by Shervin Malekzadeh
Instagram took an unexpected turn earlier this month when the office of the Iranian Supreme Leader released a picture of Ali Khamenei flipping through Fire and Fury while on a visit to the Tehran International Book Fair, proof that reality circa 2018 continues to be stranger than fiction. The incongruous image of Iran’s top cleric holding a copy of Michael Wolff’s salacious tell-all of the Trump administration constituted stagecraft and top-shelf trolling at the highest levels of the government, and served notice that Iran’s social media game remains on point. Unable to match the United States in military might, the Islamic Republic retains certain asymmetries in the digital realm: strength through subtweet and passive aggression.
The expectation in Washington is that Iran’s rulers won’t be around for much longer to enjoy the joke, that the last laugh will be on them. With regime change back on the table following the American exit from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the White House quickly turned its attention to how best to facilitate the demise of the current occupants of power in Iran. In Trumpian fashion, the administration has outsourced the task to foreign labor (the Israeli military, the Iranian people), with any and all resulting residuals to accrue to the family brand.
Of course the art of this deal requires that everyday Iranians be stuck with the bill. On the same day that Trump announced the withdrawal from the JCPOA, he instructed the Treasury Department to expand the naked aggression of the existing sanctions regime. Make the economy scream, rouse the Iranian public to revolt, and if it comes at the cost of missed medical treatments or the occasional airline crash for want of spare parts, the regime was going to die anyway.
All of these policy prescriptions begin with the assumption that there exists an irreparable gap between the Iranian public and its ruling elite, that the overthrow of the “mullah’s regime” is not only inevitable, it is indispensable. “The behavior and the objectives of the regime are not going to change,” declared National Security Advisor John Bolton last July before a gathering of Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) cultists, “and therefore the only solution is to change the regime itself.”
Debunking the Regime-Change Myth
In fact, there is not much distance between the Iranian public and its authorities, that what is at stake in the forever war between Iran and the United States is not Islam or its overthrow by a secular alternative, but Iran itself. Recent reports of the regime’s imminent demise are, as they always are, premature. The Trump administration’s willful violation of the JCPOA, far from compromising the survival of Iran’s ruling elite, has only strengthened its ability to double down on its remaining source of legitimacy, the preservation of the country’s sovereign borders and national integrity.
A story consistent across the decades, if not centuries, Iranian anxiety over the loss of dignity and national independence cannot be gainsaid. Khamenei and his lieutenants have one job: to ensure the country’s security, to put Iran first. By securing a deal for peace with the United States and Europe and then abiding by it, Iran’s rulers signaled to its population that they had done their part; as the kids say, they have receipts. That the deal was unilaterally killed by the Americans is not lost on the Iranian public, the same public that the Trump White House now expects to turn on its government over an increase in the price of melons.
Although the blinkered actions of ideologues in Washington are principally to blame for the collapse of the nuclear agreement, a strongly enabling condition for its demise has been the portrait of Iran as a country always and forever on the verge of collapse. Analysts and reporters who mistake protest of the government for wholesale rejection of the regime only encourage the sort of magical thinking and intransigence that led the administration to tear up what was by all accounts an unprecedented landmark in the history of arms control.
The possibility that Iranians would rather work within an existing and familiar system, in a politics that provisions them with moral leverage that would otherwise be unavailable, or that a significant portion of society might actually agree with the goals of the revolution if not its implementation, is a perspective rarely considered or taken seriously outside of Iran. Although it may come as a surprise to Americans conditioned by stories of how life in Iran is intolerable, actual living-in-Iran Iranians—whatever their politics—are decidedly unenthusiastic about pursuing what would be their fourth revolution in just over a century. They know firsthand that these sort of adventures have a tendency to not work out as planned.
Trump’s announcement that he plans to vigorously pursue regime change in Iran—confirmed today by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s two-fisted speech at the Heritage Foundation—has already led to the predictable closing of ranks between the public and the authorities. Renewed hostilities between the United States and Iran is likely to lead to the further compression of political and social spaces available for debate and disagreement within Iran. Writing in The New York Times, Amir Ahmadi Arian and Rahman Bouzari warn that “the warmongers in the Trump administration are effectively enablers for the most conservative elements in the very government they want gone, as “a powerful faction in the government in Iran justifies domestic oppression by referring to American bellicosity.” Most ominously, Arian and Bouzari point out that a more authoritarian state is likely to be met at least partway by a more conservative public, as retrenchment against the common threat of sanctions and possible military action focuses the country’s attention on foreign policy and away from solving the many domestic problems confronting Iran.
The Rouhani and Khamenei Show
The same tendency to exaggerate the divisions between the Iranian state and its society in Iran causes outside observers to misdiagnose the nature of elite divisions within the Islamic Republic. Iran’s political system rests on a precarious relationship of executive power split unequally between a president, most recently elected with over 20 million votes, and a faqih, whose authority stems directly from the endorsement of 88 mostly elderly men (the Assembly of Experts), and indirectly, the discretion of one (the One). In this division of political labor lies the trap of dual sovereigns: The president serves at the pleasure of the Leader, always careful to reassure the latter that he does not intend to usurp his power. The abandonment of the deal has, in theory, provided Khamenei with the opportunity to drop what has been an alliance of convenience between himself and his president, Hassan Rouhani.
In reality, the two men need each other. Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian American Council, recently observed, “Declarations of Rouhani’s demise are not only premature, but also ignore Iran’s motivations for coming to the negotiating table in the first place: Maintaining unity among the ruling elite, and deflecting responsibility for successful diplomacy onto Washington.” Khamenei and Rouhani are closer to each other in political disposition than Khamenei is to the hard-line elements of the regime, for whom appeasement of any sort is not on the table. The Leader has a right flank, as it were, that he needs to quell.
