Panelists discuss recent developments in Iran, including the ongoing protests and the government’s response, the future of the current regime, the country’s nuclear program, and how these factors influence U.S. policy.
AMOS: Thank you very much. I’d like to welcome all of you to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting,
“An Inside Look at Iran.” I’m Deborah Amos, and I’ll be presiding today’s discussion.
And now I’ll announce our distinguished speakers.
Ray Takeyh is a Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow for Middle East studies. He’s the author of The Last Shah: America, Iran, and the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty.
Sanam Vakil, deputy director and senior research fellow, Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House. Also a CFR member.
And Robin Wright, a distinguished scholar, U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center. Also a CFR member, as am I.
I want to start with this. It caught my attention last night because it was translated into English. And it’s by an exiled Iranian sociologist, Asef Bayat. He was quoted in Iran. It went viral as long as it was up. It was quickly censored. And he gave a definition of what we’ve all been watching over this protest. He talks about a new Iran being born. He says it is as though people are retrieving their ruined lives, perished youth, suppressed joy, and the simple, dignified existence that they have been denied. It’s a movement to reclaim life.
So I want to ask each one of you if that’s an apt description of what we’re watching. And does that tell us anything about how durable these protests are? I want to start with Sanam. And can you give us your impressions of that description?
VAKIL: Thank you, Deborah. And thank you to CFR for having me on this panel. Asaf Bayat is a scholar that I’ve long admired. And I think that he has finger on the pulse of a lot of the important social dynamics that have been mixing in Iran for many years. He’s been observing how everyday life is politics in the Islamic Republic. He has been, and through this latest interview that was actually online for a number of days in Iran before it was censored and removed, he I think has been able to articulate that these protests are unprecedented, because they’re bringing together so many different groups who are angry, motivated, and mobilizing.
And we haven’t seen these number of groups, ranging from students who had protested in 1999 but we haven’t seen them demonstrating this level of activism, young people. I mean, the average age of protesters is, as reported by the Iranian government, under the age of twenty-five. We’re also seeing labor groups coming out in protest, teachers striking over the treatment of students. We’re seeing ethnic groups—Balochis, Kurds coming out in protest. And of course, also women. And so it’s bringing together sort of nerve points for the regime that has tried to censor, has tried to repress these groups that have showed activism in the past. And I think the regime is really struggling going forward on how to manage and control this level of dissent. It has not experienced this in forty-three years.
WRIGHT: Thanks for having me on this panel. And I’m honored to be on with such distinguished voices.
This protest, this round of protests, is different than anything in the past, not just for Iran. This is the first time in human history that the issue of women’s freedom has been the flashpoint, the trigger, the spark for protests that spread nationwide. And so this is—you know, this resonates. In many ways I think Iranian women are braver than a lot of American women in terms of fighting for their rights. It’s different because this is a different generation. And it’s very striking. This is the Gen Z, people born between 1997 and 2012. They have a very different history than their parents and grandparents, who were part of the revolution in 1979, witnessed the Iran-Iraq War, lived with the aftermath of both the revolutionary upheaval, the post-war attempt to find some kind of material comfort after economic sanctions, food rationing, and so forth.
This is the first generation that hasn’t lived through that kind of hardship. And they feel more motivated. They’re bolder. But they’re also—the most interesting thing is they’re more educated. Under the shah, many traditional families let their girls go through elementary school but didn’t let them go for higher education because they didn’t trust the monarchy to keep them away from Western mores—makeup, miniskirts, et cetera. After the revolution, a lot of traditional families believed that the system was going to protect their girls, and today more than 60 percent of the university student body is female. And so you see a venue—first of all, they have the education to know what’s happening elsewhere in the world. They understand rights in the 21st century. They have—they’re on the campuses and in the schools where they can protest and take off their hijab and shoo away officials, and so forth. So this is different in a lot of important ways that resonate well beyond Iran.
AMOS: And Ray.
TAKEYH: Yeah. I agree, so I don’t want to be repetitious. I think any despotic regime relies on atomized opposition and a sense of fear to persist in power. Both of those factors have attenuated. You begin to see the social classes come together. This is not the first time Iran has had protests. Farmers protest over lack of water. Retirees over lack of benefits. Teachers about lack of pay. Young people about lack of opportunity. Women about cultural strictures. But now you begin to see all these strands of opposition come together on a simple and powerful slogan: woman, life, freedom. And so they’re actually subsuming their individual grievances in order to come together and embrace the other classes’ struggle.
You begin to see the regime hesitancy in terms of dealing with these protests. Its strategy of containment, which is selective violence, cutting off these demonstrations from one another and hoping they peter out has not worked, because they persist. Why are they hesitant? Because their security services are hesitant. That remains to be seen. There’s division within the elite—within the conservative elite. Usually, the conservative elite come together in times of crisis, whether it’s 2009, 2019, or 2017. So all these factors lead me to believe that this is different.
If you’re kind of looking at these two—opposition movement and the regime—as kind of sporting teams, the opposition has a higher ceiling than the regime. It has a greater opportunity to grow. This is as good as the Islamic Republic will get. This is the Islamic Republic state of art. So in that particular sense, if you were betting on one side or the other, the more prudent bet would be on the opposition.
