Ray Takeyh, the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, discusses protests and counterprotests in Iran, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the national program and outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, www.CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.
We’re delighted to have Ray Takeyh with us to talk about Iran. Ray Takeyh is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle East studies at CFR. His areas of specialization are Iran, Islam in the Middle East, and Islamist movements and political parties. Prior to coming to CFR, Dr. Takeyh was senior advisor on Iran at the State Department, and was previously a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He’s the co-author of the 2016 book, The Pragmatic Superpower: Winning the Cold War in the Middle East, and the author of three other books on Iran and U.S. policy in the Middle East. He’s written more than 250 articles and opinion pieces for news outlets including Foreign Affairs, the New York Times and the Washington Post. And he has testified more than twenty times before various congressional committees, as well as appearing on major outlets across the country.
Ray, thanks very much for being with us today. I thought we could just start off by you giving us your thoughts and an analysis on the protests that have just occurred and the ensuing counterprotests in Iran.
TAKEYH: Sure. Thanks for having me here today.
Well, I think these protests were unusual for a number of reasons. I should start by saying that in these thirty years it’s been in power, the Islamic Republic has faced a wide variety of protests movements. So it’s always been sort of a turbulent history. In the ’80s, of course, it was purging the revolutionary coalition with secular and liberals moving out. In the 1990s, you had the student riot of 1999. You have the Green riots and revolution of 2009. And finally, these particular demonstrations that took place in late December and persisted for a week. And in between these kind of major convulsions, you have had minor protests. For instance, just in the month of November, there were protests in Tehran that didn’t get much attention, certainly not as much as these other protests that kickstarted in the city of Mashhad on December 28, I believe.
But these protests are still unusual for a number of reasons, in contrast to the previous social movements in the Islamic Republic. Number one, they had no proximate cause. The 1999 student riot was provoked by the closure of a reformist newspaper, a liberal newspaper. The 2009 Green uprisings were, of course, over a fraudulent president election. There was no specific trigger points to these. I suppose there were general trigger points, in the sense that an austerity budget had been introduced and made some cuts in subsidies, but that was not the first time that Iran had adjusted its subsidies on some basic stuff, such as fuel, food, and so on.
The second thing that was interesting about these particular protests is they began outside Tehran as opposed to previous ones where Tehran has been the epicenter of the political order. Approximately 15 percent of Iranians live in Tehran. So this began on the outside. Not necessarily in villages and so on and small places, as sometimes suggested. The city of Mashhad is the second-largest city in Tehran—in Iran. What am I saying? So it began outside and moved in.
The second aspect that’s a little bit different is how quickly the slogans went from economic distress to denunciation of the regime and calling for its toppling. In the Green uprisings, it took about four or five days before you get to death to the supreme leader. In this case, it took several hours. And the other thing that was surprising was the contagion effect, of how soon they spread to over twenty, thirty cities, despite the fact that there didn’t seem to be an organizational structure behind it. So you had these spontaneous manifestations of demonstrations from one place to another. Some of that has to do with the fact that social media has become much more pervasive in Iran than it had been in the 2009 uprisings. Some of it just has to do with perhaps there is some sort of a subversive organization that we are not aware of.
And finally, the character of these demonstrations and the complexion of it, I would say, has to worry the regime, because they came from the sort of the lower-class, working-class elements. That has been the mainstay of the regime. The revolution was conducted in the name of the working classes. And the regime had always thought about that category of people as its normal constituents. It had lost the legitimacy of the middle class, the upper classes, who were frustrated by a lack of political opportunity and some of the cultural restrictions. But it always identified the lower class, the working class, the traditional classes as the sort of pristine revolutionaries who still had faith with the Islamic Republic.
So the fact that these demonstrations took place in that specific class of people must have been very unsettling for the regime, because that was considered to be its remaining constituency, and a constituency that it had tried to cultivate through social welfare programs and privileged access to institutions. Social welfare programs being health care that’s accessible, free education subsidy as was mentioned, and also sort of affirmative action access to institutions such as—you know, a privileged access to universities and so forth, trying to create opportunities for this class. A lot of money has been spent in Iran in urban areas in terms of housing and sort of wage stabilization and subsidies. So the fact that this happened among that class is quite unsettling for the regime.
