Iran: The Hollowing-Out of the Regime

Pictured: The Iranian city of Mashhad, enveloped in a haze of air pollution. Of the 500 most polluted cities of the world, Iran with 19 cities comes fifth. (Image source: Tasnim/Wikimedia Commons)


  • Iran: The Hollowing-Out of the Regime The analogies with the former East Germany suggest that Iran, too, is ripe for regime change. They also suggest that a change may come in weeks, months or years, depending on chance events and particularly on whether the local authorities and their security forces, at least in some areas, get tired of killing people.
  • What is likely to push such developments forward? The answer is that the new American policy, whether by chance or intent, may be as good as anything.

On December 28, 2017, major protests against the Iranian regime broke out in Mashhad and quickly spread to numerous other urban centers. Mostly merely noisy at first, some turned violent and eventually the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) suppressed the phenomenon, killing some and arresting thousands of others. Protests have continued, but news about them is scanty. How are they to be evaluated?

There are interesting parallels with the twilight of the East German regime. By a coincidence, the Iranian regime is in its fortieth year and the East German regime suddenly collapsed just after its leaders had held a large-scale pompous celebration of its fortieth anniversary in the capital, East Berlin.

At its downfall, the government and security apparatus of the so-called “German Democratic Republic” appeared to be, as always, thoroughly in control, yet it took only a few chance events to start a domino effect that swept it away. There was the swell of holidaymakers who drove their polluting “Trabis” into Hungary or Czechoslovakia and thence via Austria into West Germany, because those East European countries had stopped preventing them. Beginning on September 4, 1989, there were the Monday marches that set out after the morning “Prayer for Peace” in Leipzig’s St. Nicholas Church.

The fortieth anniversary celebration took place on October 6. On October 9, the morning march in Leipzig encompassed 70,000. In a fateful turning point, the local leaders of the regime decided not to send in the police for fear of mass casualties. Thereafter the marches knew no limits and not just in Leipzig. On November 9, a government spokesman, trying to placate the citizens with a minor concession, issued a mumbled announcement about making it easier to get permits to visit West Germany. East Berliners misunderstood him to mean that the border was now open and rushed to the checkpoints to West Berlin. The guards, equally confused, let them through. Where a hundred thousand had marched to celebrate the regime on October 6, now tens of thousands began to stream through daily in both directions.

Within a year, Germany was reunited. The sturdy-looking tree that had been East Germany had collapsed to a few bursts of wind because the tree had been hollowed out by the mass cessation of its citizens to have any esteem for their rulers or to identify with the ruling ideology.

It is crucial to understand that neither in East Germany nor in Iran did the regime originally come to power through the machinations of a small clique, as in Russia’s October Revolution, but in virtue of an ideological basis that commanded considerable popular support. It was the withering of such support that turned East Germany into a hollow tree and now threatens to do the same in Iran. Let us consider first the German and then the Iranian case.

The East German SED Regime

The German Communist Party had been a mass movement in the Weimar Republic. In the federal German election of November (vs, March) 1932, the results for the biggest parties were: Nazis 196 (-34), Social Democrats 121 (-12), Communists 100 (+11) out of 584 (-24). Thus any majority coalition could not exclude both the Nazis and the Communists. What brought Hitler to power was that President Hindenburg this time invited Hitler to head a right-wing coalition with a small majority, whereas in previous hung parliaments he had invited a centrist politician to head a minority government. This, although the Nazis had lost seats and the Communists had gained seats.

After World War II, the Soviet Union allowed several of the prewar political parties to exist (at least nominally) in its zone of occupied Germany, but pressurized the former Social Democrats and Communists in April 1946 to merge into the Socialist Unity Party (SED: Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands). This party then (at least nominally) ruled throughout the existence of the German Democratic Republic (DDR: Deutsche Demokratische Republik), as the Soviet zone was renamed in October 1949. The combined party inherited a degree of legitimacy from the Weimar Republic, since both components had been major parties and their announced joint program included typical socialist policies of the Weimar period.