AMOS: But let me ask you this, and it’s about this selective enforcement. You know, we’re all watching snapshots on Twitter. And you have to kind of figure out what to make of it. And I saw one maybe yesterday or the day before. It’s in a food court in a mall. And it doesn’t really say where it is. But you see the camera pans and there’s women sitting there eating their lunch calmly, with no headscarf on. And it made me wonder, you know, is there a moment where the regime actually does crack down? Do they have the capacity to bring more violence out onto the street? Because clearly, they are losing this game of what people are willing to do.
Any of you, Sanam, we can do the same rotation.
VAKIL: Sure. Yeah, I think that’s an interesting question. You know, I think we have to approach what’s happening in Iran with a degree of humility, because we’re all watching from the outside. And social media, of course amplifies. And I’m not trying to dismiss or reduce what’s happening, but oftentimes I find myself having—questioning what I’m seeing. Yes, there are women who are no longer wearing their headscarves all around Iran. And that’s very empowering and I’m excited for them. And I don’t think the regime is going to be able to get those headscarves back on.
And I think that the—you know, what Ray alluded to, the cleavages that seem to be emerging from within the political establishment might be between conservatives who think: Let’s just let these social restrictions go. We knew already that the younger generation wanted social freedom. Compared to hardliners, who really see the ideology and the Islamic ideology as key to the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. And they also very much fear that compromise is going to beget further compromise. So they worry about letting one thing go, and knowing that that might push the goalposts further out, and people might start demanding further. I do think the repressive capacity can get much worse. And there has been a gradual increase in violence.
And I’m suspecting—I hope I’m wrong—but I think that a harder crackdown is coming because we have seen them begin to be more violent in the Kurdish areas, in the Balochi areas. And with the recent attack at the shrine in Shiraz and the attribution of that attack to foreigners if not ISIS, you know, the regime could be building a narrative, and strengthening that narrative, that this is really being funded, and organized, and fomented from the outside.
AMOS: Can I just ask Robin, I want to go back to a point that Sanam made, which is, you know, this is one of the symbols of the Islamic Republic. But under Rouhani, people really flouted how you wore your hijab. You know, one bobby pin right at the back of your head. I saw women with, you know, fully made up, big, long nails, cinched in waists. And I thought, OK, that’s where we are now. And then it seemed to move backwards. Was there—is that part of what the rebellion is about? We had more freedoms and we lost them?
WRIGHT: Look, I’ve been seeing women with their wonderful bouffant hair wearing their scarves at the back of their head—God, always wondering how they managed to do it—since 1990. You know, this is—this is not something that’s brand-new.
Look, I’d make a couple of points. That when we look at this moment, the regime has maneuvered a hardline president into office. It was very interesting that for the first time the majority of Iranians did not vote in presidential elections last year. The regime knows that s transition is looming. The supreme leader is eighty-three years old. He suffered prostate cancer in 2014. I was told last month by a senior, senior, senior diplomat that he has very grave health problems again. And so there’s a moment that I think the stakes here for the regime are far bigger than whether it’s hijab, or women’s freedom. It’s really can they sustain the revolutionary dogma of forty-three years ago.
On the other side, the reality is that the revolution itself took fourteen months. It played out throughout 1978 into early ’79. The green movement, which inspired so many both at home and abroad went on from June 2009 until almost February 2010. And it led to Stalinesque trials and so forth. So the kind of enthusiasm, the momentum, the inspiration is—just knocks your socks off. But the reality is these things take a long time. And Iran still has the storm troopers and the tools to put down the protest. It has to figure out a way because these, you know, male thugs have a hard time, you know, manhandling a lot of young women. But there are already indications that it is willing to do that.
I think the protests are also kind of sporadic. This is not millions marching in unison down the streets of major cities, as in 2009. This is very different. And I think they vary. Some of them are short. Some of them are long. And so we’re in a different kind of rhythm this time.
AMOS: And, Ray, is there some danger to the regime from a bigger crackdown?
TAKEYH: Well, it’s very difficult to speculate about the repressive capacity of the regime. It is my opinion that if they could have repressed it, they would have. And the way they approach the ethnic enclaves is different than the way—you can always get Persian troops to kill Balochis. They’ve been doing it for a long time. The regime has a unique problem because its rhetoric is maximalist, but its conduct is actually more permissive. Those who are arrested are immediately released because the last thing you want to do is keep a sixteen-year-old in jail, and have her family come, and demonstrations begin, and so forth. So what is the—what is the—what is the deterrence of participating in a protest, which is self-fulfilling and affirmative, while the punitive aspect of it are little?
The regime uses violence, but not enough violence. They have killed two hundred people. So it’s enough to generate martyrs, but it is not enough to generate respect for its coercive capability. So long as the regime’s rhetoric is maximalist but its conduct is permissive, that gap between the two is called the credibility gap. And so long as that persists and widens, it essentially attenuates fear factor about participating in protests. The demonstrations are sporadic, as Robin suggested, but persistent. That means they actually exhaust the security forces, because every day, four or five times a day, you’re a conscript and you’re standing on the street corner. And if adolescent—fifteen-year-old cuts her hair and says “death to Khamenei,” what choice do you have in terms of dealing with that?
Second of all, the Iranian regime relies on a conscript army. The Revolutionary Guard’s hundred thousand foot soldiers, about sixty thousand of them are conscripts. You’re not a conscript forever. You’ve got to, at some point, go back to your home village. So what incentive do you have to kill a fourteen-year-old? Second of all, after the current conscripts go home, you want to recruit these young people? You give these young people a gun, who are they going to shoot? So the capacity of the regime to deal with this issue is likely to attenuate, not intensify, in my opinion.