And the fact that the regime seemed hesitant about how to suppress these demonstrations, simply because if you look at the Revolutionary Guards who would usually be invested with repressing such uprisings, there was a commonality between the protesters and the conscripts. Previously, you could get a conscript from kind of a lower-class background to beat up a middle-class university student. In this particular case, there was a lot more tying the conscripts and the protesters together. They were from the same social class, same cultural values, same sort of outlook, same sort of upbringing, same sort of neighborhoods.
So the regime was hesitant to deploy the Revolutionary Guards, and actually tried to rely as much as possible on law enforcement, on their professional police, and hoped that the demonstrations would kind of peter out. Had it deployed in large measures these Revolutionary Guards, and they had been unwilling to discharge their obligation, then I think the regime would have been in even more trouble because its coercive power would have become demystified.
So, you know, this is a not entirely new dimension in Iranian politics, but sort of a twist to it that causes the regime to be concerned. There are fissures within the elite that have yet to be healed. The president and the supreme leader seem to be on different tracks about speaking about this issue. And those fissures, if unmended, are likely to provoke further uprising.
So I would say that, looking in the future, the Islamic Republic is facing an uneasy path ahead, and turbulence is likely to be the conditions it will encounter. How it will try to address all this remains to be seen. I suspect it will once again revamp its security services, as it did in the aftermath of 2009. They have already talked about essentially not really imposing the budget cuts that they talked about on some basic goods and services. But at this particular point, this must be a very rude wake-up call for a regime that thought it had survived the 2009 uprisings and was—had some measure of stability as it—as it was looking to its neighborhood and international community, and so on.
And I’ll stop there.
FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you very much, Ray. Let’s open it up now to questions and comments from the group.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our first question will be from Homi Gandhi with Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America.
GANDHI: Hello. Good afternoon. Thank you very much for enlightening the association between the latest events which have taken place in Iran since the—since this current regime has taken shape in Iran. My question is, what is the current status of it and how do you see it playing out in the future?
TAKEYH: What is the current status of the regime, is that the question? And—
GANDHI: Current status of the—current status of the regime, yes, and how they are handling it and what is going to happen in the future.
TAKEYH: Well, yes. The current—as I said, the regime must be unsettled by what it faces. And it has been hesitant to use the security force for reasons, in my opinion, of their concern about their reliability. And so they have to kind of deal with the fact that increasingly in the future they may encounter social protest movements that are more difficult to put down with kind of sheer force. This is not to suggest that the regime doesn’t have substantial coercive power. But it is concerned about, you know, you give someone a gun, who’s he going to shoot? And the other thing is, is the persistent fissures within the elites. That’s not a good place for elites.
So usually in circumstances such as this, the Islamic Republic officials tend to close rank. Increasingly, that’s not happening. In 2009 Green movement uproar, you didn’t see the regime closing rank. The factionalism persisted. And actually, that led to the purging of the Islamic left as sort of the reformists from the—sort of the corridors of power. And what was left after 2009 was the center and the right, the two political tendencies. Even today, they’re still not closing rank behind the same narrative of what happened. For the conservative press, this is another act of sedition conspired by foreign powers. President Rouhani, on the other hand, is kind of talking gingerly about the need to address some of the social grievances. So if that kind of space between the elites remains, then that creates a further opportunity for protest movements.
The future of the Islamic Republic? My guess is that the Islamic Republic is a revolutionary regime that was born in the century of so many other revolutionary regimes, the twentieth century. And it’s—it has managed to last thirty-eight years, but I don’t think its future is a short one. I do think at some point we will get to the post-Islamic Republic period. I can’t tell you specifically how that will happen, but I think today whatever the longevity of the state may be, the regime may be, these events have somewhat lessened it.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will be from Timothy Mallard with the Pentagon.
MALLARD: Dr. Takeyh, good afternoon. Thank you very much for your survey and summary of the recent protests. What I’d like to ask you is how do Iranian competitors and allies within the broader Middle East, particularly the Saudis, view this series of uprisings? And then how do they react to it in their geopolitical relations with Iran and the region? Thank you.
