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Evolutionary Regime Change in Iran

On the 40th anniversary of the revolution that led to the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran, there is much talk about the future of the regime. Some Iran watchers continue to advocate for a policy of regime change, and others predict regime collapse. However, there is very little discussion in policy circles on the noteworthy internal evolution underway within the Islamic Republic. It behooves Washington to factor in this transformation in its approach to Tehran.

In a Feb 11 Farsi-language tweet, U.S. President Donald Trump denounced Iran’s regime while expressing solidarity with the Iranian public. The message, which was also tweeted in English, read, “40 years of corruption. 40 years of repression. 40 years of terror. The regime in Iran has produced only #40YearsofFailure. The long-suffering Iranian people deserve a much brighter future.” Separately, this week, Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are attending the Middle East Summit, sponsored largely by the Trump administration to focus on Iran.

Leaving aside rhetoric and posturing, the United States sorely lacks a well-thought-out strategy for dealing with Iran, which has gained considerable geopolitical ground amid the turmoil that has engulfed the Middle East since the regime change in Iraq in 2003. Trump’s decision to nix the 2015 nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions is designed to force Tehran to negotiate a new agreement. National Security Advisor John Bolton openly stated that the Trump administration’s policy toward Iran is not one of regime-change but of trying to change Tehran’s behavior. This calculus lacks an appreciation for the complexity of Iran’s domestic political situation.

The Regime Today

Decision-makers in the administration need to understand that the Iranian regime is extremely complex and that there is immense diversity among the Iranian people. Certainly, economic and financial conditions are such that the regime is facing unprecedented levels of public backlash. But policymakers should not confuse current dissent and protests with 1979 when social, economic, and political conditions were much riper for systemic change. In fact, increasing pressure from the United States allows Iran’s security establishment to manage dissent by branding those seeking change as foreign agents.

The Iranian regime is a maze of multiple institutions wired together in a complex architecture. Tehran broadly consists of three power centers: the clergy, led by the supreme leader; the military, dominated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC); and the government, headed by the popularly elected president. These three power centers share and compete for power. Their evolving status and interplay will shape the ongoing transformation of Iran’s political system.

Sitting at the apex of the Iranian leviathan is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is turning 80 years old and will have to be replaced soon. Khamenei is only the second supreme leader that the Islamic Republic has seen. His predecessor and the founder of the regime, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was supreme leader for a decade while Khamenei has held the position for 30 years. The Islamic Republic consolidated itself under Khamenei’s watch, which means he will be difficult to replace. Moreover, there is no clear successor – certainly no one with Khamenei’s stature, since most of the older generation of clerics are gone.

After the end of the war with Iraq in 1988, Khamenei as commander-in-chief of the armed forces oversaw the reconstruction of the military and of the country as a whole. It was under his watch that the IRGC emerged as a powerful elite military force with a sizable control over the country’s economy. The Guards, who have overshadowed the country’s regular armed forces known as the Artesh, derive their legitimacy from the clerical establishment led by the supreme leader. That said, the clerics are totally dependent upon the IRGC-dominated military for their political wellbeing and that of the regime.

Where to Go from Here

The next supreme leader probably won’t have the influence over the military that Khamenei currently enjoys. If anything, the Guards will have far more influence over the next top ayatollah. Khamenei’s successor will likely be a figurehead following the lead of the Corps’ top commanders. A weak supreme leader also means that the other various cleric-dominated institutions— such as the Assembly of Experts, the Guardians Council, and the judiciary — will see their influence wane.

A decline in the influence of the clergy means that the odd civilian supremacy over the military that has existed in the Islamic Republic will end. The three-way balance of power will be reduced to a struggle primarily between the military and the elected government. Usually, in situations where the civilian leadership weakens, there is a risk of an emerging military dictatorship. However, I am not convinced that that is likely to happen in Iran, and for a number of reasons.

First, the Guards know well that if they make extra-constitutional moves, there is a great danger of the system falling apart. Second, there is growing disillusionment among the public and disagreements within the security establishment (brilliantly captured by Narges Bajoghli in her recent Foreign Affairs essay) about the best way to handle just such a hypothetical situation. Third, even though the IRGC is the dominant force of Iran’s two parallel militaries, the Artesh is much larger in size. Fourth, and perhaps most important, the IRGC would not want to squander the foreign policy gains that Iran has made over the last 15 years because of domestic political infighting.

Therefore, the likely course of action will be that the IRGC will develop an understanding with the elected government to ensure stability. Achieving domestic harmony is even more critical considering that the clergy’s agenda is increasingly unpopular, and assuaging political economic grievances is an imperative under the current financial strain. The IRGC will have significant influence over policy-making, particularly because it has the lead on domestic security and national defense. At the same time though, the elected government will also have greater influence over policy matters because the clergy’s input will not be as potent as it has been under Khamenei’s supreme leadership.

Inevitable changes in Iran’s political system need to be factored into policies regarding the Islamic Republic and the broader region. Expecting regime collapse or actively pursuing regime change are unsound approaches to managing Iran’s foreign policy behavior. Washington must consider the metamorphosis under way in Tehran and act accordingly. Otherwise, the Trump administration will be expending unnecessary resources on uncertain outcomes that could well undermine American interests.

There is a need to manage natural change occurring inside Iran as opposed to artificially inducing it. As I have shown in my research elsewhere, geopolitical constraints and latitudes steer some of the most radical actors toward ideological and behavioral transformation. The Islamic Republic is no exception. Washington must carefully calibrate its management of Tehran instead of engaging in pure pressure tactics that are likely to have the very opposite of the desired effect.

Dr. Kamran Bokhari is Director of Strategy & Programs at the Center for Global Policy (CGP) and a National Security & Foreign Policy Specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. He tweets at @KamranBokhari. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.