The Middle East Policy Council held its 110th Capitol Hill Conference virtually on Friday, October 21, 2022, on the topic “Iran.” The panelists addressed developments pertaining to Iranian domestic policy such as the ongoing demonstrations triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini, as well as the future of Iran’s nuclear program.
Ms. Jess Diez (Director of Educational Programs, Middle East Policy Council) introduced the event and Ambassador Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) offered a context briefing prior to leading the event moderation. The panelists were: Ms. Barbara Slavin (Director, Future of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council); Mr. Ali Alfoneh (Senior Fellow, The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington); and Mr. Alex Vatanka (Director of Iran Program, Middle East Institute).
Ambassador Schmierer outlined the issue of the divide between the Sunni and Shi’a sects of Islam in regard to Iran and the larger region, elaborating that this divergence has been exploited by regional leaders to further their policy objectives. He described the role of the Iranian Revolution in shaping domestic policy, such as clerical rule, and in driving rivalries with foreign powers, including the United States and Saudi Arabia. Ambassador Schmierer concluded by posing questions pertaining to Iran’s role as a Shi’a leader in and beyond its borders.
Ms. Barbara Slavin compared her first visit to Iran in 1996 – in which she was tasked to report on women’s rights in the Islamic world – to the ongoing demonstrations against the recent killing of Mahsa Amini by Iran’s morality police. Over 300 Iranians have died amid these protests, though technological censorship has limited outside parties’ insight into the domestic sociopolitical crisis. Regarding Iranian foreign policy, Ms. Slavin cited that Iran and the United States have on occasion cooperated indirectly, such as during ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria; however, former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal (the JCPOA) has led to deteriorating relations with the U.S. and increased Iranian attacks in the Middle East.
Mr. Ali Alfoneh, uniquely, exposed the Islamic Republic’s juxtaposition in modernity, as the regime has extensively advanced literacy rates, urbanization, and information access, while simultaneously undermining social liberties, such as women's dress. Since 1979, the regime has transformed society but not its own behavior. Regarding the effectiveness of sanctions against the regime, he asserted that the underprivileged classes are carrying this burden; this can be exemplified through the bread protests. Mr. Alfoneh concluded his remarks by forecasting that the Islamic Republic does not face immediate collapse, but may be on the verge of fundamental change into a military dictatorship with a lessened focus on religious policy.
Mr. Alex Vatanka analyzed the Mahsa Amini protests in the context of recent Iranian demonstrations, which have affirmed the Islamic Republic’s enduring refusal to institute reform. The current movement, notably, is spearheaded by Generation Z, an emerging demographic raised in a sanctioned economy during the era of social media; the political activism of this younger generation indicates that protests will endure in Iran, even if this specific movement is suppressed. Mr. Vatanka also hypothesized on the future of Iranian leadership, including speculation that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei may select his son as his successor.
RICHARD J. SCHMIERER, President and Chairman of the Board, Middle East Policy Council; Former US Ambassador to Oman
This brief introduction provides context for the presentations and discussion to follow. I will touch on factors from Iran’s and the region’s recent history, as well as the those currently at play that affect and determine the policies and actions of Iran today.
In approaching this task, I have drawn from my own diplomatic experience in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Oman over four decades, beginning in the late 1980s. I’ll start with the issue of the divide, and at times the conflict, between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam. Iran, a non-Arab Persian country, is the world’s largest Shia-majority nation. And it sees itself as the voice and protector of the world’s Shia Muslims. In contrast, in the Arab world, Sunni Muslims represent some 90 percent of the Islamic population, with Shia making up only about 10 percent. One result of this imbalance has been that Shia communities in Arab countries have often been marginalized, and in some cases discriminated against and even persecuted.
There are two Shia-majority Arab countries, the Republic of Iraq and the Kingdom of Bahrain. And there are significant Shia populations in two others, the State of Kuwait and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia, the majority of the Shia population resides in its eastern province. In my own experience living in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province in the late 1970s, I can see that the Shia majority was, in many respects, treated as second-class citizens. While in the intervening decades the Saudi government has endeavored to treat its Shia majority more equitably, even in recent years there have been instances of mass executions in Saudi Arabia, in which Shia are significantly over-represented, including the execution of leading Saudi Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in 2016.
Despite their Shia majorities, Iraq and Bahrain have both historically been ruled by Sunni leaders. In Bahrain, this has been under the Al Khalifa dynasty. In the case of Iraq, after living under first a Sunni king and then the Sunni despot Saddam Hussein, there was an historic change following Saddam Hussein’s removal in 2003, and the empowerment of the Iraqi people to select their own government. This has resulted in Shia-led Iraqi governments ever since. Importantly, despite the prominence of Shi’ism in Iraq, from my own experience as a diplomat in Baghdad in 2004 and 2005, it was clear to me that Iraqis see themselves foremost as Iraqis and as Arabs.
As it happened, one unfortunate impact of the historic change in Iraq in 2003, the emergence of a Shia-led government, was that Iraq’s Arab neighbors largely ostracized post-Saddam Iraq. We, at the US embassy in Baghdad, did what we could to encourage the Arab countries to engage with and support the new Iraq, but these entreaties went largely unheeded. This resulted in an increased opening for Iran to meddle in Iraq, to the country’s detriment. Fortunately, in recent years the Arab countries have recognized their short-sightedness, and have restored their relationships with Iraq, which has significantly helped Iraq in its efforts to reduce Iranian influence there.
To the south, the Sultanate of Oman has a population that is plurality Ibadi Islam, a sect of Islam that is neither Sunni nor Shia. That has allowed Oman to play a unique and helpful role in engaging Iran, including in the successful effort to conclude the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. As I saw during my tenure as the US ambassador in Oman, Omanis by and large harbor no animosity toward Iran and, in fact, the Omani people remain grateful to Iran for its support in putting down a rebellion in the Dhofar region of southern Oman in the 1970s. For its part, it became clear to me in dealing with the Oman-Iran dynamic in the lead-up to the Iran nuclear deal, Iran grants a level of trust to Oman that it does not to any other Arab state.
The Obama administration worked closely with the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman in dealing with Iran. As part of that effort, President Barack Obama conveyed that he was distancing his administration from the policies of the previous administration of George W. Bush that called for regime change in Iran and that characterized Iran as part of an “axis of evil.” Eventually, President Obama went so far as to express US neutrality in the ongoing conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam, angering the US’s Arab partners. Unfortunately, the US effort at a thaw in the US relationship with Iran, which also included the Iran nuclear deal itself, never led to any discernable change in Iran’s anti-American rhetoric and in objectional Iranian policies and actions in the region.
The Iranian revolution itself embodied a significant anti-American element, in particular as a backlash to US support for the shah. And that sentiment has continued to be exploited by the Iranian leadership. In September 1980, not long after the November 1979 Iranian Revolution, Saddam Hussein launched a war of aggression against the new Islamic Republic. And other Arab states, with the notable exception of Oman, supported his aggression, as did the larger international community, including the United States. This was a bitter conflict, which lasted until 1988, with massive Iranian casualties, including through Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, and added greatly to the level of anti-Americanism in Iran.
That said, it is important to note that the overwhelming majority of current Iranians were born after both the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. And those events are of declining influence in the Iranian people’s assessment of their country and its current leadership, and of the US, where there is today a large Iranian diaspora community. With the Iranian revolution, Iran’s Shia clerical leadership adopted a newly created governing philosophy and system called velayat-e faqih, or clerical rule. Iran’s use of this governing system remains unique in the Islamic world today. Importantly, the leadership of the Iraqi Shia Islamic community, the second largest in the world after Iran, and in particular Iraq’s most revered Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, rejects the concepts of clerical rule.
There has long been and remains competition between the Iraqi pilgrimage cities of Najaf and Karbala, on the one hand, and the Iranian holy city of Qom on the other, as the center of Shia Islam. Importantly, the Shia Arabs of the Gulf look largely to the Iraqi clerical leadership rather than the Iranian clerical leadership for spiritual guidance. Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani is 92 years old and has suffered from poor health for many years. And Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is 83 and likewise in poor health. This portends a coming competition for religious influence within the global Shia community by their potential successors once they both pass from the scene.
Iran’s November 1979 revolution included a commitment by the new Iranian clerical government to spread its revolution throughout the Islamic world. It also included strong criticism of the leaders of the Islamic world, the Saudi Arabian government and royal family, as being insufficiently pious and, thus, as unfit to serve as guardians of the Islamic faith. Then, on November 20, 1979, there was an uprising by a fanatic Sunni fundamentalist group at the very center of Sunni Islam, the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The insurrectionists, like the Iranian revolutionaries before them, harshly criticized the Saudi leadership as impious and illegitimate. It took considerable support from outside security forces, including from Western countries, to dislodge the insurrectionists and reassert Saudi government control over the Grand Mosque.
There were two important outcomes of these developments. One was the adoption by Saudi Arabia and King Fahd of the one-time caliph title, custodian of the two holy mosques, which was meant to reinforce the king’s claim as the leader of the global Islamic community, the umma. And the second was a decision by the Saudi leadership to challenge Iran’s Shia proselytization of the international Muslim community by promoting its own fundamentalist version of Sunni Islamic doctrine in the umma, a doctrine known as Wahhabism. This competition between fundamentalist versions of the religious doctrines of the two largest sects of Islam triggered a decades-long rise in extremist teaching and rhetoric in Islamic communities around the globe which, among other impacts, fostered the rise of the terrorist groups al-Qaeda and ISIS. This dynamic only changed recently when the Saudi leadership announced that it would no longer support or impose an austere version of Sunni Islam—either at home or abroad.
