Commentary Magazine


Can Iran Be Saved?

After simmering in low-intensity form for more than three decades, tensions between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the international community are reaching their boiling point. The Iranian regime’s intransigence with respect to a number of hotly contested issues—above all, its nuclear-weapons program—is setting the stage for a military conflagration between Iran and the West. Such a confrontation may take the form of an all-out land invasion or, more likely, a limited intervention aimed at delaying the mullahs’ nuclearization drive. Either scenario could spell the fall of the clerical regime under the weight of far superior Western militaries. Even absent an outside intervention, a combination of domestic discontent and rapid economic deterioration resulting from crippling sanctions could precipitate regime collapse in Tehran in the coming months and years. (Senior members of the Obama administration have recently hinted that the latter may be their ultimate goal in imposing heavy sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors.)

Regime collapse in Iran represents a historic chance for advancing democratic development there and, by extension, the wider Middle East and North Africa. As the mass uprising that followed the country’s stolen 2009 presidential election demonstrated, the demand for representative government, individual rights, and gender equality among Iranians is high. Yet the emergence of a stable constitutional order after the demise of the Khomeinist regime is by no means guaranteed. Without sufficient planning in the West, a post-Islamic Republic order in Iran may be threatened for a generation or more by insurgents loyal to the former regime and by outbreaks of ethno-sectarian strife. 

The shape of such an order would depend on the nature of the events that bring it about, as well as on a range of complex developments impossible to predict with any certainty. At the current juncture, it is pertinent to assess the opportunities and hazards that will likely define any regime-collapse scenario and to consider steps that the international community can take to improve the odds for a future transition to democracy. Negative lessons can be drawn from the Western intervention in Iraq, where the U.S.-led Coalition’s failure to plan for post-invasion governance led to severe outbreaks of ethno-sectarian violence and a quasi-democratic order whose fragility is still felt today. Provided the correct measure of Western support, however, Iran’s unique societal dynamics and history can help stave off some of the pitfalls of Iraq.

The most difficult challenge faced in post-invasion Iraq will also exist under any post-collapse scenario in Iran: namely, rapidly rebuilding a coherent state capable of wielding national authority over a large and diverse population. Doing so will involve balancing, on the one hand, the need to neutralize the most hardcore ideological remnants of the ancien régime and, on the other, the imperative to preserve state apparatuses basic to governance after the fall. In Iran, the most important of these institutions are the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Basij paramilitary force. Dismantling each will be a daunting task for Iran’s post-Islamic Republic leaders and their allies. But without painful compromises and thoughtful planning, these forces will likely threaten the survival of an already vulnerable constitutional regime. In the case of a limited intervention or sanctions-induced regime collapse, these challenges will be further compounded by what is likely to be a minimal Western presence on the ground in Iran.  

The likelihood of an all-out Western land invasion aimed at toppling the mullahs is low. But a limited military intervention aimed at destroying their nuclear facilities may nevertheless precipitate regime collapse. Iran’s nuclear sites are spread out over a wide geographic area; an intervention aimed at disabling them must be wider in scope than the Israeli strikes that destroyed Iraq’s facilities in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007. A successful strike will require destroying much of the country’s national defense and security architecture. Having invested so much prestige, moreover, in one signature national project—the nuclear program—the regime stands to lose what little legitimacy it has left should a weeklong airstrike rubble its nuclear sites.  

Much has been made of Iranians’ rallying behind the mullahs in the event of a limited intervention or if a stringent international sanctions regime brings national life in Iran to a grinding halt. Such claims—and those to the contrary—are for the most part purely speculative. But whether or not nationalistic sentiment will overcome anger at a detested regime is a moot question: Simply put, even a fully united will against “foreign aggression” may not suffice to ensure regime survival in the face of overwhelming Western military might in a limited-intervention scenario. Thus, planning for post-collapse contingencies must be at the top of American and European policymakers’ agendas—even if precipitating regime collapse is not a primary or even secondary objective of such action.

