How to Prevent Hardliners From Turning Iran into Another North Korea

by Shireen Hunter

It is no secret that Iran’s hardliners have been unhappy about the successful completion of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. Iran has always maintained that it had never sought to acquire nuclear weapons. So, the hardliners, especially those in the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) cannot be angry because this agreement has prevented them from achieving their goal of acquiring nuclear weapons and thus reaching a degree of parity with Iran’s nuclear neighbors, Pakistan and India. Nor can they be upset at failing to establish deterrence against potential nuclear attacks by other powers.

The main source of the hardliners’ anger is that the agreement was at least partly made possible because of Iran’s enormous economic problems and its lack of adequate financial and technological resources to tackle these problems. Iran’s current problems, in turn, are the accumulated result of more than three decades of war, economic mismanagement, and misuse of existing material and human resources. The economic sanctions imposed on Iran because of its nuclear program only exacerbated these deeper problems. More seriously, from the hardliners’ perspective, Iran’s economic problems reflected the inadequacy of the Islamist model of development. And given that performance and legitimacy are interconnected, Iran’s economic problems also call into question the legitimacy of the system. There is a limit to how far a people can be forced to sacrifice their well-being for an ideological or even religious cause, particularly when the nation is treated to daily tales of outrageous corruption and the accumulation of illegitimate fortunes.

Moreover, even the radicals know that remedying Iran’s economic ills requires that the country open up to the outside world, especially to Europe and eventually to the United States. It also requires that the country make it possible for the expatriate Iranian community to put their considerable capital and talent at the service of their homeland. But this is what the hardliners are most afraid of, almost as much as the bat is frightened of daylight. The reason is that if Iran opens up, the hardliners will lose control over the levers of the economy. The IRGC will lose its monopoly over the implementation of major infrastructure projects. Meanwhile, the merchant community fears Iran’s industrialization, because this would deprive them of a lucrative import business that has been impoverishing Iranian workers and peasants even as some merchants have accumulated stupendous fortunes.

The hardliners argue that to recover economically, Iran needs a so-called “resistance economy.” However, this type of economy is even more difficult to define than the “voodoo economics” that former President George H.W. Bush, when he was running for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, used to describe Ronald Reagan’s economic policies. Hardliners talk of “jihadi spirit.” Yet every day another industrial concern closes or reduces output because of the shortage of capital. Unfinished projects pile up because of the lack of resources. But how can jihadi spirit produce the extra cash the country needs or convince young educated Iranians stay in the country rather than seek better opportunities abroad?

Fear of Openness

In short, Iran’s hardliners want to turn Iran into another North Korea, with a subsistence economy and a closed society. They see domestic and foreign enemies hiding behind every bush. They view virtually every intellectual activity as immoral and subversive, aimed at hollowing out and destroying (estehaleh) of the revolution. The closing of the periodical Andisheh e Pouya (Inquisitive Thought) and the arrest of some of its journalists show the depth of the hardliners’ paranoia.

I happen to have written for Andisheh e Pouya several times and used to receive it often in PDF format. To my knowledge, they published only esoteric and semi-academic articles with very little connection to actual Iranian politics. The closure and arrests therefore show that the hardliners’ real fear is the greater exposure of the Iranian public to ideas and intellectual trends, which they fear could undermine their ideology and hence also their power.

Ironically, however, the greatest threat to the Islamic system and whatever remains of the revolution are the hardliners. Even Islam’s place in Iran is most threatened by the behavior of the hardliners. More people have turned away from Islam in Iran after the revolution than before. The Shia establishment, too, is more divided today than before the revolution. Constant attacks on “English Shiism”—which refers to the activities of some Shia organizations, such as the Al Khoei foundation based in the UK, that oppose the Iranian government’s interpretation of Shiism and favor the traditional Shia view that the clergy should not be involved in politics—are one reflection of the divided nature of the Shia community today.

At least since the early 1990s, the Iranian system has faced a stark choice: reform itself or eventually be torn apart by its deep contradictions. The efforts of former leaders Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami to effect reforms were to save the regime and not hollow it out as the hardliners claim. Fortunately, the Iranian people and many reformist and progressive elements within the system will not allow the hardliners to triumph. President Hassan Rouhani has already objected to the latest arrests. He is also determined to continue with his policy of engagement with the outside world as evidenced by his forthcoming trips to France, Italy and Vatican, as well his efforts in the direction of national revitalization and full international integration. Under these circumstances, the West’s approach toward Iran can have an important role in tipping the balance against the hardliners.

What the West Should Do

In the past, both under Rafsanjani and Khatami, the West refused to appreciate the real differences within the system or to help nurture the more progressive elements. Now they have one more chance to do so. However, the best way of helping Iran’s progressives is not to voice open support, which the hardliners could use to accuse reformers of being “agents of influence” of the West (nofouzi). Rather it is by its behavior that the West can help thwart the hardliners’ agenda of the North-Koreanization of Iran. The following are some of the steps which could be most helpful:

  • The timely lifting of sanctions;
  • The timely flow of Western, particularly European, capital and technology to Iran;
  • More receptivity to Iran’s legitimate security concerns and a more balanced approach to Iran and Saudi Arabia in the context of regional politics;
  • An end to Iran’s demonization, which has gone beyond the Islamist regime and reached back to its pre-Islamic history. In short, no more movies like The 300.

Such a policy would go a long way toward strengthening the hand of Iran’s progressives. An improvement in Iran’s economic conditions will embolden the progressive forces to take on the hardliners more forcefully. It will show that engagement and moderation pays off. This will rob the hardliners of their argument that moderation toward the West is a lost cause and only anti-imperialist struggle (istikbar setizi) will save Iran. It will show that the West can be trusted to fulfill its commitments, robbing the hardliners of another of their arguments that the West, especially America, cannot be trusted.

Of course, some in the West might argue that the West should not save Iran from its own demons. But the West already has many monumental messes on its hands. The transformation of Iran into another North Korea would be one debacle too much.

Photo: Gathering of commanders and senior staff of the Revolutionary Guard (courtesy of IRNA)

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.


One Comment

  1. Let’s not leave out of those reasons the fact that Iran agreed to accept restrictions that apply to no other member State of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, thus establishing Iran as a second-class state when it comes to nuclear development.

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