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Revisiting Regime Change In Iran

John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump, and Mike Pence (State Department)

After abandoning the 2015 nuclear agreement signed by the Obama administration with Iran and five world powers, the Trump administration has returned to past American notions of Iran’s Islamic Republic being either overthrown or weakened to the point of collapse.

President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, has led the argument that a new wave of United States sanctions will encourage widespread protests within Iran. Bolton has long called for ‘regime change’, and has been an associate and paid advocate of the Mujahideen-e Khalq, an opposition group with a long record of violence. 

In Israel last week, Bolton stressed that official Trump administration policy is for “a massive change in the regime’s behaviour” rather than ‘regime change’. But such a distinction is a fine one given the list of demands that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued toward Iran in May, including ending all civil uranium enrichment, severely restricting its missile program, and breaking links to regional allies like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestinian groups. 

“The Iranian people will get to make a choice about their leadership,Pompeo explained. “If they make the decision quickly, that would be wonderful. If they choose not to do so, we will stay hard at this until we achieve the outcomes that I set forward today.” Pompeo evoked “God’s providence” to fulfill the dreams of “our Iranian American friends”, without specifying who these ‘friends’ were.

Decades of Regime Change Efforts

The unveiling on 16 August—the 65th anniversary of the CIA-backed coup that toppled Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh—of the State Department’s ‘Iran Action Group’ has strengthened the belief in Tehran that the U.S. administration is committed to overthrowing the Islamic Republic. In a tweet, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif drew a clear parallel between U.S. intentions today and in 1953, when Washington manoeuvred to oust Mossadegh and strengthen Iran’s Shah. 

In the 39 years since the 1979 Revolution removed the Shah, Washington has sought credible Iranian opposition figures, helped or hindered by its so-called experts. One such “expert,” Michael Ledeen—‘Freedom Scholar’ at the ‘Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ (FDD) and former consultant at the U.S. National Security Council—claimedfor many years that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s current leader, was dead.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, also of FDD, and Ray Takeyh, of the Council on Foreign Relations, recently argued in the Wall Street Journal that “cracking the Islamic Republic is job one”. This is apparently a straightforward task given “it manifestly isn’t a land of tribes and oil wells” (news no doubt to the Qashqai and Bakhtiari tribal confederations and to oil minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh). The Iranians, it seems, “are the most secular people in the Middle East” (even though they visit holy shrines in the millions) and are ripe for US assistance “against their overlords”.

Trump’s machinations hardly represent the first shady U.S. effort at fomenting regime change in Iran. In September 2004, Tehran buzzed with speculation that Ahura Pirooz Khaleghi Yazdi, a 57-year-old businessman and TV mogul based in Los Angeles, would return from exile and overthrow the Islamic Republic. Through satellite television broadcasts, Yazdi set September 25, and later October 1, as the date for “liberation” when he would arrive with 50 aircraft full of exiles, journalists and United Nations monitors.

Yazdi failed to deliver. Hossein Shariatmadari, editor-in-chief of the leading conservative newspaper Kayhan, dubbed him and his followers “the army of the insane”.

Those were the days when the US, following its invasion of Iraq, looked round for a credible opposition force to spread the ‘neoconservative’ Middle East revolution to Iran. Washington gave ‘protected status’ under the Geneva Convention to the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), still then based in Iraq but deprived of its ally Saddam Hussein, and was also reportedly in talks with Ali Chehregani, a Washington-based activist calling for independence for Azeris living in north-west Iran.

Misunderstanding Iran

Then, as now, a common assumption among U.S. policy-makers and the Iran ‘experts’ vying for influence and funding, is that all problems with Iran result from its ‘regime’, a term that is never defined. Every aspect of Iran—the economy, the environment, demonstrations, the arts, defense, the nuclear power program, Iran’s geopolitical role in the region—is seen though this prism, feeding a feverish sense that the Islamic Republic is about to collapse.

The latest protests in Iran are hardly the first. Back in 2007, some motorists torched gas stations when president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad introduced a limit on their purchases of the world’s cheapest gasoline. The disputed 2009 presidential election, when Ahmadinejad was re-elected for a second term, provoked the biggest demonstrations in Iran since those of 1979 brought down the Shah.