AMOS: I wanted to ask all of you, I’ve seen so many comparisons to the Arab Spring. You know, some of the same things are true. It’s youth who are too young for the last time, the last crackdown. Certainly, in Syria, the one thing the regime got right is to educate everybody. Education was actually pretty good in Syria. But, you know, that’s not a great story to compare it to. You know, there is no success story in the Arab Spring. Do you think that that’s an apt comparison? And is there some concern that it ends in the same way?
Sanam? Or, Ray, go ahead.
TAKEYH: The comparison between the two is similar. The opposition has a lot of obstacles. Number one, it’s leaderless. And every revolution needs revolutionaries. If it cannot generate some kind of a leadership and some kind of a platform—the platform doesn’t have to be exhaustive—but that’s the obstacle that they confront. Now, as the social protest movement matures, the idea is it’ll generate its own leaders. And the Iranian society is a highly segmented one. The Persians love organizing themselves. They have trade unions, teachers’ unions, intellectual unions, writer unions, baker unions, you name it. So all those civil society groups have their own leaders. But that’s an obstacle. And it’s similar to Arab Spring in the sense that at this point those on the streets tend to be young, and the protest movement lacks identifiable leadership. That is an obstacle that they have to overcome if they’re going to succeed.
AMOS: And, Robin, have their parents come out yet? And is that sort of stage two?
WRIGHT: I think some of their parents are supportive. I think one of the important things to understand is what does it take to bring down a system, especially a utopian ideology? And I think it takes a lot more. You need the majority of people to support it, including the middle class. You need people who are willing to put their lives on the line. You need an economic situation where people feel they are not—the social contract has failed them and they’re willing to—they feel that they—you know, they want an alternative agreement with the government. They want a better exchange. The shah’s White Revolution, which failed, was one of the reasons that you saw the Islamic Revolution.
You need, you know, the kind of coming together of different sectors of society—the labor unions, all the things Ray pointed out. Labor unions, bazaaris, the military, and so forth. And you see some of that, some of that, now. But I’m not sure you see enough yet. It may be that the momentum builds. This could be the beginning of the end. I’m not sure that we’re at the end yet. And this is where I want everyone to be cautious.
The one thing I’d say to watch is the cycle of funerals. In Shia Islam, the last commemoration of a death is forty days after a funeral. And we saw that yesterday or the day before with the forty-day commemoration of Mahsa Amini’s death. And for the largest—as far as I know, the largest turnout in any single demonstration. Tens of thousands turned out at her hometown to honor her death. And the revolution in the 1978 and ’79 was generated by this forty-day cycle. The first martyrs and then forty days later another protest to commemorate, and then another clash that produced more martyrs and so forth. So this is the cycle. These are the kind of triggers that add momentum and depth and bring out a wider array of people.
AMOS: But, Sanam, all of those things—Sanam, sorry—all of those things that Robin has pointed out all happened in the Arab Spring. It was widespread. There were funerals. People got shot. They came out bigger. And yet, none of them succeeded. Do we have to be very cautious about—
VAKIL: I do think we—yes, sorry to interrupt. I do think we have to be cautious. And I sort of, you know, would like to bridge between what Ray is saying and Robin is saying as well. We have to approach this with caution, because the Iranian state is not—I mean, it relies on individuals, but it’s institutional. And the reason why it has lasted four decades, despite sanctions, containment, every effort to destabilize and promote or provoke dissent and unrest has been tried. And regime change is formally off the table, last I checked. So it’s survived because it’s institutionally based. It’s been bureaucratized.
And there is, in my opinion, and my understanding, and my conversations I have, a silent, middle-class majority that is watching and waiting. And that middle class, middle age middle class—and I think it’s important to remember how middle-aged people behave. Not with same sort of rebellious, rambunctious, throw caution into the wind sort of attitude that, you know, their children are behaving. They’re worried. They’re worried about their children dying. They’re worried about their livelihood. And the pressure is violent, but it also comes through surveillance, it comes through knocks on doors at night. It’s coming through taking away people’s livelihood.
And the prevalence of surveillance technology in Iran over the past twenty years has grown, and it, I think, has strengthened to a way that perhaps even ordinary Iranians were not aware. I have had so many conversations with people telling me they received late and night knocks on their doors, very friendly conversations, very respectful conversations, but everyone is watching everyone right now. And I think we have to be careful in sort of calling everyone out of the streets, or assuming that this is bigger than it is, just yet. It doesn’t mean it can’t get there, but we’re very much in the fog of it. And I would also say there are two other facets that are necessary to get there.
I mean, it did take the Iranian revolution from maybe 1963 or—I think based on Ray’s work, you know, Khomeini was—Khomeini was very much politicized from 1942. But if you want to take 1963 as a real big sort of launching pad to get us to 1979, where the clergy and then other networks started to build and mobilize and develop capacity. Leadership emerged over time. And I think in this context not having leadership is OK. Half of the potential leadership is in jail in Evin and other jails in Iran. So that’s one. Nd the regime is very good at castrating leadership and looking at potential leaders.