TAKEYH: Yes, thanks. That’s an interesting question. And I think there are several ways that this can be viewed. As I think the question implied, there has been an ongoing rivalry in the region between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It’s a sectarian one and is also one for power throughout the region. This is a conflict and a rivalry that’s playing itself out, of course, most notably in Syria, but also in Iraq, Lebanon, obviously in Yemen, and even in the Gulf states.
I think as the Saudis are looking at Iran, they’re somewhat taking some measure of pleasure that Iranian regime is once again beset by domestic difficulties. Yet, at the same time, I think they have to be concerned about people power, and whether this could have a contagion effect beyond Iran’s borders into other areas. You have a kind of a unique situation at this particular point between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government, as everybody knows, is involved in very ambitious effort to reform itself, to reform its economy, to reform its policy, and politics. Whether that reform movement succeeds or not remains or not remains to be seen. Most reform movements tend to fail. But there is an attempt by the Saudis to renegotiate their domestic national compact.
You don’t see a similar effort at this particular point in Iran. So, in a strange sort of a way, Saudi Arabia seems to be more reformist than the Islamic Republic at this point. And that is strange because Iran actually has mature politics. There are—it has institutions, it has a parliament, it has local municipalities that are, you know, to some extent subject of some kind of an electoral scrutiny. So Saudi Arabia starts with a much lower bar in terms of mature politics than Iran does. But it seems to be more enterprising in reconsidering its national compact than some of the Iranian hardliners. So that’s essentially an interesting thing.
However, I don’t think the events of the past week will fundamentally change Iran’s foreign policy or the resources that is devoted to its imperial mission. That’s part of the revolution of self-image. There was always the revolution without borders. So they’re kind of invested in a foreign policy of adventurism. So in one sense, the Iranian challenge remains constant for the Saudis and other regional competitors. In another sense, they perhaps can take some solace from the fact that the regime does seem to have a domestic Achilles heel. And that may actually further retard its ability to project power abroad at some point.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will be from John Chane with Washington National Cathedral.
CHANE: Thank you, Dr. Takeyh. I appreciate your presentation and your—and your writing over these years that I’ve been exposed to them.
And I just wanted to offer an observation which would have a question. Since my visitations and work from 2005 until 2017 in Iran, it has become clear that there’s also an emerging split within the clerical ranks within the country. Now, it’s not a split that one would identify here in this country as having any significance. And yet, the people that I’ve been engaged with over the years, many years, would be very clearly in a position of change and still very loyal, of course, to the leader and to the Republic. Yet, at the same time, really challenging within themselves and within their own groupings the future of the country based on its revolutionary principles. I wondered if you had anything to offer about that? I think I just returned in 2016—in late 2016 and noticed it even more in meetings in Tehran with the CID and outside of Tehran, in Qom in particular.
TAKEYH: Yes. The only thing I can add to that is an affirmative one. I think that’s correct. There is a quandary that many face in the clerical establishment in particular, because they recognize that being implicated in political power does have consequences, does have corrupting influences. One of the problems of the theocratic regime is corruption, and that’s particularly galling in a government that, at least in some ways, tends to base its power on ethical principles, divine principles. So there is a recognition that kind of intermingling faith and politics has damaged the religion—the religious sector itself. I mean, you see this in sort of mosque attendance, that seems to be down. You see this in attempts to recruit for members of the clergy, where most people—most young men do not aspire to that position now, as opposed to maybe at the outset of the revolution when there were high hopes for the Islamic Republic.
So those who are the guardians of the clerical estate must be very concerned about what happens to religion, the vitality of religious institutions, the seminaries and so on. And there is no good way forward. And I think that’s another quandary that people face. So long as you’re in this type of a regime and this type of government, there is a connection between the seminary and the state, even though that connection tends to be disadvantageous for the seminary. It’s how do you divest yourself of it? That’s a very difficult thing. And I think that has sparked even more divisions within the clerical community.
There was always some divisions there, even at the outset of the revolution. Many of the more senior members of the clerical class were dubious of the notion that you should have a sort of the ayatollah in charge of the regime, were dubious of this direct assumption of power. This doesn’t mean they didn’t think that religion should inform public policy, not by any stretch of imagination. But the idea of direct assumption of power by members of the priestly class is something that agitated many people who feared exactly what has happened, that such monopoly of political power has caused the regime—the official religion of the state to lose adherents. Iran is becoming rapidly a secular society governed by a religious state. And that is not something that I think many people in the clerical community look forward to. But I also don’t know if they have a path out of it.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will be from Satpal Singh with State University of New York at Buffalo.
