“When your enemy is making a mistake,” Napoleon purportedly cautioned, “never interrupt him.” In recent months the Islamic Republic of Iran has been battered by accumulating crises—including a collapsing currency, an irrepressible citizen’s-rights and feminist movement, and persistent labor strikes—that have called into question its continued viability. It is increasingly evident that the Trump administration’s goal, as outlined most recently by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is to exacerbate these crises to hasten either an Iranian capitulation or political implosion. While Iran’s positive political transformation is a worthy goal, the Trump administration’s reckless execution of this strategy could serve to resuscitate an ailing regime.
The Arab spring was a reminder that the collapse of authoritarian regimes appears inconceivable while they rule, and inevitable after they’ve fallen. In Iran it is notable how many longtime observers of the country have begun openly contemplating the latter. The Iranian sociology professor Mohammed Fazeli, in a recent speech widely shared on social media, asserted that the country was experiencing a “convergence of crises”—economic, social, political, environmental, and geopolitical—“unlike any other country in the world.” Most remarkably, his speech was given not at an opposition rally, but at an official government think tank.
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.
One of the Republican critiques of the Iran nuclear deal was that it was predicated on the positive transformation of the Iranian regime into a more benign actor by the time the deal’s restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities expired in the next 10–15 years. Similarly, however, the Trump administration’s Iran strategy appears to be a bet on an unarmed, divided Iranian population’s ability to peacefully overthrow a deeply unpopular but heavily armed, cohesive ruling elite. But while the 1979 Iranian revolution was the story of an opposition willing to mass martyr itself against a regime that wasn’t willing to commit mass murder, in today’s Iran these roles are reversed.
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Since 1979, successive U.S. administrations have tried unsuccessfully to change either the behavior of the Iranian regime, or the regime itself. The George W. Bush administration surrounded Iran with over 250,000 U.S. soldiers in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan and actively supported Iranian democracy activists. Yet during Bush’s time in office, Tehran relentlessly attacked U.S. forces in Iraq and political opposition in Iran withered. The Iraq War, which intended to spread Iraqi democracy to Iran, instead served to spread Iranian theocracy to Iraq.
When Barack Obama took office, he sought to be the anti-Bush. More than any of his predecessors, Obama actively sought rapprochement with Tehran, including via numerous letters he wrote to Ayatollah Khamenei. Secretary of State John Kerry—who as a senator in 2009 sought to visit Tehran—spent more time talking with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif than perhaps any of his global counterparts. Despite high expectations after the signing of the JCPOA, however, Iran’s internal and external behavior and hostility toward the United States showed little signs of change.
The Trump administration inherited an Iran ascendant regionally, but descendant internally. Instead of marshaling global unity against Tehran’s malign domestic and regional activities—most notably mass slaughter in Syria—Trump instead focused on the one thing that Iran is perceived to be doing right: adhering to the nuclear deal. Consequently, since Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, international media attention—including among close American allies—has been diverted away from Iran’s internal repression and regional ambitions, to focus on America as the dangerous and untrustworthy superpower.
In the aftermath of Pompeo’s speech on Iran, the hashtag #RegimeChangeIran began trending on Twitter. It is understandable why the potential implosion of a virulently anti-American theocracy excites many U.S. officials and Iranians—both inside Iran and abroad—who long to see positive transformation in their homeland. But if there is a lesson to be learned from both Iran’s 1979 revolution and the 2011 Arab uprisings, it is that revolutions are ultimately judged by what they build, not what they destroy. The IRGC and Basij militia, like powerful militaries elsewhere in the region, are unlikely to relinquish power absent considerable bloodshed, and may yet emerge on top even in the event of abrupt political change. #RegimeChangeIran has no guarantees of leading to #DemocracyIran.
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In his famous long telegram from Moscow, the celebrated American diplomat George Kennan cautioned that U.S. policies alone could potentially expedite, but not engineer, political change in the Soviet Union. “It would be an exaggeration to say that American behavior unassisted and alone,” Kennan wrote, “could exercise a power of life and death over the Communist movement and bring about the early fall of Soviet power in Russia. But the United States has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate. … For no mystical, Messianic movement … can face frustration indefinitely without eventually adjusting itself in one way or another to the logic of that state of affairs.”
Kennan’s essay was written in 1947, before the advent of 24-hour cable news and social media made it increasingly impossible for the United States to exhibit strategic patience. It took five decades after Kennan wrote that “Soviet power …bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced” for the Soviet Union to ultimately implode in 1991. Ronald Reagan helped adeptly manage its demise by championing Soviet dissidents and countering Soviet influence while simultaneously engaging the Soviet regime, helping foment the elite divisions and popular unrest—the “internal contradictions”—which led to the peaceful collapse of a nuclear-armed empire.
In theory, a similar template could be applied to U.S. strategy toward Iran. It would require great patience and flexibility, and a willingness to not only intelligently support Iranian civil society and counter malign Iranian influence, but also engage the Iranian regime to heighten the divisions between those who want Iran to be a nation and those who want it to be a cause. It would require heeding Kennan’s advice that “such a policy has nothing to do with outward histrionics: with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward ‘toughness.’” But just as we must be realistic in our foreign-policy goals, so must we be realistic about our domestic political realities. A scandal-plagued, internationally reviled, unfocused president at home significantly curtails our ability to promote more decent government abroad.