The Iran Paradox

445 2017-07-16

Michael Mandelbaum

The Islamic Republic of Iran is both a historical relic and a contemporary dynamo. Despite having lost legitimacy in the eyes of most Iranians, the regime has managed to expand its influence beyond its borders – and is close to achieving its goal of regional hegemony

Of the states that emerged from the twentieth century’s three great revolutions – in Russia in 1917, China in 1949, and Iran in 1979 – the Islamic Republic of Iran alone endures in something close to its original form. Modern-day Iran is thus a historical relic; but it is also a contemporary dynamo. Its revolutionary regime is increasingly sclerotic and beleaguered. And yet, in recent years, it has managed to exert ever-more power and influence beyond its borders.

Two recent books help to explain how this paradox came about. Democracy in Iran, by Dartmouth College sociologist Misagh Parsa, examines Iran’s domestic political evolution since the revolution. And The Iran Wars, by Jay Solomon, a former foreign affairs correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, assesses Iran’s foreign policy in the twenty-first century, with an emphasis on its relations with the United States.

The Last Revolution

Like the revolutions in Russia and China, the Iranian Revolution brought to power an entirely new elite that reshaped the country’s political and economic order on the basis of a radical ideology. Like them, it was led by a shrewd, charismatic, tactically flexible, and supremely ruthless leader, with the Shia Muslim cleric Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini playing the same role that Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong did in Russia and China. And all three revolutions made extensive use of violence. Like the Bolsheviks and the Chinese Communist Party, the Islamic Republic conducted a campaign of terror against its opponents – real and imagined – and consolidated its power through severe repression.

Today, the Russian and Chinese revolutionary regimes no longer exist, with each having ended relatively peacefully. In Russia, the reforms initiated under Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership eventually led to the dissolution of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and the collapse of the Soviet state, whose 15 republics splintered into separate countries, none ruled by a communist party. In China, the Chinese Communist Party has maintained its monopoly on political power, but the country now has a booming free-market economy, owing to economic reforms ushered in by Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping.

The architects of the Iranian revolution had two goals: to remake Iranian society at home, and to establish Iranian hegemony abroad. In 2017, the Muslim clerics who rule the country have fallen far short of the first goal, but they are closer than ever to achieving the second.

Democracy in IranThe nature of the regime, and its domestic difficulties, are the subjects of Democracy in Iran. A work of political sociology, Parsa’s book addresses a broad question about Iranian society: Is democracy more likely to be achieved by gradual, peaceful reform, or through sweeping and perhaps violent revolution? The author argues that it will be the latter.

Parsa draws on extensive research, much of it in Farsi, to provide a detailed history of the Islamic Republic from its origins up until 2009. His strongest chapters are those dealing with the Iranian Revolution itself, and with the opposition movement that arose in the wake of the fraudulent 2009 presidential election.

Concerning the Islamic Republic’s origins, Parsa shows that Khomeini and his close associates actually came to power under false pretenses. The broad coalition of Iranians that united to overthrow the ruling Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, wanted political democracy and economic prosperity, both of which Khomeini promised. What they did not want was a clerical dictatorship based on a particular interpretation of Shia Islam, and headed by an all-powerful cleric. But that is what Khomeini created, through guile and brutality.

To be sure, the Islamic Republic does have a parliament and a popularly elected president. But clerics determine who is eligible to run for office, and they routinely bar anyone who might threaten the existing order. Moreover, the final say on any given issue has always rested with the Supreme Leader – first with Khomeini himself, and since Khomeini’s death in 1989, with Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei.

The Day After…

On the economic front, while the Shah had presided over a period of rapid, though sometimes disruptive, growth, the revolution brought stagnation. Corruption became even more widespread and deeply entrenched than in the Shah’s time, as the new regime seized large parts of the economy and generously rewarded its own leaders. While Khomeini proclaimed his dedication to the poor, the distribution of income grew steadily more unequal.

The regime’s political and economic performance, so sharply at odds with what the majority of Iranians had expected, created resentment, discontent, and resistance. At first, these sentiments largely manifested in passive forms. For example, while the revolution ostensibly enthroned Islam at the center of daily life, religious observance declined sharply across the country. Iranians voted with their feet against the new order by staying away from the mosques.

Eventually, resistance became more active. When the moderate reformer Mir Hossein Mousavi ran against the establishment-backed president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in the 2009 presidential election, his candidacy inspired a record-high turnout. When the government declared Ahmadinejad the winner before the polls had even closed, outraged Iranians took to the streets to protest.

What became known as the Green Movement started in the capital, Tehran, and quickly swept across the country, mobilizing millions of people, and continuing in one form or another for 20 months. The regime eventually prevailed over the protesters, thousands of whom it arrested, imprisoned, and in some cases murdered. As in Russia and China in the twentieth century, the victims of repression in Iran today have included one-time supporters of the revolution, and even former senior officials.

Reviewing the Islamic Republic’s first 30 years, Parsa concludes that two future scenarios are possible: opposition continues to grow, forcing the clerical establishment to crack down harder to remain in power; or the regime implodes, perhaps allowing for a democratic political system to emerge. Parsa does not consider the possibility that an equally undemocratic system might replace the Islamic Republic.

The Quest for Hegemony

Although Iran’s clerical regime has failed to establish legitimacy and maintain support among most Iranians, it has succeeded in expanding its influence beyond the country’s borders. Solomon’s The Iran Wars, a chronicle of US-Iranian relations in the twenty-first century – much of it based on Solomon’s own previous reporting for the Wall Street Journal – helps to explain the regime’s geopolitical achievements.

