No Iranian leader, however, can bet on stability. The revolutionaries who seized power in 1979 represented a broad coalition united in opposition to the shah, not in allegiance to Khomeini. Almost immediately, the revolution turned on its own; the range of acceptable political discourse in Iran has shrunk with every subsequent year. Polls show that most Iranians today neither believe in Khomeini’s philosophy of clerical rule nor think that their current system can be reformed.
That does not mean Iranians are revolutionary; most are apathetic, scarred by a revolution that brought not freedom but renewed dictatorship and contributed to a war that killed perhaps one million people. Still, Iran is a tinderbox: The question for analysts is simply whether the government is better at extinguishing sparks than the opposition is at fanning the flames. In 1999, 2001, and 2009, Iranians poured into the streets in protests that briefly threatened the continuity of the regime. It is certain that when the regime miscalculates and contributes a new spark, there will be new mass protests in Iran. Eventually, the fire will take hold and some security forces may defect to the protesters, a parallel more akin to the last days of Nikolai Ceausescu in Romania, or perhaps Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, than to Libya, which required the involvement of outside forces.
In a case where regime collapse is inevitable, assumptions that the regime will act to moderate its own behavior become moot. When Qaddafi recognized his hours were numbered, he launched Scud missiles at his own people. What might the Revolutionary Guards do in a parallel situation? Ideological hatred toward the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia may be rhetorical among many Iranians, but for those in the Qods Force or other elite units, the embrace of ideology is sincere. While they might not normally be suicidal, if they believe the regime and perhaps their lives are over regardless of their actions, why not make good on the ideological goal and launch a nuclear weapon against external enemies? After all, would the United States or Israel really retaliate against a regime that would already have changed even before the smoke cleared? It is doubtful that the United States or Israel would gratuitously kill 20 million Iranians in such a situation.
Qaddafi’s last stand should provide a wake-up call for those who wish to tie American national security to deterrence. Placing a bet on a nuclear Islamic Republic’s desire for self-preservation discounts two important factors: The determination of the Iranian people to be free, and the ideological sincerity of the small elite whose fingers would be on the nuclear button.
— Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.