Of course, the SED and the DDR quickly showed themselves to be instruments of Communist totalitarianism and Soviet (or rather Russian) imperialism. Still, for those who started and persisted as wishful thinkers, the regime was not entirely deprived of an authentic ideological basis. This is why disaffection was not overwhelming at the outset, but was a slow hollowing-out process that began among clear-cut ideological opponents, spread to the increasing numbers of hapless victims, the disappointed and the disillusioned, and eventually undermined the enthusiasm even of stalwarts of the regime.

A few examples will illustrate how hollowing-out worked. An acquaintance in West Berlin used to make numerous visits to the DDR for family reasons. According to her, the decisive moment in the process of decay came precisely when the regime thought that it had achieved all its original aims. Despite the general nationalization of industry and services, which also occurred to a degree under socialist governments in Western Europe, very small local businesses with a handful of employees were legally permitted for a long time. Eventually, the regime announced the perfection of socialism: also these last vestiges of capitalism were terminated. After that, she said, a general apathy set in.

A second example of hers concerned the universal provision of subsidized housing. The regime was grossly inefficient in repairing all those buildings. Since the residents were paying so little for their accommodation, they had the means to do such tasks as repainting themselves, but considered it none of their business. This is why, when the border was opened, visitors were shocked to see everywhere the peeling facades and dilapidation of originally stoutly built houses. Architectural masterpieces were in a catastrophic state of disrepair. For instance, it took 25 years after German reunification to restore the famous Dutch Quarter of Potsdam.

A third example came from another visitor, one who gave his hosts a present of West German money. As in other parts of the Soviet empire, they could then go off to special shops where foreign goods were available only to those who had some hard foreign currency. There they bought some foodstuffs. The emptied boxes and tins were then placed decoratively on the mantelpiece in the sitting room alongside older such items. Asked about this, the hosts said that as the food was soon consumed, it seemed a pity to discard the containers with their prettily designed exteriors. The visitor subsequently noticed that other households had similar little displays. Subsidized basic food in plain exteriors might once have won their hearts, but now their hearts had moved on.

The Regime of the Ayatollahs

The current Iranian regime, too, started with a degree of legitimacy and plausible self-justification. This crucially important fact needs to be explained, since it seems to be unknown to the foreign politicians that deal with the regime and to the commentators on Iran in distant countries. In particular, it is a mistake to dismiss the 1979 revolution as an illegitimate seizure of power by antiquated religious bigots. Instead, in a word, the 1979 revolution was initially widely seen – and not just by the ayatollahs – as the legitimate reinstatement of the aborted constitutional revolution of 1906.

In those earlier days, the ruling dynasty was the Qajars. Its founder, Mohammad Khan Qajar, conducted a particularly brutal fifteen-year campaign to take over the whole country, including massacres of whole populations and blinding 20,000 males in Kerman when the city resisted him. Fortunately for other Iranians, he was assassinated in 1797 a year after his coronation. His nephew and successor distinguished himself by producing between one and four hundred children from a harem of up to 1000 women and by losing vast territory in two disastrous wars with Russia. Later rulers of the dynasty were variously corrupt or incompetent; they also tried to finance their overspending by granting concessions to foreign governments. By the end of the nineteenth century, not surprisingly, there had developed a strong constitutionalist movement in Iran. Its aims were to introduce parliamentary government on a European model and to free the country from servitude to foreigners.

The constitutionalists found their chance during popular disturbances that began in 1905. Without going into further details, one can note three similarities with the events of 1979. The disturbances began not merely among Farsis but also among Azeris, the country’s largest minority. Second, the revolution brought together liberal reformers with the bazaar merchant class and the Shiite clergy. Third, the Constitution of 1906 had a two-tier structure: its opening articles required that all laws passed by the parliament be submitted to a committee of Shiite clerics to be vetted for conformity with Islam.

The then Qajar Shah signed the constitution at the end of 1906, but died five days later, whereupon his son and successor set out to cancel it, an aim that he achieved in 1908 with Russian and British help. The following year, the constitutionalists rallied forces, expelled him and installed his infant son. In practice, however, neither the parliament nor the young Shah, when he tried to cooperate with it after coming of age, were very effective rulers, although a considerable modernization program was attempted. World War I brought fresh misfortunes: first the British and then the Russian Communist regime invaded Iran when the British tried to reverse the Russian October Revolution via Iran.