The Iran WarsIran has managed to extend its reach in many parts of the Middle East over the past 17 years for three reasons. First, the US has unwittingly, but formidably, assisted it. Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the US has waged war against Iran’s most aggressive regional adversaries.

In 1998, Iran had come close to open warfare with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which also adhered to a fundamentalist – albeit Sunni – version of Islam. Because the Taliban had sheltered al-Qaeda, the organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks, the US forcibly removed it from power in 2001. Similarly, in 2003, American military forces unseated the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. In 1980, Saddam had launched an attack on Iran that set off a costly, eight-year war in which an estimated one million Iranians died. With his fall, Iraq’s Shia majority – with ties to Iran – took power.

More recently, the US has taken up arms against yet another of Iran’s sworn enemies, the Islamic State (ISIS), which captured large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq in 2014. Without having to lift a finger or make any concessions to the US, Iran’s clerical rulers have enjoyed an extraordinary strategic windfall.

The Islamic State emerged in the wake of the Arab Spring, the wave of popular uprisings that began in December 2010 and swept across the Middle East, challenging, and in some cases toppling, long-entrenched dictators. The Arab Spring proved to be a second major impetus for the expansion of Iranian power.

Americans and Europeans had hoped that the Arab Spring would usher in a new democratic era in the region. Instead, it touched off a region-wide struggle between Shia and Sunnis. Although Iran is not an Arab country, it put itself at the head of the Shia bloc, and thus acquired allies and proxies throughout the Middle East. It had already founded, trained, and equipped Lebanon’s Hezbollah, a Shia militia that has gained a dominant position in that country’s multi-confessional politics, and it long supported the then-illegal Shia political parties in Saddam-era Iraq that have since taken over Iraq’s government.

In 2011 and thereafter, Iran also sponsored Shia groups that were challenging Sunni-led regimes in Bahrain and Yemen. But its most notable initiative came in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s regime responded to peaceful protests with violent repression, leading to civil war.

Assad’s government is dominated by his fellow Alawites, a Shia-affiliated sect that constitutes a mere 12% of the Syrian population; the Sunnis who oppose him make up 74%. At first, Assad’s forces lost ground, and seemed destined for defeat. But Iran stepped in to save him, by supplying military guidance and ground troops largely composed of Hezbollah militants and Shia volunteers from other countries.

Assad’s victory consolidated what worried Sunni leaders refer to as an Iranian-led “Shia crescent” stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. They lamented that four Arab capitals – Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Sana’a – had fallen under Iranian control.

Atomic Ayatollahs

Had the war in Syria turned out differently, Iran might have suffered a serious setback; instead, it has achieved a major victory. The same could be said for Iran’s third source of influence in recent years: its nuclear-weapons program.

Iran promised not to acquire nuclear weapons when it became a signatory of the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and the ruling clerics long claimed that Islam forbade possession of such arms. Yet the regime launched a secret program to develop nuclear weapons, with an emphasis on the techniques and equipment necessary for the most difficult step in the process: fabricating the fuel – either enriched uranium or purified plutonium – needed for an atomic explosion.

When Iran’s program was discovered in 2002, the international community, led by the US, imposed increasingly severe economic sanctions on the regime to force it to abandon its ambition to become a nuclear power. Eventually, Iran entered into negotiations over its nuclear program with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany). The negotiations were conducted mainly by US President Barack Obama’s administration, and culminated in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

On balance, the Islamic Republic did very well for itself under the JCPOA. It agreed to shrink its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, and limit its capacity to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium at its existing facilities. In exchange, the US dropped its demand that Iran cease reprocessing altogether, which had been central to American nonproliferation policy for four decades. Moreover, the US agreed to allow the JCPOA’s restrictions to expire after 10-15 years, and has already lifted most economic sanctions on Iran.

The Obama administration might have achieved an outcome more favorable to the US and the international community had it taken a less accommodating approach to the negotiations. In fact, keeping the sanctions in place could have created serious political problems for the Iranian regime. Parsa surmises that the Green Movement ultimately crumbled because it did not attract the support of small merchants (bazaaris) and workers, especially in the oil industry. These two groups, he notes, were important elements in the coalition that overthrew the Shah, and they are not immune to the effects of economic sanctions.

The rationale for the Obama administration’s decision to agree to the JCPOA, despite the leverage of sanctions and America’s vast military superiority over Iran, must remain a matter for speculation. But the personal predilections of those responsible for that decision surely played a role. In Solomon’s account, the chief American negotiator, Secretary of State John Kerry, having failed to make any headway toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was extremely eager to reach a deal.

Similarly, Obama, the ultimate authority on the American side, entered the White House in 2008 believing that he personally could defuse hostilities between America and its adversaries, and he seemed not to have abandoned that notion in the case of Iran. Although Obama had claimed that his administration would consider “all options” for shutting down Iran’s program, it became increasingly clear that he would not actually use military force against Iranian nuclear facilities. That gave the Iranian regime a significant advantage in the negotiations.

Notwithstanding its loss of legitimacy at home, and despite – or, perhaps, because of – the JCPOA, the Islamic Republic remains on course to achieve its goal of regional primacy. Two obstacles remain in its path: opposition from neighboring Sunni-majority countries, whose governments continue to look to the US for leadership; and resistance from the Iranian people, who have rejected the regime that the 1979 revolution created. The outcome of these two conflicts will determine the fate of the Islamic Republic, which in turn will profoundly influence the course of the entire Middle East.

* Michael Mandelbaum, of Johns Hopkins University reviews two recent books tracing the Islamic Republic’s political evolution and foreign policies since the country’s 1979 revolution.

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