It is no coincidence that the forces happiest to see this deal fail constitute the same band of incompetents whose intransigence and stridency put Iran in the fix in which it presently finds itself. With his political bench limited, Khamenei needs Rouhani’s government to be successful and to remain popular with the public. Khamenei “may be a cunning ideologue,” according to Marashi, “but he’s not suicidal: he’ll use Rouhani’s political consensus-building skills and his team of technocrats to help stabilize the economy and more competently handle state affairs, especially at this time when Iran is under siege.”
Trump’s Plan B
As for the elites in charge of Iran policy here in the United States, the talk now is of what comes next, the matter of the so-called Plan B, a premise that would, in normal circumstances, imply that there was ever a Plan A, or any plan for that matter. The decision to tear up the deal was a choleric choice, an unforced error driven as much by the president’s evident compulsion to erase his predecessor’s sizable legacy as it was to punish the Iranians. Months of last-second diplomacy to save the deal and Trump’s will-he-won’t-he theatrics proved to be nothing more than show-business tricks that ginned up the ratings ahead of a final episode whose outcome was never in doubt.
The situation is not much better on the ground among the more serious thinkers of the US foreign policy establishment. The central problem, as Azadeh Moaveni describes, is that the United States has never quite figured out what to do about the reality of Iran. “At no point in the past 20 years, apart from under Obama, has the US genuinely sought to resolve its concerns about Iran, its nuclear program and the vexing fact that Iran cannot simultaneously be shunned from the region and then expected to behave collaboratively in the region.” The result is what the historian Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet describes as the “defective narrative” of European and American policy makers, in which Iran plays the part of would-be hegemon with expansionist dreams, when in reality nearly two centuries of British, Russian, and US intervention in the Middle East has privileged Arabian dominance at the expense of the Persianate world, leaving Iranians as embattled minorities in many of the newly created states of the region.
This strategic confusion found perfect expression in a recent NPR interview with Wendy Sherman, the lead American negotiator on the Iran deal and as honest a broker as one might hope to find in Washington. In response to a question about whether she saw a way for French President Emmanuel Macron to salvage the nuclear agreement, Sherman observed that Macron’s task was to persuade Trump that Europe and the US would “work together on regional issues to push back Iran out of the Middle East.” How, exactly, is Iran to be pushed out of the Middle East?
For Iranians, these last few weeks have been a repeat of the past 40 years. They’ve seen this story before, so the mood is one of fatigue and familiarity, tinged with regret, if not resignation. Lacking remedies, what remains for everyday Iranians is to muddle through each day, as they have done for decades, to find resolution to a revolution that remains out of reach.
Enter: Ollie North
While Iran continues its modern project of defining what it means to be Iranian, voters in the US are left to ponder the possibility that their president is simply un-American. The inescapable truth is that America has joined Iran in going rogue, become more and more a country isolated within the international community and shunned by what were once the staunchest of allies, all while its government doggedly pursues a domestic agenda that systematically violates the rights of citizens, above all its weakest members. Together, the US and Iran demonstrate how unpopular regimes, freed from the inconvenience of having to face a direct, fair vote, brought into being by the intervention of tumbledown anachronisms (the Assembly of Experts, the electoral college), are able to persist and even thrive, buoyed by the wheezy enthusiasm of aging zealots.
I noted before the 2016 election the uncanny similarities between Trump and Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a comparison that, sadly, proved to be incomplete. It is fair to say that the current American head of state also has much in common with his Iranian counterpart. Self-appointed saviors, doyens of the politics of grievance, Trump and Khamenei share a narrative of improvement based on the dubious claim that they are singularly positioned to make their countries great again (“I alone can fix it!”) and to speak for the “forgotten” and “real” voices of society. If the headgear is different, the scam remains more or less the same.
As if 2018 weren’t already weird enough, consider the remarkable spectacle of Oliver North’s revival, conjured back onto our television sets by his elevation to the head of the National Rifle Association. Ollie, rising up from the past like a history lesson that America never learned and thus is doomed to repeat endlessly, arrived with advice about Iran, a moment that didn’t so much blur the line separating tragedy from farce but erased it completely. “Look, never believe an Iranian,” he intoned to Sean Hannity, “because if their lips are moving, they are lying.”
Though outrage to North’s comments was immediate and warranted, perhaps the former felon was, in a way, right. Anyone who has spent any time in Iran will know that nothing there is taken at face value, that years of rule under clerics and shahs have fostered a healthy skepticism toward an unhealthy politics, a habit of mind that Americans would do well to adopt and take on as their own.
What the lieutenant colonel gets wrong, what he underestimates, is the predicate demand that the lies be sincere, drawn from local sources. Iranians may lie to each other, but at least the lies are their own.
At the risk of engaging in orientalist malpractice, it is fair to say that Iranians, well versed in the nature of charlatans, have little to learn from the likes of North or Trump. On his way to folly, Trump took time during his May 8 address to the country to mouth the now standard boilerplate about the glorious Persian civilization (like his hapless attorney, what he lacks in creativity he makes up for in consistency), taking care to shed the requisite crocodile tears for the Iranian people, who despite economic pain would ultimately benefit from the end of this “horrible deal.” Only he could do what no other administration could do, this new Cyrus, the would-be savior of all of the people of the Middle East. But why would Iranians prefer the snake oil of Trump and his enablers, even if it comes infused with rosewater and saffron, over their own?