The chants echoing across Iran in the past month must have unsettled Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani. “Death to Khamenei!” “Death to Rouhani!” “We will die to get our Iran back!” These were not demonstrations in the fashionable neighborhoods of Tehran but a revolt of the provinces. Iran’s aging rulers must have recalled that their own rebellion in 1978 had begun in those very provinces and only later migrated to Tehran. This was not the usual agitation of the intelligentsia and university students for more freedom, but workers and peasants fed up with the Islamic Republic’s corruption and cronyism. They were key to the regime’s hold on power and were supposed to be a reliable constituency at a time when it had lost the allegiance of nearly all other segments of society. In December 2017, the Islamic Republic changed forever.
In a sense, the latest uprising should not have been surprising, because the regime has had a turbulent history. The revolution that launched the Islamic Republic was led by a coalition of Islamists, liberals, and secularists. The Islamists soon ensured their dominance by purging and executing their partners. But this was not enough — the Republic of Virtue had to create its own new man. The founder of the state, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, proclaimed his own cultural revolution.
The universities were closed for two years as a religious review board altered the curriculum, and television and news media bombarded the populace with Islamic propaganda. Every aspect of life had to conform to Islamic strictures, with loyalty tests determining admission to the universities, the civil service, and the armed forces. The new regime encouraged children to inform on parents, students on teachers, and employees on one another. To secure the loyalty of the working class, the revolutionaries constructed an elaborate welfare state and mythologized the proletariat. At the time of his death in 1989, Khomeini must have assured himself, given the “cleansing” of the system and the new constitutional arrangements and authorities, that he had bequeathed his successors a divine republic that would endure forever. This was not to be.
The end of the Iran–Iraq war, which had preoccupied the masses for eight years, and the death of Khomeini compelled Khomeini’s disciples to search for new sources of legitimacy. The hard-line conservatives rallied behind the new supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and insisted on preserving the revolution’s orthodoxy. The more moderate and enterprising of Khomeini’s followers were the reformers who imagined that they could create a government that was religious in character yet democratic in practice. For an Islamic government to remain vital, it had to accommodate modern political concepts such as pluralism and representation. Mohammad Khatami and his reformist allies reached the pinnacle of their power in 1997, winning the presidency in that year and then the parliament in 2000.
The backlash was swift: The hard-liners used their institutional muscle to thwart reformist legislation, while their terror groups targeted intellectuals, journalists, and even Khatami’s aides. The reformers’ meek acquiescence not only discredited their cause but revealed that the Islamic Republic could not reform itself. The 1999 student riots put an end to the reformist interlude. Khamenei and the militants could dismiss the students as pampered members of the middle class; it was the laborers and the religiously devout who were the backbone of the state. And that base still held.
Too often the Western press presents Iran’s hard-liners as reactionaries who do not understand the obstacles they are facing. The conservatives did appreciate that the regime had to reconstitute its power in the absence of its charismatic founder. Still, they were mindful of protecting their divine mandate from democratic infiltrations. Nor were they wrong to agonize about the impact of Western culture on a youthful population enchanted by all things American.
The national compact that the conservatives offered the population was social justice instead of political rights. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency was devoted to the idea that Iran’s wealth had to find its way to the poor. But instead of creating an equitable order, all Ahmadinejad offered Iran was corruption and belligerence. The regime’s penchant for terrorism, its pursuit of nuclear capacity, and its imperial aggressions provoked sanctions and also made it an inhospitable place even for European mercantilists to invest. In the end, the conservatives offered the public a financially depleted autocracy.
And then came the titanic Green Revolution in the summer of 2009, in the wake of a fraudulent presidential election. A coalition of disgruntled youth and the urban middle class took to the streets in massive numbers to call for the overthrow of the theocracy. The regime restored order with brutal force and even staged Stalinist show trials in which both one-time loyalists and arrested protesters confessed to fantastic crimes. But in the process, the credibility of the conservatives and their national compact further eroded. If the student rebellion of 1999 undermined the cause of the Islamic Left, the Green revolt disabused the middle class of the idea that the Right had any answers to its problems. Still, the theocratic state could comfort itself with the thought that the lower classes had remained relatively quiescent during Iran’s rebellious summer.
