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The Biden administration is stumped by Iran. Upon inauguration, President Joe Biden and the best and the brightest of the Democratic Party assumed that reviving the Iran nuclear deal would be simple. In one of the ironic twists of history, they are bedeviled by their predecessor Donald Trump. It was the Trump administration that designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the muscle behind the theocracy, as a foreign terrorist organization.
The State Department has designated the Islamic Republic a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984; no one serious in Washington doubts that the 2019 designation is factually correct. It is, however, politically inconvenient. Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, apparently doesn’t care for the diplomatic legerdemain reportedly suggested by U.S. officials and European participants that would allow the White House and Khamenei to ignore this designation. The most embarrassing, if true, proposal would be for the United States to lift sanctions in exchange for a public promise by Tehran not to target Americans in the future. The Iranian foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, hardly a moderate, has suggested that the IRGC take one for the team since, in the end, it won’t really matter if the big sanctions on oil exports are lifted. So far, Khamenei has held firm, as has President Joe Biden.
Will either Biden or Khamenei blink over the Revolutionary Guards’ long embrace of subversive violence? Does it even really matter given the supreme leader’s fatigue with the West and larger aspirations? The difficulties and unseemliness of the Vienna talks ought to, again, oblige us to reflect on U.S.-Iranian relations, on why Republicans and Democrats have so often sought greater “normalcy” with the clerical regime—especially when it was dangerous and morally challenging to do so. Anyone who has examined the classified communications between Washington and Tehran can’t but be struck by the recurring pattern: the Americans are always trying to say “Hi!” (part of the unending search for “moderates”) while the Iranians answer “gom sho” (“get lost,” though often it’s much worse). The historically curious observer might also see a disconnect between Iran’s internal weaknesses and the determination of numerous administrations not to exploit them.
This actually is a truism in Iranian–American relations since 1979: ground is given to a theocracy that has killed, kidnapped, and wounded numerous Americans. This indulgence springs in part from the way Westerners see radicalism and revolution evolving. With the Islamic Republic, this has prompted many observers to ignore what the supreme leader and his men say and do in favor of a historical model that offers a smidgen of hope. Consider the French Revolution: first came revolution and overreach, as the Jacobins sought to transform society and expand frontiers; then came pragmatic temptations, as the burdens of governance led idealists to adjust expectations. The administrative state, in this rendering, eventually suffocates radicalism. The task of running a country, the thousands of interlocking processes that give a state identity and power—national and local budgets, urban planning, agriculture, industry, trade, building police forces and armies, the whole hierarchy of authority that obliges the young to bow before the middle-aged—militates against constant upheaval. Vladimir Lenin and his successors sought to tame the forces of history only to create a bloated bureaucratic state that lumbered toward its ultimate condition of labefaction. Mao Zedong was willing to sacrifice millions to perpetuate his version of communism, but his successors opted for a more workable economic model and cooled the internal tumult. Vietnamese “communists” are eager for Americans to invest in their country and reoccupy military bases. The imperatives of survival may not turn radicals into statesmen, but it does oblige them to be more careful with lethal creeds that can tear countries apart.
Most Iran-watchers in the West, especially in the academe, have been seeing the cusp of Thermidor since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died in 1989. Yet more than three decades later, Khomeini remains central to Iran’s politics. He is not just commemorated: his thoughts continue to guide the ruling elite. The Islamic Republic remains an unrepentant revolutionary state. The imposition of religious strictures on an unwilling society remains its core mission. Amr bimaruf, nahy az munkar—command good, forbid wrong—a central tenet of Islamic jurisprudence, remains radicalized and injected into every facet of Iranian society. Anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism define the theocracy’s internationalism, and Khomeini’s disciples have rebuffed reformers seeking to harmonize faith and freedom.
The Islamic Republic may be on an accelerated schedule for revolutionary decay, at least if compared to the USSR. Forty-three years in, the decay of militant Shiism is widespread and deep; within a similar span inside the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev was gearing up to belittle John F. Kennedy in Vienna. Soviet Russia—the communist spirit amongst the people—seemed then, and also in retrospect, much more solid than the Islamist esprit does today within the Persian core of the Iranian state (among ethnic minorities, which account for around 50 percent of the population, it’s degraded further).
