Islamist Hardliners Are Threatening Iran’s Very Survival

Mohammad Ali Jafari and Ayatollah Khamenei (Wikimedia Commons)

by Shireen T. Hunter   

Since last year, Iran’s economy has seriously deteriorated as speculators have rushed to exchange national currency for dollars while others, fearing more troubles to come, have been moving their capital out of the country. Close to $30 billion has reportedly left the country since the currency crisis began.

The mounting economic problems have also caused social and political instability. The first manifestation was in January 2018, when large-scale protests occurred in Tehran and other major cities. Last month, protests broke out in the south-western province of Khuzestan over shortages in drinking water. Iran’s south-eastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan is also facing serious water shortages, and the available water, mostly delivered by tankers, is of poor quality. A very hot summer, especially in the country’s south, has caused shortages of electricity resulting in blackouts. Even the capital, Tehran, has not escaped power cuts.

Electricity shortages have even caused diplomatic problems. Because of rising domestic demand, Tehran has been unable to meet its commitment to provide Iraq with electricity. Electricity shortages contributed to recent demonstrations and upheavals in Basra, which some key Iraqi political figures interpreted as an Iranian pressure tactic. These politicians ignored Iran’s own increased needs and the fact that Iraq owes Iran for already delivered electricity. In a tweet, Muqtada al Sadr said that those countries that want to influence Iraq’s politics by pressuring it will not succeed. Some demonstrators in Basra also displayed anti-Iran sentiments.

These economic difficulties even threaten President Hassan Rouhani’s government. Hardliners have called for his resignation and that of his entire cabinet, with some hinting that a military-dominated government would manage the economy better. Eventually, cooler heads prevailed, and a major political crisis was avoided. But the episode showed how politics in Iran have become increasingly vulnerable to economic developments.

These economic problems, coupled with social restrictions, are undermining Iran’s national unity. Water shortages are causing disputes between provinces that are relatively rich in water resources and those that are not. According to reports in the Iranian media, migration has increased from southern provinces to the northern parts of the country, a process that potentially could cause further problems. The government’s frequent calls for national unity are evidence of the country’s deep divides.

Many in the country blame American and international sanctions for these problems. The economic sanctions of the last decade have no doubt adversely affected Iran’s economy and exacerbated its other difficulties. However, Iran’s problems had already reached a critical level when the most severe sanctions were imposed in 2008. The more fair-minded observers, including some within Rouhani’s cabinet, admit that Iran’s problems have mostly domestic roots. Recently, Iran’s Minister of Intelligence Mahmoud Alavi commented that Iranians “are responsible for 60-80 percent of our problems. Outsiders only add seasoning, salt and pepper, to them.

Yet so far, there is no evidence that the regime is prepared to alter the outlook and policies that have caused Iran’s current problems. On the contrary, the hardliners in particular are continuing their ostrich-like behavior of burying their heads in the sand. Despite the demands of a group of politicians and intellectuals who wrote a letter recommending negotiations with Washington, they are adamantly refusing to talk to America. The commander of the Revolutionary Guards, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, said that if Iran talks to the United States, nothing would remain of the Islamic revolution. Such hardliners insist that Iran can overcome all its problems by relying on its domestic resources. Yet, their policies have exhausted and destroyed much of these resources. Ignoring the realities of international politics and economics, they are pinning their hopes on Russia and China to save them from their current predicament.

Iran’s Anti-Iran Sentiments

A major reason why Iran’s Islamists persist on continuing their bankrupt policies is their ideological and anti-Iran outlook. Unlike the Arab world and Turkey, where Islamists are also Turkish or Arab nationalists, Iran’s Islamists view Iran and its culture, especially its pre-Islamic dimensions, as rivals. Even the Iranian left, in contrast to other socialist movements like those of Russia and China, has anti-nationalist tendencies.

For instance, In response to a question about what he felt on returning to Iran in 1979 after so many years, Ayatollah Khomeini answered: nothing. For him and other Islamists, Iran did not and does not matter except as a launching pad for their ideology. Their priority is Islam and the Muslim world. They even have trouble mentioning the Iranian nation. It took Khomeini and other Islamists a decade and a devastating war with Iraq before they would use the term grudgingly. Since then, their use of Iran and Iranians has been merely instrumental. Only when it is in trouble does the Islamic Republic call on Iranians to love their country, be patient with difficulties, and help overcome them.

This outlook has also been responsible for Iran’s distorted and costly foreign policy priorities. Palestine, not Iran, has been the Islamists’ priority, which has isolated Iran and cost it so much in economic terms. Iran’s hardliners blame others for their anti-Iranian actions, but they fail to admit that their revolutionary policies have elicited these hostile reactions. They don’t seem to understand that states cannot challenge the international system and its key players without paying a price for it.