SINGH: Hi. Thanks for taking my question, and also thanks for your excellent summary of what’s happening.
You offered a number of contrasts with respect to the current protest and the previous ones—things like there being no prominent precipitating factors outside Tehran but, again, spreading very rapidly and more spontaneously, and also, you know, these protests—these protests being started with lower class, working class. Do these differences offer any insights into possibly prognostics in the coming months and years that may be different from those of previous protests? For example, does it offer any insights into the challenges of strengthening reformist approach and, you know, such differences?
TAKEYH: Well, I think one way of looking at these latest protests is to not see them as episodes—both 1999 and 2009 and 2018 as individual episodes—but to see them as part of a continuum. And at each of those points on that continuum, the regime loses a certain constituency. You can say in 1999, they lost the youth, the young people, with the student riots. In 2009, they lost sort of the urban professional-class and middle-class elements that were concerned not just about political rights, but also about their diminishing prospects. And in 2018, they lost, or is losing, another constituency, the working class. So if you kind of see demonstrations as points along a continuum, what you notice is the regime’s support base diminishing, exhausting itself. And I think that’s probably a better way of looking at it.
And so the prognosis for the regime is dire. I mean, right now, if this estimate is correct, it is a regime that propagates an ideology that is unconvincing to many, and predicates its power on security services that in times of tension could prove unreliable. And I don’t know if the Islamic Republic can go backwards, because it’s proven itself over the past thirty-eight years incapable of reform. Now, that’s not unique to the Islamic Republic, I should say. We in the United States always advise other governments to reform, but most reform efforts in history have failed. Probably from the 1950s onwards, there wasn’t a day when the Soviet Union didn’t have a reform agenda. There was also not a day when it had a successful reform agenda. I’m skeptical whether the Saudi reform agenda will work.
And so Iran in that sense is a routine state, a country that’s incapable of reforming itself. And even you see some of that in Western economies and democracies, with the sort of wage discrepancies and so on that they seem unable to mitigate, and the concerns and the class cleavages that you begin to see in Western democracies. So in a sense, it’s a problem that’s universal. But when it applies specific to the Islamic Republic, it’s quite daunting.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Shoshana Smolen with Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights.
SMOLEN: Hi. Thank you so much. I was hoping you might be able to address the role of religious minorities in the recent demonstrations? They seem to have largely taken place in ethnic minority areas, but there hasn’t seemed to be large representation of the religious minorities. So I’m eager to hear your comments on that.
TAKEYH: Yes, that’s true. That’s a point that I was remiss in not bringing up. When you look at these protests, they operate at two levels. So one is sort of the macroeconomic concerns regarding inflation and the problem of budgetary imbalances and so on. But at the second level, in many ways, these macroeconomic factors tend to marry with local grievances. As was mentioned, in some cases those local grievances are essentially ethnic, in places like Lorestan or Baluchistan or so on, where you have Kurdish populations and so on. So you had essentially some measure of ethnic grievances that are locally generated being married to this theme of national macroeconomic distress.
In some cases, you have had a series of natural disasters in Iran, and the government response to them has been particularly inadequate. For instance, in Kermanshah, where there has been some earthquakes. And one thing that was revealed as a result of subsequent studies is, for instance, the building codes were so deficient because, you know, the landlords bribed the inspectors. And consequently, those buildings became more vulnerable to natural disasters than they otherwise would have been. And in the aftermath of the earthquake, the central government was very tardy in terms of providing assistance. Some of that has to do with corruption, some of it with mismanagement, some of it with inefficiency. So it is quite true, as you suggested, that there were many local grievances and local agitations that were married up to this larger theme of economic distress.
And one of the most important grievance that emerged in this protest is the level of ethnic alienation. This is—Iran is, of course, a country of multiple ethnicities and even some religious minorities, particularly Sunnis in its Kurdistan area or some remaining Jewish and Christian populations, Zoroastrians. So it’s kind of a tapestry. And many elements of that tapestry don’t seem to fit into the same pattern today.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will be from Malcom Russell with Union College.