The resulting misery and confusion enabled a young army officer, Reza Pahlavi, to rise to power in the 1920s, expel the Qajars and become Shah himself. He adopted a policy of modernization and secularization similar to what Ataturk had initiated in Turkey. By the beginning of World War II, however, he was suspected of accumulating vast hidden wealth; he also opposed the wish of the British to supply the Soviet Union by rail via Iran. British and Soviet forces invaded on August 25, 1941 and controlled the country within a month The British made him an offer he could not refuse: to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and go into exile.

The son’s career (1941-1979) is well enough known not to need much recalling. Important to note, however, is that he owed his downfall not merely to personal extravagance and oppressive internal security. Nor was it just the megalomaniac eccentricities of his last years, such as the incredibly expensive pageant in 1971 to celebrate 2500 years of Persian monarchy, although his own monarchy had nothing to do with ancient Persia and stemmed merely from his father. Or his decision in 1976 to change year one of the calendar (a mixed Islamic/Persian calendar introduced by his father in 1925) from Muhammad’s Hijra to the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus, whereby he needlessly inconvenienced the entire population.

Beyond all that, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi alienated all three classes involved in the revolution of 1905/06, for good or bad reason. The constitutionalists were infuriated by his abolition of the Communist Party and then of all other parties in favor of his own one party in 1975. The economic and agricultural reforms of his so-called White Revolution of 1963-1978 (“white” meaning “bloodless”) offended the bazaar merchants and big landowners, including Shiite religious foundations. His abolition of discrimination against women and religious minorities, including the perennially persecuted Bahais, infuriated conservative clerics. When his eventual successor, Ruhollah Khomeini, went into voluntary exile in 1964, it was in protest against the White Revolution and specifically against the intolerable prospect that a Muslim male could be tried by a female Christian judge. In previous decades, the two Pahlavi Shahs had managed to disregard the constitutional requirement to submit laws to the clerics for Islamic approval, but this went too far.

Thus when all those who opposed the Shah for non-religious reasons united around Khomeini to bring him to power in 1979, they mostly imagined that he would merely reinstate the religious provisions of the Constitution of 1906. They were soon to discover that their political aspirations, strongly curtailed by Mohammad Reza, would vanish and that they would suffer far worse persecution under the new religiously oriented regime. Unknown to them, or not taken seriously by the few who found black market copies in the bazaars, was a book of lectures given by Khomeini in exile (1970) in which he explained his own conception of two-tier government.

Khomeini’s blueprint for Shiite religious government was quickly and fully implemented in the 1979 Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Instead of just a committee of clerics to review legislation, there was to be a whole parallel tier of religious supervision imposed upon the lower tier of elected representatives. Thus the elected president and parliament would merely be responsible for the mundane tasks of running everyday affairs, while the fundamental course of the country would be in the hands of a Supreme Leader (Khomeini himself) and a Guardian Council consisting of – and chosen exclusively by – the highest regarded Shiite clerics and jurists. Only persons approved by the Guardian Council could become candidates for popularly elected office in the lower tier. Moreover, the entire judicial system would be subordinate to the Supreme Leader.

A telling example of how the two-tier system works in practice was recently given by Amir Taheri, the editor of Iran’s most prestigious newspaper before 1979. This is why the current President Hassan Rouhani, although he came to power wishing to free some reformists from house arrest, has been unable to do so. It is also why the death penalty was applied more frequently after his election than under his crazy fundamentalist predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (The latter’s craziness is now judged to be too dangerous even by the Guardian Council, which vetoed his recent attempt to run again for the presidency.)

It is also why things have not changed greatly even though in recent elections the reformists (eslahtalaban, literally “callers for reform”) captured the Tehran municipality from the fundamentalists (osulgarayan) and established themselves as the bigger faction in the parliament, where the balance is held by independents. (The foreign press and Wikipedia translate osulgarayan obscurely as “principalists,” but since osul means both “fundaments” and “principles,” the translation “fundamentalists” is both literal and more intelligible,)

Through the upper tier of the regime, which is packed with fundamentalists, the desires of reformists are easily frustrated. Moreover, these are “tame” reformists whom the Guardian Council has judged not to be dangerous candidates for election and who can easily be removed if that judgment proves wrong. Indeed, an excuse was quickly found to spur the resignation of Mohammad-Ali Najafi, the new reformist mayor of Tehran. His replacement is also a reformist, who will need to be tamer.

