Iranian Theocracy on the Brink?

The Islamic Republic alienates its own base.

After several days of protests in Iran that have spread throughout the country, costing at least 21 lives, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards is claiming victory over the “sedition” after the Revolutionary Guards intervened. It is not clear yet whether his claim of victory is premature. The situation remains fluid, but the regime appears concerned enough by the extent of the unrest that it tried to show support for its leaders through organized pro-government rallies broadcast on national television.

True to form, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday blamed Iran’s “enemies” for the protests. “All those who are against the Islamic Republic – those who have money, those who have the politics, those who have the weapons, those who have the intelligence – they have all joined forces in order to create problems for the Islamic Republic and the Islamic Revolution,” he charged. 

However, Khamenei and his henchmen doeth protest too much. Whether or not they prevail in the short term, as they probably will since there have been no known significant defections of security or military personnel to the anti-government demonstrators’ side, the regime’s leaders are certainly aware of the deep currents of discontent in the country that are causing serious fissures in the regime’s conservative base of support.

The current protests are not led by students and the urban middle class, as was the case during the failed Green Movement in 2009. Nor are today’s protests about the legitimacy of a single presidential election, or a battle between so-called “reformers” and hardliners. These are populist protests, initially fueled by economic discontent amongst young people in rural areas, towns and small cities, who have come to despise the entire theocratic establishment. They are calling into question the legitimacy, not of one particular leader or another, but of the very foundation of a corrupt, self-serving clerical hierarchy out of touch with the needs of ordinary people. 

Iran’s figurehead president, Hassan Rouhani, ran for a second term in 2017 as a “reformer” who promised to clean up corruption. He also promised to use the benefits accruing from the lifting of sanctions following the completion of the nuclear deal to improve economic conditions for the Iranian people. Of course, Rouhani, an integral part of the establishment swamp himself, did not deliver. He is under the thumb of Ayatollah Khamenei and the corrupt Revolutionary Guards, and lacks any control over the bulk of the national budget. Now Rouhani will likely become a scapegoat, following his apparent face-saving leak last month of a proposed government budget that, according to the New York Times, exposed “details of the country’s religious institutes” and the fact that “billions of dollars were going to hardline organizations, the military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp, and religious foundations that enrich the clerical elite.” Meanwhile, millions of ordinary citizens are being asked to pay the price. The Iranian people “living in Iran’s provincial towns and villages,” reports the Times, who “were regarded as the backbone of the country’s Islamic regime” are staring at cuts in cash subsidies, increased fuel prices, and unemployment of around 40 percent among young people, who constitute half the population. Their anger will not be mollified by more empty promises and phony pretenses of “democracy.”

The regime’s only alternative to maintain order is to use as much force as necessary to prevent any further unrest from turning into a full-fledged uprising that could get out of control. That is what the regime did in 2009, while Obama watched and did nothing. 

Khamenei and his hardline supporters will use the faltering economy as an excuse to purge ineffectual “reformers,” further consolidate power into their own hands and “finally impose their vision of pristine Islamist rule,” predicts Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, in an article for Politico Magazine. “Iran will move into one of its darker ages, with escalating repression, censorship and the imposition of onerous cultural strictures,” he added. The regime will continue its expansionist export of its “revolution” throughout the Middle East and beyond, as costly as that may be. However, as all self-styled “Republics of Virtue” come to an end, so will the Islamic Republic of Iran, writes Mr. Takeyh, because the financial burden will overwhelm the regime, sparking further waves of deep-seated discontent. Time, demographics and social media are not on the regime’s side. 

“In the end, Iran’s revolution is an impossible one, as it created a theocracy that cannot reform itself and accommodate the aspirations of its restless and youthful citizens,” writes Mr. Takeyh. “The tragedy of Ali Khamenei is that in consolidating his revolution, he is ensuring the eventual demise of his regime.”

