Don’t Take Iran Becoming a Better Place for Granted

Outsiders could give Iran’s otherwise doomed revolution a new lease on life if they prove the hardliners right.

Tehran Iran
View of Tehran, Iran from the Milad Tower at night (Shutterstock)

While America’s upcoming election fills many with worry, the Islamic Republic of Iran had a quiet yet meaningful election all of its own. The results shoved aside the hardliners who have for so long dominated Iran’s many branches of the Islamic republic, stuffing the all-important Assembly of Experts with relatively moderate forces poised to elect a supreme leader with the potential to turn Iran into a force for stability.

But no geopolitical road runs straight forever. There are many forces that might upset this applecart. Here now is the tale of Iran’s revolution, evolution and potential path forward.

Let’s begin with the very purpose of these elections: keeping the Islamists in power

There should be no doubt that the Islamists of the revolution want to stay in charge, but Iranian history and political culture have forced them to be more shrewd that the jackboot dictators and kings of nearby states.

That’s because Iran is quite different from all of is nearby neighbors and rivals. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan, the Central Asian and Caucasian republics and the Arab Gulf states, Iran is very old. The Medes, generally considered the founders of Iranian civilization, booted the invading Assyrians from the Iranian highlands around 600 BCE. The long, fascinating history of Iran from that point has led to a political culture of considerable sophistication: one that cannot be subdued through simple, brute force.

Iran is not a borderland, but a heartland. The two terms function very differently: borderlands have shaky identities, suffer from division and can often be a drain on a state’s geopolitical power. Borderland like Iraq and Afghanistan squabble and waste time on internal conflicts. A heartland, on the other hand, is a bastion of geopolitical influence: its established identity allows elites to deploy their united power outwards.

But weaker though it is, a borderland is a simpler place to rule: the strongest set the tone, playing divided peoples off one another to maintain leadership. This is a strategy for failure in a heartland: since there are fewer divisions to stoke, a heartland’s people have the freedom to demand competent states and those who divide and rule risk organized backlash.

Take Iraq: a borderland for much of its history, it’s riven with cultural, sectarian and linguistic differences. Saddam Hussein understood Iraq quite well, which is why he built his whole state on Sunni power while playing off Kurdish and Shia elites. The Americans who replaced him did not: they thought they were coming into a heartland and assumed, wrongly, that Iraq’s disparate groups could unite under their imposed democracy.

For Iran, being a heartland is a big reason why the shah was overthrown in 1979. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi ran Iran from 1953 to 1979. During that time, he governed his state very much as Iraqi, Saudi and Syrian rulers did theirs: empowering a ruthless secret police force loyal to him alone, constructing national identity around himself, playing off divisions within society to ensure no one faction had any more power than him.

This works just fine when society is tribal and fragmented, as borderlands so often are. But heartlands have overcome tribalism and treating them as though they haven’t invariably backfires.

This is because tribes are notoriously unable to see beyond their narrow self-interests, which is why they respond well to a divide-and-rule leader. But nations that have elevated beyond tribalism have more fluid, less predictable social groups: while you can’t switch tribes, you can switch political parties.

Iran’s heartland status meant it was only a matter of time before anti-shah forces grew strong enough to overcome him. It took nearly thirty years, but eventually organized protesters grew stronger than the shah’s rather sophisticated security system.

And in the rush that followed 1979, the most organized force won

That most organized force were the political Islamists of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. There were also secularists, liberal democrats, communists, socialists and nationalists in the mix, but none of them had strong enough connections with Iran’s rural hinterland. This was a key reason why Khomeini won out: his Islamist rhetoric told pious rural Iranians precisely what they wanted to hear.

The state meant to replace the monarchy had to ensure it could not be overcome in the same kind of popular revolt. The specifics are here; the outlines are a divided system of conflicting institutions all held in check by the supreme leader. Iran was not developed enough to jump straight to a republic; the relatively undeveloped rural regions couldn’t be held together without a strong leader. But neither could a dictator rule over the developing cities, whose long histories had produced powerful elites unwilling to give the reins to yet another “me say, you do” leader.

This political model meant making the social glue of Islam ingrained into the system. Islamists calculated that Islam would always remain Iran’s constant: no matter the world trends, they could fall back onto Islamic tradition to retain power. They believed the shah had been corrupted by Western influence, who then tried to impose unwelcome social changes to a society committed to its religion.

They did not calculate that Iran would ever wobble in its piety.

Which is exactly what has happened

Iran of 1979 is worlds away from Iran of 2016. Only 45 percent of Iranians lived in cities in 1975; today, 75 percent do. Divorce, once rare, has skyrocketed. Iran’s GDP per capita has skyrocketed well past its 1970s rates: Iranians, even after sanctions, are richer than they’ve ever been.

All these are environmental assaults on religion in politics. Political systems that base themselves on religion function best in simple, relatively unscientific places. Religious texts written hundreds or thousands of years ago by their very nature have no way to solve the modern problems of complex, wealthy, urban environments — instead, holy folks have to extrapolate and stretch texts further and further.

