AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
In December of 1977, the then-Shah of Iran paid a visit to Washington, D.C., where President Carter infamously toasted Iran “as an island of stability within the Middle East.” Just over a year later, the Shah would be toppled, and Iran would become the fount of instability in the region.
Exactly how destabilizing the events of 1979 were is hard to exaggerate. Iran’s revolution imported both a revolutionary and a sectarian element into the region. In the former case, every monarchical and pro-Western government in the Middle East faced charges of being puppets of American/Zionist imperialists. These were old Soviet charges wrapped up in an Islamic and anti-Semitic form. In the latter, Iran instigated civil wars across the region not just between Shia and non-Shia populations in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, but often within Shia communities between pro and anti-Tehran elements, as seen in Iraq. Iran’s role as a nemesis of Israel extended even to Latin America where a Jewish community center was bombed in 1994. To this day, Iranian drones have played a key role in allowing Russia to attack Ukrainian civilian infrastructure. None of these even touches upon Iran’s nuclear program, which began under the Shah.
This history makes the question “What if the regime actually fell?” both terrifying and pertinent. It is terrifying because the scale of the unknowns involved, as Donald Rumsfeld might phrase it, would upset the calculations of a foreign policy establishment whose models assume the permanence of the clerical regime. This question is pertinent because for all the lack of focus on the present protests roiling Iran from U.S. foreign policy elites, the demonstrations show few signs of dying down. Furthermore, the disinterest shown by international actors, including the United States, points to something more organic going on. The supposed weaknesses of the protests – the lack of any political leaders, the lack of demands other than the destruction of the system – are in many ways strengths. These factors make it difficult to repress the protests except with extreme force, and almost as hard to divide. The movement is eerily similar to the protest movement that took down the Shah in 1978-79, while the behavior of Iran’s leadership, again headed by an elderly and likely dying leader whose mortality is now driving decisions, echoes the mistakes of the Shah.
The world did not know the Shah was dying of cancer in 1978, but he was. By contrast, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, at 83 years old, has defied his foes by remaining alive beyond their expectations, yet clearly he has his mind on the future. In both cases, the fear for the future of the regime led Iran’s leader to clamp down rather than open up. The Shah, who had kept up a somewhat farcical two-party system, forced all Iranian parties to merge into the Rastakhiz (or “Resurgence”) Party in 1975, which he then forced every Iranian civil servant to join.
At the same time, the Shah, who had kept a single Prime Minister in office for a decade, had no less than five between 1977 and 1978 in order to centralize government more and more on his person. The effect was to alienate key elements of the elite, whose independence he saw not as a challenge to his own power but to that of his teenage son. By preemptively declaring anyone or any group that could threaten his teenage son’s authority an enemy, he made them enemies of his own rule. This exclusion made interest groups which would otherwise have nothing in common with Khomeini (who led the revolution against the Shah) ranging from civil servants to military officers and business leaders, to see the movement to overthrow the Shah as the only means of preserving their influence while at the same time degrading the effectiveness of the institutions which would otherwise repress the uprising.
Khamenei has followed a similar path. The Islamic Republic’s “democracy” has always been a farce, with the Reformist vs. Hardliner duel largely a façade masking rivalries between individuals who are in power, and therefore have no need of Western support, and those out of power making promises about what they would do if they were to take office.
Nonetheless, if the ideological differences within the regime were figments of the imaginations of gullible Western politicians, the personal rivalries were real. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, both former presidents, and Ali Larijani, the former Parliament Speaker whose brother headed the judiciary, all represented patronage networks worth as much as $1 billion in assets for their friends and families. Their struggles for control of the Iranian Parliament and presidency therefore did have meaning, if not for the nuclear program or women’s rights directly. That control would allow them to protect their own assets and attack those of rivals.
Khamenei, with his death impending, and favoring his son as his de facto if not de jure successor, has made a clean sweep of every faction and figure of any relevance within the Iranian system. This is an acknowledgement of the weakness of Mojitaba Khamenei, who is not taken seriously by a clerical establishment which has consequently been sidelined, who was accused of stealing billions by Ahmadinejad (now driven into opposition), and whose ambitions to control the paramilitary forces of the regime led to the ouster of more senior officials in the Basij and Revolutionary Guard.
Khamenei’s actions culminated in the 2021 “elections,” where Ahmadinejad and Larijani were denied the right to run over the protests of the latter’s brother, who served on the Council of Guardians in charge of vetting the candidates. The grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini also dropped out of the race under pressure from Khamenei’s allies. This allowed Khamenei to install Ebrahim Raisi, who lost the 2016 elections by more than 20%, as president.
This monopoly has had serious consequences for the stability of the regime in many of the same ways the Shah’s final actions did. For one thing, it alienated key players and their networks. While at various times some powerful figures in Iranian society had flirted with concessions both to the population and the West in order to mobilize support against their internal rivals, the goal had never been to overthrow the regime. Any promised concessions to the West were an effort to convince Khamenei they were less dangerous on the inside working with him than on the outside working against him. Once Khamenei brought them on board, the opposition’s interest in internal reform and ending Iran’s conflict with the West would suddenly vanish. However, by locking them out of power, Khamenei removed any reason for them to resist efforts to overthrow the regime. At best they would back the protests until Khamenei brought them back in. At worst, if he was stubborn, they would oppose the regime until the end.
At the same time, Khamenei’s purges by design crippled every institution upon which the Islamic regime depended. Nearly everyone competent of independent standing was removed.
