Do Not Be Fooled: Iran Has No Intention of Reforming Itself

Do Not Be Fooled: Iran Has No Intention of Reforming Itself

The Iranian people bravely fighting for their rights have been telegraphing to the international community that their government is illegitimate and that they want regime change.


The Islamic Republic of Iran is at war with its own people. The death of Mahsa Amini triggered some of the most serious demonstrations against the theocracy since 1979. The Iranian people bravely fighting for their rights have been telegraphing to the international community that their government is illegitimate and that they want regime change. But the Iranian establishment has, predictably, remained tone-deaf. There have been calls from inside and outside Iran for its supreme leader to make reforms—but such an exercise would amount to reforming the unreformable. The most the Iranian system is capable of offering will amount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic—dangling shiny objects in front of the Iranian people, like making overtures to powerless and irrelevant reformist figures, recycling unworkable ideas, and reshuffling security officials. Nothing more.

Already Tehran has been amplifying politicians like former President Mohammad Khatami, who not too long ago was barred from traveling abroad and subject to a media ban. In November, Khatami delivered remarks where he dubbed regime change “neither possible, nor desirable” and recommended reforming rather than dismantling the state as the “least costly and most useful” way forward. Notably, Sobh-e Sadegh, a publication affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), offered tempered praise of Khatami, saying his “special status among reformists can prepare grounds for dialogue through uniting all across the reformist spectrum and reinforcing the divide with the enemies of the Iranian people.” This coming from an IRGC outlet was significant, as Khatami during his presidency was threatened by a phalanx of IRGC commanders amid the student protests of July 1999.


Nevertheless, the reforms that Khatami hawked were torpedoed time and again when he was president—from efforts to deregulate the press to his Twin Bills aimed at changing election laws and clarifying presidential powers. Khatami, in this respect, is now being used as a tool of the Iranian establishment in a ploy to promote divisions in the revolutionary fervor enveloping the country. The Islamic Republic’s puppeteer-in-chief, Iran’s supreme leader, also likely found it useful to trot Khatami out to deflect pressure internationally given the former president’s adeptness at moderation mythmaking in the West to mask the true autocratic nature of the Iranian system. It should not be discounted that Khatami and other figures like former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who has been quiet since he left office, and former Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, who has spoken of the need to rethink hijab enforcement, will be deployed as instruments of the Iranian system to dilute the uprising against the regime and distract the West with false hopes of reform to preserve the Islamic revolution. There are no exact precedents for Khamenei to undertake such moves, but he retains an advisory bench in his office that he can fill depending on his needs.

There have also been reports that Iranian officials have made overtures to some of the founding families of the Islamic Republic—the Khomeinis and Rafsanjanis—to speak out on behalf of the regime, which would then result in corrections to the system. They unsurprisingly refused. Khamenei dug his own grave in this respect as he marginalized both clans from the beginning of his supreme leadership in 1989. It started when Ruhollah Khomeini’s son and onetime aide-de-camp, Ahmad Khomeini, was relegated to be Khamenei’s representative on the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) after being considered a onetime contender for the supreme leadership himself. He then died under mysterious circumstances a few years later. His son Hassan was disqualified from running for election to the Assembly of Experts and later strongly discouraged from running for the presidency in 2021. The Rafsanjanis were similarly emasculated despite the late President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani playing a leading role in Khamenei’s own elevation as supreme leader. His children eventually found themselves imprisoned.

Nevertheless, these ploys by the Iranian state are out of sync with the direction of those Iranians courageously engaging in civil disobedience, which is an uprooting of the entire Iranian political order. Recycling discarded political personalities with invitations for dialogue is unlikely to resonate with this segment of the population.

Similarly, elements of the Iranian political elite are resurrecting the idea of abolishing the presidency and reverting to a parliamentary system. Khamenei himself raised the idea over a decade ago in 2011, stating that “in a distant future, if it is felt that the parliamentary system can better elect the executive officials…there is no problem in changing the current format.” However, despite the rhetoric, the reality is Khamenei has all but gutted the power of the presidency—especially amid the mass disqualifications of some sons of the Islamic Republic like Larijani from even standing for election. His installation of Ebrahim Raisi, a pliant yes man, in the post, solidified this. Therefore, the practical effect of such a move would be negligible.