I open today’s discussion with the above context because I believe these many historical developments and ongoing dynamics need to be understood and considered in analyzing the policies, actions, and motivations of the Iranian leadership and the Iranian people. In my mind, they lead to a number of questions. Was the Iranian Revolution ever a legitimate, religiously inspired and fueled event? And was the emergence of a Shia clerical government something supported broadly by the Iranian people? Or was the unrest that had arisen against the shah largely an economic protest that was hijacked by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers to impose a cleric-led Islamic Republic against the wishes of the majority of the Iranian people. Was Iran ever warranted in seeing itself as the protector of Shia Islam, in particular of Shia-minority communities in Arab countries and Shia-majority communities under Sunni-minority rule abroad? If so, is that still the case today?
Iran supports armed proxies in several Arab Shia communities abroad, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and the Popular Mobilization Forces [PMF] in Iraq. Was Iran ever correct to the extent that it has seen itself and Shia Islam as being under threat, or even siege, from Sunni Islam, whose adherents outnumber Shia in the umma manyfold? Does today’s Iran still embody a government which prioritizes religious dogma and practice? Or has it become an authoritarian oligarchy, effectively under the aegis of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps [IRGC] and operating essentially to protect and promote the IRGC’s economic and commercial interests? In short, has the government of the Islamic Republic ever been, or is it today, legitimate? Do Shia communities outside Iran want or need Iranian support? Does the Sunni community represent an enemy of or a threat to Iran? Can the two major Islamic sects peacefully coexist?
BARBARA SLAVIN, Director, Future of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council
You’ve raised some very, very provocative questions. And I may try to touch on some of them. I think that the Iranian Revolution was much more than economic. It was also against the repressive state of the shah, and against the perception that he was the tool of foreign powers—namely, of the United States and of Israel. And it’s very ironic that now, all these years later, Iran, which of course prided itself on independence from East and West, is very much in the Eastern camp in terms of its relationship with China and its support—its extraordinary support—for Russia in its campaign against Ukraine.
I’m going to return to that in a minute, but I thought it was important first to talk a little bit about the protests within Iran. And I’ll give a personal footnote. I first went to Iran as a journalist for the newspaper USA Today in 1996. And I went as part of a series of articles I was writing about the status of women in the Muslim world because the Taliban had just consolidated power in Afghanistan, the first time. And I had been to some meetings in New York. I had met some Iranians. And the officials then, particularly in charge of press at the Iranian mission to the UN, thought that they had a good news story to tell about the status of Iranian women compared to the status of Afghan women. So I got my very first visa to go.
And like many American journalists, of course, I was somewhat blown away by the reality of Iran, as opposed to the stereotypical notions of the country. I found it much more vibrant. This was at a time when the so-called reform movement was beginning to bubble up. And there was a lot of optimism about the potential for peaceful evolutionary change in Iran, and in the system of clerical control. The women that I interviewed, they complained about being forced to wear the veil, but they said this was the least of their problems. And they complained more about legal discrimination in terms of things like child marriage, custody of children after divorce, testimony in legal suits, inheritance—a variety of laws which had been reimposed after the revolution that heavily discriminated against women. I remember one woman in particular, a magazine editor named Shahla Sherkat, pointing to her headscarf and basically saying: This is the least of my worries.
Now we fast-forward a quarter-century, and we see that the compulsory hijab has become a touchstone and a symbol of the, I would argue, wholesale rejection of the entire system. I mean, we have never had a completely fair and open election in Iran. There was a referendum right after the revolution where people were supposed to say whether they wanted an Islamic Republic. And the only choices were yes or no, so it was not exactly fair. And there was not exactly much of a choice. It was binary. Over the years, we’ve seen elections for president, for parliament, with varying degrees of freedom. But the last election, which was held in 2021, had the most constricted list of candidates for president and, as a result, the lowest turnout of any in the history of the Islamic Republic.
So we have a system now that has really very little legitimacy, certainly in terms of support from the public. And the protests: We talk about the straw that broke the camel’s back. People have been suffering for a long time from a very poor economy. We can talk about the reasons for it, partly as a result of US sanctions but also because of corruption and mismanagement within Iran. And over the years, women have become freer in their interpretation of the hijab, and particularly in certain wealthy parts of Tehran and other places have gotten away with basically ignoring the restrictions on dress.
So what happens? In September, a young Kurdish-Iranian woman named Mahsa Amini goes to Tehran with her family on a visit. And she is not in the wealthy part of north Tehran but in a downtown area. And she emerges from a subway and encounters the so-called morality police, who have decided that for some reason she is not adequately covered. Maybe there’s a little hair showing, or her pants are too tight. They drag her into a van, they take her into custody, take her to a detention center. And they beat her so severely that she goes into a coma and dies two days later. This random act of brutality is what has touched off a wildfire in the country.
And we are inhibited in what we can see because there are no Western journalists, like in the days of the ’90s, when many of us were able to go. Iranian journalists themselves are restricted. Many are in jail. The internet has been throttled. So we just see these little bits and pieces of video that are somehow sent out via virtual private networks from various cities and places in Iran. But what we know is that young women, in particular, have stopped wearing the hijab in many places. Older women, too. They simply have said: We’ve had it. We will not accept it. And so they walk in the streets without it. We have seen protests even among schoolgirls—girls as young as 13, 14—in their schools. When officials from the regime are sent to tell them how to behave, they curse these people and tell them to leave, whip off their scarves, burn them, dance with them in their hands. Some of them have been arrested. The death toll now is believed to be at least 300.
We should also mention that the crackdown not only is killing teenage girls but is killing members of minority ethnic sects. Sunnis in Kurdistan, where Mahsa Amini was from, and Sistan-Balochestan, where a terrible massacre took place in the capital of Zahedan. We have seen many grievances bubble up. Also some strikes among contract workers in the oil fields and petrochemical industry. So this has gone way beyond a protest over the beating death of an innocent young woman to something that is much broader. I think that this society is really seething with anger against the regime.
I think it’s only the Taliban in Afghanistan now and Iran that enforce the hijab—or, at least try to enforce the hijab. And how ironic, 25 years after the good-news story that the Islamic Republic was trying to tell about the comparison with Afghanistan, that now it is showing brutality that is very much Taliban-like. It’s a very sad commentary on a revolution that was fought for “justice,” as well as independence. And which has, I think, destroyed observance of Shia Islam for many Iranians, because of the ways in which it has been made compulsory, which should never be done in any religion.
So that is the domestic picture. Now let me just move a little bit to the outside picture because Iran is not content with disgracing itself by killing teenage girls. This alliance with Russia in Ukraine has isolated Iran even more. And I think that when you combine that with Iran’s hesitance about resuming its compliance with the nuclear deal, which of course existed prior to the outbreak of protests, this has put Iran in an extraordinary situation of isolation and pariahdom, something that until now we had not really seen.
There was a willingness to somehow give Iran the benefit of the doubt in some areas. There were efforts by Iran to patch up relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, these kinds of things that we were seeing prior. But now we have confirmed reports that Iran is providing so-called suicide drones to [Russian President] Vladimir Putin, which he is using to bomb civilian targets in Ukraine, to kill Ukrainians, to destroy their infrastructure. And again, the irony. In the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq War, Iran complained that it was left all alone while Iraq used Western munitions to bomb its cities in the so-called War of the Cities. And now Iran is sending drones and trainers to allow Russia to bomb civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. How do these people look at themselves in the mirror when they do this?
Why are they doing it? Because they have a government that has doubled down on its relationships with China and Russia. A government that is totally unpopular at home. We have not an axis of evil but an axis of authoritarians now, of regimes that seemingly do not care what their publics think in pursuit of their own agendas for aggrandizement, or perhaps just regime survival. As you suggested, Richard, this is now basically an oligarchy, a kleptocracy, a theocracy, but only in the most shallow terms, which is backed by a major armed force—namely the IRGC—which is, indeed, calling the shots in a lot of places.
Just a couple other points. I disagreed with you, Richard, a little bit about the JCPOA [Iran nuclear deal] and the fact that it led to nothing good. I think we really will never know, because Donald Trump was elected nine months after the JCPOA went into full implementation. And that basically short-circuited the whole experiment. There was actually a lessening of tension for a while in the region, and certainly a lessening of attacks on Americans in the region during this period, partly because Iran and the US were cooperating indirectly in Iraq and in Syria against ISIS.
But when Trump began to threaten the JCPOA, and certainly after he withdrew unilaterally in 2018 when Iran was still in full compliance with the JCPOA, that’s when everything started to go south in the region, in terms of Iranian attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf, on Saudi oil installations, and attacks by Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq against Americans based in Iraq and in Syria. So I think we have to put the blame where the blame is due. This is not entirely due to Iran.