And by removing competition, Khamenei has removed incentives which had once kept the more radical policies of the regime in check. If Ahmadinejad had to compete with other rivals, he could not afford to implement policies which would have risked disaster, such as a vigorous enforcement of headscarves or openly backing Russia. Ahmadinejad perhaps did not need a majority, but he needed to avoid uniting everyone against him. By contrast, Raisi was selected by Khamenei because he would accept the presidency from Khamenei and not the electorate. Raisi knows this, and also knows Khamenei would see any effort to seek popularity from the people as an act of disloyalty. In effect, an incentive structure was created whereby Raisi and other governmental officials prove their loyalty to Khamenei by deliberately courting unpopularity.
This appears to be precisely what happened with events leading to the current protests. In June of 2022, Raisi overrode the objections of his own Interior Minister to step up enforcement of public modesty rules, with tragic results for Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman who died in police custody. The government denied wrongdoing, and in other circumstances would have responded to growing protests by blaming the morality police for excessive zeal. In 2022, the political incentives made that impossible.
The repressive policy which cost Mahsa Amini her life was Khamenei’s policy, and the protestors calling for “Death to Khamenei” were using the name of the Supreme Leader. For Raisi or any other official to express doubts about the policy would be to question Khamenei, and worse, to seek popularity at his expense. Instead, with Khamenei having made himself the only constituency any Iranian politician needs to appeal to in order to remain or gain office, officials competed to please him at the expense of alienating everyone else.
This reached farcical levels when stories spread that 227 members of the Iranian Majlis, or Parliament, had called for 15,000 protestors to be executed. The story, first reported by Newsweek, was a garbled exaggeration. The Majlis deputies had signed a letter, not voted, in which they had called for harsh penalties, with no mention of death, and in any event, the judiciary is outside their purview. It was a groveling effort to curry favor with the single, dying, 83-year-old man whose favor matters above all in Iran.
Without the brave protestors, including children, risking their lives, the Iranian regime would not be under threat. But their opportunity has been created by a regime that has rotted from within until it is unable to act even within its own self-interest. Ali Khamenei, on his deathbed, has long since ceased caring about the interests of the regime, and has now lost the ability even to grasp what is in the interests of himself and his family. He has created a system in which no one else is able to challenge or mitigate his errors.
The Biden administration has largely been a bystander to this implosion. A few gestures have been made to sanction regime figures involved in the crackdown, and the U.S. has all but abandoned the nuclear talks, though it is unclear if this is in response to developments within Iran, to Iran’s arming of Russia, or merely having no one to negotiate with as the Iranian regime collapses into the fantasies of an octogenarian. While there is more that the administration could do to aid the protestors, there is not an enormous amount more. The Iranian dynamics are largely internal.
What the United States could do, however, is plan more aggressively for what should happen if the regime does indeed fall. The question of “what America wants from Iran” has boiled down to a negative for the past 30 years. The U.S. wants Iran to “stabilize Iraq,” to not destabilize Syria, Lebanon or Yemen, and to not develop nuclear weapons. In short, the U.S. wants Iran to cease interfering with American management of the Middle East and Afghanistan. In exchange for isolating itself politically, the U.S. will reduce Tehran’s isolation economically.
But this was always a futile policy. The very nature of the clerical regime meant that it could hardly cease to interfere in Iraq or Lebanon where Shia populations existed as major political players. Iran’s objectives are as much about preventing Hezbollah or Iraqi Shia groups from becoming rivals to Tehran’s clerics as they are about Iran’s own power. As for the economic carrots, what mattered for Iranian internal politics was not the size of the pie but its distribution. Khamenei has always preferred a smaller pie which he controls without challenge to a larger one of which he controls only a piece.
The world of the 2020s is not the world of the 2000s. The United States no longer seeks to dominate the Middle East. With Netanyahu back in office, the Taliban in power in Kabul, and Saudi Arabia openly defying the U.S. over OPEC production, it is laughable to argue that Iran is challenging “U.S. hegemony” which no longer exists, if it ever did. What the U.S. wants from Iran is not for Iran to be an ally, but merely for it not to be an enemy. That means an Iranian regime which will not sell drones to Russia for the war in Ukraine or hand its oil reserves to China. These desires are the basis for potential “deals” which are likely to be attractive to almost any successor regime, even if it represents a coalition of interests from former regime insiders turned opponents to protestors.
With no one likely to be in a position to dominate the “pie,” foreign investment by Western companies is a way to help different groups settle their differences. At the same time, the one thing that unites all wings of the opposition is hatred of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and suspicion of China. Putin is seen as having backed the crackdowns, one reason no less a figure than former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad referred to Putin’s war in the Ukraine as “Satanic.” If the U.S. wishes for an Iran that will provide oil, not engage in terrorism, and is suspicious of China and Russia, that is achievable.
As for the nuclear program, it has always been a red herring, and a toxic one at that. The Shah began the nuclear program in the 1970s, and the chaos of the current unrest, plus the effects of likely Israeli sabotage, mean Iran’s capacity to do anything with the fuel it has enriched is minimal. In practice, the program has been less of an actual weapons program and more of a political weapon with which to blackmail the West. Fear of the program led to a series of deals that netted the clerics billions. Fear of losing the deal caused Obama and European leaders to tip-toe around challenging anything Tehran did. Trump freed everyone from this cage by tearing it up, and Biden merely imprisoned his own Middle Eastern policy by seeking to restore it. Going forward, it should be made clear that actual deployable weapons will be intolerable to Israel and that Iran will not be allowed to deploy them, but the U.S. also will not waste time haggling over the enrichment of grams of plutonium here or there. Iran will be judged on its domestic and geopolitical behavior as a whole.
Iranians have a chance for a new start today, for many of the same reasons they did in 1979. It is up to everyone to ensure the opportunity is not wasted.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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