Waiting for Thermidor: America’s Foreign Policy Towards Iran

Waiting for Thermidor: America’s Foreign Policy Towards Iran

The Islamic Republic of Iran may be on an accelerated schedule for revolutionary decay, at least if compared to the USSR.

THE CLERICAL oligarchs are not unaware of their problems—they simply have no way of ameliorating them. Today, inflation hovers around 40 percent, while 30 percent of Iranians are living below the poverty line. The government cannot create the necessary jobs or provide needed housing. A mismanaged pandemic response has further angered a hard-pressed populace. Ayatollah Muhammad Mousavi-Khoeiniha, one of the elders of the revolution, took the unprecedented step of issuing a public letter to Khamenei, warning, “The people believe the highest authority in the country’s management should have prevented the cultural, economic and social chaos the country is facing today … the current situation cannot continue.” A likely authentic, leaked Revolutionary Guards’ document in 2022 puts the regime’s dilemma in even starker terms: “Society is in a state of explosion … social discontent has risen by 300 percent in the past year.”

In the presidential election of 2021, the Islamic Republic laid bare its survival strategy. The regime abandoned the pretense of competitive elections. Former favorite sons of the revolution, like the very bright, reformist-loathing, conservative stalwart Ali Larijani, were disqualified from running. Khamenei selected Ebrahim Raisi, who has spent his entire career overseeing the regime’s dungeons, to become the next president. Raisi first made a name for himself in the 1980s as a member of the so-called “death commission,” which executed thousands of political prisoners. Since then, he’s grown ever closer to Khamenei, gaining contacts throughout the security institutions and among those who depend on the supreme leader’s largesse. His ascendance surely means that the regime intends to deal with dissent even more viciously than it has in the past.

Iran is thus at an impasse. The remaining revolutionaries in charge of the government are unwilling to concede their patrimony even though their sullen constituents are ready to move on. The system cannot reform even though it recognizes the urgency of reform. Leaked videos of Revolutionary Guard commanders and commentary among the ruling clergy clearly show men who know that the fundamentals of the Islamic Republic, especially the all-critical need to regenerate revolutionary loyalty, aren’t working. They see this internal collapse as evidence of baleful Western intrusion. Evil may have—may always have—the upper hand. This gloomy perspective isn’t uncommon in Islamic history, in both the Shiite and Sunni traditions. It isn’t that dissimilar to the Christian views of the enduring ethical frailty of man. This distrust of human aspirations is a significant factor in why the regime is so resistant to democracy—even on a provincial or city level—having any force within the society. And as the moral collapse spreads, this sense of righteousness intensifies.

Former president Hassan Rouhani, a favorite “moderate” of many Westerners, was probably the last gasp of the “technocratic” class who believed the revolution could be fortified through importing an Islamized Chinese model: greater trade with Europe would make the regime and the faith richer and more powerful. Khamenei has been willing to indulge this gamble, at least half-heartedly, but his tolerance for the bet may be declining as popular disgust with the theocracy becomes blatant. His fondness for a “resistance economy” springs directly from his trepidation that contact with the West, even through limited commercial relations that are obviously in Iran’s economic interests, carries considerable risk.

Self-awareness about the theocracy’s weaknesses has actually been one of the clerical regime’s strengths: Tehran’s internal assessments are often quite honest—once one gets beyond the anti-American and anti-Zionist conspiracies. The Islamic Republic is certainly cognizant of its own corruption. Official conversations about malversation, and other forms of graft, that leak out can be damning, if surreal (most of those who are dissecting corruption are likely thoroughly corrupt themselves).

The security services are also aware that ever-increasing slices of the population are willing to take to the streets to express their anger. And the persistence of these protests reflects that the public’s fear of the regime ebbs and flows; since 2009, when the massive Green Movement demonstrations broke out in Tehran, it’s been more ebb despite increasingly brutal tactics used on demonstrators.

The regime hasn’t by any means lost control of internal security—the savagery displayed in quelling the fuel-price protests of 2019 worked. However, neither the regime nor average Iranians would be surprised if some unforeseen catalyst led to new convulsions. The regime seems to understand that the situation may have become permanently unstable.

