Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution largely caught the world by surprise. Only a handful of analysts—Israel’s Uri Lubrani most famously—predicted that the shah could fall. In the aftermath of Iran’s upheaval, publishers scrambled to commission authors who could, with the benefit of hindsight, explain what happened. These authors tended to depict the events leading to Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise as the culmination of natural political evolution. If diplomats misread the tea leaves, then it was simply because their policy blinders caused them to ignore that which was there for all to see.

Of course, most Iranians themselves also did not expect the revolution to succeed. They did not know that the shah had terminal cancer, or that he would handle the response to protests as poorly as he did. Iran had periodic bouts of mass protests, after all.

Many of Khomeini’s followers took him at his word that he sought reform, not personal power. For example, in 1978, the exiled ayatollah told the Associated Press, “Personal desire, age, and my health do not allow me to personally have a role in running the country after the fall of the current system.” He told the Parisian newspaper Le Journal, “I can’t accept any special role or responsibility.” Once he grasped the reins of power, though, he held on tight. The revolution was already spinning itself out when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein launched a surprise attack on Iran. For Khomeini, it was a gift because it allowed him to distract from his own failings and rally people around the flag. By the time the war ended, he had consolidated power.

The Islamic Republic of Iran remains, however, an anomalous historical phenomenon and an unstable one at that. Throughout its history, there have been sparks that have rocked the regime. In 1999, the defenestration of students at a Tehran University dorm by plainclothes security men sparked unrest that shook the regime to its core. In 2001, Iran’s 3-1 loss to Bahrain in a World Cup qualifier also sparked nationwide protests when diaspora television broadcast that the Iranian team threw the match on government orders to prevent mixed gender celebrations. Most recently, in 2009, there was the fraudulent re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which once again sparked nationwide protests. In short, Iran is far from stable.

Only about ten percent of Iranians believe that the Islamic Republic is working well; these are the so-called hardliners. And additional 15 percent think Khomeini had good ideas, but that the revolution went off its rails and can still be righted; these are the so-called reformers. The remaining three-quarters believe that Khomeini’s system failed and cannot be fixed. Most of these Iranians are not revolutionary but apathetic. Outrages such as those in 1999, 2001, and 2009 can bring them to the streets. In short, Iran is a tinderbox.

Every so often, a spark ignites. The question then becomes whether the regime is better at smothering the embers than the opposition is at fanning the flames. What is certain, however, is that in such an unpopular system, there will always be new sparks. What might be the next one?

A good bet is that it might revolve around the death of imprisoned Iranian politicians. The two most prominent Iranian politicians now under house arrest are Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Karroubi has been a stalwart of post-revolutionary Iranian politics. He twice served as speaker of parliament, and he twice sought the presidency. In 2005, he went to sleep the winner as ballots were counted only to wake up in third place. After he publicly alleged raised questions about irregularities, Supreme Ali Khamenei chided him for questioning the integrity of the system. In 2009, after coming in last, he conceded gracefully and became a symbol of relative integrity when he condemned detainee sexual abuse in the wake of post-election unrest.  Against the backdrop of Arab Spring unrest and regime concern that the similar demands for government accountability could find fertile ground inside Iran, the regime placed Karroubi under house-arrest in order to ensure his silence.

Around the same time, they also rounded up both Mousavi, a former prime minister and unsuccessful 2009 presidential candidate, and his wife Zahra Rahnavard. Charged initially with Mofsed-e-filarz, being “corrupt on earth,” a capital crime in Iran, Karroubi, Mousavi, and Rahnavard were eventually sentenced on lesser charges.

While Rouhani promised to free his former colleagues from house arrest, he did not do so; the three remain detained. On July 25, Karroubi’s daughters visited him and subsequently reported that their 79-year-old father was in ill-health, suffering both from kidney disease and high blood pressure. He was subsequently hospitalized, but the Islamic Students News Agency reported on July 28 that he had been released in perfect health. On July 30, however, his son reported to the reformist website Kalameh that his father had been re-hospitalized with a dangerously low heart rate.

Iran should be very, very worried. While reformists and democrats are not synonymous—even the most liberal reformist is a hardline theocrat when placed on the broad spectrum of Iranian political thought—imprisoning Karroubi and Mousavi may have painted the regime into the corner. If they release one or both, not only does the regime look weak but, after six years of house arrest, both men may be slightly antagonistic to those who ordered their harassment and detention. If they die while in detention, popular outrage could amount to a spark that spreads.

Either way, the Islamic Republic is in for a challenge. The façade of acceptance and acquiescence is only that—a superficial image that cannot mask the frustration and outrage festering just the beneath the surface.

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