Another regime-change scenario is the one reportedly favored by some members of the Obama administration. Under this view, a combination of fissures at the highest echelons of the regime and popular frustration with Iran’s growing economic isolation will weaken the Islamic Republic—perhaps to the point of collapse. “Another option here is that [sanctions] will create hate and discontent at the street level so that the Iranian leaders realize that they need to change their ways,” a senior intelligence official told the Washington Post in January. The plausibility of this scenario can be debated. Iranian society is a tinderbox; an explosive political incident—against a backdrop of economic hopelessness—could set it on fire. Even so, the opposition, including the establishment reform movement and the more radical elements on university campuses, lacks the strength to propel such a scenario to the point of regime change. But assuming the Obama administration’s vision pans out, the challenge of filling the resultant power vacuum will be as equally pressing as under an intervention scenario. 

In the aftermath of regime collapse, two key institutions and their broader constituencies could severely jeopardize democratic development in Iran: the IRGC and the Basij paramilitary. Each group is, to varying degrees and for slightly different reasons, invested in the preservation of the current regime; each has much to lose in a constitutional Iranian state founded on secular law and individual rights. To protect a nascent liberal order from these groups, emerging democratic elites and their Western allies must deploy a precisely calibrated combination of incentives and disincentives to neutralize the most irreconcilable members of these institutions while co-opting the more pragmatic and pliable ones. 

This is a lesson drawn in part from the Iraq experience. Soon after toppling Saddam’s regime in spring 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) expelled thousands of Ba’ath Party members—the vast majority belonging to Iraq’s Sunni minority—from government posts and banned them from future public service. A second CPA order immediately disbanded almost the entire state security apparatus, including the armed forces. The CPA’s de-Ba’athification policy has since been heavily criticized for having significantly contributed to post-invasion Iraq’s instability and spiraling violence. Part of that criticism is rooted in Iraq’s sectarian dynamics. “To Sunni Arabs, this [policy] signaled that Shia and Kurdish exile groups had the ear of the CPA and that a Shia power grab was in motion, with full American support,” the Hoover Institution’s Leif Eckholm has observed in an astute Policy Review article published last August.

In Iran, completely dismantling major state apparatuses may not necessarily backfire along sectarian lines. Iran has its share of unstable ethno-sectarian fault lines (in Kurdistan, Baluchistan, and along the border with Azerbaijan), but the country’s overall ethno-sectarian makeup is far less divided than Iraq’s. Nevertheless, the risk of creating a power vacuum remains. Just as, in Iraq, de-Ba’athification left Coalition and Iraqi authorities unable to guard the populace against insurgent Ba’athist remnants and foreign jihadists, so a careless purge of Iran’s state apparatuses could leave the new regime vulnerable to internal subversion by the most dangerous remnants of its predecessor. Any future regime must be prepared to make difficult political choices and to reintegrate cooperative members of these institutions into the fabric of national life. Some hardcore elements of the former regime will of course remain irreconcilable to any democratic order. Steeped in Khomeinist ideology, these true believers will not be dissuaded by any material incentives. But to strike this balancing act, each institution—its history and internal dynamics—must be examined separately.

The IRGC was founded shortly after the 1979 revolution to protect a then nascent clerical regime. Today, the Guards are estimated to number more than 150,000, including 125,000 land units, 20,000 in naval forces, and a 5,000-strong special-operations outfit known as the Quds (Jerusalem) Force. The Guards also have their own small air force. Since its founding, the IRGC has served as the tip of the Iranian regime’s spear abroad. “The Guards are…in charge of executing Iran’s strategy of asymmetric warfare in the event of a U.S. or Israeli attack,” Alireza Nader has explained in the Iran Primer published by the United States Institute of Peace. “The IRGC’s secretive Quds Force has trained and equipped proxy groups, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Iraqi Shiite insurgents, and even elements of the Taliban.” The IRGC is also a central component of the regime’s repressive apparatus, responsible for brutally crushing dissent throughout the regime’s three decades in power, most recently in response to the June 2009 post-election uprising.

