was leaked. Orders were issued to increase supervision of the army and look out for any signs of dissent. Higher authorities also wanted to see an increase in members’ knowledge of matters related to Islamic ideology.
Dissatisfaction has been observed in other bodies of the armed forces as well. Prince Reza Pahlavi indicated his desire to also see dissenting military officers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps backing Iranians when the time comes. He calls this strategy “maximum fall from the regime.”
The question of whether the army is capable of a coup bears two implications: feasibility and timing. Iranian history attests that coups in favor of freedom and modernity are feasible. The 1921 coup by military officer Reza Khan — who was later appointed king by the parliament, establishing the Pahlavi dynasty — ascertained that a coup with internal support and the eradication of external hindrances could pave the way for a new era. After the 1921 coup, Iranian elites witnessed the modernity in Reza’s thought and supported his efforts toward women’s rights and religious freedoms. It was only after the coup that the Constitution-era pursuits of Iranian elites became reality and no longer only words in articles and poems.
The caveat is in the timing. The army can only act once. It would either succeed in overthrowing the Islamic Regime or fail miserably. Should a national coup in favor of the Iranian liberal and democratic movement succeed, the army would ensure that the Prince and international organizations oversee a free and fair election to decide on the specifics of this new political system. Further, it would protect all Iranian ethnicities and vulnerable groups from harm and anarchy during the transition period. A successful military coup ensures a stable and less costly transition.
However, there is no room for trial and error. If the army acts and fails then mass arrests, executions, and purges will occur, voiding the army of its essence. Subsequently, any hope for future support from the army would diminish.
The army will not want to risk a disaster of this sort, so it awaits the right moment. This ‘right moment’ is when the Islamic Regime has lost all support and is no longer appeased by Western powers. The West should take concrete actions toward this imperative that assures the army of logistical and moral support in the case of a coup. The international community should give direct and indirect assurances that, in following a coup, it would not hinder or interfere with the efforts of Iranians toward freedom.
The appeasement policies of the West toward the Islamic Regime have left little room for deliberations on the potential of a coup. Nonetheless, the question of how and when the army would back Iranians is remarkably alive inside the country.