President Trump and his administration are following the right course in demonstrating U.S. support for the Iranian people in their struggle against the regime. Addressing reporters at UN headquarters on January 2nd, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley called for emergency meetings of the UN Security Council and Human Rights Council. “The U.N. must speak out,” Ambassador Haley said. “We must not be silent. The people of Iran are crying out for freedom.  All freedom-loving people must stand with their cause. The international community made the mistake of failing to do that in 2009. We must not make that mistake again.”

Instead of learning from their mistakes, senior members of Obama’s administration are doubling down. Former UN Ambassador and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, for example, is counseling a repeat of Obama’s vow of silence in 2009 when he turned his back on the Green Revolution protesters. Rice tweeted out a New York Times op-ed by another former Obama aide, Philip Gordon, who was an assistant Secretary of State, headlined “How Can Trump Help Iran’s Protesters? Be Quiet.” Philip Gordon claimed in his article that, while he wanted to see the government of Iran “weakened, moderated or even removed,” he was offering President Trump some “unsolicited” advice: “Keep quiet and do nothing.” Susan Rice is all in and advises the same cowardly course. 

As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

An individual claiming to be in Iran at the time of Rice’s tweet pushed back strongly: “They are shooting at us. Shame on you Susan Rice!” 

The reason that Obama apologists give for counseling silence is that Iran’s leaders will use U.S. expressions of support for the protesters, in Gordon’s words, “to depict the protesters as American lackeys, giving the security services more of a pretext to crack down violently.” That is essentially what Khamenei has done. However, this theocratic dictator, who revels in chants of “Death to America,” would have engaged in the same blame game to divert attention from the failings of his own regime no matter what President Trump and his administration had said or done. Even the concessions Obama gave to the Iranian regime as the price for reaching the disastrous nuclear deal did not temper Khamenei’s anti-American vile. Just three days after completion of the deal, Khamenei posted a tweet with what appears to be an image of a silhouette of Obama holding a gun to his head. Khamenei and his henchmen hate the United States and the democratic values that it stands for. He does need any more excuses to blame the U.S. for all of his regime’s ills.

Ambassador Haley, in her remarks to the press, refuted allegations that the U.S. is behind the current demonstrations. Calling such allegations “complete nonsense,” she described the demonstrations as “completely spontaneous.” She added, “They are virtually in every city in Iran. This is the precise picture of a long-oppressed people rising up against their dictators.”

There is more the Trump administration can do, besides expressions of support for the protesters, to place pressure on Iran’s leaders and hopefully hasten the regime’s demise. President Trump tweeted on Wednesday that “great” U.S. support for the protesters would be coming “at the appropriate time.” He did not specify what such support might look like. Here are a few suggestions.

First, immediately mobilize government and private sector resources to provide tools usable by Iranians to circumvent government controls on messaging applications and the Internet. This would allow people unhappy with the regime to communicate with each other as well as to provide documentation to the world of the regime’s human rights abuses.

Second, continue to refuse to certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal when the next deadline approaches in mid-January.

Third, refuse to sign yet another Iran sanctions waiver later this month. Ambassador Haley laid out the predicate for such an action last month in her presentation of alleged Iranian violations of the UN Security Council Resolution 2231 endorsing the nuclear deal. President Trump may already be leaning in this direction. “In terms of signing a waiver later in January, the President hasn’t made a final decision on that,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said. “He’s going to keep every option on the table.”

In an article appearing in the New York Post on Wednesday, co-authored by Richard Goldberg, an architect of congressional sanctions against Iran and senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Jamie Fly, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US, the authors suggested the prime target for specific sanctions that the Trump administration should impose as soon as possible. That target is Iran’s Central Bank, which the authors explained serves as “the regime’s financial hub for terrorism, missiles and human-rights abuse.” 

Such direct sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank, reinforced by secondary sanctions against non-U.S. financial institutions engaging in transactions with the Central Bank, would help cut off money flowing to the Revolutionary Guards, the military, religious institutions, and the regime’s corrupt business enterprises. Starving the theocracy, its apparatchiks and its enforcers of resources to keep their Islamic “revolution” alive can at least put a damper on the regime’s expansionist activities and funding of terrorism. Hopefully, it will do much more, bringing the day closer to the regime’s demise and to freedom for the Iranian people.