Trump’s reintroduction of sanctions against Iran—the first wave on August 7, a second wave looming on November 5—are designed to deter European investment and stop Asian countries buying Iranian oil. The effect in Iran is paradoxical. On one hand, if the economy goes into recession, this may well stimulate anti-government protests: on the other hand, the outside threat strengthens unity, at least among the political class.

Kayhan, which is usually very critical of President Hassan Rouhani, ran on 7 August a large front-page picture of him calling for unity. The reformist leader Behzad Nabavi, former minister and among those jailed as a leader of the opposition ‘Green Movement’ in 2009, has been among those insisting the government remain firm.

The feeling that Trump is unstable and heads a chaotic administration—confirmed by his angry upper-case tweets followed by an offer to meet Rouhani—does not reduce Iranian leaders’ sense that he is dangerous. Even before the U.S. State Department proclaimed its ‘Iran Action Group’ on the Mossadegh coup anniversary, Iran’s leaders were putting themselves at the head of nationalist sentiment. Back in March, a street in north Tehran was named after Mossadegh, with whom the Islamic Republic has always had an equivocal relationship, given many clerics of the time opposed him.

The Durability of the Islamic Republic

Where does this leave U.S. ambitions? Short of an invasion, can it replace the Islamic Republic? What are the prospects for demonstrations and internal change as tightening U.S. sanctions promote recession and unemployment?

In a recent paper, Saeid Golkar, visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, examined reforms in policing since the unrest of 2009 with the conscious promotion of loyalists. Golkar argues these helped the police deal with protests in December and January without having to call in the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) or the Basij (the volunteer militia linked to the IRGC).

“These changes have improved the regime’s capacity for dealing with riots and unrest, and ultimately its prospects for survival,” Golkar tells me. “But at the same time, the IRGC-ification and Basij-ification of the police have led to the police being more politicized, and more conservative, than society in general.”

Golkar believes there is a growing sense of instability in Iran. “Public perception is changing, with anybody who I talk to, even IRGC members, worrying more,” he says. “The regime’s supporters wish that Ayatollah Khamenei ease the pressure by releasing [opposition] Green Movement leaders [Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi] from house arrest to help unify the elites.”

Ervand Abrahamian—the leading historian whose books on Iran include Khomeinism and Tortured Confessions—recently reminded readers of the New York Review of Books of the long pedigree of U.S. pursuit of regime change. “Pompeo shares with the neoconservatives of George W. Bush’s administration the notion that Iran is a fragile state that would collapse with a little prodding and bombing,” notes Abrahamian. “They have even republished nineteenth-century maps portraying it as a mosaic of innumerable ethnic groups —almost all of which have long since been assimilated and now consider themselves as integral parts of Iran.”

Reviewing Abbas Amanat’s ‘Iran: A Modern History’, Abrahamian draws tentative conclusions from many centuries:

Amanat shows persuasively that despite the apparent mishmash of their history Iranians have a strong sense of cultural identity—what some have termed “Iranism” or “Iranianism.” He describes it as “national,” “political,” and “historical identity.” It comes in part from the ancient roots of the region, going back to the Sasanians (224 CE–651 CE) and even the Achaemenids (550 BCE–330 BCE); in part from folk traditions rooted in the Zoroastrian religion; in part from rich Persian literature, especially Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (Book of Kings) and mystic Sufi poets such as Hafez, Sa’di, and Rumi. Then there is Shia Islam, which has been observed in Iran since 1500. Finally, there have been external pressures from imperial powers—first from Britain and Russia, known colloquially as the “northern” and “southern” neighbors, and more recently from the United States.

This sense of identity—including a Shia Islam wedded in daily life to wider Iranian culture—hardly makes Iran vulnerable to a ‘regime change’ orchestrated from abroad. 

Further clues on the Islamic Republic’s likely durability can be found in the recently published Postrevolutionary Iran: A Political Handbook, an extensive political anatomy reflecting decades of research by Mehrzad Boroujerdi and Kourosh Rahimkhani, respectively professor of political science at Syracuse University and a doctoral candidate at Binghamton University.

“There is a lot of raw material [in the book] for theorizing,” Boroujerdi tells me.  He is right. But is evidence of cohesion and hardiness, rather than brittleness, to be found in its compendia of 36 national elections, organizations, institutions and official appointments by Ayatollah Khamenei?