Yet the Guards’ scope of action goes beyond external operations and internal security. The two decades since the end of the Iran-Iraq conflict have witnessed the steady rise of a second generation of IRGC members, some veterans of the war and some too young to have fought in it. By the early 1990s, these officers were determined to bypass the revolution’s clerical old guard and gain direct access to power. “Today, the IRGC functions as an expansive socio-political-economic conglomerate whose influence extends into virtually every corner of Iranian political life and society,” a 2009 RAND study concluded. “Bound together by the shared experience of [the Iran-Iraq] war and the socialization of military service, the [Guards] have articulated a populist, authoritarian, and assertive vision for the Islamic Republic of Iran that they maintain is a more faithful reflection of the revolution’s early ideals.” A major component of the Guards’ militarization of the Islamic Republic has been their domination of Iran’s economy. The extent of that influence cannot be overstated. Exerted through hundreds of companies run by IRGC alumni, it covers multiple industries, including construction and the critical oil and gas sector.

The Guards’ mission and history will render them a democratic Iran’s most formidable adversary. A combination of ideological beliefs and economic incentives ties them closely to the current regime. In the case of a Western land invasion, the Guards will probably attempt to bog down foreign militaries in a prolonged war of attrition. “Occupation forces in Iran would experience the greatest resistance from those with the most to lose—the [IRGC] loyal to the ruling clerics,” Eckholm has written. “Falling back behind an advancing army and attacking logistics and communication lines [are] representative of Iran’s national defense strategy of drawing out a campaign, inflicting high costs, and wearing out the invading forces by attrition.” Should the regime collapse of its own volition under the weight of a limited intervention or domestic turmoil, the Guards will likely reprise their revolutionary function and seek to topple the emerging order.

To mitigate these risks, a post-IRI regime and the international community must offer a compelling bargain to the Guards: Embrace the new order or face neutralization. Doing so will involve exploiting factional differences within the IRGC’s ranks. As RAND’s in-depth study of the organization observed:

The IRGC…is beset with political factionalism, which surfaced even in the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose real constituents were lower-ranking Basij rather than the IRGC writ large. Earlier incidents revealed fissures along different lines; for example, the 1994 Qazvin riots, in which locally garrisoned IRGC commanders refused to fire on protestors, revealed that the parochial identities of ethnicity and locale still pervade the IRGC’s institutional culture. The Khatami era highlighted the lack of ideological uniformity between the IRGC senior leadership, which supported the conservatives, and the rank-and-file, who were more sympathetic to the reformists.

Achieving a modus vivendi with some former Guards, particularly those who subscribe to the more apocalyptic strands of messianic Shi’ism, will be impossible. Other factions within the organization, however, may be susceptible to ideological or financial inducement. Some high-ranking Guardsmen, for example, defected once the organization was tasked with putting down the summer 2009 uprising. In their view, the Guards’ national prestige—gained after making enormous personal sacrifices during the Iran-Iraq war—was tainted by the gruesome work of torturing and killing their compatriots. Reassurances that they will not be excluded from national life altogether may persuade other low- and mid-ranking IRGC officers to make peace with a post-IRI order. But such a bargain can only be executed if there is a powerful coercive disincentive backing it up—something a weak post-IRI regime may be unable to provide without credible Western support.

 A similar analysis applies to the Basij (“Mobilization”) force. The organization was founded pursuant to Article 151 of the Islamic Republic Constitution, which requires the establishment of “a program of military training, with all requisite facilities, for all…citizens, in accordance with the Islamic criteria, in such a way that all citizens will always be able to engage in the armed defense of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Throughout the Iran-Iraq war, members of the Basij served as auxiliaries to the IRGC and the regular armed forces. Since the end of the war, the Basij have been regularly deployed to crack down on “immoral” behavior and political dissent, especially among students.

Iranian leaders have claimed that the Basij number more than 10 million members. But the number of uniformed members is probably closer to 90,000, supplemented by another 300,000 reservists and about a million or so nonactive members and alumni. The “Basij constituency,” however, is likely far larger when each individual member’s family ties are taken into consideration. Many Basijis come from working-class urban or rural backgrounds. Faced with Western firepower in an armed-intervention scenario, the Basij are unlikely to pose a serious conventional threat. “The material world, as much as heaven’s promise, motivates Basij involvement,” Eckholm writes. “Much like Ba’ath party membership brought access to higher pay and certain other perks, Basij training is an avenue to obtain loans, scholarships, subsidies, and other advantages. In the face of overwhelming American firepower, their resolve could fade.”