One other factor: You talked a lot about the Shia and does Iran see itself as a defender of the Shia throughout the word, particularly in the Arab countries? I think it does. And this role, of course, predates the Islamic Republic. It begins with the shah, who sent the imam Musa al-Sadr to Lebanon in the late 1950s to help raise up the downtrodden Shia of Lebanon, who were certainly a plurality in the country. And his intervention led to the creation of the first Shia militia in Lebanon, a group called Amal, which later morphed into what we know as Hezbollah after the Iranian Revolution.
So this concept of a need to support fellow Shia, being the protector of the Shia, is something that is deep within Iran and was part of the monarchy well before the Islamic Republic. And we can talk later maybe about the whole notion of religious rule and morality police and all of this, and how all of this is faring not just in Iran but in places like Saudi Arabia. I think it’s quite interesting to see the trajectory.
But I would say for now that the protests in Iran, you can call them a revolution or a counter-revolution, are very much still alive and will continue, no matter how much repression we see from the government. And that the government’s repression of these people, in addition to its support for Russia in Ukraine, is creating a new situation where it’s not just the JCPOA that’s in jeopardy. I think Iran really is more in danger of being a pariah and isolated globally than it has been since the revolution, the hostage crisis, and the Iran-Iraq War.
ALI ALFONEH, Senior Fellow, The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Iran, of course, is going through a very deep crisis, which I believe, first and foremost, is social, and the making of the Islamic Republic itself. And my presentation reflects this fact. First, I will talk about great social change in Iran, under the Islamic Republic. And next I will try to address possible future scenarios, particularly concerning political change.
When it comes to social change, most Iranians living in Iran, and in particular Iranians living abroad, perceive and consider the Islamic Republic as a backward, retrograde regime. As a matter of fact, the Islamic Republic has been a modernizing regime. And that is the very core of the tragedy of the Islamic Republic, that it has managed to modernize Iran in the course of the past 44 years but has not been capable of or not willing to adapt itself politically to the changes in society.
Let me mention some World Bank statistics just to show the deep changes that the Iranian society has gone through over the course of the past 44–45 years. According to the World Bank, in 1978, 50 percent of Iran’s population was illiterate. In other words, half of the population was incapable of writing their own name on a piece of paper. Today’s literacy rate in Iran is approximately 90 percent. For a developing country, 10 percent illiteracy is still high, but there is a big change from 1978. 1978, 50 percent literacy rate. Today, 90 percent.
This change is even more impressive when it comes to the literacy rate among adult women. I do apologize that I do not have the numbers for ’79 in the World Bank records. But according to the World Bank, in 1976, only 24 percent of Iran’s adult female population was literate. Today, the female literacy rate is approximately 81 percent. Even more dramatically, when it comes to university education, in 1978 only 3 percent of Iranian women had a university education. In 2020, 57 percent of Iranian women had a university education. Today, 60 percent of Iranian university students are women, meaning the majority of university students are women, not men, which is a very, very big shift.
Imagine a regime which has enabled women to get primary, secondary, and even university education, is telling them what to wear. To wear the hijab, to control them. The Taliban regime next door is far more logical in its thinking. The Taliban regime says, we do not want women to be in control of their bodies, so we deny them education. Because when women are not educated, they will not demand to be free.
The Islamic Republic, on the other hand, with one hand is giving education to Iranian women, and with the other hand is beating girls to death at the morality police stations because they want to control their own body, they want to control their own dress. That is a strange mystery of the Islamic Republic. The leadership does not understand what it has done to Iran. They changed the Iranian society, but they have not changed their own behavior to adapt to the changed society.
It is also interesting to know that in 1979, the year of the revolution, half of Iran’s population was living in the big cities. The rest were living in the countryside. Today, 76 percent of Iranians live in big cities. Back in 1979, Iranians had radio. Richer Iranians perhaps had a television. In the villages, it was only the local village teahouse that had one television. Today, Iranians not only have access to radio and television but also to satellite television. Which means that they can access Persian language broadcasts into Iran from abroad. They also possess mobile phones, and they have access to the internet. Yes, the internet is censored, but most Iranians also know how to bypass the internet censorship. They use VPNs [virtual private networks] in order to get access to the internet.
In other words, the Iran of today is not the Iran of 1979. Iran has a very large middle class which is well educated, which is urbanized, which is extremely well informed about what is happening in the world. Therefore, it is no surprise that Iranian women and Iranian men, and even teenagers in Iran, no longer believe in the fairytale stories that Mr. Ayatollah Khamenei should be the intermediary between man and God, that the elections in Iran should be controlled and screened by a body called the Guardian Council. They want to have a choice. They want to be free to choose who they elect into office. And they are not.
And this is why we see the middle class going to the streets. But it’s not just the middle class protesting against the Islamic Republic. It is also the unprivileged classes. Grand Ayatollah Khomeini back in 1979 always emphasized the role of the shantytown dwellers, not the palace dwellers. The shantytown dwellers, they should inherit—be the inheritors of the Islamic Republic. They should be the vanguard of the revolution. But today, the Islamic Republic couldn’t care less about the shantytown dwellers. We are seeing bread riots in Iran. It is the unprivileged classes in the Islamic Republic who are, in reality, paying the price of Iran’s nuclear program and the price of the sanctions regime against Iran. It is not the elites of the Islamic Republic. It is the shantytown dwellers.
And for these two reasons, freedom on one hand and bread on the other, people go to the street. In the recent protests, the ongoing protests I should say, for the most part we are seeing the middle class and the teenagers who are demanding personal freedom and, to some extent, political freedom. They are expressing their displeasure and unhappiness with the Islamic Republic in its entirety. The unprivileged have yet to join the protests. And for now, that is the Islamic Republic’s luck, because as long as these two groups are separate the regime can suppress them individually. But when both groups—meaning the middle class and the underprivileged—go to the streets at the same time, it is far more difficult for the Islamic Republic to suppress them.
So what are the options for the Islamic Republic? For the time being, I do not believe that the Islamic Republic is moving toward its immediate collapse. I do not see signs of immediate collapse of the regime. Not the least because the Islamic Republic has not even utilized its last reserves. We have seen the police force and we have seen the Basij militia suppress the protesters. But most places in the country, with the exceptions of the Sistan and Baluchistan region and Iran’s Kurdistan region, the Revolutionary Guard has not intervened to suppress the protests. This means that the regime is not on the verge of collapse.
But I do believe that the regime is on the verge of fundamental change. And the change that I am seeing already is a tendency where the Revolutionary Guard is no longer really controlled by the clerical system. The Revolutionary Guard is not subjected to civilian control the way that the Red Army was subjected to party control in the Soviet Union. Mr. Khamenei is ill. Mr. Khamenei is old. And we do not know how much time he has left. The civilian institutions in the Islamic Republic are very weak, and the Revolutionary Guard has an ambition of becoming what the Pakistani military is: an army which is the custodian of the nuclear bomb, but also an army which indirectly rules Pakistan and is distributing the scarce resources of the state.
There are civilian politicians around in Pakistan, even elected politicians. But in reality, they are not the ones who have the power. And for all the shortcomings of the system in Pakistan, the civilian politicians are blamed, not the Pakistani military. And that exactly is the ideal model of the Revolutionary Guard. What I do not know yet is when the Revolutionary Guard reaches the moment and the conclusion that Mr. Khamenei no longer is a source of legitimacy but is just a liability, and therefore they should do with him what the Securitate did with Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu in Romania.
I do not know when we’d reach that point, but many signs of an emerging military dictatorship are emerging. That military dictatorship may not care that much about religion but will be a kleptocratic system, like in next-door Pakistan. And that may be coming before we even realize it.
ALEX VATANKA, Director of Iran Program, Middle East Institute
In terms of the big picture, as far as these protests are concerned, we’ve all been asked—those of us who are Iran watchers—the last five weeks with these ongoing protests, is this the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic? And I think most of us who are sort of humble enough to admit to what we’ve seen in previous years would say we don’t know this is the beginning of the end, or this is the beginning of the revolution. But we surely see a trend here. And I think the trend speaks for itself.
The last set of protests, the ones from 2017, ’18, ’19, and 2020, plus the ones we are witnessing right now, are different in the sense that, as Barbara pointed out, nobody really has any illusions anymore that the Islamic Republic is something that can reform itself. For a long time that might have been the case, that you could maybe through elections reform the system. That turned out, frankly, to be a hoax.
And it was well played by Ali Khamenei through his control of the deep state, the state organs that essentially allow him to engineer elections. So nobody takes elections in Iran seriously, because they don’t mean anything. It's an Islamic Republic in name only. There is nothing republican about the system in Iran today. It is an Islamist militant theocracy, an unelected cleric at the top in the shape of Ayatollah Khamenei.
Previous generations might have put up with it because they were fearful, they were scared of the consequences of standing up. But what you’ve seen with this youngest generation, the ones that are actually out in the streets today—what we call, in Persian, Generation Dahe Hashtadi, those born in the (Persian decade of the) 1380s, essentially Generation Z, born in the equivalent years of 2000-2010—they are fearless as much as they are hopeless about the future. And the hopelessness was something they shared with their parents’ generation, grandparents’ generation. But the fearlessness part is new.
They’re willing to come out. And you’ve seen the statistics by the Iranian regime itself. Most of those arrested, 70 percent, are under the age of 20. This is a generation that’s not going to go away. This is a generation that was raised on social media platforms in a globalized world, that has no time for dinosaurs like Khamenei that really have nothing new to say except empty promises and not delivering on those very same promises that has been the case for four decades-plus. So I think Generation Z is a generation that is just now becoming politically active, it’s just now entering their early 20s. And they’re coming out to an economy that’s sanctioned.