Turnout in Iranian presidential elections is consistently higher than in the U.S., hardly suggesting a populace in long-term ferment. As for the political class and clerics, Boroujerdi traces extensive family ties. “You will see that [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini’s family ties are the most extensive,” he says. “He’s connected to Mohsen Reza’i [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander 1981-97], the Sadr family going back to Lebanon, as well as [former presidents] Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami.”

Boroujerdi argues such ties, given Iran’s lack of effective political parties, influence decisions. With roots in traditional Shia clerical intermarriage, the practice, extended across the political class, may bolster the regime. “It makes them strong,” he says, “in the sense of knowing each other intimately, being able to use informal channels, maybe wives, to plead a case.”

Contrary to many outside observers, Boroujerdi does not see the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as the cornerstone of the system. Indeed, he has not found extensive intermarriage between the professional IRGC cadres, who replaced the mass participation of 1980-88, and the wider elite.

Boroujerdi offers data relevant to assessing other possible weaknesses of the Islamic Republic: the role of non-Persians and the ‘greying’ of the elite. On the latter, Iran’s assemblies all show politicians ageing. In the Guardian Council the median age has risen from 50 to 66 since 1980. In the Assembly of Experts, which chooses the supreme leader, it has gone from 55 to 68. In the Majles or parliament average age has risen from 41 to 51, and in the cabinet from 52 to 57.

The Majles’s younger profile reflects a low incumbency rate of 33%. That’s well below, Boroujerdi points out, the U.S Congress at 90%. There is far less turnover in the unelected Guardian and Expediency Councils.

With nationalities, the data suggest relative inclusiveness. “If before the 1979 Revolution, much of the political elite came from Tehran, after the Revolution it became more ‘democratic’ in distribution,” says Boroujerdi.

Figures show that 26.7% of all ministers have come from Tehran province, home to 18% of the national population. Isfahan, Fars and Razavi Khorasan, including Mashhad, have also been important, making up 13.9%, 6.4% and 5.2% of cabinet officials, respectively. So has Khuzestan, some of whose Arab population allege they are victims of discrimination: it has had 3.2% of ministers, the ninth highest of Iran’s 31 provinces, and its prominent sons include Reza’i and top security official Ali Shamkhani.

Another empirical study of the Islamic Republic, looking at social policy, was published last year by Kevan Harris, assistant professor of Sociology at the University of California. A Social Revolution: Politics and the Welfare State in Irans, the result of extensive fieldwork, paints a complex picture of social changes since the 1979 Revolution, many of which, contrary to the picture painted by proponents of ‘regime change’, show positive changes.

The ratio of doctors to the general population has increased from 1:2800 in 1979 (1:4,000 outside Tehran) to 1:690. The expansion of health care, especially in rural areas, is a major factor, Harris argues, in empowering women. For his research, Harris visited ‘village health houses’, which expanded from covering 30% of the rural population in 1983 to over 95% in 2010.

Alienating U.S. Allies

Such empirical work is drowned out by the loud impatience of the proponents of ‘regime change’. Gerecht and Takeyh are not alone in raising the possibility that “the clerical regime may build a nuclear weapon before its contradictions cripple it”. Those who warn most stridently against the Iranian nuclear program are precisely those who most strongly oppose the agreement that restricts it.

The frustration among America’s allies is palpable. In a missive to Bloomberg responding to an editorial that called for Europe to abandon the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Sir Richard Dalton, British ambassador to Tehran 2003-2006, pointed out that “the U.S. does not run the UN Security Council which has endorsed the JCPOA”, an agreement based on a “strategic” view of “China, Russia and most other countries…on what will make a safer world.”

Dalton goes on to argue that achieving further agreements with Iran, including over its missile capacity, requires “the re-establishment of trust” between Iran and world powers. “The US,” he argues, “in its ideological blindness and scorn for the idea of seeking mutual interests would be not be ready for this for years.”

Neoconservatives like to portray Iran’s nuclear program as a ticking clock: regime change, they say, should come before Doomsday. But there is another ticking clock. Iran’s leaders well know President Trump faces re-election in 2020. So do the leaders of Germany, France, Britain, China, Russia and the Asian countries that are currently buying around two-thirds of Iran’s oil. 

As Saadi, the 13th-century Iran poet, was wont to remark, ‘Patience is the key to all things’. The American regime may change before Iran’s.

Gareth Smyth, who has reported from the Middle East since 1992, was 2003-7 the chief correspondent of the Financial Times in Iran.

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