RUSSELL: Hello. This is Union College. Dr. Russell is here and also Christopher Banks, who represents the International Relations Department here at Union College.
Dr. Takeyh, it’s a pleasure. I was an intern at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy when you were there. We had a couple of great discussions. It is a pleasure reconnecting with you today.
TAKEYH: Thank you.
RUSSELL: The basic question we have on our side, wage discrepancies among the bazaaris, and a lack of constant capital supply that may be—if you could speak to this—that may be affecting the historical alliance between the regime and the bazaari class. Do you see any issues, any cracks in the historical alliance between the ulama and the bazaaris in these recent protests?
TAKEYH: It was certainly that union that you’ve talked about between the clerical community and the merchant class in the bazaars that became the backbone of the 1979 revolution, because at that time the Iranian economy was still modernizing and essentially it was bifurcated. You have the shah attempting to have new enterprises and new industries, and bazaar maintaining its traditional role in terms of export/imports, and even they’re sort of a—as a sort of a banking resource, currency exchange, and so forth. What has happened during the tenure of the Islamic Republic is I think bazaar, writ large, have largely—not entirely, but somewhat largely—diminished their autonomy.
Some of that has to do with the fact that Iran waged an eight-year war with Iraq, where some of everything was nationalized. And the state began to issue larger and larger control over private enterprise in terms of regulation, in terms of appropriation. So bazaar today does not have the same autonomy and the same financial reserves that it did before, where it can act independently of the state. It is sort of implicated in the commerce of the country in a way that it had not—integrated into the commerce of the country that it had not been before. So in the 1979 revolution, what we saw is following the protests you had a variety of bazaar closures that essentially became very important. And, of course, the financial largess of the bazaar was important for sustaining some of the demonstrations.
That seems to be less the case. We’ll see what happens if these protests eventually result in industrial strikes. That’s usually one of the last things that happens. They have not done so yet. And the regime may be able to handle the strikes better than the shah’s government did, which was essentially not do anything about it other than detain the strikers. So I don’t think the same configuration that was evident in ’79 is going to replicate itself. This Iranian revolution, should it come, will look different. And I think we’ll study its causes and its institutional alignments afterwards. I don’t know if it’s possible to predict it ahead of time.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Jake Bennett with Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix.
BENNETT: Hi. Thank you for your talk.
My question is—I was wondering if there’s any indication from the—from the protesters that they have a different attitude than the regime towards the—towards the jihad, against the state of Israel, or towards the development of nuclear weapons, and the threats that the regime has made against the state of Israel.
TAKEYH: There were some signs regarding the regime’s foreign policy, but they tend to have been protests about its involvement in the Syrian civil war, the subsidization of Hezbollah, and its activities beyond its borders that were costing financial resources—draining the country’s financial resources. I’m not aware—that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there—but I’m not aware of specific slogans rejecting the enmity of the regime towards the state of Israel. But I would say it’s general foreign policy, revisionist foreign policy that involves itself in regional conflicts that make less and less sense for the average Iranian citizen—that certainly came across in these particular demonstrations.
Now, you can make a case that Iran’s hostility towards Israel has largely been self-defeating for Iran, and has imposed costs on it which are not commiserated with any sort of a benefit. So you can make that case. And therefore, the general indictment of the Iranian foreign policy that you saw in the protests may implicitly apply to the regime’s rejectionist stance and bellicosity towards the state of Israel as well. But that’s reading between the lines. I didn’t see anything specific as to your question.
BENNETT: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question will be from John Chane with Washington National Cathedral.
CHANE: Thank you very much. I’m sorry to ask another question, but I also wanted to ask you, Dr. Takeyh, about the survivability of President Rouhani, and especially Foreign Minister Zarif during this particular time of what seems to be another transitioning in the Republic. How important that is or isn’t. And if the survivability is not really a given, what would happen if they left or were removed from office in some way, shape, or form, to the Republic and its relationship with the United States and others?