In the meantime, the dual structure has been extended to other areas of the state. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is a parallel army that carries out the wishes of the Supreme Leader; it was all the more needed after elements of the army attempted a coup in 1980. It both suppresses internal disturbances and conducts the ever-increasing military interventions of Iran in Arab countries.

All the big factors in the economy were declared state property in Article 44 of the Constitution of 1979, but in the meantime a parallel economy has emerged under the control of the Guards Corps and Islamic trusts. (Similarly, the East German Stasi also owned factories and a large part of the economy of Egypt is owned by the Egyptian Army.) In recent years, the Guards Corps has been estimated to own a third or more of the Iranian economy. When Article 44 was modified – more than a decade ago – to enable privatization, some state businesses were simply bought by companies owned by the Guards Corps.

Most recently, even Khomeini’s successor as Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was persuaded by President Rouhani to order the Guards Corps to divest itself of non-military industries. Yet privatization itself has often meant that the state handed concerns to private companies to pay off its debts to them and many top ex-Guards went on to a career in private business. Even official media have admitted that the privatization program is vexed with problems.

The wild enthusiasm for Khomeini continued until his death in 1989, when millions turned up for his funeral and created mass chaos. Never mind that he had killed tens of thousands of political opponents and that he had sent hundreds of thousands, especially children, to their deaths in human waves in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988. It has taken four decades for Iranians to grasp fully the damage caused to their country by their hybrid regime and to perceive how it facilitates corruption, cronyism and incompetence as well as expensive foreign adventures.

An example is the environmental disasters. Mohammad Reza initiated a series of dam projects with Israeli advice. The Israelis were expelled in 1979 and later dam projects were undertaken by regime individuals in the wrong places to favor their personal constituencies. Add on years of drought and Lake Urmia in Iranian Azerbaijan, formerly the biggest salt water lake on earth, has largely dried up. The Zayande Rud – the “Living River” – that used to flow majestically through Isfahan under a series of bridges with up to 33 arches now dies before it reaches Isfahan. Farmers in Isfahan Province itself face ruin because its water has been diverted elsewhere.

In September 2017, Iran seemed to be facing up to the water problem at last by appointing Kaveh Madani – a distinguished Iranian expert teaching abroad – to deal with it. President Rouhani expressed the hope that he would be the first of many returning Iranian professionals. Seven months later, Madani resigned and hastened to leave the country after the security services started to investigate him and he was accused in the press of debauchery and of acting as a foreign agent. Such a case indicates that the regime is irredeemable.

Madani’s parting words: “Yes, the accused fled from a country where virtual bullies push against science, knowledge and expertise and resort to conspiracy theories to find a scapegoat for all the problems because they know well that finding an enemy, spy or someone to blame is much easier than accepting responsibility and complicity in a problem.”

Iranian cities also excel in air pollution. In this list of the 500 most polluted cities of the world, Iran with 19 cities comes fifth after India, China, Poland and Turkey.

While such misfortunes have provoked local protests in the past, the latest disturbances have a fundamentally different quality. They can be contrasted with the more violent protests of greater numbers in 2009 against the voting irregularities involved in the reelection of President Ahmadinejad. Then the protests were against abuse of the Constitution of 1979, implicitly accepting the validity of its two-tier regime; this time they were against the regime itself.

We saw that the disappearance of East Germany was provoked by individual – even accidental – turning points following a long period of hollowing-out. It may be possible to identify the crucial turning point in the cases of the ayatollahs. A prime project of Rouhani’s presidency was to relieve popular discontent by ending the economic sanctions on Iran. After the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, aka Iran nuclear deal) was agreed, US President Obama released over $150 billion of frozen Iranian assets. Rouhani and the Iranian public assumed that the money would be available to relieve the poverty and debts of many Iranian families. Instead, the Supreme Leader decided to use the windfall to boost the military adventures of the Guards Corps and foreign Shiite militias in Arab countries.