Hassan Rouhani was the regime’s last hope, a centrist with a long history of service in Iran’s national-security establishment. For Rouhani, the best means of rejuvenating the economy was to attract foreign investment, which necessitated an arms-control agreement that dispensed with the increasingly debilitating sanctions imposed on Iran because of its nuclear truculence. Rouhani’s election as president electrified the Western chancelleries; they assured themselves that the Islamic Republic had reclaimed its tattered legitimacy by electing a moderate. Rouhani and his suave foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, never lost sight of the need to get rid of sanctions while preserving the nuclear program, and they secured an agreement that granted Iran the right to eventually construct an industrial-size atomic infrastructure. The sanctions architecture that took a decade to construct came crashing down, and international commerce once more found its way to Tehran.
The nuclear agreement certainly delivered for the Rouhani regime. Iran’s economy, which had suffered a negative growth rate of 6.6 percent in 2012, suddenly registered 12.5 percent growth in 2016. But most of Iran’s population, particularly the working classes, failed to see any benefits. The Islamic Republic’s own statistics indicate that average household budgets fell 15 percent between 2007 and 2017. The problems that have traditionally plagued Iran only worsened under Rouhani. Corruption became endemic — graft and cronyism were now a way of life. Class cleavages deepened further; Tehran brimmed with Mercedes dealerships while the government tried to reduce subsidies for basic foodstuffs. And even more galling, the Islamic Republic’s elite behaved as ostentatiously as the thousand families who had reigned during the last years of the shah’s monarchy.
The clerical regime was also the victim of its own success. Iran’s Islamist rulers are the most successful imperialists in the history of modern Persia. Today, Iran and its Shia proxies are in a commanding position in Iraq and have won the civil war in Syria and reduced Lebanon to a vassal state.
In another misreading of the popular mood, the Rouhani regime’s propaganda celebrated its foreign adventures. The clerical oligarchs assumed that their victories abroad would redound to their domestic advantage. They failed to see that the Persians resented wasting their meager resources on Arab civil wars.
The rebellion of 2017 was a shock to a government that had spent the decade since the Green revolt honing its intelligence services. The regime did not grasp that its remaining base of support was crumbling. The lower classes were the last segment of society known for their religious devotion. They were the families that offered the state its martyrs and attended its Friday prayer services. And yet their protest slogans were about much more than economics; they expressed a desire to overthrow the entire state. The contagion was devastating — demonstrations broke out in more than 80 cities. Today, the Islamic Republic is a state without a constituency. Every successive decade, a different segment of society has turned its back on the Islamist rulers.
The Trump administration came into office assuming it would be dealing with Iran’s regional aggression and the problematic nuclear agreement that it inherited from its predecessor. The Iranian uprisings seemed to surprise Washington as much as they did the mullahs. The temptation now is to dismiss the protests as mere complaints about the price of eggs. America’s intelligence services and professional bureaucracy will surely stress to their superiors that the regime is durable and its coercive services capable of repressing any sullen citizens.
This was precisely what Ronald Reagan heard about the Soviet Union in 1981 when he assumed the presidency. Yet beneath the formidable façade of the USSR, he noticed, a creaky government was drowning in corruption and shielding itself in an ideology that convinced no one. The Reagan Doctrine entailed not only shrinking the Soviet Union’s imperial frontiers but also undermining the entire Communist system. We forget too often today that Reagan’s vision was derided by polite society and even by many within his own party and administration. History has vindicated Reagan.
The challenge for the Trump team lies in figuring out a way to subvert Iran’s theocratic state. Their initial reaction was commendable: The administration’s podiums were buzzing with forceful denunciations of the regime and a full-throated backing of the Iranian people. Now comes the hard part: conceiving a strategy for actually empowering those whom the White House professes to support. The most important task ahead is to drain the Islamic Republic’s coffers, which rely on patronage to sustain the mullahs’ diminishing might. Economic sanctions, particularly those targeting Iran’s financial sector and oil industry, are indispensable to the success of any strategy. Every rebellion leaves in its wake a nascent organization and new leaders. Can the United States find a way to buttress these groups the way Reagan strengthened the Solidarity movement in Poland?
Should Trump manage to expedite the demise of an oppressive regime that is one of the United States’ enduring enemies, his legacy would be that of a president who went a long way toward stabilizing the Middle East. The Islamic Republic is an expansionist state intent on upending the regional order and spreading its message of Shia revolution. It undermines established authorities in Sunni states, sponsors violence against Israel, and bears the lion’s share of responsibility for Syria’s carnage. Both the region and the Iranian people would be better off if Khomeini’s revolution joined Vladimir Lenin’s in the dustbin of history.
– Mr. Takeyh is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.