By Aaron Kliegman
Last week, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, delivered his annual address to mark the Persian new year. As Khamenei said, Iran had a “difficult” and “tumultuous” year, which “began with flooding and ended with the coronavirus.” Khamenei’s speech should remind us that Iran was politically sick, suffering domestic crises, long before the coronavirus arrived, and that Iran’s theocratic regime made each crisis worse through brutality and incompetence.
Consider just the last 12 months. Almost one year ago to the day, heavy rain caused massive floods across Iran. The flooding killed dozens of Iranians, injured hundreds more, forced at least hundreds of thousands to move into emergency shelters, and resulted in billions of dollars in damage. Yet the regime failed to help suffering Iranians, showing both incompetence and indifference. When leaders were not ignoring victims, they were badly mismanaging the process of providing assistance. Of course, this is what we should expect — the regime allocates at least 80 times more money to propaganda, education, and other religious activities than it does to disaster relief, according to a review of Iran’s budget.
The regime threatened and arrested people who spread news about the floods on social media — even if they were just reporting facts on the ground. Still, many Iranians protested the government’s response to the floods, especially after Iran brought in Iraqi Shiite militias and Lebanese Hezbollah. Purportedly, the foreign soldiers came to help with the floods; in reality, they were there to enforce order and protect the regime.
Beyond the flooding, the US increased economic pressure on Iran, sanctioning the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Khamenei’s inner circle (among other individuals and entities). Meanwhile, protests erupted across Iran, first after the regime increased gasoline prices, and again after the regime shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane. Tehran tried to crush the demonstrations by shutting down the internet and killing hundreds of protesters. To add to the regime’s troubles, the US killed Iran’s most powerful general, Qassem Solemaini, in January.
And then the coronavirus hit. As of this writing, the virus has infected about 27,000 people in Iran and killed more than 2,000, according to official figures. The actual numbers are certainly much higher — perhaps exponentially so. Iranian authorities failed to contain the virus and covered up the scope of its spread. Now, senior officials are dying; the health care system is overwhelmed; parts of the country are descending into anarchy. Once again, incompetence, mismanagement, and a warped ideology have all contributed to the current mess.
Add a population that has demonstrated how much it hates its government, and we can see the regime is in trouble. Indeed, the Islamic Republic has lost so much legitimacy that it can never get back. Iran’s Islamist theocracy is teetering.
The regime is unlikely to collapse in the near future, however. As a general rule, it is better to assume that hostile, authoritarian regimes will remain in power — predicting if and when governments will fall is a risky game that, historically, America isn’t very good at. (Recall how the CIA assessed Iran was stable, with revolution unlikely, right before the Iranian revolution in 1979.) Moreover, the regime in Iran is clearly willing to use violence to stay in power. If Iranian leaders are willing to slaughter hundreds of thousands of Syrians and displace millions more to keep Syria’s president in power, imagine what they’d be willing to do to keep themselves in power (and save their own lives).
Still, the events of the past year do resemble the kinds of things preceding revolutions or societal collapses that one reads about in history textbooks. It seems the key moment could be when Khamenei, who is 80 years old, dies. Khamenei will not explicitly groom anyone to succeed him because it backfired when his predecessor, Ruhollah Khomeini, chose a successor while alive. That designated successor, Hussein-Ali Montazeri, became too powerful and a threat to Khomeini, challenging the supreme leader’s most important decisions. So, nothing will be determined until Khamenei dies, at which point there will be no clear process to pick the next supreme leader. We will likely see various state institutions, including the IRGC, vie for influence in unpredictable ways. Because Khamenei has weakened every institution in order to control them, there is no center of power strong enough to steer the succession process in a given direction.
Americans should hope chaos in Iran leads to regime change and a friendlier, maybe even democratic government. The Iranian people have certainly demonstrated that they want freedom and are generally pro-Western. Perhaps enough external pressure from America, coupled with internal pressure from the Iranian people, could lead to the collapse of the regime. Washington should pursue such a policy, without saying so publicly. Something more benign could very well emerge from the Islamic Republic’s ashes.
There is a much darker scenario that is at least as likely, however — whether Khamenei dies or the current regime teeters over the edge before then. That scenario is the IRGC, along with allies in the ministries of justice and intelligence, forming a military dictatorship to take over as the current regime’s revolutionary zeal decays. This new, military-run regime would continue the same aggressive policies as the Islamic Republic.
Regardless of the outcome, the Islamic Republic is teetering. The regime doesn’t have any legitimacy on which to stand, just brute force to crush the Iranian people’s potential. The population doesn’t buy the government’s Islamist ideology and sees its policies hurting their quality of life. The coronavirus intensifies — perhaps significantly — this already troubled situation. What happens next is unclear, but we know one thing: A new regime in Iran would change the world.
Aaron Kliegman is a freelance writer based in Virginia. Previously, he was a staff writer and news editor at the Washington Free Beacon, where he wrote analysis and commentary on foreign policy and national security. Aaron’s work has been published in a range of publications, and he has a master’s degree in international relations. Aaron is now writing regular columns for the Inner Circle as a contributor, and I am excited to have him on the Gingrich 360 team. — Newt