And they ask the question, why are we sanctioned? Well, because our leaders have decided to pursue a foreign policy that has resulted in us being sanctioned. And an economy that should be a top 20 economy, maybe a top 15 economy, today is isolated. Instead of being able to find employment, the best hope so many Iranians still have is emigration. Khamenei just this week again spoke about how he laments the fact that there is an issue of brain drain. Well, he needs to look at himself in the mirror, why is there brain drain? Why do people leave? For various reasons, and they’re not hard to identify. He knows exactly what those reasons are.
So watch out for Generation Z. This is—this tells us that these protests are going to continue, for sure, even if this latest round of protests is suppressed. Khamenei knows it. Khamenei doesn’t want to admit to it. Others in the regime know it and are quietly whispering that something needs to give. And by the way, the Iranian regime itself is allowing platforms inside of Iran for some of these discussions to be had. You’ve had in the last five weeks plenty of sociologists on Iranian national TV who sit there in one-hour, two-hour-long shows, discuss issues like, why has Iranian society turned its back on Islam? Not the theocracy, but Islam?
Just a few days ago I was watching an Iranian sociologist on Iranian TV making the point that nobody has been a bigger enemy of the religion of Islam in Iran than the Islamic Republic. Nobody’s been able to turn Iran toward secularism as effectively as Ayatollah Khamenei, with droves and droves of Iranians leaving Islam—entirely leaving Islam. They don’t sit there and discuss which part of Islam they like or don’t like. They’re leaving the religion. That’s a direct consequence of this theocracy that’s been in power for as long as it has been.
Let me just say one point Ali mentioned, I think it’s important. These mid-ranking regime members who are focused on the future, who are looking at a post-Khamenei Iran, they have a choice to make. They can stay with the clerics, these dinosaurs, that really have nothing in common—nothing to say to the younger generation, or they can take a different approach. Again, there are signs. I just saw a leading member of the Revolutionary Guards come out just this week and talk about ways they need to work toward making the young generation happy. “Happy,” that was the word he used. How do we make them happy?
Well, I don’t know if it’s too late to make them happy, but I can see clearly that the problems that they need to fix aren’t just limited to making people happy. There are lots of structural issues that need to be fixed—the political aspect, the economic, foreign-policy aspect, cultural aspect. This is a culture war that’s going on in Iran. In a society where about 85 percent are against the mandatory veil, you have hundreds of thousands of people being arrested or warned each year by the so-called morality police about how to put their veil on their heads when they’re opposed to that same policy. So you can see the disconnect. And I think that’s really an issue that’s not going to go away.
Amini’s death, to me, was something that was predictable, in many ways. Khamenei in recent years has come out and essentially said to the tiny minority that supports the regime, fire at will. Basically opening the field for vigilantism, if I could say that word. So if you see something in the streets, and you think someone’s veil isn’t adequate, take action. That creates civil conflict in society. And when you have 85 percent that’s against mandatory veil, but you give arms to the 15 percent, roughly, that supports the regime, you have been, Mr. Khamenei, the reason why there is conflict. And it’s not going to go away. And unfortunately, we don’t see Khamenei backing away. Khamenei’s inner circle of clerics are still insisting that this issue of mandatory hijab is non-negotiable. And if that puts them in the camp with the Taliban, they seem to be saying, so be it. That’s fine with them. But I don’t think it’s going to be fine with that younger Generation Z that I was describing to you before. They’re going to come back because it’s not about the veil. The veil represents what’s really wrong about the system, for all the reasons that Barbara and Ali pointed out earlier.
How did Khamenei get to this point? Why did he risk it? He didn’t have to. When Ebrahim Raisi became president last year, he didn’t have to tell him: Go out there and enforce the hijab more so than you’ve ever done before; and, give him the fewer dollars Iran has to do so, why? I think it’s because he needed to exercise power. And why does Khamenei need to exercise power now? Because I think he wants to tame the Iranian population to the extent possible because he might—and this is the part where I speculate, I don’t know—but he might harbor an ambition to put his son, Mojtaba Khamenei, in his place.
This is speculation on my part. But when you’re looking at reasons or logic why Khamenei would choose right now to go after and implement a highly unpopular policy, the only logic I can come up with is he wanted to exercise power. He wanted to tame the population, so when the day comes that he’s gone and there is an attempt to put his son in his place, that the population would accept Mojtaba Khamenei as the successor. By the way, we can compare this to Egypt and other countries in the Arab world in the last 10 years, where the succession issue was the spark that created the crisis, what we now call the Arab Spring.
Ambassador Schmierer, you raised a lot of good issues. I’d love to get to some of them on the future of the Shia nation, the competition between Sistani and Khamenei. I think right now, the supporters of al-Sistani must be thinking, how do they take advantage of the many, many mistakes that Ali Khamenei is making next door? And to have reason to want to be ready to take over, because I think Ali Khamenei’s vision for the Shia world—if he ever had one, and he says he does—is that he believes in the so-called Islamic civilization. But frankly, if you can’t deliver for your own people at home, what chance do you have to appeal to the wider Shia and Islamic community out here who can see that you’re not popular at home? So why would they embrace you?
AMB. SCHMIERER: First of all, let me just say, as a general observation from having lived in the Middle East for many decades: Historically, I don’t think there has been at least an overt clash between Shia Islam and Sunni Islam writ large. In other words, I think most of the communities have learned to coexist. But that I think in recent decades this idea of provoking a conflict between the two has been used as a tool by leaders to further their own interests.
Let me just raise a couple of questions. There was one about the Revolutionary Guard Corps. As we know, the Revolutionary Guard Corps lost its leader, [Qasem] Soleimani, almost three years ago—a very charismatic, very well-known leader. The current leader, I don’t even know his name, but I don’t think has had quite the same level of impact. Yet, the influence, the pervasive control of the IRGC over the economy of the country, is as strong as it’s ever been.
How does that impact Iran’s broader policy decisions? For example, on the nuclear deal, if Iran re-enters the nuclear deal and sanctions are lifted, I believe the IRGC begins to lose some of its influence because it benefits from being the organization that helps Iran evade the sanctions. Likewise, I think the IRGC benefits from Iran’s support for all the militias in the Arab countries. If that starts to fade, what does that do to the IRGC? And frankly, the IRGC’s new leadership, is it as effective, and is it as influential as it was under Soleimani?
MR. ALFONEH: We do not agree among each other when it comes to answers and role of the Revolutionary Guard. I personally believe that we need to distinguish between the institution and the individual. The Iranian political system and the Iranian military is highly institutionalized. Within 24 hours after the assassination of Major General Soleimani, a replacement was in place, and the Quds Force has continued its operations as in the past. The only difference between the operations of the Quds Force, the extraterritorial force of the IRGC, under Mr. Soleimani and under the current leadership of Brigadier General [Esmail] Qaani is that it actually has gone back to its traditional role of a secretive organization operating outside of Twitter and TikTok and Facebook.
Under Major General Soleimani, the organization—this highly secretive organization—became a mass-mobilization force, mobilizing and inspiring the Shia all over the Arab world. But even during the beginning of Mr. Soleimani’s leadership of the Quds Force, it still was a secret organization. Under Mr. Qaani, the organization has gone back to its roots when it comes to methods of operation. When it comes to the IRGC’s interests, I also believe that the same thing applies.
By the way, before that, in Iraq, it was a disaster. The killing of Mr. [Abu Mahdi] al-Muhandis was a disaster for the Popular Mobilization Forces because the Popular Mobilization Force is not as institutionalized as the Revolutionary Guard, as the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard. So Iraq lost one individual [the deputy chairman]. It was a disaster for the PMF. In the Iranian case, for the IRGC and the Quds Force, the loss of Mr. Soleimani was not a disaster, because the institution is big and continues its operations.
This also is the case when it comes to nuclear negotiations. The Revolutionary Guard did not veto the JCPOA. Why? Because in return, they demanded that should Iran’s economy open up to foreign direct investment, foreign companies should engage in joint ventures with companies owned by the Revolutionary Guard.
In other words, the Revolutionary Guard calculation is that if there is no JCPOA, if there is no nuclear deal, we will opt for the nuclear bomb and we will be just like Pakistan, the custodians of Iran’s nuclear bomb. If there is a JCPOA and we sacrifice the bomb, at least for some years, we want to have a benefit. We want to have our share of the cake of foreign direct investment in Iran. So the IRGC as an institution is logical and is rationally pursuing its corporate interests. And this is what I expect to happen, regardless of Major General Soleimani being among us or not.
MS. SLAVIN: The question of the JCPOA has come up a lot, particularly in the diaspora, with Iranians in the diaspora saying the US should walk away from negotiations and shouldn’t negotiate with this regime, which is being so brutally repressive. And, I mean, the point is moot. The Raisi government participated in indirect negotiations with the US in Vienna. But there has been a deal on the table since March, and the Raisi government, the supreme leader, IRGC, whoever is calling the shots in Iran, did not embrace this deal.