But, two, what is also missing—and an important component here—is that there’s been profound economic mismanagement and Iran is under sanctions. There is not a lot of liquidity flowing around in the Iranian economy to force the bazaar or day earners to go on strike. In 1974 and ’75, what mobilized those strike was money. And there isn’t the money floating around in Iran to pay people to stay home. And without that organizational capacity, or if it develops that could be a real game changer. But we’re just, I don’t think, there yet.
AMOS: So is there a possibility that the Iranian leadership says: Well, maybe reviving the 2015 nuclear deal is in our interest because we get some sanction relief, we get some cash into the system? Does it change the odds of that deal moving forward? Ray.
TAKEYH: Traditionally and historically when the Islamic Republic is distressed at home, it becomes truculent abroad. However, the way they have explained these demonstrations is that they are foreign motivated. And I think they believe it. And on four, five occasions in the past couple of weeks the Iranian officials have actually expressed interest and resumption of nuclear negotiations, because if you believe the source of this opposition is abroad, you try to neutralize it by launching a diplomatic process. I don’t think that diplomatic process is going to be conclusive, but I think they are interested in a process of having diplomacy, as a means of neutralizing the Islamist, American, British, Saudi, French intelligence uprisings within Iran.
I would say one thing about surveillance. Surveillance is information. There’s files behind me of shah’s secret police surveillance. They knew everything that everybody was doing at all times. In the mosque, outside the mosque, in your home, outside the home. No intelligence agency had penetrated the society more than Stasi in East Germany. Somebody tell me where East German state is today. So all surveillance is is intelligence, is how you use that intelligence. I don’t know how this system functions today. It is—it looks to me the internal mechanisms of coordination have broken down. Gholam Mohseni-Eje’i, head of the judiciary, has had four positions since this crisis began. He’s for dialogue. He’s against dialogue. His latest position, he’s for some dialogue. He’s obviously not clearing those talking points with a boss. (Laughs.) You figure the head of judiciary would be on the same page.
So something tells me the interagency process has broken down. That leads me to believe that this is a confused regime who’s unsettled by what is happening. The obstacles in front of both the success of the regime and the opposition are quite pronounced. And I think at this stage we have a stalemate. The question is, the tie usually goes to the runner. So that’s where I would say this leads, in my view.
AMOS: Either one of you have anything to say about the revival of 2015? Robin or Sanam?
WRIGHT: You know, my fear is that the deal goes out with a whimper and not a bang, as a U.S. official said to me. That nobody wants to be the one to say it’s dead. And so it just hangs out there. And there may be a moment that the regime is sufficiently stressed that it needs to have credibility, especially as the outside world becomes increasingly articulate and adamant about the injustice playing out inside Iran. So maybe. But, you know, we’ve been back and forth and back and forth. And I’ve talked to some of the nuclear negotiators. And they just—the Iranians just seem so stubborn. And it goes back to something more that—before 2003, and their secret program, and they don’t want to fess up to what they were doing. And to do that, I think it’s going to cause—it causes them real heartburn. And they are holding out for that. And the U.S. and any other players are not going to agree.
I just want to point out one thing, though. The Iran nuclear deal is the only issue anywhere in the world that Russia, the United States, China, and the European Union all agree on. It’s the last one. We saw they stood united during Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and again today. Will that last? So it’s not just the nuclear deal. It’s also the international collaboration or cooperation on dealing with Iran that’s at stake.
AMOS: Before I give up this post, Sanam, can I ask you just one more different question? And that is, in Germany last weekend there was eighty thousand Iranians on the street. I’ve never seen that before. Does that matter?
VAKIL: Yes. Can I say something about the JCPOA first?
AMOS: Yes, you can. (Laughter.)
VAKIL: Thank you. I would—I would say that the deal is dead. And I know nobody wants to say the deal is dead because it’s a scary prospect. And I think that—
TAKEYH: I’ll say it. I’ll say it.
VAKIL: OK. That’s two, OK. (Laughs.) So the deal is dead. Nobody wants to say the deal is dead, but I think that from the Iranian perspective—particularly through these protests and if we want to sort of assess Iran’s behavior in supporting Russia with drones—the Islamic Republic sees its nuclear program as an asset. And it’s definitely in this moment, in this climate, not going to surrender its most important asset, its primary tool of leverage, that it can hold the international community hostage with as leverage. And I think this puts the international community, the Biden administration, Europe, maybe not Russia and China in this current juncture because this could be an opportunity for them, in a very difficult position. How do you negotiate with this repressive regime that is doing horrendous things to its people, and siding with Russia simultaneously?
And we know full well I very much suspect that come the fall, come the winter, or perhaps, you know, next year when we do have a crisis over this, the outcome is that the Islamic Republic can accelerate, can kick up, can go to ninety. There’s still more scales that I can climb in order to show the world that having a nuclear weapon is useful for Iran. And I think the war in Ukraine and Russia’s position sort of adds to that. It adds legitimacy to that thinking. Well, the world is against us. You know, all of the countries are trying to destabilize. Well, what is the ultimate tool to protect the Islamic Republic? Well, there we go. And that is the problem set that has yet to be resolved. So I’m deeply concerned about this moment.
Now, if we pivot to Berlin, and actually there have been huge protests every Saturday for weeks. And that is really fascinating to watching the Iranian diaspora that has been notoriously divided and very at odds with each other come together and be supportive for Iranians in Iran. And so it was, I think, very impressive to see. And I think that symbolism is important. This does bring up, I think, some awkward dynamics, though, because, you know, it’s important to amplify, to support, to provide that symbolism and perhaps, over time, you know, Iranians are very successful in many industries, provide some financing to this movement. And, you know, I think that’s maybe what’s missing.