Thereby Ayatollah Khamenei destroyed the long and patient policy of Rouhani and the hopes of millions of Iranians. Iran is also spending vast sums trying to gain influence in Africa. To make it worse, during 2017 Rouhani had been attempting to reduce the grants given to religious institutions, which are often the private fiefs of prominent clerics and do not need to report their finances. When the budget was announced in December, however, it contained cuts in subsidies to the general public and increases for religious institutions. The result is that, despite the suppression of the original disturbances, a series of strikes and protests has continued. Plainly, many workers feel that the religious tier of the regime treats them as tools of an ideology and that the elected tier cannot help them.

That such arrogance may prove to be the fatal error of the ayatollahs is corroborated by a recent curious incident at the airport of Mashhad (May 24, 2018). Suddenly the flight information on electronic screens was replaced by a message from a so-called “Throbbers Group” (presumably: people with throbbing hearts). As the message can be clearly read on a photograph uploaded to the internet, which received many pseudonymous Iranian likes, it is worth translating it in full.

We the “Throbbers” Group have in these moments taken over the monitors of the airport in a protest action. For the last five months, the Guards Corps has been destroying the life and treasury of the people of Iran in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. Until when? It [the Corps] will no longer choke our voice in the throat. We unite with the noble people of Kazerun. This is only the beginning of our actions. If you are fellow-sufferers with us, take and share a photograph.

Here “Kazerun” refers to the violence that erupted a week earlier when regime forces confronted protesters against the plan to divide that city in two, a plan advanced by a member of the parliament for his own personal advantage. The violence provoked internet posts such as “(The government) is supporting Gaza and committing crimes in Kazerun” and “All the time, they said America was the enemy. The enemy is right here.” As for Mashhad, the second largest city in Iran, it is a major Shiite holy site and was imagined to be a stronghold of the fundamentalists, but it is where the series of big disturbances broke out in December 2017.

The hollowing-out of the regime has been seen prominently, of course, among women. In January 1936, Reza Shah introduced a ban on Islamic head-coverings for women. Despite years of planning for this step, it met with violent opposition and its enforcement became a major task for the police. His son relaxed that enforcement, so that many women did not cover their heads but others could insist on doing so. After the revolution of 1979, the policy was wholly reversed and now women were ordered to cover their whole head apart from the face and also to wear loose-fitting clothing. Specifically recommended, though not obligatory, was the chador – literally “tent.” The erstwhile supporters of Khomeini for non-religious reasons were again dreadfully disappointed and protested, but the new ban was enforced as brutally as the old one.

On December 27 last, the day before the disturbances, Vida Movahed was inspired to go to Islamic Revolution Street in Tehran, stand on an electricity box and hold her head covering aloft on a stick. Vida is now serving a two-year prison sentence and the graffiti-covered box has been removed, but she spurred a copycat movement of “girls of Revolution Street” (dokhtaran-e Khiyaban-e Enqelab) in Iranian cities.

Even stalwarts of the regime do not know how to deal with this phenomenon. Pictures have emerged of chador-clad women holding head-coverings aloft, to emphasize that they like traditional clothing themselves but do not want it imposed on other women. When someone filmed a woman being struck by chador-clad morality police for wearing her head-covering too loosely, the internet post of the video attracted millions of views and tens of thousands of comments. Even the official Vice-President for Women’s Affairs – who herself wears a heavy chador – denounced the violence, telling a press conference that the government needed a dialogue with a younger generation that no longer shares the values of the generation of 1979. The Tehran police chief, for his part, insisted that his people would continue to enforce the law vigorously. Yes, Tehran now has a reformist city council and a reformist mayor, but the police remain the police.

Female lifestyle has indeed changed decisively since 1979. Then women had an average seven children. By 2012 it had dropped to 1.9 before rising to about 2.1 today, which is generally seen as the replacement rate in a modern society. Women also form a decisive majority of university students. Curiously, Khomeini’s late fatwas authorizing birth control were partly responsible for this development.

