The two remaining veteran foreign correspondents in Iran—Thomas Erdbrink of The New York Times and Najmeh Bozorgmehr of the Financial Times—have also taken note of this growing sentiment. The usually sober Bozorgmehr began her May 7, 2018 dispatch with a striking question: “Has the countdown to the collapse of the Islamic Republic of Iran begun?” She quotes an Iranian businessman who perhaps unwittingly echoes de Tocqueville’s observation that authoritarian regimes are most vulnerable when trying to reform. “The problem is that if the Islamic Republic reforms itself,” he said, “nothing would remain of it. And if it refuses to reform itself, it would die.”
Pompeo’s maiden speech as secretary of state centered on 12 demands that offered Iran’s leaders a similar choice: Transform yourselves into something diametrically opposed to what you have been for four decades, or we will seek your collapse. Iran’s 78-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reacted by prohibiting any interaction with the U.S. government. This, coupled with Khamenei’s long-held view that capitulation to the West will only accelerate, not avert, regime change, means the United States and Iran are on a clear collision course.
There are typically two prerequisites for authoritarian collapse: Pressure from below and divisions from above. While there is often a symbiotic relationship between these two—popular unrest can foment elite divisions—crude attempts by outside powers to instigate regime change can also serve to strengthen authoritarian cohesion. Pompeo has sought to incite Iran’s population against an Iranian regime he portrays as a unified monolith. “Here in the West, President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif are often held apart from the regime’s unwise terrorist and malign behavior,” Pompeo said. “Yet, Rouhani and Zarif are your elected leaders. Are they not the most responsible for your economic struggles? Are these two not responsible for wasting Iranian lives throughout the Middle East?”
In their research on the “Durability of Revolutionary Regimes”— those which emerge out of “sustained, ideological, and violent struggle from below”—political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way show that regimes spawned by popular revolutions—including the former USSR, Cuba, and Iran—usually share four attributes that enhance their durability: “(1) the destruction of independent power centers; (2) cohesive ruling parties; (3) tight partisan control over the security forces; and (4) powerful coercive apparatuses.” All four apply to Iran. These attributes help to “inoculate revolutionary regimes against elite defection, military coups, and mass protest—three major sources of authoritarian breakdown.”
While the Islamic Republic has experienced bouts of significant popular unrest in the past, during times of crisis the regime’s normally factionalized political and military elite have always seemingly understood that if they did not hang together, they might hang separately. The regime’s coercive apparatus—the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Basij militia—are an armed and organized group of at least 300,000 men, some of whom have a strong financial interest in preserving the status quo. As Garry Kasparov has said about Russia, every country has its own mafia—but Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards increasingly resemble a mafia with their own country. The Islamic Republic may also be able to draw on the support of some 40,000 Shia militiamen—including Lebanese Hezbollah—it has been arming, financing, and training outside of Iran. These forces have spent years fighting Syrian rebels and Sunni jihadists, while Iranian opponents of the government, in contrast, are unarmed and leaderless.