TAKEYH: Well, I would draw a certain distinction between survivability and continuing in office, and between President Rouhani and Minister Zarif. I do think the presidency of President Rouhani has ended, in a sense, the way the presidency of President Mohammad Khatami ended with the student riots. That he didn’t vacate the office, but he became ineffective afterwards. And even President Ahmadinejad after 2009 riots was never able to recapture his standing and become an important player in the Islamic Republic. I think there is a risk of that for President Rouhani. He will not—I don’t think his office—he will vacate the office or be removed from it. But I do think he has become a less consequential player today because, once again, a third Iranian presidency was beset by the riots it did not anticipate and lost influence as a result of that particular misjudgment. So I do think that that is the case.
I do think Foreign Minister Zarif has his own independent relationship with the supreme leader that’s actually quite good. The supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, appreciates that he is a gifted diplomat and he has a good representation of Iran’s case abroad, and he does appreciate these talents and these resources that Foreign Minister Zarif offers. So I don’t think any of them—either of them will be removed. I think President Rouhani lost more in these particular riots than Foreign Minister Zarif, who’s—and at the end of the day is a Cabinet minister. He’s not—he’s not the president or a person with decision-making over the entire national affairs. So, but I—you know, I do think that whole case that they had made, mainly that by transacting an arms control agreement Iran’s problems could be mitigated, that has obviously come under scrutiny if not questioned. But I would say they have—especially in this case I’m speaking more about President Rouhani—has lost considerable influence and has been much deflated in the aftermath of these riots. And, like his predecessors, I don’t think he can recover.
CHANE: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Ray, let me jump in here and ask you to talk about the future of reform movements in Iran which seek to harmonize Islamic injunctions with democratic norms.
TAKEYH: Oh, I think that’s over. (Laughs.) I don’t think that the reform enterprise can work anymore in Iran today. And that, frankly, it hasn’t worked for a very long time. Really, that’s an episode of attempting to reform the system to make the religious system electorally viable. That was really a reformist enterprise that formally ended in 2005 when President Khatami left office, but I think informally ended in 1999 when it provoked the student riots that greatly concerned the regime.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Other questions?
OPERATOR: We’re showing no further questions in the queue at this time.
FASKIANOS: And then I guess the final one, as we wait for people to queue up or we can end early, is to talk about the religious freedom in Iran. What conditions do non-Shia Muslims face there in their daily life?
TAKEYH: Well, there are some differences here. And all religious minorities in some ways are second-class citizens. Those who are what you would call people of the book, recognized by the prophet by the sort of religious divine orders in their own rights—Christianity and Judaism—they tend to be recognized religious minorities. You know, they have their own parliamentary member. I think each delegation gets one. As are Zoroastrians. But nevertheless, I think they’re all—even they are subject, obviously, to much state discrimination in terms of what they can do and they cannot do.
Now, then you have those—the religion particularly when you talk about Baha’is, which the Islamic Republic kind of views as apostates, and they tend to be heavily persecuted. And that was always the case, even during the shah’s tenure. The clerical community was often pressing the monarchy toward persecution of the Baha’is. So I suspect that’s sort of—that sort of a strand that is viewed as heresy will continue to be prosecuted. But, you know, as the domestic atmosphere in Iran radicalizes, and as the regime becomes more beleaguered, I suspect all its discriminatory policies become more, not less, acute.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Yes, we do have another question from Kian Tajbakhsh with Columbia University.
TAJBAKHSH: Good afternoon. And thank you for being here and providing your analysis.
I had a question about a point you made at the beginning of your presentation about the proximate cause. In other words, what might have triggered these recent protests. There is a suggestion that in Rouhani’s recent budget speech he made a few somewhat kind of critical comments about the possibility of behind the scenes corruption or the fact that his government was being lobbied by people. And that some have suggested that this kind of discourse, this kind of exposing of potential corruption was one of the factors that could have brought people to come to the street. I’d like to ask you how significant you think or how accurate you think this kind of assessment is in this particular case, notwithstanding, of course, there are very longstanding grievances in Iran. But do you think that there’s any truth to this particular analysis?
And secondly, looking beyond that, how do you assess—I mean, if you—if you see any truth to this, how do you assess the potential for this kind of discourse—that is to say, opposing corruption in mobilizing public sentiment for greater reform in Iran in the future, either by people from inside the country or outside? Thank you.