There is an operative assumption among Western foreign policy circles that the atrophying of militant faith in the Islamic Republic must have had a numbing, if not moderating, effect upon the ruling mullahs and Revolutionary Guards. To gain greater popular support, the supreme leader surely has brought in those who know that change is both inevitable and desirable. Nearly the opposite impulse in the theocracy has been true, however, in large part because the Shiite story is about a charismatic vanguard surviving in a hostile environment. Shiism makes no historical sense without an elite—first the imams, later the clergy—resisting more powerful forces trying to oblige believers to forsake their faith.
The Soviets had Karl Marx, Lenin, and Russian pride; the theocracy has nearly 1,400 years of history to summon (selectively) to its side. For the revolution’s dedicated cadre, the purpose of the state is to realize God’s will on earth. Khamenei and his followers see themselves as a vanguard whose authority cannot be infringed upon by popular will and elections. They are often explicitly contemptuous of democratic accountability, which they see as an occidental idea that denies divine agency. The theocracy isn’t, Khamenei has warned, “prepared to allow flawed and non-divine perspectives and ideas that are aimed at enhancing the power of the individuals to dictate its social and political lives.” Assured of their ideological verities, these men are morally indifferent to the loss of popularity—they are Allah’s servants reifying the imams’ teachings.
This nexus between God and man is extremely difficult for contemporary Westerners, in whom secularism now runs far deeper than Christianity, to understand. The Enlightenment, the World Wars, and Ludwig Wittgenstein have effectively severed Western certitude that God and man have a common language. When confronted with such ardent religion in an elite, the Western inclination is to assume that such religious men are somehow lying, deceiving others (if not themselves) about their capacity to see the Almighty’s intentions.
Additionally, Islamists emphasize praxis: Khamenei and his allies have ensured their political hegemony by dominating non-elected institutions. The Guardian Council, which is responsible for vetting candidates for public office, purges all unreliable elements. The judiciary shutters newspapers and imprisons activists on trumped-up charges. The 125,000-man Revolutionary Guards and their more numerous minions, the well-paid street thugs in the Basij, quell demonstrations. And where torture and imprisonment aren’t enough, Iran’s security organs routinely assassinate domestic and expatriate dissidents.
Despots falter when they fail to appreciate the ebbs and flows of their own society, when they cannot see the breaking points. For the past four decades, the theocratic regime has steadily shed constituents. The first to abandon the regime were liberals and secularists, who were part of the coalition that displaced the monarchy. In the 1990s, the universities became the hotbed of anti-regime agitation. The middle class turned decisively against the government in 2009 with the birth of the pro-democracy Green Movement. The proximate cause was the fraudulent reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but the shrinking economy had helped this critical segment of society to turn its back on the theocracy.
The mullahs gleefully dismissed them all. The students, perhaps the most crucial force in the Islamic Revolution, became scions of wealth infatuated with Western culture. In fact, most university students today are from the downside of the middle class. The ruling elite thus now sees the middle class as hopelessly unsteady if not Janus-faced—they too have forgotten that God’s cause requires sacrifice. The regime put its remaining faith where it has always invested most of its rhetoric: the lower classes, the mostazafan, the oppressed, in whose name the revolution had been waged. Tied to the regime by patronage and piety, they became the indispensable pillar—until it, too, cracked in 2017.
That year was the beginning of the poor people’s protest movement. Corruption and American sanctions caused the government to trim the welfare state. At a time when the mullahs no longer hide their affluence and privileges, preaching austerity was galling to those subsisting in Iran’s shanty towns. “They make a man into a God and a nation into beggars,” cried out a protester in 2017. “Death to Khamenei!” was a common chant then in nationwide protests, and again in 2019, when an even larger wave of demonstrations—those in the ethnic minority provinces moving toward insurrection—struck the country. The theocracy unleashed its enforcers with exceptional severity in 2019. Thus far, the regime’s security forces have held.