Greed and Lust for Power

When they came to power, the Islamists dismantled Iran’s economic and administrative infrastructure. Instead of professionals, they put uneducated and inexperienced people in charge of the country, including the running of its foreign policy. As a result, they forced a large percentage of the country’s best and the brightest, including those born after the revolution, to leave their homeland. They set up organizations whose sole purpose is the enrichment of the new ruling elite—which include certain influential clergy and their offspring, many of whom now live in Europe, Canada, or Dubai—as well as military organizations such as the Revolutionary Guards.

Corruption, cronyism, and abuse of power are nothing new in Iran. But under the Islamic regime, they have reached gigantic proportions, becoming a major cause of economic mismanagement. Moreover, for these elites, revolution and its slogans are mere instruments to retain their hold on power and to enrich themselves even if it means the impoverishment of the rest of the country. They enforce strict Islamic rules on Iranians, but their children often flout the same rules when abroad.

The son of the late President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Hashemi, was reported to have said recently that Iran is facing a worse situation now than in 1988, when Ayatollah Khomeini likened agreeing to a ceasefire with Iraq to drinking from a poisoned cup. Would Iranian leaders do the same today to save the country from further hardship?

The biggest responsibility lies with the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards. Would they be courageous enough to admit to past mistakes and set the country on a new course, with more cultural and political freedom and a more outward-looking and conciliatory foreign policy? More importantly, would they finally put Iran and Iranians ahead of unrealistic and selfish objectives? If not, they might go down in history as responsible for Iran’s demise.

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.



  1. Whether you agree or disagree with this article, it is better to have a discussion. A majority of the problems that Iran is facing today are domestic. Look at the environment, water shortages, rapid increase in population, who would you say is responsible? The hardliners obsession with Palestinian causes is another. I am not saying that Iran shouldn’t support the Palestinians but there are a number of other Islamic countries than do support but don’t face the same problems. When Iran is isolated, I don’t see the Palestinians championing our cause, they would rather suck up to the Saudis. The West has double standards too. The same thugs and thieves that terrorise the population get asylum when they have a falling out with their other thugs and thieves.

  2. Ms Shireen is making a good point and the Iranian people should look for the causes of their demise internally. And I believe the the people do understand their own situation and they are seeking solutions calmly and methodically without shedding anyone’s blood! The 84 million people are relying on themselves to find a path forward and NOT relying on those living abroad who fled the country with the stolen resources and or other countries that trying to exploit their situation for their own interest.

    Ali, who,s we? Are you including yourself with the other 84 million people? Don’t bet on it because the people are 1000 times smarter than those of who lived during the traitors’s family of Pahlavi and they don’t trust us at all! To make it clear Pahlavis’s time is the second dark chapter in Persian history after the Bastards Kajaries!
    So cut it off and don’t hide behind your nonsense. Respect the folks who saved the country from the Arab savages like Saddam Hossein and they have and still continued to live back home!

  3. It’s fascinating how after 40 years of such patently misguided articles by pundits like Ms. Hunter about the imminent ‘demise’ of the Iranian ‘regime’, they still manage to get published in ‘respectable’ Western media without a hint of self-consciousness.

    Back in the real world, water scarcity has Always been a fact of life in the ancient country, and is even thought to have caused the creation of a central government there in the first place.

    Some may wish to blame the lack of rainfall in the country in recent years on the government of Iran, but it is not an intelligent position to hold. Wouldn’t it be rather stupid to blame the recent forest fires in Sweden on the country’s government?

    Similarly, competition among regions over access to water can be imagined as causing a ‘breakup’ of the country, but that’s just neocon wishful thinking (similar to how they tried to portray wage negotiations in Iran’s transportation sector, which in fact reflected civil society growth in the country and a clear sign of democracy: workers negotiating fairer wages. Peacefully.). On the contrary, this process of internal dialogue over sharing of scarce resources is more likely to enhance internal interdependence and integration coupled with greater cooperation among citizens in reducing waste.

    A rather disturbing core message of Ms. Hunter’s polemic is in its servitude to a warmongering US regime with little or no attention to the futility of appeasing such bullying by the likes of Trump. A US regime that has reneged on its international commitments, enacted clearly racist and anti-Muslim policies (much like the Germans did to Jews in the 1930s), and is committing a War Crime against Iranians through policies of Collective Punishment based on lies, utter malice and hate, cannot be tolerated, let alone trusted in negotiations.

    Given such realities, it would require the use of some very hard hallucinogens for any ‘analyst’ to imagine that the Iranian leadership would or should negotiate with US War Criminals.

    It’s a shame to see pundits appeasing fascism.

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