On Friday evening, I attended a party hosted by Mehdi Atefat, the senior Iranian diplomat in Washington, to mark, as the embossed invitation noted, “the glorious occasion of the 40th Anniversary of the Victory of the Islamic Revolution.” I’ve gone to Iran’s commemorations over the years for insight on the state of play—or degree of hostility—between Tehran and Washington. During the Shah’s era, Iran’s diplomatic mission was famed for its White House connections and its hedonistic, caviar-infused parties, attended by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Andy Warhol, and Barbara Walters, on Embassy Row. It closed after President Carter broke off relations, in 1980, a few months after students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Since then, Iran has relied on three dozen Iranians with green cards to conduct its business in the United States. The teetotalling revolutionaries operated for years out of a second-floor office, above a liquor store, far from the diplomatic quarter. They often complained about not being allowed enough telephone lines to cope with the consular needs of some three hundred thousand Iranian-passport holders living in the United States. As Iran negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal with the world’s six major powers, the Obama Administration allowed the Interest Section to move to classier digs—with more telephone lines—in Washington’s West End. It’s now a twenty-minute walk from the White House and on the same street as the State Department.
Atefat, a tall, bearded man with graying hair, studied soil fertility at a university in Oklahoma, forty years ago, and stayed. At the dinner party, he wore a standup collar with no tie, a symbol of Western fashion banned since the 1979 revolution. In remarks, he bemoaned the renewed tensions between the U.S. and Iran, after President Trump abandoned the nuclear deal, last May.
“People had hoped that the peaceful and respectful resolution of the controversy would usher a new era and end the sanctions,” he told several dozen guests, who sipped juice and tea. Instead, he said, “A taller wall of mistrust has been erected. Unfortunately, we are experiencing another totally failed approach to Iran—[a] military option!”
The statements emanating from Tehran on Friday were darker and snarkier. “The U.S. regime is the embodiment of evil, violence, creating chaos, and warmongering,” the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in a speech to military officers. On his English-language Twitter account, Khamenei vowed that “the Iranian nation will not abandon ‘Death to America’.” He then clarified: “ ‘Down with USA’ means down with @realDonaldTrump, @AmbJohnBolton and @SecPompeo. It means death to the American politicians currently in power. It means death to the few people running that country; we have nothing against the American nation.”
That first generation of revolutionaries is still paranoid about U.S. intentions, which is one reason Iran to lock up Americans and dual nationals four decades after the seizure of the U.S. Embassy—and the introduction of modern hostage-taking, when fifty-two diplomats and citizens were held for four hundred and forty-four days. At least four Americans are currently being held captive in Iran, including Siamak Namazi, a businessman; Xiyue Wang, a Princeton graduate student; and Michael White, a Navy veteran from California. Robert A. Levinson, a former F.B.I. agent, has been missing since he disappeared in Iran in 2007.
The Trump Administration acknowledged the revolution’s longevity with its own insults. “Even your president, Hassan Rouhani, admits to the Iranian regime’s 40 years of failure,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted recently, in both English and Farsi. “Your ruling regime has always prioritized ideology over the interests and well-being of the Iranian people.”
On paper, Iran—a petrostate with vast reserves of oil and natural gas—should be a member of the G-20, a group of the world’s richest industrialized nations. Its eighty-one million people are tech-savvy, innovative, and voracious consumers. One of the positive by-products of the revolution has been soaring literacy rates—from thirty-seven per cent in 1976 to eighty-six per cent in 2016, according to unesco. That includes women, who are now the majority of students in Iranian universities.
Instead, the Islamic Republic is struggling. “Today, the country is facing the biggest pressure and economic sanctions in the past forty years,” President Rouhani warned in a speech, on January 30th, to mark the revolution’s anniversary. Seventy per cent of the Iranian public agree that economic conditions are bad, according to a survey released on Saturday, by IranPoll, a Canada-based public-opinion research firm. Iran’s currency has plummeted by some seventy per cent in the past year. Inflation is estimated at thirty-five per cent. Unemployment is a chronic problem, especially among the educated youth born after the revolution, who now make up the majority of the population—and voting bloc.
The original revolutionaries, now nearly all senior citizens, blame Trump’s reimposition of sweeping sanctions last year for the country’s economic problems. A recent survey by IranPoll found that sixty per cent of Iranians instead blame gross government mismanagement and rampant corruption. A year ago, protests over unemployment, delayed pay, high prices, and deteriorating economic conditions erupted in most of Iran’s thirty-one provinces. Today, they remain the most volatile flash point challenging the regime’s durability.
