How Stressed Is Iran?

The Iranian people are, for the first time in decades, worried about whether the leaders who have been their captors are not also their protectors.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Handout / Reuters

Yesterday Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, delivered his first Friday sermon in eight years, a fulminating but boring rant against America after the death of Qassem Soleimani. The rant brought back memories for me, like hearing a familiar Beatles song.

Sixteen years ago, as an unwashed backpacker, I went to Friday prayers at the University of Tehran. I can pass as Afghan or Turkmen, and no one questioned me as I approached, walking in a large crowd. Delivering the sermon was Khamenei, then 64 years old and 15 years into his reign. Minutes before prayers, I turned off into an alley and watched the streets full of people drain into the university, until I was the only one left outside; I listened to Khamenei’s sermon through the loudspeakers within. I remember little of it, other than the hammy and perfunctory sign-off, which was “Death to America, death to Israel”—but delivered without the venom I expected, and instead with the casual tone of a Catskills comedian at his thousandth performance (“You’ve been a lovely audience”).

Then an amazing thing happened. Seconds after the word Israel stopped echoing off the empty street and the canyon of buildings, a convoy exited the campus and turned onto Enqelab Street. In the middle of the convoy, in an armored sedan, was Khamenei himself, looking at me quizzically through very thick windows as he zipped past, perhaps 20 or 30 feet away.

That was then. Since the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, I suspect that he and other senior Iranian officials have upgraded their security protocols. Soleimani, who was Khamenei’s military counterpart, died in Baghdad. But America’s unwillingness to attack Iran’s leaders, even inside Iran, can no longer be assumed, and it would take only a minimal level of rationality for Khamenei to conclude that death could come from above (in an air strike), below (a car bomb), or any other direction, and that he should minimize contact with random weirdos on the street.

Killing Soleimani did not begin World War III, but it did start another familiar conversation, about whether the Iranian government is so stressed that it might topple soon. Those in Washington’s “regime change” crowd have taken up this line, but of course their word is worth little. They are attempting to diagnose and prescribe in the same action: By saying that collapse is imminent, they are trying to make it imminent, encouraging revolution by convincing Iranians that revolution is inevitable anyway.  When John Bolton, the recently departed national security adviser and an Iran hawk of long standing, says the regime “has never been under more stress,” it is impossible to know whether he is stating a fact or a desire.

What is clear is that the Iranian regime is facing public protests more intense than at any point in recent memory—perhaps beyond even the Green Movement of 2009, which the government put down with near-Tiananmen-like force. Sanctions are cutting into the general population deeply, subsidies are being slashed, and after the accidental shooting-down of a Ukrainian airliner filled with Iranians—and the subsequent denial, then acceptance, of responsibility—hatred of the regime is rising fast. The images from Iran show beyond doubt that large crowds of Iranians do not fear the reaction of their government, and that they are willing to risk becoming its latest victims.

But I hesitate to infer from these images imminent regime collapse. In Iran, as in many other countries, elite opinion is a poor guide to popular opinion. Visitors to Iran—especially journalists—usually spend their time in big cities such as Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz. In the rare cases when they enjoy real freedom of movement and can spend more than a few days in the country, they might add Mashhad and Tabriz.

On that same backpacking trip, in Tehran and Isfahan, I met many Iranians whose greatest fear was that their government would develop nuclear weapons, thus guaranteeing its survival—and their own captivity in a totalitarian theocracy—for the next half century or more. The mood in Tehran in particular was depressive. Even during the Green revolt, they thought rebellion was pointless, because the government would outlast the protests. The only adversary to the Iranian government that mattered, they said, was the United States, whose intervention they both feared and desired, like a rough course of chemo that was the last chance to shrink a cancer that their own body had failed to contain.

The best places to find these forlorn liberals, I found, were the hiking trails on the northern edge of Tehran. There they picnicked together and disappeared, like Winston and Julia in 1984, into the safety of nature, for a glass of wine and maybe a roll in the grass.

But when the regime called for protests and parades, the streets filled with Iranians just as enthusiastic about their government as my Tehran friends were depressed by it. I mingled with them (I have highly incriminating photos of my younger self, browsing Holocaust-denial pamphlets on the street, to prove it) and have no doubt about their sincerity. Many said they were not from Tehran but from smaller cities and towns—some of which I later visited, and where people were relatively content with the mullahs’ rule. They had been bused into Tehran for the parades, in classic authoritarian rent-a-mob fashion. But they were no less Iranian than the cosmopolitan residents of the capital.

The assassination of Soleimani will, naturally, perturb those regime supporters who filled the streets. What may be less obvious, though, is that even some of the regime’s critics will mourn the man’s death. Soleimani headed the Quds Force, and his primary role was the expansion of Iran’s overseas power through relationships with proxy militias. Unlike other regime figures, he was not identified with oppression domestically but with Iran’s fights overseas against groups that consider themselves enemies not only of Iranian mullahs but of Iran as a whole. Soleimani fought against the Islamic State, which did not distinguish between Iranians who loved Khamenei and those who did not; he fought against Saudi Arabia, a country that has vilified Shia and Persians for its entire existence. As such he was not the divisive figure within Iran that he was in, say, Iraq or Syria, both of which have large populations that suffered greatly under the brutality of his allies. Iranians who hate their government could simultaneously appreciate its efforts to keep Sunnis, especially Sunni Arabs, from overrunning its borders. And since Soleimani kept the barbarians from the gates, I would expect that many Iranians who disliked him are nonetheless rattled by his death.

Two weeks have passed since the Trump administration decided, after years of forbearance, to hit Iran’s leaders. The Iranian regime knows that many American weapons formerly housed in their scabbards are now drawn, and their security requires a vigilance they have never experienced. But the Iranian people are, for the first time in decades, worried about whether the leaders who have been their captors are not also their protectors, and whether the U.S. would care about their survival, once those leaders have been eliminated. The year 2020 is a year of pessimism for many Americans. Imagine how it looks to an Iranian.