Political religions claim to have all the answers: their very core is in their strict application of their holy rules and the subsequent salvation that ought to flow from it. But unfortunately, political religions don’t really invent anything modern: the airplane, the nuclear bomb, electricity grids all are all due to the scientific method. (Mystical religions fare much better since they don’t claim to have all the answers.)

All this has produced an Iran that has slowly slanted toward secular, non-Islamic Revolution values. Take your pick of examples: the rich kids of Tehran, the murmuring sexual revolution, the government rants against WhatsApp. Desperate to throttle the young chatter of the Internet, the Iranian government restricts what information it can. But this merely slows the change: socioeconomic circumstances undermine the revolution’s values daily.

Moreover, Iran’s Great Satan hasn’t been of much use to the Islamists

Young Iranians have no memory of the shah’s SAVAK police nor the US-fueled Iran-Iraq War. While older Iranians have strong, negative memories of America’s friendship with the shah, younger Iranians view those stories as American millennials view Woodstock: important, sure, but irrelevant to the modern age.

Had the United States bombed Iran, doubtless the opposite would be true: a galvanized hardliner elite would have ample evidence of the America’s murderous intent. Instead, however, the United States gambled on a sanctions regime and, worse for the hardliners, managed to get much of the international community on board.

This undercut the hardliners’ argument that the West, and particularly the United States, was at fault for Iran’s woes. Borderland countries could have fallen for that trick readily enough; or, more specifically, just enough of the borderland to maintain power. But heartlands demand proof over time. The longer the hardliners allowed sanctions, the more obvious it became that their stubbornness was the root cause.

Moreover, the Islamic republic’s governing system has really allowed corruption to go wild

During the Iran-Iraq War, powerful cliques of revolutionaries grabbed hold of much of Iran’s state and economy. The Revolutionary Guard, the political elite, used the opportunity of war to enact their agenda. They got so far, but when war receded, their supposedly emergency measures grew more and more stale.

Emergency rule is the staple of dictatorships: Assad, for example, used the cold war with Israel to justify an emergency law that kept him the absolute ruler. But emergency rules also grow silly over time: if there’s no war for decades, even the illiterate can see the inconsistency.

As always happens in a closed economy and political system, the Revolutionary Guard and its ilk favored loyalty over efficiency: the invariable result was corruption as dumb but loyal administrators ran major projects and lined their pockets. With Iran at peace for 25 years, this began to be obscene, especially considering the country’s oil wealth.

The 2009 abortive Green Revolution was the best example: Iranian youth and middle class gambled on street protests in hopes of altering Iran’s politics. Of course, the hardliners shot, bashed and arrested their way through the protests, but they, and their supreme leader, were shaken. They had headed off discontent once, but to do so twice was a big ask.

Hence why they have allowed relative moderates to come to power

To buy time and to suck the momentum from the growing anti-Islamist movement, the hardliners gambled they could allow in a few moderates they could control. They did, after all, disqualify more than a few candidates. This is doubtless the supreme leader’s directive: he understands better than most that the Islamic republic risks falling to the same forces that toppled the shah. Rather risk the mistake of seeing Iran as a fractured and easily ruled borderland, he’s treating it more as a powerful but tough to manage heartland and is modifying the terms of the Islamic Revolution.

But don’t expect Iran to suddenly be the good guy in the region

Iranians, like most people, care more about the domestics than overseas: by allowing relative moderates to take up posts, the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guard gain political capital to carry on their schemes in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Bahrain. They can continue their push against the now quite wobbly Saudi state which, if knocked off balance, could neutralize the last great foreign threat to Iran’s Islamists.

This is achievable because the only one power that might stop Iran — the United States — is unwilling to do much. It’s very likely the United States will lean on a strong Iran to help order the Middle East; it’s simply the cheapest option and left alone, over time, Iran will moderate. Its status as a heartland demands consistent access to the world: it cannot have radicals rule it for too long.

That being said, much can go wrong.

Especially a war or a new round of sanctions

It’s beyond worrisome that American Republicans talk of tearing up the Iran deal — it’s the most stabilizing thing America has done in the Middle East in decades. To renege on the deal, and to possibly go to war, is to prove the hardliners right and give them breathing space they don’t deserve.

But it isn’t just America that might radicalize Iran: both Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State might as well. Should Saudi king Salman gamble on a heightened proxy war with Iran, or even a direct attack on Iranian forces somewhere, such an action could give Iranian hardliners the excuse to tighten their grip for another generation. Iranians, as a heartland, will rally in an emergency: war of any kind fits the bill.

The Islamic State could well do the same should it spread beyond its current confines: if it were to provoke civil war in Saudi Arabia and capture Saudi territory, it could do the same kind of damage as King Salman.

This would be a great tragedy. Given more years of peace and trade, Iran’s hardliners are doomed. But should the world turn in such a fashion as to bring about war, the Islamic republic may have more life in it yet.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, March 2, 2016.