But I think that, you know, this is something that Iranians are doing in Iran, risking their lives on a day-to-day basis. So I think we have to be really careful, sitting in our comfortable homes, amplifying this without being able to provide people in Iran, you know, a bit of safety and support. And we can’t do that. So this is a really, you know, awkward place, I think, to be. We can support, but also be cautious in encouraging people to go out there.
AMOS: So in our last half-hour we will now turn it over. We have quite a few participants, and I’m sure that they have very good questions. And how it works is you click on—you’ll see on the bottom how you do it. It was explained in the beginning. And I’m going to turn this over to Carrie, and she will call out the people who are standing in line to ask questions.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We’ll take our first question from Robert Hormats. Mr. Hormats, please accept the unmute now button.
Q: Yes. Hi.
Robin mentioned the Russian connection. I was wondering—I would like to get a better sense from the group about what the nature of the Russian connection is, and what advantages Iran sees in this, and how it’s going to evolve? Because, from an American point of view, it clearly makes it more difficult to do the deal anyway, JCPOA, which I think you agree not going to happen. But from a broader point of view, a geopolitical point of view, what is behind this? And where does it lead?
WRIGHT: I’d be happy to address that. I’ve done two briefings in the last two days with senior U.S. officials, who were pointing out that it’s not just Iran providing drones to Russia for use in Ukraine. The Russians are now helping Iranians in putting down the protests. They don’t provide a lot of specific information, because that might allow the regime to know what to look for. But the fact is there’s a deepening—obviously, deepening relationship between Moscow and Tehran. And that’s worrisome on a lot of different levels—short term, long term, in terms of what happens. There’s deepening concern also in Washington about the Russians—or—the Iranians providing surface-to-surface missiles to the Russians, who have a weapons shortage—an arsenal issue. And so I think it’s a very good question. And I think it’s an issue that we all have to follow more closely to understand how this plays out, not just inside Iran, not just on the JCPOA, but how it changes the strategic balance in some—in a very important war in Europe.
AMOS: Next question, please.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Zaid Zaid.
Q: Hi. Zaid Zaid. I’m from Cloudflare.
My question has to do with technology and how—you know, there have been sporadic social media outages. I know a lot of Iranians use Instagram, as I understand it. There’s also been some movements from the U.S. government to try to make sure that Iranians have more access to technology and social media. There’s also been Elon Musk talking about using—or, making Starlink available, but I understand there are some practical reasons for why it didn’t happen as fast as he would like. Can you talk about the use of technology or how that has impacted what’s going on right now with the protests?
AMOS: That’s to any of you.
TAKEYH: Well, I’ll just say one thing. The regime is sort of a victim of its own success. In the aftermath of 2009, for several years later, they looked the other way as social media networks expanded within Iran because they wanted to create an atomized society, where young people are essentially preoccupied with their own virtual reality as opposed to coming together and organizing in a real way. Well, now those social media platforms are actually means of communication. And there are two ways of looking at this. One is, there’s an attempt to prevent the regime from essentially obstructing social media communication. The other way is also—the regime and forces also use social media. (Laughs.) They also use that technology in order to expedite their functions. At some point, somebody should think about how you jam those. So on one hand, you increase the ability of the opposition to continue to communicate. On the other hand, I would think, you try to retard the ability of the regime to have a similar communication network at its disposal.
AMOS: Robin or Sanam?
WRIGHT: Well, one of the interesting things is that the Iranians are using drones to monitor their own people. I read a story just today that they’re using—they’re going into VPNs to find out who’s using those VPNs and what they’re saying over them. So, you know, for all the great technology that’s available to amplify what’s going on inside Iran, there are also—the regime has those very effective tactics. And I can tell you that they’re very active when it comes to people who are outside Iran, in tapping into what they’re doing. I’ve been hacked by the Revolutionary Guards in the last six weeks.
VAKIL: Yeah. I would also say that the government is, you know, sold a lot—or, forced people to buy their own local VPNs. And those local VPNs are what make people most vulnerable to surveillance and to tracking. You know, ultimately what’s needed is a persistent policy to allow international tech companies to support the Iranian space. Not reactionary, but in a more proactive way. So hopefully the sanctions relief that has been granted will put in place enough technological support. But at the same time, you know, what the Iranian state is very proud of is its ability to develop indigenous technological capacity, having learned from other authoritarian states. And so it is very, very well-honed and mimicked surveillance practices from the Chinese and now also using them at home.
So it’s going to be a bit of an uphill battle. But, you know, my deep concern is that if Iran, through the next sort of waves of protest and repression, you know, locks people in and turns off the internet in a consistent way—which will have economic consequences for the regime—you know, it will be devastating to the people and devastating to the organization and coordinative capacity of what takes place inside.
AMOS: Next question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Vishakha Desai.
Q: Thank you. I have sort of a two-part question.
One is, Sanam, what you just mentioned about the Chinese and the role of Chinese, which is partly related to what Bob Hormats was asking. And that is, what do we know about the relationship? We know a lot about what China is doing in Iran. But in the context of surveillance, since Chinese have really perfected this more than almost anybody else, what do we know about the Chinese role in surveillance technology? One part.