There are also calls from various officials for holding a referendum. This is also not new. Khamenei’s past presidents have called through the years for referendums on discrete issues. When he was out of office, Khatami proposed one on the disputed 2009 reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. Ahmadinejad recommended one over his economic plan in 2010. Hassan Rouhani raised a referendum to end political gridlock and over the nuclear file. Yet none of these initiatives went anywhere because Iran’s supreme leader did not want them to go anywhere. Enshrined in Article 99 of Iran’s Constitution is a role for the Guardian Council, to which Khamenei names members, to supervise referenda, and Article 110 reserves for the supreme leader the power of “issuing decrees for national referenda.”

Likewise, in recent days, Iranian authorities have stated that the hijab law is being reviewed. But this is unlikely to amount to much—changes in enforcement at the most. And it is not unprecedented for officials to raise the need for such measures. Rouhani himself was critical of police excesses on these issues and in December 2017, Tehran’s Law Enforcement Forces Commander Hossein Rahimi proclaimed “based on a society-oriented, educational approach, the police will not arrest those who don’t respect Islamic values. It will instead educate them.” Iran’s attorney general caused some confusion over a suspension in the operation of the Morality Police in recent comments, yet the force pulling back in cities had already predated them. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice later announced that the unit’s mission of enforcing hijab had ended, however “new methods, more up-to-date and more precise” were under review, while Khamenei called for “revolutionizing the country’s cultural structure.”

This should not be conflated with a rescission of the legal framework surrounding the hijab. It is still on the books, and it is a centerpiece of Iran’s supreme leader’s longstanding vision of links in a chain of generation of an Islamic revolution, begetting an Islamic system, which produces an Islamic government, which then creates an Islamic society, and which then ushers in an Islamic Ummah. The state has other enforcement arms which can carry out the functions of the Morality Police, which only came into existence at the dawn of Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Thus, reverting to a variation of the 2017 “educational” enforcement pledge or even depending on other non-Morality Police arms of the establishment for enforcement after stricter strictures under the Raisi administration were adopted would not be a stretch. But skepticism is in order as the Iranian people have seen this movie before and their demands are about profoundly more than just hijab regulations. This category of actions is also likely an attempt by the state to promote fissures in the Iranian people’s uprising.

Separately, in leaked documents, Khamenei has indicated displeasure with Raisi and SNSC secretary Ali Shamkhani, saying they “lacked initiative” and threatening to make changes. This comes as Shamkhani has been under assault among conservative factions for not cracking down hard enough on the protests. Nevertheless, Khamenei has been risk-averse in changing presidents. He has shielded them from impeachment and rejected resignations. That doesn’t necessarily extend to SNSC secretaries. With Shamkhani having already been in the position since 2013 and there being a precedent for an SNSC secretary to leave his post around two years into a presidential administration—Ali Larijani in 2007—the system may be setting the table for an eventual Shamkhani departure under Raisi. Khamenei has restructured and reshuffled security officials after previous protests, for example in 2009. Yet Shamkhani has likely proven useful in one respect for Khamenei during this period—and that is using him as an interlocutor with reformists. After all, Shamkhani previously served as defense minister in a reformist presidency and has been able to survive and thrive under reformist, pragmatist, and conservative administrations alike. That should not be discounted.

In the end, there are domestic and international audiences for these gimmicks being deployed by the Islamic Republic. At home, in undertaking these gestures, the regime aims to divide and conquer the revolutionary sentiment among significant segments of the Iranian population. Abroad, the Islamic Republic wants to project a mirage that reform is possible to deflect increased scrutiny. But these ideas are cynical plots to preserve the Islamic Revolution rather than make life meaningfully better for the Iranian people. This is why chants of “death to the dictator” and “this is the year of blood, Seyed Ali will be overthrown” have become commonplace in major Iranian cities.