This weekend marks the 39th anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s return from exile in 1979 to hijack a popular movement that led to the dismissal of Iran’s monarchy and its dictatorship.

But the largest countrywide uprising since 2009 suggests that the Iranian people are prepared to write the next chapter in their history, and it may happen sooner than Tehran’s Washington lobby would like.

Policy toward Iran has historically been an enigma for Western powers and for Washington in particular. It could even be argued that U.S. policy toward Iran has been the bete noire for bipartisan administrations — Republican and Democrat — since the 1979 revolution.

This is partly due to fabrications that the Islamic Republic and its apologists have peddled for decades, including that:

  • The Iranian regime enjoys the support of the population, in particular the poor.

  • The regime in Tehran is stable and strong enough to support interference in the affairs of other countries in the region.

  • Tehran has been able to suppress all dissent and opposition is limited to exiles outside of Iran with no influence on the current state of affairs inside the country.

  • The Iranian political landscape is defined by a contest between “moderates” and “hardliners” and the outcome of this contest will determine the future of Iran.

  • The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps is in full control and geared up to prevent popular uprisings.

  • The nuclear agreement and the cash windfall that resulted from sanctions relief improved the welfare of the average Iranian and provided a capital gain for the regime's “moderates.”

By challenging Tehran’s tall tales — and the sources that promote them — U.S. legislators can undermine the influence operation that has dictated policy in Washington for too long and put real pressure on the Iranian regime.

The best place to start is with the massive anti-regime protests that began in late December and early January and shook the regime to its core. Unlike the 2009 protests, the overwhelming majority of those engaged in the 142-city uprising were from poor and underprivileged backgrounds. And by the regime’s own estimates, 50 percent of protesters were between the ages of 19 and 25, and 25 percent were between 25 and 32.

Though the protests began over increased prices for staple items such as eggs, they immediately took on a political tone. It is telling that not a single shop or private commercial entity was attacked. Rather, suppressive centers, government buildings, and offices of the Friday prayer leaders — the very institutions that push the regime’s extremist, fundamentalist agenda — were targeted. Further, slogans like, "No to Lebanon, no to Gaza, my life for Iran," demonstrated that the people are rejecting the regime’s regional interference in addition to its domestic policy.

From the outset of the uprising, protesters’ slogans — which included chants of "Down with Rouhani" and "Down with Khomeini" — demonstrated an outright rejection of the status quo. The slogan "No to reformer, no hardliner, this game is over" expressed an awareness that differences between political factions in Iran are distinctions without a difference. The only contest that really matters in Iran is the contest between the people’s power and the regime’s control. No one has gotten this message more clearly than the Iranian supreme leader who, on Jan. 9, warned of a political current trying to unseat his regime.

Unable to deter or contain the unrelenting, pervasive, and geographically widespread protests, the IRGC was stretched to a breaking point. Even the element of surprise was lost as young people — undeterred by the regime’s brutality — used technology to mobilize the masses, open new fronts, fight back, and sustain their movement for freedom.

Unsurprisingly, the regime responded to the rebellion with brutality. Some 50 protesters were shot to death, more than 8,000 were arrested, and several are reported to have been tortured during detention, prior to execution. But an Iran not ruled by the ayatollahs, unthinkable just a year ago, is finally on the cards, and it is time for Washington policymakers to adjust to the new reality.

An anti-regime uprising that has yet to conclude has left the regime vulnerable and defensive as it commemorates its 39th anniversary. If the world takes the proper course, there is no reason it should be allowed to celebrate its 40th.

Ivan Sascha Sheehan is director of the graduate programs in Global Affairs and Human Security and Negotiations and Conflict Management in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter @ProfSheehan.

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