Other women recently entered Tehran’s Azadi Stadium disguised in fake facial hair to watch a football match and posted a gleeful picture on internet. Another recent post shows football fans in the same stadium shouting “Reza Shah, may your soul be happy” (Reza Shah, ruh-ash shad). It is difficult to verify the authenticity of the video because individual fans cannot be distinguished in the crowd. In another video from the early days of the disturbances, however, individuals shouting the same chant can be seen, as also at the recent funeral of an actor. (In this last video, the men are chanting Reza Shah and the women are responding with ruh-ash shad. It is a liturgy of nostalgia.)

Before the 1979 revolution, the stadium was called “Aryamehr” (“Light of the Aryans”); this was a title conferred on Mohammad Reza by the parliament in 1965. The ayatollahs changed it to “Azadi,” meaning “Freedom,” as part of their imposition of servitude. So currently it is indeed being exploited for surreptitious freedoms.

Nostalgia for the Pahlavi period (from 1921, when Reza Pahlavi first seized power, to 1979) has been growing since the 1990s; now it is emerging into the open. Apart from forty years to forget the problems of that period, there are several factors favoring such sentiments.

First is the Persian language itself (Farsi plus its slightly different Dari and Tajik variants). There is not a great difference between spoken and written Persian, indeed less than between spoken and written French. A grammar of Persian can summarize the principal differences in two pages. Contrast that with the differences between written Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and the six main modern spoken Arabic dialect groups (the extremes are mutually incomprehensible). MSA has whole grammatical structures that have been replaced in the spoken dialects. Even to express “come,” “go” and “see,” there are verbs that are always used in MSA but never colloquially spoken and words that are colloquially spoken but never used in MSA. The result is that the proficient speakers of MSA are mainly clerics, politicians, broadcasters and academics – and they revert to their spoken dialect when “off duty.” There is no standard way of writing down the dialects, although people now improvise spellings for emails and internet posts

In Iran, by contrast, most people can get up and make a respectable speech or write grammatically in Farsi. The same is true, incidentally, of Israel Hebrew, so most Israeli Arabs can get up and make a speech in Hebrew.

Second, printing got off to a better start in Iran. Unlike printing in Europe, all Arabic printing is the reproduction of cursive handwriting. So a font requires up to four characters for each letter plus numerous ligatures (combinations of letters) and may total over 200 characters. Even by the mid-nineteenth century, there were very few printing presses in the Arab world. In Iran, though Persian uses the same script plus extra letters, they got around the problems by lithographic printing of whole pages. Given the closeness between the written and spoken languages, finding a market was also easier, European books spread in translation and modernization was accelerated.

Third, the standards of modern Persian prose and poetry were established in the Pahlavi period by writers who might be anticlerical or antimonarchist or both. After 1979, the ayatollahs tried to censor or suppress books of such writers as the essayist Sadegh Hedayat (1903-1951) or the feminist poetess Forough Farrokhzad (1935-1967, a frequent target of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei), but such attempts have had limited success because those writers are indispensable standards for contemporary Persian writing. So whereas before 1979 the bazaars held black market copies of the writings of Khomeini, today people go there to find old copies of Forough.

The horrific experience of a contemporary Iranian poet with the censorship apparatus can be read here. He eventually left Iran because of the failure of reformist presidents to stop the misery, which included assassinations of authors by the state intelligence apparatus.

In general, modernization advanced more broadly and deeply in Iran even than in Turkey, let alone than in the Arabic-speaking world. Add this to the failures of the Islamic Republic in the economic and environmental spheres and you have the underlying basis for both Pahlavi nostalgia and the prospects of regime change.

What is to be done?

The analogies with the former East Germany suggest that Iran, too, is ripe for regime change. They also suggest that a change may come in weeks, months or years, depending on chance events and particularly on whether the local authorities and their security forces, at least in some areas, get tired of killing people. Before we discuss this further, a common illusion needs to be dispelled.