The clerical oligarchs are not unaware of their problems—they simply have no way of ameliorating them. Today, inflation hovers around 40 percent, while 30 percent of Iranians are living below the poverty line. The government cannot create the necessary jobs or provide needed housing. A mismanaged pandemic response has further angered a hard-pressed populace. Ayatollah Muhammad Mousavi-Khoeiniha, one of the elders of the revolution, took the unprecedented step of issuing a public letter to Khamenei, warning, “The people believe the highest authority in the country’s management should have prevented the cultural, economic and social chaos the country is facing today … the current situation cannot continue.” A likely authentic, leaked Revolutionary Guards’ document in 2022 puts the regime’s dilemma in even starker terms: “Society is in a state of explosion … social discontent has risen by 300 percent in the past year.”
In the presidential election of 2021, the Islamic Republic laid bare its survival strategy. The regime abandoned the pretense of competitive elections. Former favorite sons of the revolution, like the very bright, reformist-loathing, conservative stalwart Ali Larijani, were disqualified from running. Khamenei selected Ebrahim Raisi, who has spent his entire career overseeing the regime’s dungeons, to become the next president. Raisi first made a name for himself in the 1980s as a member of the so-called “death commission,” which executed thousands of political prisoners. Since then, he’s grown ever closer to Khamenei, gaining contacts throughout the security institutions and among those who depend on the supreme leader’s largesse. His ascendance surely means that the regime intends to deal with dissent even more viciously than it has in the past.
Iran is thus at an impasse. The remaining revolutionaries in charge of the government are unwilling to concede their patrimony even though their sullen constituents are ready to move on. The system cannot reform even though it recognizes the urgency of reform. Leaked videos of Revolutionary Guard commanders and commentary among the ruling clergy clearly show men who know that the fundamentals of the Islamic Republic, especially the all-critical need to regenerate revolutionary loyalty, aren’t working. They see this internal collapse as evidence of baleful Western intrusion. Evil may have—may always have—the upper hand. This gloomy perspective isn’t uncommon in Islamic history, in both the Shiite and Sunni traditions. It isn’t that dissimilar to the Christian views of the enduring ethical frailty of man. This distrust of human aspirations is a significant factor in why the regime is so resistant to democracy—even on a provincial or city level—having any force within the society. And as the moral collapse spreads, this sense of righteousness intensifies.
Former president Hassan Rouhani, a favorite “moderate” of many Westerners, was probably the last gasp of the “technocratic” class who believed the revolution could be fortified through importing an Islamized Chinese model: greater trade with Europe would make the regime and the faith richer and more powerful. Khamenei has been willing to indulge this gamble, at least half-heartedly, but his tolerance for the bet may be declining as popular disgust with the theocracy becomes blatant. His fondness for a “resistance economy” springs directly from his trepidation that contact with the West, even through limited commercial relations that are obviously in Iran’s economic interests, carries considerable risk.
Self-awareness about the theocracy’s weaknesses has actually been one of the clerical regime’s strengths: Tehran’s internal assessments are often quite honest—once one gets beyond the anti-American and anti-Zionist conspiracies. The Islamic Republic is certainly cognizant of its own corruption. Official conversations about malversation, and other forms of graft, that leak out can be damning, if surreal (most of those who are dissecting corruption are likely thoroughly corrupt themselves).
The security services are also aware that ever-increasing slices of the population are willing to take to the streets to express their anger. And the persistence of these protests reflects that the public’s fear of the regime ebbs and flows; since 2009, when the massive Green Movement demonstrations broke out in Tehran, it’s been more ebb despite increasingly brutal tactics used on demonstrators.
The regime hasn’t by any means lost control of internal security—the savagery displayed in quelling the fuel-price protests of 2019 worked. However, neither the regime nor average Iranians would be surprised if some unforeseen catalyst led to new convulsions. The regime seems to understand that the situation may have become permanently unstable.