So clearly there are a number of factors. It may be that, as Ali says, the IRGC wants to be the custodian of the bomb. It may be that certain people are benefiting greatly from the smuggling networks that have built up over the years because of sanctions. It may be because they have no faith in the United States to maintain the agreement, and in that they obviously have justification because they saw what happened under Donald Trump. But this is a moot point. There are no negotiations going on. Iran has not come back into compliance, has not agreed to the deal to come back into compliance.
And will they change their mind after the US midterms? I mean, I think that the taste for this deal is pretty much gone wherever you look. And if the repression of protest hasn’t done it, then the provision of drones to Russia has done it, where even the Europeans are basically washing their hands of Iran. So IRGC dreams of joint ventures with Europeans were always pretty far-fetched and now they’re really totally unrealistic.
MR. VATANKA: I agree, the nuclear talks aren’t going anywhere right now. But I think the diaspora being concerned about it is very much legitimate. I mean, the concern here is that the protest movement will be thrown under the bus, that if there is a deal—and I agree there is no sign of an imminent deal—even in the near future, imagine what that does to the sort of morale of the protest movement in Iran, which is not foreign led but does care about whether the international community cares about it. And the flow of billions of dollars through sanctions relief is not going to help their cause. I think that’s why the diaspora is worried about it.
And Ali’s point about the Revolutionary Guards being institutional, I agree with that, as well. But that doesn’t mean they are rational, or they know what they’re doing. I think the supply of drones and potentially now missiles to Russia tells you very much the big-picture mission that IRGC is on, which is what Khamenei has articulated, the “Look East” policy. The tighter, closer relations with the likes of Russia and China. This is Khamenei’s big dream. He's been dreaming about this for so long: that the West is declining and the East is rising, and Iran should go wholeheartedly with the East, regardless of the consequences.
I mean, just right now we’re talking about drones. How much is Iran actually going to benefit financially from selling these drones or missiles to Russia, if any? Probably not much. What else are they going to get from the Russians? I don’t know what it is, but I do know for sure that if this becomes a dealbreaker, and the drone sale, which has caused the Europeans to impose sanctions on Iran, is the reason why there is no nuclear deal in the foreseeable future, there’s a direct consequence in the case of billions of dollars of lost oil-export revenue alone. Because even if they solve the nuclear issue, they’ve given the West more reasons to keep them sanctioned on other grounds.
That tells me that there is no clarity of vision in the IRGC ranks. They are basically thinking small, tactical. They’re much better at circumventing sanctions to make small amounts of money as opposed to thinking big, as opposed to thinking what the potential could be for an Iranian economy that was part of the mainstream global economy, that could trade freely without all the games that the IRGC is so good at. Instead of sending your oil to Oman or another Gulf state, to ship it to Malaysia, to then cover up your tracks to ship it to China, to sell 700,000 barrels of oil a day, imagine what the Saudis are doing, what the Emiratis are doing, what the Iraqis are doing—because they can trade freely.
So I think the IRGC is good in terms of thinking small, in terms of filling vacuums in the region. They’ve done that in places like Syria, in Iraq, and so on. But I don’t think they have a clear, long-term strategy, certainly not for how to fix the Iranian economy. And there’s a problem because they’re a big part of the Iranian economy. Nobody knows exactly what part of Iran’s economy is in the hands of the IRGC, but probably around one-third of the Iranian economy, one way or another, is linked to the IRGC. So you can see how they’re playing the role of a spoiler. They don’t have a vision. They’re thinking small. They’re thinking in terms of paying whatever cost necessary not to have to have that critical dialogue with the West.
And we all know, the critical dialogue means more than just the nuclear agreement. It needs to include other issues. And the IRGC simply is not ready to go there. And clearly, Khamenei shares that worldview. Khamenei wants to be the man who, when he dies, will be able to claim, I stood my ground to the last minute, and I never caved in to the United States or the West. That is, in his mind, his legacy. And unfortunately, it’s going to be very hard to change a man’s heart and mind on that.
MR. ALFONEH: May I push a little back on my good friend Alex’s argument? The counterargument, of course, is that the IRGC leadership is opting for the bomb and believes that once you have the bomb then you can also sell your oil. Then there’ll be nobody trying to sanction you, just like the United States just kept giving development aid to Pakistan even after discovering that the Pakistani intelligence service was housing an individual called Mr. Osama bin Laden. So in other words, once you are a nuclear power, you more or less get a blank check to do whatever you want. If that is the calculation, then why not? Then it would make sense for the IRGC.
It would also make sense that in the meantime the IRGC gets 30 percent that disappears when Iran tries to sell oil on the black market. This is something that a former vice president disclosed, that 30 percent of the oil revenue sold on the black market simply disappears. And that money disappears into the pockets of the Revolutionary Guard. So they do have incentives to do what they’re doing. I’m sure they have calculations that we are not aware of. But I find it very unlikely that they should be dealing in a way that does not serve their own interest. They are perfectly aware of what their corporate interests are.
MS. SLAVIN: I know, Ali, that you keep comparing the IRGC to the military in Pakistan. But there is another comparison. And that’s with North Korea, which, of course, left the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and developed nuclear weapons after the Bush administration pulled out of a previous agreement negotiated by the Clinton administration. And there have been negotiations back and forth, but basically North Korea has become one of the most heavily sanctioned places on Earth. If Iran goes for a bomb, assuming it gets there and the Israelis don’t do something first, I would say that Iran would remain under sanctions, despite the impact that it has on the international oil markets. I don’t think we can necessarily assume that that would ease the economic pressure on Iran.
AMB. SCHMIERER: Let me just kind of wrap up the IRGC. The question that came in has to do with the IRGC now being physically present in Crimea. They’re there training Russians on these drones. And that reminds me of the IRGC’s presence in Syria, and the impact that that had. Is this getting blowback from the Iranian people? Do the Iranian people support such deployment of the IRGC? Or is this going against the interests? Are body bags coming home from Syria that are causing families to be unhappy? In other words, what is the impact of the IRGC actually going out and deploying in these controversial conflicts on the thinking and sentiments of the Iranian people?
MS. SLAVIN: Well, first of all, I would say that Syria and Ukraine are very different. The Syria intervention was billed by the Iranian government as, first, to support a loyal ally, namely [President Bashar] al-Assad. The Assad family had been allied with the Islamic Republic almost since its inception. But also, there was a threat of Sunni Islamic terrorism: ISIS, al-Qaeda, groups that hated Shia, that wanted to kill Shia. So it was portrayed as defending against this threat that could come back to the Iranian homeland. Whether you accept that or not is up to you, but there was that justification.
With Ukraine, there is no such justification. And Russia is not popular in Iran. And the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not supported in Iran. So I think people in Iran are outraged by this, as are people around the world. It’s not an uprising in a country against an established government. This is an invasion by Ukraine’s neighbor. It is aggression. It is an illegal act. And Iran is now directly intervening in an illegal act. This not only violates UN Security Council Resolution 2231 [of 2015, endorsing the nuclear deal], but it violates much more than that. So, as I said, I think this is putting Iran on a road to true pariahdom in a way that we haven’t seen before.
MR. ALFONEH: First of all, our big problem as political scientists is that we do not have access to reliable opinion polls coming out of Iran. So we cannot be sure what the Iranian public thinks about this or that conflict. But what we did see in the case of Syria was that in the beginning, when it was a popular uprising against the Assad dictatorship, the Iranian public was actually opposed to Iran’s intervention. But as soon as the civil war in Syria got the color of an Islamic State uprising, which is anti-Shia, as Barbara also mentioned, and fundamentally a terrorist organization, the Iranian public changed its opinion.
And I think the best proof of that is the funeral service of Major General Soleimani. Millions of people went to the streets of Iran. And I’m not so sure that the Islamic Republic has so many supporters. These people, they supported a patriot who fought for the sake of Iran. And unfortunately, they also—conveniently, perhaps—forgot that Major Soleimani’s personality was complex. I mean, yes, he was a patriot. Yes, he dedicated his entire life to defending Iran. But he was also complicit, most unfortunately, in the war crimes of the Assad regime against the civilian population in Syria.
Concerning the intervention in Ukraine, I’m not aware of a large-scale deployment of Iranian forces.
MR. VATANKA: I think what we’re witnessing in terms of Khamenei’s defense of transferring drones to the Russian Federation for this illegal war on Ukraine is the lowest it’s really been in many ways. It just shows you that the man cannot say no to Vladimir Putin. This man claims to be God’s representative on this planet. Ambassador Schmierer, you talked about velayat-e faqih: This concept is an entirely manufactured concept, doesn’t exist in Shia Islam. It doesn’t exist in Islam. This is a made-up concept by the Khomeinists in 1979. And this is just another example of how empty this model is.
On what grounds do you justify this support for Russia, other than it makes geopolitical sense, which is an entirely separate issue. You could say that your Look East policy—with Iran now having done things such as joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization last year, in recent years signed the so-called 25-year strategic deal with China, and so on—you could make the argument this makes sense from the point of view that Iran wants to prove its credentials to Putin, to China, as a bastion of what Khamenei would call anti-imperialist status.
I can see the logic in that. But I cannot see the logic in what this does to serve the Iranian national interest in terms of helping the economy, in terms of helping Iran’s political position in places like the UN, or in the European Union. And the opposite is true. The opposite is true. He’s putting all his eggs in the basket of the Russians. And I doubt very much Khamenei’s going to be sending Iranian soldiers, conscripts, to Ukraine. There are some reports. I mean, I would be, frankly, shocked if that was the case.