TAKEYH: Sure. Thanks. That’s a very important question. I do—I mean, President Rouhani has continued to speak, to some extent, about this issue. He recently, I think a day or two ago, mentioned that, you know, even as president he doesn’t control two-thirds of the national budget. So he has continued to make those assertions. And the recent budget, as you suggested, some of the appropriations for the security services and the religious foundations was highlighted and exposed, the way it has previously not been. And that’s further proved galling for many in the population, I suppose.
But I would essentially suggest that this is a larger issue, in a sense that in his reelection campaign that President Rouhani ran—a very subversive presidential campaign—he did talk about corruption during his campaign. He talked about human rights charter. He talked about appointing three women to the ministry positions. None of that has happened. So, essentially, he invited a certain criticism of the state as a means of mobilizing support on behalf of his reelection campaign. And that essentially may have generated a spirit of discontent, which has been nurtured by other comments, and so on.
The problem for President Rouhani is he is part of the ruling regime, he is implicated in all its decisions, he has been a member of the parliament and member of the national security establishment ever since, and now he is president as well. So it’s very hard for him to at the same—at the same time be a critic of the state and also one of the stalwarts. And that is a line that he has been trying to walk. And it’s a precarious one for President Rouhani, as I think he has found out, and it’s precarious with the regime, because it essentially invites public disaffection but it doesn’t undertake reforms to mitigate that disaffection. So it just stimulates dissent.
It’s sort of cynical for—I think President Rouhani says a lot of these things in order to refurbish his support base. But he has no follow through. Whether that’s by intention or design, I’m not sure. But it is a—it is a subversive strategy that has had some parochial advantages for the president, but has come at the expense of the regime’s legitimacy, as was suggested. And further exposition of this corruption, which is substantial and drowning, is likely to be—to be further disadvantage for it. So I think President Rouhani probably intends to maintain his rhetoric along those lines because it serves his personal purposes. But I think that’s a problem for the state.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Yuri Mantilla with Liberty University.
MANTILLA: Yes. Thank you. Thank you very much about your wonderful explanation about the situation in Iran.
My question is related about the influence of these increasing contradictions inside Iran, the different political forces in Iran, and Iran’s foreign policy towards Latin America. According to some analysts, there is a deep relation between Iran and Venezuela, and other countries. And Iran has been trying for years now to have a more strategic and geopolitical intervention in Latin American countries. How do you see the current political context in Iran regarding its foreign policy towards Latin American countries?
TAKEYH: I don’t think that’s an area of sort of immediate concern. I think to some extent Iran’s approach to Latin American countries, and others like Cuba, was part of President Ahmadinejad’s sort of foreign policy platform, in which he was essentially suggesting that he’s part of a community of nonaligned countries that are nevertheless antagonistic to the West and subject to American antagonism because of their autonomy and their defiance of the West. So in many ways, he invested a great deal in this with Chavez in particular, but also with Castro, Morales, and so on.
I think that’s less of a priority for President Rouhani, who essentially tried to have a policy that looked to—primarily to Europe. When he came into power essentially he identified Europe and the need to mend fences with European states as a means of obtaining foreign investments, and commerce, and so forth. So he had a more—I guess a European orientation as opposed to a nonaligned orientation. He didn’t see himself as part of the new generation, as President Ahmadinejad did. In that sense, President Rouhani was more in line with traditional Islamic Republic’s foreign policy, because there have been some strands in it.
There has been a talk by parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani about ten years ago about something he called an Eastern orientation—Eastern orientation being essentially Iran would have relationship with the Eastern countries, China, Russia. And less, essentially, dependent on Western trade. President Ahmadinejad had a similar slogan, but he added to it the notion of nonaligned countries, particularly in developing countries. And you mentioned Latin America. He also tried to foster similar relationships in Africa.
And present opening to the West—but the West that they talk about is primarily the European countries. And that’s why an arms control agreement was particularly important, because the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program had created—ruptured, actually, economic relationships between the European Union countries and the state of Iran. And I think in 2012, it was, or maybe 2011, the European countries—the European Union as a whole voted to stop purchasing Iranian oil and suspend other forms of commerce. So his priority has been most on what used to be called Western Europe.
MANTILLA: Ah, thank you. Thank you very much.
FASKIANOS: Well, you’ve really addressed President Rouhani. It would be great if you could also comment on the Ayatollah Khamenei and his supporters, their reactions to the recent unrest, and just their perspectives.