Those who are unfamiliar with modern Iranian history are sometimes impressed by the language map of Iran. They notice that native Farsi speakers are merely half of the population and imagine that the country could easily split into its component linguistic areas. This is an illusion, first of all because the largest minority, the Azeris (variously estimated as between 13% and 22% of the total population) are strongly represented in the regime. The father of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Sayyed Javad Khamenei Tabrizi (1896-1986), was himself an ethnic Azeri. (Tabriz is the biggest Azerbaijani city in Iran.)

Azeri dynasties ruled the country in the past, while using Farsi as the language of officialdom. A notable case was the Safavids (1501–1736), the dynasty that imposed Twelver Shiism as the state religion. (Significantly, there were not enough teachers in Iran for this task, so the Safavids recruited teachers from the Shiites of Lebanon. Thus the Iran-Hizbullah relationship, from a historical perspective, is not a mere client relationship; there was a reverse dependency. Both partners are aware of this, but foreign politicians and commentators are totally unaware of it.) The Constitution of 1979 permits the auxiliary use of local languages where they predominate, so there could in principle be school education in Azeri, but it does not happen and there seems to be little interest in it; Azeris are rulers as much as ruled in Iran.

The other notable non-Iranian minority, the Arabs of Khuzestan (where the Iranian oil fields are concentrated), have occasionally been restive. But they form only 2-3% of the population. They gave little trouble to the regime during the Iran-Iraq War because of how Saddam Hussein treated his own Shiite Arabs. Among the minorities speaking an Iranian language, only the Kurds (7%-10%) have caused significant trouble. They suffered, however, more under the Pahlavis than under the present regime and they obtained their own Kurdistan province over thirty years ago, whereas the Iraqi Kurds received autonomy only after the downfall of Saddam Hussein and the Syrian and Turkish Kurds so far have no recognized autonomy at all. Moreover, the Safavids already simplified Iran’s Kurdish problem by transporting many Kurds from Kurdistan to Khorasan in the opposite corner of the country, where a million of them remain to this day.

The big disturbances of December 2017 to January 2018, like their sporadic resurgences, occurred all over the country – irrespective of ethnicity – and even in supposed strongholds of the fundamentalists. Among other things, the protestors called for the abolition of the office of “Supreme Leader.” The original draft of the Constitution of 1979 did not include this office; it was added at the insistence of Khomeini against the opposition of other ayatollahs.

Discontent about the office among senior clerics has been growing since the 1990s. A current opponent is Ayatollah Hussein Shirazi, like his revered father, Grand Ayatollah Sadiq Shirazi (b. 1942). The younger Shirazi was arrested on March 6, or – as it seems – was rather kidnapped by the Guards Corps on the orders of the Supreme Leader and sentenced summarily to 120 years in prison. His alleged “crime” was referring to the Supreme Leader as “Pharaoh.” The subsequent widespread protests led to his release and his ability to visit his friends and admirers in the substantial Shiite community in Kuwait. Indeed, the protests were loudest outside Iran in Iraq and the Arab Gulf States, where Shiites form a majority in Bahrain and up to a third of the population in Kuwait, for example.

In the Iraqi general election on May 12, the party of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr surprisingly won the largest number of seats. He is an outspoken champion of excluding Iranian influence from Iraq, while Iran had expressly opposed the inclusion of his party in any future Iraqi government. The attempt of the Iranian regime to eliminate Hussein Shirazi can only have promoted the success of al-Sadr. It was another influential chance event, one that seriously damaged a major aim of the Iranian regime: to undermine Arab states via their Shiite communities.

The wish of the Guards Corps to establish itself permanently in Syria has also suffered serious setbacks. These include not just the attacks attributed to Israel but also the Syrian air force’s request for Iranian forces to leave its facilities and, above all, Russia’s declaration that all foreign forces – and specifically Iranian ones and Hizbullah – must leave Syria when the civil war is over.

The question is thus: What is likely to push such developments forward? The answer is that the new American policy, whether by chance or intent, may be as good as anything.

This policy has two arms. The first arm was President Trump’s decision on May 8, 2018 to reimpose sanctions on Iran. This ended the opportunity for the Iranian regime to relieve significantly the economic miseries of its citizens. We have seen that many Iranians are blaming not Trump but their own rulers. More surprisingly, thousands have used the internet to welcome Trump’s decision.