I mean, they could barely justify sending conscripts—and they didn’t, by and large—to Syria. And there, they had some kind of very flimsy, but nonetheless some, justification that they were defending the so-called Shia shrines in Damascus. But in the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there is no Islamic justification. It’s a pure geopolitical gamble by Khamenei. And the Iranian population is hugely against Russia. Not just over Ukraine. I mean, there’s a history—I think you all know that over the last 200 or so years, Persia and Iran have lost quite a bit at the hands of the Russians.
So, Russia is a neighbor. There needs to be relations. There needs to be trade. All that is good. But the idea that what Iran is doing right now in Ukraine is serving Iranian national interests is far-fetched. I don’t think the Iranian public is going to buy into it. And, for those reasons, I think that’s going to act as a restraint of how much Khamenei can actually do going forward, depending on how long this war in Ukraine lasts. I mean, if this becomes a conflict to go on for years and years, it becomes really a risky proposition for Khamenei to stay the course and keep closer to Putin. Because the consequences in terms of a backfire at home are real for him.
AMB. SCHMIERER: Some of the questions coming in now seem to relate more to the Iran nuclear deal. Let me just clarify I was the ambassador in Oman when that whole process started, with Oman’s support. And I’m a great supporter of the Iran nuclear deal. What I was saying in my opening remarks was I had hoped, because I had seen from Oman an opening with Iran where they seemed to be becoming more realistic, more willing to have a dialogue, I had hoped that President Obama’s efforts to try to thaw the relationship might bear more fruit. And unfortunately, I was disappointed, and I’m sure he was as well, that it didn’t. But I do think the nuclear deal was a very positive, a very important accomplishment. And I’m, of course, a supporter. I’d like to see it reinstated.
But the questions that are coming in relate to one that I had already had from before. And that is, and a couple of you have alluded to this, we’re probably at the point where we’re not going to see the nuclear deal reinstated. I think it would be nice if it would be, but I don’t think it will be. So that leaves the question, what should the US and the Western community or the global community—what should be their response if it turns out that the nuclear deal does not get reinstated and Iran really does have an opening, if it wishes to pursue it, toward developing a nuclear weapon?
One of the questions is, why hasn’t Israel targeted factories in Iran? Another one: Should we launch a military strike or a war against Iran? Another option would be, we acquiesce to the fact that Iran gets to the point where it has a nuclear weapon, and we live with that. A third might be that we up the sanctions even more. Maybe we have a blockade. I guess the question would be, what would you suggest? How would you think we should best react if we don’t have a mechanism in the Iran nuclear deal to try to help provide assurance that Iran will not pursue a nuclear weapon? Should we take any action? Would cyberattacks suffice? How might we respond to that reality?
MS. SLAVIN: A lot of folks in the policy community are thinking about this now. We have clung to the hope that somehow this deal could be revived because there is no good plan B. There are no good options if we don’t have it. If restored, it would roll back the Iranian program such that Iran would not have sufficient material for a single nuclear weapon until the year 2031. But for all the reasons that have been pointed out, it’s not looking good.
So, I think that there will be a variety of steps. Obviously, the sanctions tool has been pretty much maxed out. But I would assume there will be more sanctions enforcement, more attempts to prevent Iran from selling oil than we’ve seen so far. There will probably be cyberattacks. And there will be attacks on Iranian scientists and nuclear engineers, discrete attacks on various Iranian facilities. There is no military blow that can knock out 17 declared Iranian nuclear facilities and probably an increasing number of covert facilities. And I worry that any massive military strike would only push Iran faster and further toward actually developing nuclear weapons.
If Iran indeed does develop nukes, I would encourage people not to have a psychic meltdown. Because let’s remember that Israel has at least 90 nuclear weapons. Nobody ever talks about that. So there would be a kind of India-Pakistan deterrence going on here. These are weapons that cannot be used. So Iran would develop them as a way of making itself literally bullet-proof, and trying to keep its regime from being overthrown, in the same way that North Korea has done over the years.
I was listening to a discussion recently where Bruce Riedel, a former US official that I have very high regard for, noted that the real existential threat to the Middle East was not Iranian nuclear weapons but climate change. So, we’re going to have to keep these things in perspective. But I would think there would still be a number of steps to try to make it more difficult for Iran to go in that direction. One question I have is, if the JCPOA is not revived, does Iran work with Russia and China to develop a nuclear arsenal?
The Russians in particular have been very involved in Iran’s nuclear development, completing a civilian nuclear reactor for Iran, providing fuel for it. The Chinese were in the process of redesigning a heavy water reactor for Iran at Arak. What do they do? Do we really see this kind of coalition of the sanctioned developing further, and in the nuclear field as well? But there are certainly significant concerns. And a lot of better nonproliferation minds than me are thinking about it.
One possibility would also be sort of a freeze on Iran’s nuclear activity in return for limited sanctions relief. Perhaps unfreezing some portion of Iran’s assets abroad. Something like $100 billion of Iran’s prior oil revenues are frozen in foreign banks. So it’s possible there could be some sort of trade of assets for a freeze. A lot will depend on how pragmatic the Iranian regime is going to be, how much it feels the need for concessions because of the economic problems that the country is undergoing—I mean, over 50 percent inflation, people not being able to afford to put food on the table in a lot of cases, tremendous impoverishment of a society which had been rising to be a largely middle-class society before all these sanctions came back into effect.
So, there will be a variety of techniques. But please, illusions of Israeli strikes? No. Even supported by the United States, it would be a disaster and it wouldn’t work.
MR. ALFONEH: I’m not a nuclear physicist, but I know that Iran’s nuclear program has reached industrial scale, and that Iranian governments and successive Iranian regimes have aggressively pursued a nuclear-weapon strategy. Iran’s nuclear program did not start under the Islamic Republic. It was the shah who started it. And we know from the memoirs of the late Asadollah Alam, the minister of the royal court, that the late shah of Iran was contemplating to bring Iran into a situation where it could, within a very short period of time, develop a nuclear device, a nuclear bomb. The Islamic Republic inherited not only the shah’s nuclear program but also the shah’s nuclear ambitions.
And I also happen to believe that when a country has invested as much money and resources—has established as large a community of nuclear physicists, and established bureaucracies, engaged in production of the bomb—even regime change in Iran may not change the ambitions of Iran. Meaning that if these protests or future protests bring about a democracy in Iran, there certainly is no guarantee that Iran will not be pursuing a nuclear strategy. On the contrary, I do believe that exactly because Iran lacks the economic means to compete with regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia, and lacks access to large-scale purchases of extremely sophisticated US arms, that Iran has a very, very strong incentive, even under a democratic regime, to continue its weapon program.
The US response, of course, depends on where on the US list of priorities is the proliferation of nuclear weapons to Iran. If that is a high priority, then the United States has no other choice but—what? Physical bombardment of those facilities and engagement in a very long-term war with Iran? Is that desirable from the United States’s viewpoint? I doubt it. And then there is a discussion about risks of Iran becoming a nuclear state and the possibility of other Persian Gulf countries beginning their own nuclear programs, which is a real possibility. And I do believe that that is the most likely outcome: nuclearization of Iran at some point and further nuclearization of other regional states.
MR. VATANKA: It is an industrial-scale program. There are hundreds and hundreds of scientists that are involved in this. Iran has many universities that have produced top-notch scientists. So this is all homegrown. This is indigenous. This isn’t a flow that we can cut off. We can carry out active sabotage and all sorts of other things, assassinations, but that’s just a delaying tactic. And it could backfire in the sense that it might just push the Iranian regime to want to move faster toward a nuclear weapon.
And the issue of what other regional states would do in response if Iran did go for the bomb surely is something that is part of the calculations of the Islamic Republic. I mean, the UAE already has a live nuclear project. The Saudis are working on it. I don’t know how fast they’ve moved on that. The Turks have a civilian nuclear program. And so there is the regional aspect. Would Iran’s security be better off by having neighboring states also go down the path to a nuclear program that then could be weaponized at some point in the future? I mean, I’m not sure if that’s where Iran wants to go.
The other way of looking at this issue, as Barbara’s talking about, is that a bomb would be a “bullet-proof” vest. What a terrible position to be in if you’re an Iranian citizen, if a nuclear weapon in the hands of Ayatollah Khamenei turns Iran into North Korea. What a terrible position that would be. But I don’t think it would be the case. I think, unlike a place like North Korea, there is a very lively Iranian civil society. There’s plenty of opposition in Iranian public opinion, as we’ve heard.
So I think there would be a lot of pressure within Iran in terms of the consequences of the regime staying the course on this nuclear path. I think it’s a real pressure point for them. They need to find ways to convince their own public opinion that what they’re doing on the nuclear front makes sense. They haven’t, frankly, been able to make that argument. I mean, this program’s been with us now, debated, for 20 years.
For the Biden White House that has now just put out a National Security Strategy that talks about the role of human rights as a core part of its design in terms of how it interacts with the world, timing is essential. I think they can keep the two issues separate. They can have a limited nuclear deal with Iran that gives Iran some benefits—they can save face and sell some more oil. They are already selling enough oil to keep their sort of state together, if you will. Selling a little bit more is not going to significantly change their fortunes, but it might just enable a new nuclear deal to be signed. So you keep Iran where it is, a threshold nuclear state, as opposed to going all the way and weaponizing it.