The second part is going back to what you all were talking about. And that is that do you know anything from within, where the protesters are also thinking about long-term strategy? Learning from the Arab revolution, learning from other failed protest movement? Is there a plan anywhere that we know of where people are thinking about a longer-term strategy of building, because we know from research that when these protests are leaderless and don’t have enough strategy, they don’t actually have a chance of survival. So I would like to know a little bit more about your sense of are there discussion going on? Are there ways that we might think about longer-term strategy for the work that they’re doing?
WRIGHT? I’ll weigh in. I worry a lot about the lack of strategy. I think if we’re looking for a label, this is not a revolution. This is a counter-revolution. It is a rejection of the status quo, rejection of the system. The danger is that there is not—whether it’s an organization or an ideology—this brings together very diverse segments of society. And I think when they—even though they shout, “death to the dictator,” they are rejecting the supreme leader or the idea of a kind of authoritarian Islamic regime, that we don’t know what they could do as an alternative. And so in this way, it does mimic the Arab Spring.
But I just want to remind everyone, the Arab Spring was inspired by the Green Movement in Iran, which was the first one to use Twitter and to mobilize through social media. So we just have to get our history straight. But I think they face the same problems, that without that strategy at what point if they do succeed in producing some kind of change which opens up the system and makes it vulnerable, a la the end of the of the Soviet Union with Gorbachev opening up, the end of, you know, Apartheid in South Africa and the system beginning to release prisoners and so forth. What is the alternative? And one of the dangers is if we get to a point that it looks like there might be, you know, a real challenge to the regime tangibly, that the military steps in. And so, you know, it’s not as if the alternative overnight is automatically going to be a more democratic system.
AMOS: Sanam, is there anybody in any leadership role—Revolutionary Guard, parliament, anywhere—who could stand up and say: All right. You know, I want to be on the side of the good guys. And take some sort of leadership role? Is that possible?
VAKIL: I think that there are individuals. I don’t want to name names. But there—and a lot of them are lingering in jail—that have leadership potential. And the regime has identified them and targeted them. I also think the regime has a strategy, at least in the beginning, in allowing the protests to persist a little, because they wanted to weed out leaders, identify potential up and coming leaders. I do think that there are strong voices within the regime, but there is not enough yet momentum or organization. And reformists, in the context of external security threats, in the context of extremism and terrorism threats coming from this attack on the shrine in Shiraz, in the context of what they actually truly fear is the disintegration of the Islamic Republic through the ethnic protests as well. They are not going to come forward in a cohesive or collective group because, above all, they would like to see the national preservation of Iran and, of course, you know, are loyal still to some aspects of the Islamic Republic. So, you know, we have yet to see anything cohesive.
What is clear on the ground is what people don’t want. And this seems awfully familiar to me. It reminds me of the 1979 revolution. There was a huge, you know, diverse factions. Everyone knew what they didn’t want. No one was organized enough to articulate what they wanted. There are, of course, groups in the diaspora that are trying to plant seeds and create fertile ground. But I think it has to come from within in terms of what people really want. And this is also happening at a very significant time with regards to succession. The supreme leader is ill, as Robin alluded to. And we just don’t know what is in store for that transition going forward.
TAKEYH: In terms of strategy, you know, the 1979 revolution was not well thought out. They didn’t have any plans in terms of—they had slogans and they had ideas. In November 1978, while Ayatollah Khomeini was in exile in Paris, he was asked a specific question by a reporter from Guardian newspaper. And she asked him: How does end? The shah has an army, he has a secret police, has the support of every international actor—Russia, Soviet Union. He said, I don’t know how it happens. I don’t know when it happens. All the signs are telling me it’s going to happen. And he proved right.
WRIGHT: Can I add one thing? When we look at—one of the things we’re looking for is the leadership. The other question is what happens to the current leaders? President Raisi, there was—many assumed that the supreme leader wanted to put him in office as a possible successor. You know, there was a lot of debate about whether that was the case or not. But what is clear is this happens under Raisi’s rule. And I think there are a lot of questions now about what that implies for his future. You know, whether it’s running again, whether it’s succeeding the supreme leader. And is he the fall guy? You know, somebody’s got to take a fall for this. And I don’t know whether the judiciary, the military, the police. But someone’s going to take the blame for this somewhere along the way. And it’ll be very interesting.
And the other point is, in 2009 you saw the—people mobilize around the two losing presidential candidates. Mir Hussein Musavi and Mehdi Karoubi. And these were very credible early revolutionaries. One had been a prime minister, one speaker of parliament. And where are they today? They’ve been under house arrest for more than a decade. And I think there is a—there is a kind of ominous echo for people who dare to stand up to the system about the consequences if they don’t succeed. So it may be a while before we see anyone emerge, and the kind of cohesion that Sanam referenced.
TAKEYH: Can I just say one thing about succession? Because, as Robin said—pointed out, for a long time it was thought that was President Raisi would be successor. I actually think even before these protests, that argument was not as persuasive. He is uncharismatic, unimaginative, incapable of saying anything intelligent. Ali Khamenei, whatever you think of him, is a person of some capacity and tactical dexterity. He’s intellectually supple. So therefore if Raisi has evidently, even before these, not proven a person of that caliber, presumably those who put him in that place knew that. And therefore, he was not necessarily a successor designated. He was a placeholder.
Now, the question is what they’re thinking about in the back rooms about who is going to be the successor and how that is going to be done. And I do agree that the current protest obviously changes that. But the regime’s bench is certainly lacking in individuals that could step up to that role in this particularly critical time in the lifespan of the Islamic Republic.