Even while the sanctions were suspended, the sufferings of ordinary Iranians continued to mount. On March 29, the International Monetary Fund reported that the Iranian financial system’s weaknesses continue to be grave and that the upper tier of the regime, as usual, is largely responsible. “According to the IMF, at least two ‘credit institutions’—most of which are connected to clerics or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—have experienced ‘bank runs’ recently.” (Desperate Iranians had sought to evade high inflation by investing in such “credit institutions,” but lost money when suspicions arose that they were Ponzi-type schemes.) Moreover, “The three largest [public] pension schemes (90% of the system) are insolvent.”

One result has been a rush to buy dollars, further leaps of the value of the dollar on the black market, and a fresh attempt by the regime to ban the black market altogether. The attempt failed because the regime made far too few dollars available, queues for them became long and they effectively vanished from the official market. Iranian banks offer a yearly rate of 20% on deposits, but inflation recently rose at more than that rate in half a year. So Iranians put their trust in the currency of the Great Satan, in a further hollowing-out of faith in their own regime.

The West European trio of the P5+1 (the UK, France and Germany) have expressed their wish somehow to continue the nuclear deal with Iran. Supreme Leader Khamenei has responded, according to recent statements on his website, by making two main demands of the trio: “European banks should safeguard trade with the Islamic Republic. We do not want to start a fight with these three countries, but we don’t trust them either… Europe should fully guarantee Iran’s oil sales. In case Americans can damage our oil sales…, Europeans should make up for that and buy Iranian oil.”

Khamenei’s two demands are as impudent as they are ignorant. The large European banks cannot risk their connections with the US banking system by violating US sanctions in their dealings with Iran. Thus also European firms will have to abandon trade with the US to do the same, in which case they will not get credit from those banks.

Likewise, European oil companies are already drawing back from prospective business with Iran. According to Bloomberg, three leading figures in the oil business have stated that getting around US sanctions will be virtually impossible: Chairman Ian Taylor of Vitol (“the world’s top oil trader”), Total CEO Patrick Pouyanne and BP CEO Bob Dudley. Further afield, Reliance of India , “owner of the world’s biggest refining complex,” plans to halt oil imports from Iran, while Lukoil, “Russia’s second biggest oil producer,” announced that it had put on hold plans to involve itself in the development of two Iranian oilfields.

The other arm of the new American policy is the “new Iran Strategy” presented by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his speech at the Heritage Foundation on May 21. It consists of sixteen unconditional demands upon the Iranian regime. We cannot disagree with him, after recommending a similar approach in a recent article.

The question posed in the article was: What has fundamentally changed since Israel captured the hidden Iranian archive testifying to the existence of a fully-fledged Iranian program to produce nuclear-armed missiles, despite the insistent Iranian denials thereof throughout the negotiations over the nuclear deal? The answer was that the aims over which the US negotiated with Iran have now become imperatives that Iran must accept in advance of negotiations. All that can now be discussed in negotiations is the modalities and timetable for implementing the imperatives. Specifically, “the sunset clauses must be cancelled, the IAEA must have freedom to inspect whatever it demands, and Iran’s long-range missile capacity must be curtailed.”

A comparison with Pompeo’s speech shows that those three imperatives coincide with his first four. His fifth imperative, the liberation of American hostages seized by the Iranian regime, is self-evident in its own right. The other seven are simply subdivisions of a single imperative: the Iranian regime must end all threats to and interference in other states and restrict its aims to solving its massive internal problems, for the benefit and joy of all Iranians and not just for a corrupt ideological clique. This comprehensive imperative lies outside the original scope of the nuclear deal, but since the Israeli discovery has shown that Iran negotiated in bad faith, the US can legitimately lay down this further imperative as a condition for renewed negotiations.

We have said that it is unpredictable when the hollowed-out Iranian regime will be blown over and Iranians are liberated from its bizarre ideological obsessions. But the two arms of the new American policy must surely bring that welcome day closer.

Full article: Iran: The Hollowing-Out of the Regime (Gatestone Institute)

Note: For archiving purposes, a full version of the article will remain here.

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