Iranian Leadership: Heed Warning Signs and Change Priorities


by Shireen Hunter               

Iran’s leadership, especially the hardliners, has attributed the latest protests in several major Iranian cities, including the capital Tehran, to plots by the enemies of Islam and the Iranian Revolution, particularly America, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Senior officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have also warned that those who are dreaming of ending the revolution will take their dreams to the grave. Fighting words indeed.

Countries that have problems with Iran and its policies, especially in the Middle East, will no doubt try to take advantage of the latest disturbances. Also, the destabilization of the Iranian regime has been a goal of various US administrations with only brief interruption. Finally, the attribution of popular discontent to foreign influences is a traditional propaganda ploy by the Teheran government.

But none of this will likely distract the Iranian people from the country’s real problems—especially the inability of the leadership to make any progress in improving peoples’ lives.

The latest protests began in Mashhad, most probably as a ploy by Rouhani’s opponents, including his defeated rival for the presidency, Ibrahim Raeisi. Mashhad is also the stronghold of Ayatollah Alam al Huda, who is the city’s Friday prayer leader, a hardline and very conservative cleric. At times, he has behaved as though he is the de facto ruler of the city of Mashhad, like some Afghan warlord. For example, he has in the past forced the cancellation of concerts sanctioned by the Ministry of culture and Islamic Guidance.

During the last several months, hardliners have waged a campaign against Rouhani, claiming that many voters now say they are sorry (pashiman) that they voted for him. Even so-called reformists have not been very supportive of him. In other words, in the past several months various factions have been back to their old habits of infighting and backbiting, with no concern for the national interest or well-being.

If the protests did start as a ploy by hardliners against Rouhani, they soon got out of hand. Shocked by the way protests spread across the country and worried that they might worsen, various factions have tried to show a united front. But this show of solidarity, too, is unlikely to convince the people.

Decades of Disappointment

The fact is that the Iranian people’s patience and endurance has been sorely tested for nearly four decades. They have put up with war, international sanctions, economic hardship, a deteriorating environment, and, during 2017, natural disasters such as earthquakes. Since 1988, when the war with Iraq ended, Iranians have hoped for reform of the system, cultural and social opening, national reconciliation, economic prosperity, and international integration and respect. They have been disappointed time after time.

Meanwhile, the hardliners have continued to chase windmills in a quixotic pursuit of Islamic utopia, Islamic unity, and the liberation of Palestine. They have sacrificed Iran’s scant resources in such pursuits, while projects vital for the country’s development have remained unfinished, the economy has stagnated, and the people have become frustrated and angry.

According to some reports, one of the protestors’ chants could be loosely translated as: “Leave Syria alone/Do something about our problems.”

More seriously, the leadership’s lack of response to the people’s changing values and needs has eroded whatever popular legitimacy it might have had. Despite periodic elections, the regime has increasingly acquired the characteristics of a religio-military junta, made up of the IRGC, various foundations, and some conservative clerics.

Again, some of the protestors’ chants indicate how people feel about this coalition. One reads like this: “They turned Islam into a stepping stone and made people miserable.”

People are aware that presidents in Iran lack any real power. They have responsibility and are blamed when things go wrong. But they are not allowed to pursue policies that could help solve the country’s problems. The experiences of the presidencies of Mohammad Khatami and now Hassan Rouhani prove this contention.

Meanwhile, the revolution has been completely hollowed out. It is no longer clear what being “revolutionary” means. It seems that revolutionary slogans are increasingly used to continue the stranglehold on the country by overlapping military and economic elites.

What this group does not understand is that their tactics of shouting “death to America” or fighting Imperialism and Zionism are no longer effective.

The most powerful groups, as they repeat the same old unending call to sacrifice and martyrdom, have nothing positive to offer to the people. In fact, the regime’s serious contradictions and tensions are coming to a head, and the leadership cannot continue its old games of resorting to periodic limited easing of tensions only to turn to repression, infighting, and external adventurism.

A Different Path

Vital decisions must be made if the country is to be saved. First and foremost, Iran’s leadership must decide who they want to serve: Iran and its people or some illusory Islamic community.

Second, they must decide what their priority should be, Iran’s survival or liberating Palestine.

Third, they must determine whether Iran’s political system will be a republic or an autocracy? They cannot have it both ways.

Fourth, they must decide whether they want to be part of the world or to turn Iran into another North Korea in order to retain a hardline minority in power. If the former, then they must become a national and Iranian government and cease being a revolutionary and Islamist movement.

In short, they must come out of their paranoid world and enter the real world of the 21st century. Iran cannot become a developed and prosperous nation and state with a cultural and political system stuck in the Middle Ages.

People will not forever remain loyal to their government if it does not make them safe and at least reasonably prosperous.

Another social convulsion is fraught with dangers for Iran. A sustained period of tension and instability could lead to the sort of foreign intervention that happened in Libya and Syria. Already, certain quarters in America and elsewhere are agitating for more direct engagement in Iranian events. Should it occur, it could jeopardize the nation’s survival.

However, the current situation is also untenable. Iran’s leaders must realize the direness of their conditions. It doesn’t help to accuse those who warn of the dangers facing the country of being agents of Iran’s enemies. The Iranian leadership must reform and reorient its priorities towards a national rather than Islamist direction. If they fail, history and the Iranian people will not forgive them.

Street scene in Iran in December 2017

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Shireen Hunter

Shireen T. Hunter is a Research Professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Her latest publication is God On Our Side: Religion, Foreign Policy and International Affairs (Rowman & Littlefield, December 2016).


  1. Before we strongly take the whip to Iran, consider that the idea embedded in “Leave Syria alone/Do something about our problems” was exactly why Trump was elected (but not how he’s serving).
    It’s a classic political strategy to avoid domestic programs in favor of international adventures; it’s where the money is to attract corrupt politicians (is there any other kind?)
    Turning back to Iran, could they get Ahmadinejad back, along with cheap gas and welfare payments?

  2. Esteglal, azadi jomhuriye irani. Badas shehel sal dosdi vagteshe ke beran afghanestan yahar gabrestani ke mighan vali keshvaro var mardomo be nabudi nabarand. mardom gastandand as ektelas dosdi poulshouriye eslami.

  3. Unfortunately, Khamenei like all other dictators will hear the people’s demands too late and plunge Iran to violent overthrow causing unintended consequences such as civil war and break up of Iran. Iran’s enemies especially Saudi Arabia and Israel will love to see an Iran that is very weak and possibly dismembered similar to Syria and Iraq..

  4. “Already, certain quarters in America and elsewhere are agitating for more direct engagement in Iranian events. Should it occur, it could jeopardize the nation’s survival”

    It’s been 40 years Ms Hunter and you’ve been at the center of these certain quarters. You know well that no amount of internal reform will ever take Iran off their 24/7 radar screens. So why bother warn ?!

  5. The author started good, then threw with some typical comments heard from neocons such as ” …. they must become a national and Iranian government and cease being a revolutionary and Islamist movement”. Can the author mention exactly what Iran has done to constitute its “revolutionary and Islamist movement”? There is nothing revolutionary about the Iran (at least fro the pat 20 years) and, other than some cosmetic feature, nothing about Islamic behavior.

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