But that doesn’t mean you give up on the long-term investment that surely the US and the West needs to do, which is to invest in the country of Iran. And people might say this is naïve of me to say, but I genuinely believe that is where you want to invest. The aspirations of this younger generation of Iranians I was describing to you before, which lives in a different world, wants to live in a different and better world. And that’s how—that’s how you need to make sure, if you do cut a deal with the Islamic Republic, you maintain points of pressure on the system. That means you keep a lot of the sanctions on them to keep shaping the calculations of, not Khamenei, that’s too big. Not Hossein Salami, the head of the Revolutionary Guards. But the lower levels in this regime who might see logic in taking a different direction going forward.
Because we cannot assume that everyone that’s part of this regime today at the lower levels—or mid-to-lower levels—are convinced about the path they’re on, who ideologically still believe in the system the way they did a few years ago, decades ago. There are many, I’m sure, inside the regime that, if given a better alternative, would choose a different way forward. And the day Khamenei dies—he’s 83; he could be around for another 20 years, he could be gone sooner—that is the moment that the US, the West, anyone who’s interested in the future trajectory of Iran needs to prepare for and have some policy options, so they can be ready for that scenario.
AMB. SCHMIERER: On the nonproliferation issue, I must say that even when I was in Oman and Iran was bringing online a nuclear generator facility, the Omanis were very nervous about Iran’s capability to do that safely. So there is already concern. And of course, the other thing I was involved with in the region is the US has worked closely with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in helping them prepare and develop a civilian nuclear program. And that’s all been done under the aegis of the non-proliferation treaty. So I guess I would just say that I think any US leader would face a serious question if Iran is demonstrated to have developed a nuclear weapon.
If our partners in the region decided they needed such a weapon themselves to offset that, what would be our approach to trying to assuage them or help them or spread our nuclear umbrella or help them develop their own nuclear capabilities? And then, how would this all sit with Israel, which still sees itself as potentially under threat from other countries in the region. So I don’t envy the US leadership that would have to work through all those questions if we get to that point.
I was interested, and I mentioned it, to see that Iraq has made an effort to try to facilitate some dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That’s kind of on hold right now, but at least it has happened. And I think there has been a genuine decision by the Saudi leadership not to continue what had been, I would say, a provocative approach toward promoting its version of a more austere version of Sunni Islam in the global Islamic community. To me, that’s a sort of a ratcheting down of the level of confrontation with Iran.
Given those kinds of developments, do you think there is any prospect that the level of tension or distrust between Iran and the Sunni Arab states could somehow be lessened? That somehow, we could get to a point where that, which has really reached very high levels in recent years, might go back down to what sort of it used to be, which was kind of a low level and not really that significant an element of the policies of those two sides of the Gulf? Any hope that anybody else could contribute to that effort? Iraq is doing its part, but I’m not sure if there could be any others that might be able to help get to the point where we can reduce that Sunni-Shia tension in the region.
MS. SLAVIN: I think there is a possibility of that. And it’s more because of what the United States is doing, or not doing. I mean, there is a widespread perception that the US is leaving the region. And so we see all of the governments on various sides of the Persian Gulf hedging and developing relationships, certainly with China, but even—I mean, look at what the Saudis have done in terms of the price of oil and oil production, helping Putin and basically giving support to the Ukraine campaign in a little different way than the Iranians are.
So I think they all do see an interest in reducing their friction, because the United States is not going to come to the aid of this one or that one. We also see this in the Abraham Accords, the willingness to openly have relations with Israel and to cooperate on security with Israel to deal with the Iranian threat. I’m certainly no fan of MBS [Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman]; I find him to be an absolutely abhorrent figure in many ways. But I do see a kind of diminution of fundamentalism on both the Sunni and Shia side. I think both have been thoroughly discredited in many ways.
So perhaps we are beginning to see a rise of a more secular Middle East, which does bode well for the future, if you add to that the education and empowerment of women, and all the other things that could go with it. So it’s a small silver lining. The one caveat being that if Iran actually does develop nuclear weapons, then I agree that we will see Saudi Arabia go for nuclear weapons.
MR. ALFONEH: I have to say that I am expecting a fast deterioration of Iran-Saudi relations, and perhaps imminent Iranian attacks against Saudi Arabia. We are talking within the next week. Ever since the protests broke out in Iran, a Saudi-financed television channel, Iran International Television based in London, has become the main voice of the Iranian opposition. The opposition in Iran has no leadership and no organization, and certainly no means of communicating with each other. Iran International Television—which, according to the IRGC’s sources, is Saudi-financed but the content of which is controlled by the Israeli Mossad and perhaps by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq organization as mid-level managers of the organization—has become the main instrument leading, organizing, and securing communication among the Iranian opposition members.
This is extremely dangerous for the Islamic Republic. What we do see in Iran is that Iran International Television has become the most effective Persian language broadcaster to Iran. It commands the largest audience within Iran and is really at the center of Iranian politics today. So the IRGC nowadays is openly threatening Saudi Arabia with retaliation. And the sentence that it used in its newspaper Javan yesterday, in the editorial of the newspaper, was, “If a trumpet in London calls for sedition and uprising in Iran, and it ignites flames which set alight trash cans in the streets of Tehran, it may well be responded to in the hot deserts south of the Persian Gulf.” So they spoke in vile language against the royal house of Saud in Saudi Arabia. And this language was truly unprecedented, I have to say.
So I genuinely do believe that the regime feels threatened by Iran International Television, by the protests which are proving politically costly if not security-wise costly. And I truly am expecting retaliation. This is what they’re writing in their own newspapers.
MS. SLAVIN: We have seen Iran bomb Iraqi Kurdistan to show its displeasure with what’s going on in the Kurdish areas of Iran. I accept that this was what was written there, and that it is a threat to Iran International to cool it somehow. But for Iran to be involved in bombing Saudi Arabia at a time when it’s already in the doghouse for its activities supporting the Russians in Ukraine, not to mention the protests, this would be really, really going quite far.
MR. ALFONEH: I owe you, Barbara, to add the last sentence of that piece in Javan yesterday. The last sentence was, “Such an attack, in the hot deserts south of the Persian Gulf, may revive in the memory of the Bedouin tribe the incidents of Abqaiq and Khurais.”
MS. SLAVIN: Oh, Abqaiq, of course; the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities. It’s certainly a potent threat, and obviously something that one has to watch. But it would be hugely provocative. I mean, anybody can get away with bombing Iraqi Kurdistan. I mean, the Turks do it all the time.
MR. ALFONEH: Well, Iran got away with bombing Abqaiq and Khurais, no?
MS. SLAVIN: Yeah. But going after Saudi again? Iran’s interest now is to somehow survive with the sanctions, get whatever benefits it can from the Russians, the Chinese, the others. We’ve seen the UAE ambassador return to Iran after an absence of some time. I think it would really fly in the face of the efforts that have been made.
We should also point out that Iraq looks like it’s bound for a new government, which will be led by the Shia groups that have been supported by Iran historically. [Iraqi Shiite cleric] Muqtada al-Sadr’s little rebellion has gone up in flames. So I don’t see how they could really carry—
MR. ALFONEH: But this is the lesson, the strategic lesson, that Iran has learned. By bullying its neighbors, it can get its will. Saudi was previously an opponent of the JCPOA. Then Iran attacked and relations improved between Saudi Arabia and Iran. United Arab Emirates was opposed to the JCPOA. Iran attacked its shipping, and now there are better relations between the two countries. So if these are the lessons that Iran has learned, it will repeat them because it was successful before. Why should it not be successful in the future?
MR. VATANKA: I agree with Ali’s point: The Islamic Republic has learned a lesson that being the wild player in all of this, being reckless in what you do—and I would say attacking Saudi Arabia in 2019 certainly, in many ways, was reckless, even though it was successful in its intended objective. But in the next week or so, regardless of what Revolutionary Guards-linked media have to say about this, for Iran to carry out attacks directly in Saudi Arabia, after having spent the last year and a half on five rounds of relatively unsuccessful but, nonetheless, attempts to revive the diplomatic sort of process with Saudi Arabia, might be a bit premature.
But let me say this: We saw the killing down in the southeast in the Baluchistan province on a different level where we’ve seen it in, say, other places, including Tehran. And the same with Kurdistan. So the ethnic minorities in Iran are definitely seen by the Revolutionary Guards, by the security establishment, as a particularly risky group of people that are more likely to be used by foreign intelligence services. And to some extent, there is evidence that that was the case over the last 20 years. Sunni militant groups in Baluchistan often were found to have ties to foreign intelligence services.
So there is that reading by, I think, certain Revolutionary Guards, and if they believe that that exposed underbelly of Iran, through the minority communities, particularly in Baluchistan, as I said, if that’s being tapped into by, say, Saudi Arabia—and I’m not saying that’s the case, but I’m just saying if they believe that was the case—then I anticipate some kind of retaliation as a way of deterring the other side. But we’re not there yet. I don’t see any suggestions that the Saudis are directly involved in the protests inside of Iran, except what Ali said, Iran International, which obviously is something they’re extremely angry about. Unlike Ali, I don’t know who finances Iran International; I don’t have that information. Clearly there are financiers here involved; I don’t know who they are. The narrative from Tehran is that Saudi Arabia and others are involved.