AMOS: OK. Next question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Ryan Kaminski.
Q: Thank you so much. Ryan Kaminski, Truman National Security Project security fellow.
Iran is a(n) extremely restrictive environment for LGBTQI+ individuals. And I just wanted to ask the group if recent events—how recent events have impacted LGBTQI+ individuals in the country, or if anything has changed in recent weeks. Thank you so much.
VAKIL: I’m happy to take that. I haven’t seen anything specific emerge. But, I mean, this is not a system or a regime that has been a champion of the LGBT community. In fact, it’s been quite the contrary. And, you know, dating back to President Ahmadinejad’s famous remarks where, you know, he said at Columbia University that there are no homosexuals in Iran. You know, that, I think, remains the framework or where this very conservative Islamic leadership approaches this issue. I think there is a vibrant community that is, you know, keen to agitate for their rights. But while the Islamic Republic remains, you know, committed to Islam, it's going to be very hard to see any change or support for the community in Iran.
AMOS: Next question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Gregory Gause.
Q: Gregory Gause of Bush School at Texas A&M University.
Robin said that the regime still has the stormtroopers. And Ray said that if the regime could have repressed, they would have repressed. Could the panelists talk about any signs they see about divisions within the coercive institutions?
TAKEYH: Well, Greg mentioned my position and Robin’s position, so Sanam could be the mediating factor. It is hard to see this at this particular point in terms of—it’s perhaps impossible to see this from outside. And again, my frame of reference for this is ’78-’79 revolution, which may be the wrong frame of reference, by the way. We knew the hesitancy of the security forces in retrospect once you had the kind of—the files and so on without access to the deliberative nature of the state. What I find interesting is that the regime has not been able to use its existing strategy for containing demonstrations. Unlike the shah’s regime, they have had a profound degree of experience with dealing with demonstrations. It’s one of the reasons why the shah regime couldn’t deal with demonstrations when they happened is because they hadn’t experienced it since 1963-64. The threat that they experienced in the 1970s was urban terrorism. They were capable of dealing with that. But once the demonstrations came, they just didn’t have the capabilities to do so.
The Islamic Republic is well experienced with this. So its inability to squash these protests, to me, is an indication of its hesitancy to use force, particularly when you have to kill adolescent females. Women may be second-class citizens in an Islamic society, but their protection is also a male responsibility. So it is very difficult for them to engage in this level of violence, in my view. Stormtroopers and this, they dress up each differently. I call them stormtroopers. The shah did the same tricks, put soldiers in a mask and say: We have new forces. (Laughs.) So I don’t necessarily buy the idea that they have developed new auxiliary forces that are more capable of doing this. And I’d say at the end, if the regime has at its disposal only security organs, then it has no real national strength.
Finally, I will say there is much talk that they’re talking about bringing in militias from outside. That is an indication of how weak the regime is. Collaboration with Russia and Chinese intelligence. Well, if you had mastery of your internal controls, you wouldn’t require all these collaborations and all these notations about bringing in outside forces—which, by the way, would be quite disastrous for the regime, if it opted to do so.
WRIGHT: Can I just—yeah, quickly. In 2009, I remember one of the stark moments was when we hear from an IRGC barracks young men standing on the rooftop shouting, “death to the dictator.” And there was a sense that maybe there was a division. Remember, everyone—all young men have to serve in the military. And a lot of them actually opt to serve in the Revolutionary Guard because it gives you a greater credential, there are perks, you get off earlier in the day so you can have a second job. I mean, I’ve heard Rev Guards talk about, I mean, reformists who have served in the Revolutionary Guards because they—because they were more likely to get into a good university. So there are—so there are reasons for that. And so there are reasons that the younger generation or the draftees may differ.
So I think Ray’s right. You know, are a lot of young men willing to do that? But they’re also, you know, I still think that the rule of thumb is that if a regime has 30 percent public support, that it’s really hard to dislodge them. And my fear is that they still have that hard core 30 percent. Forty-seven—up to forty-seven, forty-nine percent turned out to vote last year. There are a lot of people who are dependent economically, as Sanam pointed out that middle class. You know, their jobs are on the line. An awful lot of people in a system like Iran’s get a government paycheck, whether it’s the garbagemen or the schoolteachers, the university professors. So the stakes are huge.
And there’s the tactic that one of you pointed out about knocking on the door, the intimidation factor I think is huge. It’s not just the arrests and the tragic stories of the young people who are dying from being beaten by batons. And it’s interesting they’re not using guns; they’re dying from beating by sticks. So you know, I’m just very cautious in terms of the tools available, the public support still. We’re in week six. This could go on for a very long time before we see a denouement or a climax.
TAKEYH: Can I just—one thing, and I’ll turn to Sanam briefly. One of the playbook of the regime—I don’t know what percentage his supporters are at. Thirty percent is not unreasonable. One of the playbooks of the regimes was always to stage counterdemonstrations. They bus people in, you know, give them free food, give them money. Why haven’t they done that if they have 30 percent basis of support? As large-scale demonstrations have? But the point that Robin made is an important point. We’re still at the very sort of beginning of this new phase of protest. We’re not at the beginning of protests. Iran has experienced very serious protests in 2009, 2017. Throughout the summer, by the way. But so this movement will evolve. And the regime’s response for it has to evolve, if it’s going to be successful.