The challenge facing any post-IRI order, rather, involves preventing former Basijis from joining an IRGC-led insurgency. The Basijis, who for years have been stifling expressions of individuality and dissent across the country, are deeply hated by the urban and middle-class Iranians who are likely to form a new democratic regime’s core constituency. The temptation for revenge-seeking and retaliation will be great—and not without good reason. For more than three decades, thousands of students, women, freethinkers, and average Iranians have been harassed, beaten, and murdered at the hands of these vigilantes. Personal animosities and grievances, nurtured over the course of the regime’s life, will probably explode at the moment of the IRI’s collapse. Iranians have long memories. Yet the practical cost of a widespread anti-Basij purge would far outweigh its psychological benefits. Ideologically deprogrammed and financially co-opted, the Basijis could in fact serve as a powerful democratic mobilization force to protect a nascent post-IRI order.

While Basijis undergo heavy ideological-political training upon entering the organization, studies measuring the effectiveness of such training have yielded mixed results at best. “After a decade, the student-oriented velayat [“guardianship”] plan did not succeed in fully training Basij students to carry out their responsibilities in classrooms, dormitories, and universities,” one such study found. “Political doubts evidently still existed among Basij students.” Such doubts must be exploited to dismantle the Basij and reconstitute it as a positive social-mobilization force. Deprogramming former Basijis is an important first step. A political retraining program could, for example, draw on Iran’s pre-Islamic heritage—still a powerful social glue in Iran despite the mullahs’ repeated attempts to erase it—to counter Khomeinist ideology. Moreover, the country’s vibrant film industry, which did not have an equivalent in Ba’athist Iraq, can serve as an effective tool for developing and spreading a democratic, anti-Islamist consciousness. 

To be sure, there are limits to the long-term impact of such measures. The extent of the current regime’s ideological stranglehold on millions of Iranians, both inside and outside the Basij, cannot be overstated. No one should imagine that the Islamist grip on the Persian mind can be loosened within a matter of months or years. This will be a generational effort akin to the transition away from Nazism in West Germany and Apartheid in South Africa. 

Beyond the psychological pain imposed on their victims, co-opting the clerical regime’s supporters with financial and ideological inducements also involves a heavy moral cost. Absent a new national narrative that accounts for the crimes of the clerical era—without criminalizing a significant portion of Iran’s population—Iranian society as a whole will fail to find closure and stability. In the case of the Basij, neighborhood-by-neighborhood truth-and-reconciliation commissions, where victims of Basij crimes could air their grievances and receive apologies and restitution, may be the most effective structures for developing such a narrative. Further, as it did in postwar West Germany, the very process of confronting the moral abyss of the prior regime could serve as the basis for allegiance to a post-IRI constitutional order. Yet what is often forgotten about West Germany’s transitional period is the critical role played by a constitutional court and security services willing to crack down—sometimes very hard—on “anti-constitutional” activity by both the remnants of the German far-right and the new far-left. In a post-Islamic Republic of Iran, similarly robust legislation and institutions must be developed to provide buffers against resurgent Islamism and other totalitarian attitudes. A newborn democracy in Iran can eventually make peace with citizens who tried time and again to abort it—it cannot countenance a backslide to terror. 

The last decade has witnessed the fall of four entrenched regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. In Egypt and Tunisia, pro-American regimes collapsed under the weight of long-suppressed domestic discontent. In Libya, the Qaddafi regime was forced out by rebels benefiting from limited Western military support. Finally, in Iraq, Saddam’s regime was toppled directly by invading Western forces. In none of these cases, however, was sufficient thought given to shaping the post-collapse outcome along liberal and democratic lines. In dealing with Iran today, policymakers have an opportunity to take the long view and consider how a post-Islamic Republic of Iran may be constituted to ensure its stability and freedom. Dealing with the clerical regime’s repressive apparatuses in a way that is sensitive to the country’s social and historical realities should be the first item on the agenda of an Iran after the Islamic Republic.

About the Author

Sohrab Ahmari is an Iranian-American journalist and a nonresident associate research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.




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