TAKEYH: Well, I think the leader has been unusually quiet about this. He has had a long-term dispute with President Rouhani on the direction of the economy, and what kind of an economic platform Iran should have. He has coined a phrase called economy of resistance, which essentially suggests that Iran should focus on developing its internal markets and also its regional markets. You know, Iraq, Central Asia, Afghanistan, as well as some of the eastern countries—East Asian countries and so on and essentially focus on that as opposed to taking a gamble with the Europeans and inviting European and Western commerce.
President Rouhani obviously has taken a different track. For Ali Khamenei, I think this would be an occasion to insist on his vision of economy being implemented. He has often been frustrated by his president. He was certainly frustrated with—well, actually every president that he has had. But he was frustrated by President Ahmadinejad over issues of economic planning. And he has kind of a view of Iran’s economy by the Iranian’s own internal resources, the notions of self-sufficiency and self-reliance are kind of big themes for him. And the lessons that he draws from the sanctions regime of the past decade, 2005 to 2015, is that Iran is particularly vulnerable to external pressures stimulated by Western powers that he distrusts, and whose enmity he believes is immutable.
So that vision of economy I think is likely to have a greater say now than the notion of opening up, at least, the European commerce and so forth. So that economic debate, and it’s been ongoing for a long time, it didn’t originate with the protests, may have a greater degree of leverage on the part of the leader and those who support that particular vision.
FASKIANOS: Great. And can we also talk about the younger generation? Because obviously that played a part in—or is playing a part in the ongoing protests. And what will they do as the younger generation sort of speaks out against—you know, on freedom, certain restricted lifestyles. And, you know, social media is obviously having an effect on lots of bigger communities. So what would you say to that?
TAKEYH: Well, as most developing countries, Iran is a young country, and somewhat the discontent of the youth you alleged to, I mean, the youth unemployment is quite high. I think it’s 20 to 30 percent. But also it’s important to recognize that average age in Iran today is thirty-one years old. So Iran is increasingly an aging population. Now, that invites another set of problems. For a long time we have talked about the youth bulge and the problems of the youth, both culture and economic. And that certainly has been the case. But increasingly, Iran is going to have a problem of dealing with elderly populations. Sort of the Japan problem, that it has to subsidize with diminishing workers. That’s kind of a different problem than the one you’re suggesting.
But in another ten years, in another five to ten years, I think Iran’s average age will become thirty-six years old. So increasingly, it is a country that’s aging. And we have to start talking about how the Islamic Republic, or whatever regime is in place, intends to deal with the problems of Social Security, health care, retirement, pensions. So far the regime has dealt, largely unsuccessfully, with the problems of youth problems, youth unemployment. Now, then it has to deal with the budgetary burdens of subsidizing a large number of people who are aging, and the problems that that particular set of issues represents. And that’s going to be even more of a challenge for the regime, or whatever successive regime is.
The problems of cultural alienation and that sort of a thing has been with the Islamic Republic for a while. The young people in the country have found enterprising ways around it. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not bothered by the cultural restrictions that are imposed. And that doesn’t mean they’re comfortable in a subterranean existence, which is actually quite lewd and licentious in some way. It’s one of the many dichotomies and ironies of the regime. You have a sort of Islamic Republic overseeing a subterranean youth culture that tends to be—tends to rival those of the Western capitals.
All these contradictions and all these parallels is, I think, essentially corrosive at the end of the day, because so many people have dual existences and dual identities in addition to all the problems about the economy and the corruption and so forth. At the end of the day, it became very difficult to create God’s government on Earth. And, you know, the regime never figured out how to do that. And that’s just the challenge that they face.
FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Well, Ray, thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today, and for everyone’s questions. I think you would all agree why Ray Takeyh is the leading expert on Iran. He published a piece in Politico last week that you might want to take a look at, “The Islamic Republic of Iran is Doomed.” And for further reading, he’s written two books on Iran, Guardians of the Revolution and Hidden Iran. And you can access them through Amazon or on the CFR website, his bio page. Ray, thanks again very much for doing this.
We also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events as well as information about the latest CFR resources. So thank you all, again, and we look forward to your continued participation in our discussions in 2018.
TAKEYH: Thank you.