MR. ALFONEH: Yeah, I was quoting Iranian sources, IRGC sources.
MR. VATANKA: Right, IRGC, yeah. I mean, their narrative, as you and I agree, always is so wonderfully self-serving. I mean, they don’t talk about why Iran International became the forum it has become, because they choked off all other platforms inside Iran from the discussion. They killed off the opportunity for anyone to say anything other than what Khamenei wants to hear. So of course you’re going to have organizations like Iran International and a host of platforms where Iranians can actually talk about the long list of grievances they have. So this is the regime’s own doing. They gave all the opportunities in the world for Iran International and others to come along and fill this vacuum and give Iranians an opportunity to voice their anger.
AMB. SCHMIERER: What would be your advice to the West, to Western leaders, to Western publics in how to respond to the current unrest or the current protests in Iran? Hands off, try to get involved, try to support, comment on? What would be your advice?
MS. SLAVIN: I think actually that the Biden administration has been doing a pretty good job. I mean, we’ve seen a lot of expressions of support for the protesters, condemnations of the brutality. We have sanctions against entities like the so-called morality police. We’ve seen the general licenses from the Treasury try to make it easier for Iranians to get access to circumvention tools that can get around the filtering of the internet. But we’ve not seen direct US intervention, hands-on-the-ground intervention, which I think would be a huge mistake, especially with a regime that’s already paranoid about foreign spies and foreign intervention and that sort of thing. So I think it’s been nicely done. [US Secretary of State] Antony Blinken has met with activists, well-respected activists in the diaspora community, women in particular who have advocated for more freedom for Iranian women for a long time, and there are photos of that and that sort of thing.
And they’re also not turning it into explicit calls for regime change. If you read the National Security Strategy that came out recently, it explicitly talks about the fact that the United States is not in the business of forcibly intervening and changing regimes anymore. I think it’s good. We’ll see more of that as this goes on. I have heard calls that Europeans should withdraw their ambassadors to protest the brutality against the women and others protesting in Iran, certainly more sanctions against Iranian officials, maybe expelling the children of regime officials who have found their way to the West. There are a variety of other tools and techniques that can be used.
One other thing is to kick Iran off the UN Women’s Commission as soon as humanly possible and call for more international scrutiny of Iran’s human-rights abuses through a variety of mechanisms that you can do through the UN.
MR. VATANKA: A lot of the things Barbara mentioned are exactly the sort of things you do want to do. I do think, if I could just give you this, that there is a role for the international community, the West in particular, to have the courage, the creativity to be involved, to be on the side of the Iranian people. If the West is going to have any credibility in terms of standing for human rights, this is a moment where you have to deliver. At least in terms of rhetoric you need to be on their sides, but I actually think you can also take action. I mean, the fact that, as Barbara pointed out, you have so many of the children of Iranian officials that live freely in the West, benefit from the freedoms of the West and go back and forth, and they’re living off the agony, the pains of the majority of Iranians back home in Iran.
I want to go back to a point I’ve made repeatedly, which is that the day after Khamenei is one thing that we need to focus on. How do you get as many people inside this regime to see the light that this regime is bankrupt? Nobody takes its ideology seriously anymore. Nobody. And so there are folks who, presumably, inside the regime would be willing to go in a different direction. I think you need to prepare for that. You need to seek people out to sort of be ready to leave the regime essentially. How do you do that? You can do a messaging campaign, you can do more, more hands-on. I’m sure the intelligence services can do their part because I look at Khamenei and I listened to his last three or four speeches the last two weeks; I see no sign of him being willing to listen and compromise.
So for me there’s no point in focusing on Khamenei. The best you can do is the day after Khamenei. Maybe including folks in the Revolutionary Guards. I know this might sound controversial, but again, if you look away from the top leadership of the Revolutionary Guards, there might be people inside the Revolutionary Guards who joined this organization as a career opportunity as opposed to being ideologically committed to it, and also the types of people that I know many in the Iranian diaspora opposition are trying to appeal to and that’s part of the right strategy. But there is no one way of doing it.
I mean, another thing the White House can do is, for example, help the vast energy in the Iranian opposition diaspora to be a bit more consistent in its messaging. It’s very clear what they want; they want the end of the Islamic Republic. But they need to do a much better job in terms of presenting an agenda which would, in turn, help folks inside the Iranian regime to see that alternative more clearly because right now, when people hear the Islamic Republic’s going to go, that’s great, but people do have questions about the day after. And that doubt needs to be reduced to the extent possible. If the Biden team can do that, in whatever way possible, I think they’ve done a huge service to that long-term project, which I think is investing in the Iranian people and their future hopes and aspirations.
AMB. SCHMIERER: From what I’ve heard among all of the observations, in Iran, women are educated, people in the middle levels are rethinking how the country should go. You hadn’t mentioned it, but there are Iranian students who studied in the West who are returning. There is potentially an opportunity if the supreme leader departs the scene, as Alex was just describing.
So what I’m concluding, and asking for your final comments on, is that there might be hope, with thoughtful Western and US policies, that Iran could evolve—not undergo revolution, but evolve—toward an Iran that would not be as repressive as it is today. Are there forces at work that might—with good policies from the West, and efforts from within Iran and by Iranians— allow Iran to evolve out of its current morass and into something better?
MS. SLAVIN: Iran has a constitution that calls for an elected president, an elected parliament, elected city councils. If you get rid of the Guardian Council, if you get rid of the supreme leader, if you get rid of the Assembly of Experts and all these other institutions, you have the bones of a democracy right there in the country. And I think that Iranians in Iran are probably better placed to chart their own future than anybody from the outside. I mean, the best people are currently in Evin Prison, some of the best thinkers, some of the best minds.
And I second what Alex said about the diaspora. I think that’s been one of the big disappointments of the last four, five weeks is to see the way in which members of the diaspora have been attacking each other rather than the Iranian regime, in ways that are really, really counterproductive. Establish a baseline for democratic elections, for a referendum on a new constitution. Have respected legal scholars work on a vision for a post-Islamic Republic Iran that they can put out there for people to see and not get stuck in fights between the monarchists and the mujahideen. It’s distressing to see that.
MR. ALFONEH: I have to say that I’m fundamentally optimistic. Many, many years ago, at the university I read Samuel Huntington’s book on the third wave of democracy, which mostly focused on transformations of military dictatorships in the Far East and in South America into democracies. That was the third wave of democratization, and that was before his more controversial book The Clash of Civilizations, with which I did not agree at all. Therefore, if we are assuming and if we are expecting that the current totalitarian regime in Iran develops into a military dictatorship, a military dictatorship perhaps willing to give some personal freedoms to the citizenry but necessarily not political freedoms, then within five to 10 years, we may even see movements—this is perhaps a little bit too optimistic—we may indeed see democratization of Iran, after a period of Iran being a military dictatorship led by the Revolutionary Guard. Because I do not see the Revolutionary Guard stopping the modernization of Iran. Even a military dictatorship, for its own needs, will continue the modernization of Iran, will continue educating women, will continue having a top university like Sharif producing some of the best engineers in the world and unfortunately, for the time being, exporting them to the United States of America. So in that sense, I’m fundamentally optimistic. The Iranian people are extremely resourceful and the Iranian society is very, very resourceful.
MR. VATANKA: I agree with Ali’s optimism. This is a country that had its first constitutional revolution in 1906. Women were involved back then, over 100 years ago. This is a civil society that is very different in terms of what it wants than its leadership, and that is becoming more and more apparent with this younger generation.
One point about Iranians in the diaspora: I agree that Iranians in Iran clearly are the ones to lead the way. Those of us who are sitting in the comfort of our outside lives shouldn’t claim that mantle. But Iranians in the diaspora are the victims of the Islamic Republic as well. There’s a reason why you have 5 to 8 million in the Iranian diaspora: They left not because they wanted to leave their families, but because they were left with no other choice. And they are, in many ways, the first victims, so they do have a right to be involved, they do have a right to have a say, to speak up on behalf of their family members who cannot speak up because they’re still inside of Iran. So let’s not forget the diaspora has a role to play here.
A final point is this: Last time I heard the slogan “death to the dictator,” I was young, essentially a toddler, not much more, in 1979, and that was a reference to the shah. Most Iranians today regret the 1979 revolution. Most Iranians regret what they did. That was a mistake. And this new generation, Generation Z that I was describing: I heard somebody say to me the other day that one of the young members of a family that I know had gone to the streets and jokingly said to the mom, I’m going out there to fix what you guys did wrong to this country back in 1979. That’s the spirit. This is the new mood of this younger generation. Khamenei doesn’t have an answer for it, but people around him, at lower levels in the system, they have an opportunity to do things differently going forward. Otherwise, they are asking for more bloodshed and ultimately, if I had to risk and gamble, the toppling of the regime, at some point, although I can’t predict when.
Amb. (ret.) Richard J. Schmierer, Moderator
Chairman of the Board and President, Middle East Policy Council
Former Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman
Director, Future of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council
Senior Fellow, The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Director of Iran Program, Middle East Institute