AMOS: And Sanam.
VAKIL: Just to chime in, I do think that there are layers of security forces. It’s not just a speech. There’s the police. I think they were the first layer that was dispatched onto the streets. And they had all different sort of tools at their disposal, from little, like, rubber pellets that were used to the batons. Then you have the law enforcement services, which are a step up. You have the IRGC, that are more deployed to the provincial areas to deal with the ethnic protests. But we haven’t yet seen, as far as I know—but, again, you know, I approach this very cautiously—that IRGC capacity in urban areas. And I think that there is space for that to happen in the way that it did in 2009.
And I think that Robin’s sort of laying out of the timeline of the 2009 protests is really important. It started in June. It continued until February. So we have to really be able to ride this out, and see if people inside have the momentum to continue. And see the twists and turns to the regime’s response. I don’t think that this is a regime that’s going to go down quietly. It has an immense amount of resources at its disposal. And something that it has continued to demonstrate over forty-three years is it is not afraid to kill people, including young people.
AMOS: One more question. We’ve got six minutes to do, so one more.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Aaron David Miller.
Q: Unbelievably great panel, the four of you.
We’ve almost gone an hour without scant or nary a mention of the Biden administration. Maybe that’s a good thing. But I just wonder if the three of you could briefly comment on the administration’s response until now. Maybe the longer game. Too much? Not enough? Relevant? Irrelevant? And any practical steps that could be taken to navigate that fine line between encouraging protests without the capacity to protect those who are being injured and killed?
AMOS: Let’s start with Sanam.
VAKIL: I think that’s a great question, and a very awkward one. Because in the same way that Iranian protesters haven’t defined what they want, I also think the international community and the Biden administration is in an awkward position. And they can’t define what they want. But what we know is that every U.S. administration would be glad to see a transformed if not very different Islamic Republic, preferably without the Islam and just a republic. I think the Biden administration is facing that very awkward position because in 2009 Obama didn’t do enough. Obviously, the Trump administration has been more proactive in its Iran approach.
But I personally think you can’t have it either way. The Biden administration can’t win. It’s important to provide public support, solidarity, a call for transparency and accountability. The Iranian political system, believe it or not, is very susceptible to international—its international reputation. And that might seem funny or laughable to many, but it doesn’t like to be completely, you know, embarrassed by the international community. So that is important. But at the same time, I don’t think it should overstep, because then the Iranian state will instrumentalize that support, and use it against protesters. And that’s very dangerous.
The sanctions are symbolic. They’re not really sanctioning the morality police that has probably never left Iran. I’m not sure what that does, but perhaps build greater solidarity among what I think is actually less than 30 percent. Because if you take Rouhani’s base, and divide it by eight-four million, you get 19 percent of the vote. So let’s say 19 percent of the population is pro the regime. But I think that it creates greater bonds. And the U.S. hasn’t proven to be a reliable actor for ordinary Iranians. So staying out of this fight I think is the way they should proceed. Plus, the Biden administration doesn’t want to be left with the problem set of a nuclear Iran on their hands, which I think it might be.
WRIGHT: Yeah. Let me weigh in on that. I think one thing we tend to forget as Americans is that the 1953 coup against a democratically elected government has shaped U.S.-Iran relations ever since. And in that revolution one of the two themes was to get rid of the American influence on the shah. It was one of the reasons—the reason, really—for the takeover of the U.S. embassy, because a lot of the young Iranians feared that the U.S. was going to put the shah back on the peacock throne again. So what the U.S. does is incredibly sensitive and could backfire, if it’s too interventionist.
At the same time, sanctions are clearly not crippling Iran. It has outlets. It’s still selling close to a million barrels a day to China. There’s other smaller smuggling going on. It’s economy, is resistance economy, has actually surprised, I think, the international community in its ability to withstand the punitive measures taken against it. It survived the hardships of COVID. And Iran was one of the epicenters. So the tools available to the United States are kind of limited. If it goes too far and it’s seen to shape, it could backfire on them long term, kind of increasing the legacy of 1953. And yet, sanctions are clearly not enough. And the problem is, the United States stands alone on many of these sanctions. And we’re not likely to get snapback at the United Nations. Maybe the Europeans go along, but there are not many—not many tools, unfortunately.
TAKEYH: I’ll just be very brief. I have always believed that the Iranians are the primary driver of their own history, irrespective of their professions otherwise. So this movement has organically evolved, and it will succeed on its own terms. Whether the United States speaking out or not makes it a culprit in the Iranian drama, that’s what the Iranian government says every day, that this is essentially American engineered. And honestly, Robin, 1953, who in Iran remembers 1953, other than elderly men who are in government? And the regime’s—the narrative of 1953, I don’t want to get into it, inside Iran is very different than the way it’s projected outside. But I do think this is an Iranian internal situation, and it will be resolved among Iranian internal actors themselves, primarily if not exclusively.
AMOS: Great. I’m going to—we are at 10:59. So I think it is wise for us to call it a day here. I want to thank all of our panelists—Ray Takeyh, Robin Wright, Sanam Vakil. It’s been a great hour. I want to remind the members who are watching that there will be a video and a transcript that will be posted on the CFR website. So if you missed the beginning of ducked out at the end, you can catch up with everything that was said today. And I want to thank everybody for being with us. And I suspect we’ll be back talking about this more. Thank you.