YET WESTERN official commentary and policies on Iran rarely dwell on the instability and the theocracy’s weaknesses. Democrats, and a lot of Republicans, are more or less frozen in amber: they get to the bomb and arms control and stop. They, understandably, approach with trepidation advocacy of democracy and human rights for fear that some form of American intervention might follow—scars left over from the past two decades feel fresh. Western liberals and leftists, anxious about being tough with anti-American third-world regimes, have an especially difficult time with Iran, where America’s sins have supposedly been so pivotal and egregious. It’s near gospel that the CIA-supported 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq created the conditions for the Islamic revolution twenty-six years later. Ben Affleck’s fine film, Argo, nicely captures this guilt in its animated introduction, which puts the blame for the revolution on America and Langley (before good CIA officers rescue the hostages). Helping black South Africans against white South Africans, Eastern Europeans against Soviet tyrants, and Ukrainians against Vladimir Putin are all much easier to contemplate and affect than imagining Washington aiding Iranians against a virulently anti-American Shiite theocracy. With Iran, in the eyes of most on the Left—and many on the Right, too—America can’t help but cock things up.

This fear of American escalation leads to consistent tolerance of bad Iranian behavior. The worst Iranian terrorist attacks against the United States have all gone unanswered. The defining blast—the Beirut barrack bombing in 1983—killed 241 Americans. Intercepts at the time and later writings by Iran’s ambassador in Syria, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi-pur, and the theocracy’s majordomo, Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, showed the clerical regime to be proudly culpable. Although Secretary of State George Shultz strongly advocated for a military response, Ronald Reagan declined. A few years later, Reagan was trading arms for hostages. Iranian “moderates” were, somehow, being reinforced by this exchange.

Likewise, nothing followed the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, which killed nineteen Air Force servicemen and injured 495 people. In 1997, the reformist president Mohammad Khatami unexpectedly won the presidential election. Any serious interest in holding Iran accountable—and there was zero doubt about Iran’s culpability by the time George W. Bush came into office—petered out, replaced by a desire to engage the Islamic Republic. For many, Thermidor had arrived with Khatami—forceful American actions might have derailed him. Such was not to be: Khamenei, with Rafsanjani’s and Rouhani’s support, effectively gutted Khatami’s presidency in 1999.

Remembering 1953 and the shah, Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright started a foreign policy rhetorically built on American apologia. This hopefulness about Iranian possibilities probably became most surreal in early 2006, when Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and her primary Iran advisor, Nicholas Burns, now ambassador to China, were dreaming of reestablishing some sort of official presence inside the country—six months after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Islamic Republic’s first populist president, had won election. Ahmadinejad, who loved to torment wealthy clerics and express his fondness for a distinctly anti-clerical strain of mystical Shiism, signaled many things about the evolution of the Islamic revolution—growing affection for the normalization of relations with the United States, however, was not one of them.

Speculation about a new, more pragmatic Iran, the one that supposedly helped us in Afghanistan against the Taliban, was finally dashed in Iraq when Tehran went gunning for U.S. soldiers. The Bush administration had detailed information about where the Quds Force overlord, Qasem Soleimani, was training militant Shiite Iraqis to kill Americans. These preparations even included the construction of mock U.S. facilities. Hundreds of Americans died in Iraq as a result of nefarious Iranian actions. Yet Bush, the “axis of evil” president, never retaliated. It appears the White House and the Joint Chiefs feared escalation.

WITH THE Biden administration’s sporadic nuclear talks in Vienna, we don’t know yet whether the idealism-cum-left-wing realism of the Obama administration towards Tehran has played any part in a diplomacy of increasing American concessions. In 2009, Barack Obama thought that he just might be able to diminish, if not halt, the antagonism between America and Iran. A retrenching United States, led by a “post-Western” president who sometimes liked to emphasize his Muslim middle name, wouldn’t be a threat to the Islamic Republic; lots of trade after a nuclear deal would help reward Tehran’s “moderates,” inshallah bringing on Thermidor before the sunset clauses in Obama’s accord gave the theocracy an industrial-scale, weapons-grade, nuclear infrastructure.

Biden and his advisors, who once bought into Obama’s promise, may now be the first administration to not hold out hope that Iran might change. Khamenei and Raisi may have ended the four-decade search for “moderates” that started with Jimmy Carter. Befitting an administration whose senior officials recoil when their European counterparts liken them to their earlier versions in the Obama years, an agreement in Vienna will be much more mundane: a way—a bit more time—for the United States to accommodate itself to the nuclearization of the theocracy.