In an interview in Qatar, in December, I asked the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to reflect on the revolution’s successes and failures. It was part of an ongoing conversation we’ve had for thirty-five years, since he was a young diplomat at the United Nations. “The most important success has been to give the people a voice in domestic and foreign affairs,” he said. “Our people believe—whether they agree with government policies or they don’t—that they have a say in their own future.”
On the revolution’s failures, Zarif mused, “If you compare the situation with what we had thought are our ideals, then we haven’t achieved much. But, if you compare the situation with the realities of the region today, then I think we’ve done pretty well. So it depends on what you compare it with. Obviously, we had much higher ideals both in terms of internal as well as external relations.”
I asked Zarif what the ideal Islamic republic would look like. He said the goal had been “a form of government that combines two elements—Islam and republicanism. Islam and democracy.” The central tension inside the revolution has always been whether it is foremost about creating an Islamic state or a republic. Its constitution is modelled on French and Belgian law combined with Sharia law. Its secular government and religious oversight branches have long competed for power.
In most ways, the Supreme Leader, who has virtual veto capacity over actions by the President, Parliament, and judiciary, still has absolute power. But the clergy otherwise has a notably diminished role. In Iran’s first parliamentary election, in 1980, sixty-one per cent of the seats were won by clerics. Today, they hold only six per cent of seats. Iran’s Parliament now has more female members—seventeen—than clerics.
“The ideal society would have been a society where disparities would be minimal,” Zarif said. “And where Iran would be able to make strides in terms of science and technology, based on the capabilities of its own people and working with the rest of the world.” He added, “We have made some achievements, but not to the extent that we had aspired.”
The question at this landmark juncture is how the next decade plays out. The United States is clearly trying to influence Iran’s future. When Pompeo was in Congress, he repeatedly called for regime change. So did John Bolton, before he became the national-security adviser last year. (For many years, Bolton was a spokesman for the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, a small Marxist-Islamist opposition cult that, until 2012, was on the U.S. list of designated terrorist groups, for killing U.S. officials.) Both Pompeo and Bolton now disavow that goal, claiming they only want to change Iran’s “behavior.”
In a speech last year, though, Pompeo outlined twelve sweeping demands for Iran, including ending any role in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen; all support for Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Taliban; all missile development; and the detention of United States citizens and allies. Many amount to total reversals—policy change, if not total regime change. President Trump also recently let slip his plans to move U.S. troops from Syria into Iraq, to “watch” Iran. “Iran is a real problem,” he said, on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” on February 3rd. The strategic reality—and irony—is that Iran has widened its influence in the Middle East since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in 2003, a moment when it looked like Iran might be the next American target. Tehran’s allies now dominate the government in Baghdad. Iraq bluntly rebuffed Trump’s assertion that U.S. troops should focus on Iran from its territory. “Don’t overburden Iraq with your own issues,” President Barham Salih, a Kurd, said last week. “Do not pursue your own policy priorities—we live here.” Iraq’s powerful Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, vetoed the notion that Iraq would become “the launching pad for harming any other country.” With the imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops in Syria, Trump also effectively cedes future leverage to Iran and Russia, whose arms, aid, and troops secured President Bashar al-Assad’s military victory and hold on power. Trump also remains intent on pulling U.S. troops out Afghanistan, which borders Iran to the east. A Taliban victory, or simply chaos, following a U.S withdrawal would further reduce Washington’s influence in the region and increase Iran’s.
The Administration is exploring other ways to pressure the Islamic Republic. On February 13th and 14th, Pompeo will co-host a conference, in Warsaw, on “stability and peace” in the Middle East. It’s widely seen as a U.S. attempt to build a formal anti-Iran coalition, in order to further squeeze Tehran economically, diplomatically, and in the region. Seventy nations from the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and Africa have been invited.
For all the disgruntlement with their fraying revolution, Iranians may be little swayed by the Trump Administration. The new IranPoll found that eighty-two per cent said that they now have an unfavorable view of the United States, even as sixty per cent said they believe “the West and the Islamic world have similar needs and wants.” The White House has been counting on—and urging—Iranians to rise up. But there is little so far to indicate that the Islamic Republic won’t be celebrating its forty-first anniversary next year, at its Interest Section near the White House.