The BIDEN administration is perplexed by Iran. During his inauguration, President Joe Biden and the best and brightest members of the Democratic Party assumed that reviving the Iran nuclear deal would be simple. In one of the ironic twists of the story, they are tormented by their predecessor Donald Trump. It was the Trump administration that designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the muscle behind theocracy, as a foreign terrorist organization.
The State Department has designated the Islamic Republic as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984; no serious person in Washington doubts that the 2019 designation is factually correct. It is, however, politically inconvenient. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei apparently doesn’t care about the diplomatic sleight of hand allegedly suggested by US officials and European participants that would allow the White House and Khamenei to ignore the designation. The most embarrassing proposition, if true, would be for the United States to lift the sanctions in exchange for a public promise from Tehran not to target Americans in the future. Far from being a moderate, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian suggested the IRGC take one for the team because ultimately it doesn’t matter if major sanctions on oil exports are lifted. So far, Khamenei has held firm, as has President Joe Biden.
Will Biden or Khamenei blink at the Revolutionary Guards’ long embrace of subversive violence? Does it even really matter given the supreme leader’s weariness with the West and broader aspirations? The difficulties and improprieties of the Vienna talks should, once again, force us to reflect on US-Iranian relations, on why Republicans and Democrats have so often sought greater “normality” with the regime. mullahs, especially when it was dangerous and morally difficult to do so. Anyone who has looked at classified communications between Washington and Tehran cannot help but be struck by the recurring pattern: Americans are always trying to say “Hi! (part of the endless search for “moderates”) while Iranians answer “gom sho(“to get lost”, even if often it is much worse). The historically curious observer might also see a disconnect between Iran’s internal weaknesses and the determination of many administrations not to exploit them.
It’s actually been a truism in Iranian-American relations since 1979: the ground is given to a theocracy who has killed, kidnapped and injured many Americans. This leniency stems in part from how Westerners see radicalism and revolution evolving. With the Islamic Republic, this has caused many observers to ignore what the Supreme Leader and his men say and do in favor of a historical model that offers a shred of hope. Consider the French Revolution: first came revolution and overcoming, as the Jacobins sought to transform society and expand borders; then came the pragmatic temptations, as the burdens of governance led the idealists to adjust their expectations. The administrative state, in this interpretation, ends up stifling radicalism. The task of running a country, the thousands of interlocking processes that give identity and power to the state – national and local budgets, urban planning, agriculture, industry, commerce, building police forces and armies, the whole hierarchy of authority that forces young people to bow to middle-aged people – militates against constant upheaval. Vladimir Lenin and his successors sought to tame the forces of history only to create a bloated bureaucratic state that lumbered toward its ultimate condition of labofaction. Mao Zedong was willing to sacrifice millions to perpetuate his version of communism, but his successors opted for a more viable economic model and cooled the internal turmoil. Vietnamese “communists” are eagerly waiting for Americans to invest in their country and reoccupy military bases. Survival imperatives may not turn radicals into statesmen, but they do force them to be more careful with deadly beliefs that can tear countries apart.
Most Iran watchers in the West, particularly in academia, have seen the dawn of Thermidor since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989. Yet more than three decades later, Khomeini remains central of Iranian politics. He is not only commemorated: his thoughts continue to guide the ruling elite. The Islamic Republic remains an unrepentant revolutionary state. Imposing religious restrictions on a reluctant society remains its primary mission. Amr bimaruf, nahy az munkar– command good, forbid evil – a central tenet of Islamic jurisprudence, remains radicalized and injected into all facets of Iranian society. Anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism define theocracy’s internationalism, and Khomeini’s followers fended off reformers seeking to harmonize faith and freedom.
THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC may be on an accelerated timeline of revolutionary decadence, at least compared to the USSR. Forty-three years later, the decadence of militant Shiism is widespread and profound; in a similar period inside the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev was preparing to belittle John F. Kennedy in Vienna. Soviet Russia – the communist spirit among the people – seemed then, and also in retrospect, much stronger than the Islamist spirit does today within the Persian core of the Iranian state (among the ethnic minorities, which represent about 50% of the population, it deteriorates further).
