Iran 101

Iran 101

Who are the players? Who has the power? And can the regime hang on?

Much has happened since I last wrote in this space right after the fraudulent Iranian presidential elections. It was immediately clear that the regime had lost all claims to legitimacy, but that clerical rule might be able to continue for some time if Khamenei were replaced. Otherwise, the Iranian government would have to resort to an absolute dictatorship. In either case, given the fact that the "Islamic" part of the republic was probably done for, I advised that the United States should wait before engaging Tehran. Iran was moving toward a republic, and the only question was what would happen in the period of transition. How long would the transition last, and what form would it take? Would there be a continuation of a gentler clerical rule without Khamenei or would there be a dictatorship with Khamenei at the helm? With all that has happened, it is time for an update.

While protests, violent clampdowns, show trials, Friday sermons and opposition website updates have been the public face of the turmoil in Iran, the more important developments have been happening out of sight. The actors are many; in approximate order of importance they are: Khamenei, the various branches of the intelligence services, The Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and the Basij, the regular military, the clergy, the bazaar and other prominent business leaders, the so-called opposition leaders (Hashemi Rafsanjani, Khatami, Moussavi and Karroubi), the real opposition that is in the streets, Iranian expatriates in America, and, finally, the entity that is by no means last because it could play a decisive role, the U.S. government. The turmoil has dragged on for over two months, and some of these actors have taken positions that will determine developments.

Ayatollah Khamenei has dug in his heels and has not been open to any compromise. He has used the Basij as his thugs, backing himself into a corner. He has lost every shred of religious authority. Many of the clerics who used to support him no longer do so. There has been talk among clerical and opposition leaders of keeping Khamenei, but expanding the supreme leadership position to three or more clerics, something that is permitted under the constitution. To save face, this could be done under the pretext of Khamenei's deteriorating health. But it seems that Khamenei will not compromise. For him the future is clear: dictatorial rule or death, be it violent or "medical."

Not surprisingly, the intelligence services have kept quiet, as is their normal mode of operation. They know that they will be needed no matter who comes out on top. For now they are not taking a public stand. They, like most others, want to be in a position to enrich themselves. The fact that they have not tipped their hand is an indication that conditions are still fluid in Iran. While the intelligence services have seen some personnel change under Ahmadinejad, there are still a number at the highest level who are loyal to Rafsanjani, and hence the opposition.

The IRGC, and especially the Basij, have been the ugly face of the regime, instrumental in clamping down dissent. The IRGC has seen its financial fortunes grow dramatically under Ahmadinejad. In the aftermath of the election, the IRGC's immediate reaction was to protect its interests, supporting Ahmadinejad even before Khamenei did so. But with backroom discussions and maneuverings, the IRGC may soften its approach. Turmoil in the streets affects its financial interests adversely, an absolute dictatorship is not a long-term option and opposition leaders seem to be making gestures to preserve long-term IRGC assets. On his website Moussavi recently took a surprisingly conciliatory stand with the IRGC, assuring them of their continued role in the Islamic Republic.


The regular military has not shown its hand; it has not been in its interest to do so. It would only enter the fray if violence escalated significantly, but on whose side is not clear.

The demonstrators in the streets are truly brave. The regime has tried to frighten them into submission, but has failed. As long as the resistance continues, there is hope. The regime knows full well that torture, harsh treatment and murder will only remind Iranians of the shah's repressive regime. The IRGC could change sides and the regular military could take the side of the opposition. By sacrificing their lives, demonstrators are pushing the government toward a precipice.


The majority of the senior clergy who have spoken out have sided with the opposition, citing election fraud, the harsh treatment of demonstrators and the un-Islamic behavior of the regime. The active midlevel clerical organization has supported the opposition. A number of authenticated, but unsigned, letters personally attacking the supreme leader have been widely circulated. The onslaught of the clerics has totally removed the regime's religious cover. The mullahs in opposition would like to see the clerical system continued, but with a new supreme leader, with reduced religious involvement in the affairs of state and with greater accountability. Continued turmoil is against their interests.

Leaders in the bazaar and other prominent businessmen see everything that has transpired as a total disaster. They want an end to the turmoil. They will throw their support to whoever is likely to offer the best hope for stability. For now, they are watching and waiting.

The leaders of the opposition are doing all they can to affect change, albeit in backroom maneuverings. If the opposition loses the battle, Rafsanjani, Khatami, Moussavi and Karroubi will be tried and found guilty of subversion. The only way they can survive is to replace Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. They have allies in the intelligence services, in the regular military, in the clerical hierarchy, in the business community, in the streets, in the Iranian expatriate community and among a number of important foreign governments. They still have a lot of fight left in them. They are keeping up their charges of torture, rape and death, and these are taking a toll on the regime. But, even if the opposition leaders succeed in gaining control, Iran will merely mark time. None of them are democrats. Change will be delayed as more tolerant rule returns, but it still would not be a free and progressive Iran.

Iranian expatriates, especially those in the United States, could influence their adopted countries' foreign policy toward Iran. They have organized rallies around the world to keep the plight of Iranians on the front pages. They have publicized the human- and civil-rights violations of the regime. All of this gives hope to those struggling in Iran. But the expatriates have not presented a unified view. Yes, they are against the regime, but their recommendations differ sharply. At one extreme, some see bombing the mullahs out of power as the only way forward. Others recommend new sanctions and a pause before engaging Iran. Still others recommend unconditional dialogue.

Finally, foreign powers, especially the Unites States, can affect developments in Iran. America has been correct not to engage Iran lest this undermine the opposition. Washington could, however, deal a serious blow to the regime by adopting targeted policies to initiate a run on the Iranian currency. This would squeeze Iran's foreign-exchange reserves. The regime would have no choice but to adopt foreign-exchange controls; the black-market exchange rate would soar; the cost of imports would jump; and inflation would skyrocket. These developments would turn ordinary citizens, wealthy regime loyalists and prominent bazaar merchants against the regime. The ensuing inflation would fuel dissatisfaction among average citizens who are already struggling for survival. The enormous wealth that regime insiders and supporters have amassed would be decimated in dollars as the rial collapses. The Revolutionary Guards, who need financial and economic stability to develop their rapidly growing financial empire, would be dealt a significant blow. The regime would turn against itself. Yes, brave Iranians would suffer even more, but they would then be free of this illegitimate and oppressive regime.

How will it all turn out?

Today, the pace of developments is slow in Tehran. Each side is examining its options for an opportunity to affect favorable change. All it would take is a spark. The spark could come in the form of an unintended tragedy, such as what occurred under the shah-the fire in Cinema Rex or the massacre in Jaleh Square. The spark could come from another regime mistake, such as putting the four opposition leaders on trial. It could come if more of the grand ayatollahs take a public stand against the regime. It could come if Ayatollah Sistani of Iraq publicly admonishes the regime. It could come if the United States enforces policies to affect a run on the rial. Then the conflict would be brought to a head.

It is worth repeating what I have emphasized-there is no going back; Iran will indeed become a republic. The question is how and how fast?


Hossein Askari is the Iran Professor of Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University.