But things are likely to get much, much worse before they—eventually—get better.
By Ray Takeyh
This article was originally published at Politico.
The protests sweeping Iran belie the once popular notion that the spirit of the Green Revolution that nearly toppled the Islamic Republic in 2009 has been extinguished. It is possible that an Islamist regime with little compunction about killing its own citizens will survive this latest challenge to its authority. Should it survive , the Iranian theocracy will not be the same, with the principal casualty of this week being the presidency of Hassan Rouhani. As the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his hardline disciples assess their predicament, they are likely to hunker down and insist on more repression at home.
Rouhani, a long-time functionary of the regime, ran a cynical and subversive presidential campaign in 2017. Facing a formidable hardline opponent in Ebrahem Raisi, Rouhani spent much of his reelection campaign castigating official corruption and even alluded to one of the regime’s darkest chapters, the mass murder of political prisoners in summer of 1988. He promised rapid economic growth, a human rights charter and an accountable government free of graft. Rouhani who as one the stalwarts of the regime had participated in all of its previous acts of repression, particularly the student uprisings of 1999 and the Green revolt of 2009, had no intention of enacting such sweeping reforms. This was cheap politics that led to popular disaffection and finally the nationwide protest we’re seeing now. His presidency is all but crippled as he has lost the confidence of both the public and the conservative oligarchs who abjure all reform as a dangerous pathway to the regime’s collapse.
As Rouhani’s presidency lingers, Khamenei and the hardliners are likely to use their commanding institutional power to finally impose their vision of pristine Islamist rule. In their eyes, both reformers and centrists stand suspect today as their promises have only provoked popular insurrections. Iran’s conservatives are imbued with an ideology that views the essential purpose of the state as the realization of God’s will on Earth. Such an exalted task mandates the assumption of power not by tentative moderates but devout revolutionaries. Given such ideological inclinations, the hardliners are utterly contemptuous of democratic accountability and are unconcerned about their loss of popularity and widespread dissatisfaction with theocratic rule. The legitimacy of state does not rest on the collective will but on a mandate from heaven. From this point, Iran’s elections are likely to be even more circumscribed with all but Khamenei’s loyalists prevented from running for office. The Revolutionary Guards, a paramilitary force that answers to the supreme leader, will be more empowered as they are the last guardians of the theocracy. Iran will move into one of its darker ages, with escalating repression, censorship and the imposition of onerous cultural strictures.
Nor is this anachronistic vision limited to political organization. For years Khamenei has insisted on a “resistance economy” that would wean itself of oil experts, seek to protect domestic industries from overseas competition, avoid trade with the West in favor of local markets and keep its funds out of international banks. Rouhani had sought to rely on foreign investments to regenerate the economy, a policy always distrusted by a supreme leader suspicious of the West and enchanted by notions of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. For the hardliners, integration into the global economy is a trap that could unleash liberalizing forces that would overwhelm their regime and threaten their divine experiment. Iran’s austere economy is unlikely to raise the people’s standards of living, but the revolution can only survive in isolation from the West.
Even though Iran’s relentless imperialism is denounced by the protesters who do not want to see their nation’s assets wasted in Arab civil wars, the hardliners aren’t likely to change course. This was always a revolution without a border, and given the collapse of the regional state system, the Islamic Republic sees unique opportunities to project its power. Tehran is too proud of its Hezbollah protégé in Lebanon, too invested in the Syrian civil war and too involved in the murky politics of Iraq to dispense with foreign adventurism just because it is becoming a financial burden. Imperialism has always been tempting to revolutionaries despite the fact that its costs usually outweigh its benefits. The revamped conservative regime in Iran is likely to be even more aggressive in enabling its allies.
All this spells doom for the Republic of Virtue. The Islamic Republic is entering a period of prolonged transition where it will no longer be able to proffer a theocracy with a human face. The reformists who once exhilarated the public with their quest to harmonize Islamic injunctions with democratic norms have long been cast aside. Rouhani, who was to refurbish the regime’s battered legitimacy in the aftermath of the Green Revolution, has become a victim of the rising expectations that he cynically stimulated. The gap between state and society has never been wider, as the public seeks a responsive democracy while the theocracy’s diminishing cadre insist on even more repressive and isolated government. Revolutionaries who eschew reform and condemn pragmatism as sinful diversion from the path of God are destined for the dustbin of history. In the end, Iran’s revolution is an impossible one, as it created a theocracy that cannot reform itself and accommodate the aspirations of its restless and youthful citizens. The tragedy of Ali Khamenei is that in consolidating his revolution, he is ensuring the eventual demise of his regime.
Text: Ray Takeyh for Council on Foreign Relations, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0