There is an operative assumption among Western foreign policy circles that the atrophy of militant faith in the Islamic Republic must have had a numbing, if not moderating, effect on the ruling mullahs and the Revolutionary Guards. To win greater popular support, the Supreme Leader has surely brought in those who know that change is both inevitable and desirable. However, almost the opposite impulse in theocracy proved true, largely because Shia history speaks of a charismatic vanguard surviving in a hostile environment. Shiism makes no historical sense without an elite – first the imams, later the clergy – resisting more powerful forces trying to force believers to abandon their faith.
The Soviets had Karl Marx, Lenin and Russian pride; theocracy has nearly 1,400 years of history to summon (selectively) to its side. For the devoted cadres of the revolution, the goal of the state is to carry out God’s will on earth. Khamenei and his followers see themselves as a vanguard whose authority cannot be infringed by popular will and elections. They often explicitly despise democratic accountability, which they see as a Western idea that denies divine agency. Theocracy is not, Khamenei warned, “prepared to allow erroneous and ungodly perspectives and ideas that seek to empower individuals to dictate their social and political lives.” Assured of their ideological truths, these men are morally indifferent to the loss of popularity: they are servants of Allah reifying the teachings of the imams.
This link between God and man is extremely difficult to understand for contemporary Westerners, among whom secularism is now much deeper than Christianity. The Enlightenment, the World Wars and Ludwig Wittgenstein effectively broke the Western certainty that God and man have a common language. When confronted with such ardent religion in an elite, the Western tendency is to assume that such religious men are somehow lying, deceiving others (if not themselves) about their ability to see the intentions of the Almighty.
Moreover, Islamists emphasize praxis: Khamenei and his allies have secured their political hegemony by dominating unelected institutions. The Council of Guardians, which is responsible for screening candidates for public office, purges all unreliable material. The judiciary shuts down newspapers and imprisons activists on bogus charges. The 125,000 Revolutionary Guards and their most numerous henchmen, the well-paid thugs of the Basij, put down the demonstrations. And where torture and imprisonment are not enough, Iranian security organs routinely assassinate national and expatriate dissidents.
Despots falter when they resent the ebbs and flows of their own society, when they cannot see the breaking points. Over the past four decades, the theocratic regime has steadily lost voters. The first to abandon the regime were the liberals and the seculars, who were part of the coalition that replaced the monarchy. In the 1990s, universities became the focus of anti-regime agitation. The middle class turned decisively against the government in 2009 with the birth of pro-democracy green movement. The immediate cause was the fraudulent re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but the shrinking economy had helped this critical segment of society turn its back on theocracy.
The mullahs happily rejected them all. The students, perhaps the most crucial force in the Islamic Revolution, became wealth-loving descendants of Western culture. In fact, most university students today are from the lower middle class. The ruling elite therefore now views the middle class as hopelessly unstable, even Janus-faced – they too have forgotten that the cause of God demands sacrifice. The regime has put what remains of its faith where it has always invested most of its rhetoric: the lower classes, the mostazafan, the oppressed, in whose name the revolution had been made. Linked to the regime by patronage and piety, they became its indispensable pillar, until it too cracked in 2017.
That year was the beginning of the protest movement of the poor. Corruption and US sanctions pushed the government to shrink the welfare state. At a time when the mullahs no longer hide their wealth and privileges, preaching austerity infuriates those who remain in Iran’s slums. “They are turning a man into God and a nation into beggars,” one protester shouted in 2017. “Death to Khamenei! was a common chant at the time in protests nationwide, and again in 2019, when an even larger wave of protests – those from ethnic minority provinces heading towards insurrection – hit the country . Theocracy unleashed its law enforcement with exceptional severity in 2019. So far, the regime’s security forces have held their ground.