As of December 2017, thousands of Iranians have been protesting against Iran’s Islamic regime, criticizing its domestic and foreign policies — including funding terrorism in Gaza and Lebanon instead of spending Iran’s resources on its own people. Unlike the 2009 protests, during which Iranians were mostly calling for reform of the political system,  protesters are now seeking total removal of the regime by means of a revolution, to replace Tehran’s theocracy. Many Iranians long for what Reza Pahlavi advocates: a pluralist constitutional democracy in the form of a secular republic or monarchy, depending on the results of any post-revolution referendum.

Farmers, factory workers, shopkeepers of Tehran’s Grand Bazaar and hundreds of shopping malls across the country, ordinary people of Khorramshahr and Abadan who don’t have drinking water, university students and women’s right activists are all protesting together with the aim of doing away with Iran’s Islamic regime. Imagine what would happen if the army were to join them? 

Despite playing a key role in defending Iran, Army personnel are paid less than their IRGC colleagues, and are also not allowed to hold a second job. Some, however, do, working part-time as taxi drivers, or use their language skills to teach English in schools. Army, Navy and Air Force personnel have had their pensions cut over the last two years as well. Meanwhile, IRGC personnel are able to take a second job in IRGC’s shell companies while on reserve or active duty, and even after retirement.

Nationwide protests are set to escalate all over Iran within the next few months, but the regime’s removal will not as be easy some might think – or hope.  In Syria, after almost seven years of violent conflict, President Bashar al Assad is still clinging to power – and has done so at the cost of thousands of Syrian lives. The Iranian regime, and especially its Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, will use the IRGC and its Basij militia to protect the system against a revolution.

This will be ineffective if Iranian secular armed forces, including the Army and Air Force, join together with the people against the regime.

Today, the Iranian Army, which is made up of the Ground Force, Navy, Air Force and Air Defence Force, has a total staff of 150,000. It outnumbers the IRGC’s own troops, whose combined Ground Force, Navy, Aerospace Force and Qods Force total around 70,000, with additional active and reserve Basij militia members numbering almost 30,000. The Army’s budget is less than half of that allocated to the IRGC. Official Islamic Republic statistics reveal that the Iranian Army‘s budget was US$2.49 billion in 1396 (March 2017 to March 2018). At the same time, the IRGC’s was US$4.95 billion. This money has been spent not only on material for the IRGC’s armed forces, but on providing better accommodation and other benefits for IRGC members, especially senior officials.

Because of discrimination towards Army servicemen, strong nostalgia for the Pahlavi reign, and a deep sense of nationalism among traditional military personnel, Army, Air Force, Navy and Air Defence Force personnel are likely to side with Iranians in any significant attempt at regime change. The regime knows this, and has been trying to limit the Army’s power, and force it to leave the cities and establish bases far from them to loosen the strong ties between the citizenry and its traditional protectors. It has sought to make it more difficult for those protectors to intervene against the IRGC if the IRGC attempted to suppress protesters during any revolution.

Army commanders have been appointed to their posts by the regime based on their loyalty not their efficiency. Because of that, they have never been completely trusted by most of the Army. Despite this, Army servicemen could be united with the people under the leadership of Reza Pahlavi — grandson of Reza Shah Pahlavi, the most beloved historical figure in the Army — to launch a nationwide attempt at regime change. The Regime knows this and has carried out a hate campaign against Reza Pahlavi following recent protests.

During those protests, people were heard chanting slogans in support of Reza Pahlavi and Reza Shah, such as: ‘Reza Shah, God Bless Your Soul’, or ‘Reza, Reza Pahlavi’. IRGC- affiliated news agencies such as Tasnim News and the regime’s state media reported instead that the opposition group MEK (NCRI), once listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S., was behind these protests — in an effort to incite scepticism among Army personnel and prevent them from supporting the protesters. 

Despite the brutal suppression of the protesters by the IRGC and its notorious Basij militia, Iranian Army servicemen could arm themselves, and start an armed resistance in support of Iranians against the regime and its Revolutionary Guards. This move could also see a growing number of IRGC personnel join the army in an attempt to defend the people, as was the case during the 2009 protests, when several IRGC Aerospace Force personnel, including a SU-25 pilot, opposed the violent crackdowns sanctioned by the regime. They were charged with treason and executed in 2010.

The regime spends millions to portray Iran’s traditional armed forces in a bad light. State-controlled television and media companies run by the IRGC produce documentaries, films and movies in which they show, for example, Revolutionary Guards as the only defenders of Iran in the war with Iraq. The truth, of course, is that compared to the well-trained and experienced professional soldiers of the Army, the young and inexperienced personnel and commanders of the IRGC are mostly unsuccessful in their operations, which sometimes lead to significant losses within their own troops. Operation Karbala-4, which took place in December 1986, is a good example of the IRGC’s military ineptitude.

Iranians have not forgotten the heroism and sacrifices made by the Army during the war with Iraq, and they feel a strong bond to the Army. The people remember disaster relief operations after earthquakes and floods. For example, during the Kermanshah earthquake on November 12, 2017, which resulted in the deaths of at least 630 people, four brigades of the Army Ground Force as well as two groups of Army Aviation were involved in relief operations for weeks. These operations, witnessed by huge numbers of people, increased the traditional armed forces’ popularity among the people in the region. It did not go un-noticed that the soldiers set up camps, hospitals and welfare facilities for the people of Sarpol Zahab, despite the army personnel’s own lack of equipment and material.

Nevertheless, external forces are interfering with the country’s links to the Army. Saudi Arabia funds the MEK opposition group , which despite being unpopular among many Iranians is therefore able to organize rallies using rented crowds which include non-Iranian university students and African immigrants. The group has also been able to pay former American and European politicians handsomely to give speeches at its events. MEK’s presence inside the country’s political arena has given the Iranian government the scapegoat it needs to blame national unrest and dissatisfaction over the regime’s economic failures on opposition groups like this one.  This, in turn, has created doubt in the minds of Army personnel, who are not sure what to believe: is the unrest real, or just a power play by a political faction?

Last week, Reza Pahlavi told Radio Iran, a Los Angeles based opposition radio channel: “I have always insisted that our revolution must be democratic and non-violent, but it doesn’t mean that protesters should take to the streets and martyr themselves. They can defend themselves if the security forces attack them. They can use weapons in self defense. They couldn’t bomb and cause terror, they couldn’t go on to the streets and sabotage others. They couldn’t kill Basij militias and IRGC forces when they have not attacked them, because we are different from the regime. But we can defend ourselves”. 

Reza Pahlavi’s speech was viewed by some as a message to the Army,  inviting them  to defend the people against Ayatollah Khamenei’s oppressive security forces. Soon after this speech was aired, a social media campaign went viral on Instagram, in which Army personnel anonymously announced their support for the Iranian people, using a hashtag and a Persian phrase which translates as: “I end my allegiance with you [Khamenei]”.