Yet Western official commentary and policies on Iran rarely dwell on the instability and the theocracy’s weaknesses. Democrats, and a lot of Republicans, are more or less frozen in amber: they get to the bomb and arms control and stop. They, understandably, approach with trepidation advocacy of democracy and human rights for fear that some form of American intervention might follow—scars left over from the past two decades feel fresh. Western liberals and leftists, anxious about being tough with anti-American third-world regimes, have an especially difficult time with Iran, where America’s sins have supposedly been so pivotal and egregious. It’s near gospel that the CIA-supported 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq created the conditions for the Islamic revolution twenty-six years later. Ben Affleck’s fine film, Argo, nicely captures this guilt in its animated introduction, which puts the blame for the revolution on America and Langley (before good CIA officers rescue the hostages). Helping black South Africans against white South Africans, Eastern Europeans against Soviet tyrants, and Ukrainians against Vladimir Putin are all much easier to contemplate and affect than imagining Washington aiding Iranians against a virulently anti-American Shiite theocracy. With Iran, in the eyes of most on the Left—and many on the Right, too—America can’t help but cock things up.
This fear of American escalation leads to consistent tolerance of bad Iranian behavior. The worst Iranian terrorist attacks against the United States have all gone unanswered. The defining blast—the Beirut barrack bombing in 1983—killed 241 Americans. Intercepts at the time and later writings by Iran’s ambassador in Syria, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi-pur, and the theocracy’s majordomo, Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, showed the clerical regime to be proudly culpable. Although Secretary of State George Shultz strongly advocated for a military response, Ronald Reagan declined. A few years later, Reagan was trading arms for hostages. Iranian “moderates” were, somehow, being reinforced by this exchange.
Likewise, nothing followed the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, which killed nineteen Air Force servicemen and injured 495 people. In 1997, the reformist president Mohammad Khatami unexpectedly won the presidential election. Any serious interest in holding Iran accountable—and there was zero doubt about Iran’s culpability by the time George W. Bush came into office—petered out, replaced by a desire to engage the Islamic Republic. For many, Thermidor had arrived with Khatami—forceful American actions might have derailed him. Such was not to be: Khamenei, with Rafsanjani’s and Rouhani’s support, effectively gutted Khatami’s presidency in 1999.
Remembering 1953 and the shah, Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright started a foreign policy rhetorically built on American apologia. This hopefulness about Iranian possibilities probably became most surreal in early 2006, when Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and her primary Iran advisor, Nicholas Burns, now ambassador to China, were dreaming of reestablishing some sort of official presence inside the country—six months after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Islamic Republic’s first populist president, had won election. Ahmadinejad, who loved to torment wealthy clerics and express his fondness for a distinctly anti-clerical strain of mystical Shiism, signaled many things about the evolution of the Islamic revolution—growing affection for the normalization of relations with the United States, however, was not one of them.
Speculation about a new, more pragmatic Iran, the one that supposedly helped us in Afghanistan against the Taliban, was finally dashed in Iraq when Tehran went gunning for U.S. soldiers. The Bush administration had detailed information about where the Quds Force overlord, Qasem Soleimani, was training militant Shiite Iraqis to kill Americans. These preparations even included the construction of mock U.S. facilities. Hundreds of Americans died in Iraq as a result of nefarious Iranian actions. Yet Bush, the “axis of evil” president, never retaliated. It appears the White House and the Joint Chiefs feared escalation.
With the Biden administration’s sporadic nuclear talks in Vienna, we don’t know yet whether the idealism-cum-left-wing realism of the Obama administration towards Tehran has played any part in a diplomacy of increasing American concessions. In 2009, Barack Obama thought that he just might be able to diminish, if not halt, the antagonism between America and Iran. A retrenching United States, led by a “post-Western” president who sometimes liked to emphasize his Muslim middle name, wouldn’t be a threat to the Islamic Republic; lots of trade after a nuclear deal would help reward Tehran’s “moderates,” inshallah bringing on Thermidor before the sunset clauses in Obama’s accord gave the theocracy an industrial-scale, weapons-grade, nuclear infrastructure.
Biden and his advisors, who once bought into Obama’s promise, may now be the first administration to not hold out hope that Iran might change. Khamenei and Raisi may have ended the four-decade search for “moderates” that started with Jimmy Carter. Befitting an administration whose senior officials recoil when their European counterparts liken them to their earlier versions in the Obama years, an agreement in Vienna will be much more mundane: a way—a bit more time—for the United States to accommodate itself to the nuclearization of the theocracy.
If Thermidor ever arrives, so much the better.