That was then. Since the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, I suspect that he and other senior Iranian officials have upgraded their security protocols. Soleimani, who was Khamenei’s military counterpart, died in Baghdad. But America’s unwillingness to attack Iran’s leaders, even inside Iran, can no longer be assumed, and it would take only a minimal level of rationality for Khamenei to conclude that death could come from above (in an air strike), below (a car bomb), or any other direction, and that he should minimize contact with random weirdos on the street.
Killing Soleimani did not begin World War III, but it did start another familiar conversation, about whether the Iranian government is so stressed that it might topple soon. Those in Washington’s “regime change” crowd have taken up this line, but of course their word is worth little. They are attempting to diagnose and prescribe in the same action: By saying that collapse is imminent, they are trying to make it imminent, encouraging revolution by convincing Iranians that revolution is inevitable anyway. When John Bolton, the recently departed national security adviser and an Iran hawk of long standing, says the regime “has never been under more stress,” it is impossible to know whether he is stating a fact or a desire.
Read: The endorsement Iran’s protesters didn’t want
What is clear is that the Iranian regime is facing public protests more intense than at any point in recent memory—perhaps beyond even the Green Movement of 2009, which the government put down with near-Tiananmen-like force. Sanctions are cutting into the general population deeply, subsidies are being slashed, and after the accidental shooting-down of a Ukrainian airliner filled with Iranians—and the subsequent denial, then acceptance, of responsibility—hatred of the regime is rising fast. The images from Iran show beyond doubt that large crowds of Iranians do not fear the reaction of their government, and that they are willing to risk becoming its latest victims.
But I hesitate to infer from these images imminent regime collapse. In Iran, as in many other countries, elite opinion is a poor guide to popular opinion. Visitors to Iran—especially journalists—usually spend their time in big cities such as Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz. In the rare cases when they enjoy real freedom of movement and can spend more than a few days in the country, they might add Mashhad and Tabriz.
On that same backpacking trip, in Tehran and Isfahan, I met many Iranians whose greatest fear was that their government would develop nuclear weapons, thus guaranteeing its survival—and their own captivity in a totalitarian theocracy—for the next half century or more. The mood in Tehran in particular was depressive. Even during the Green revolt, they thought rebellion was pointless, because the government would outlast the protests. The only adversary to the Iranian government that mattered, they said, was the United States, whose intervention they both feared and desired, like a rough course of chemo that was the last chance to shrink a cancer that their own body had failed to contain.