Iran’s 42-year-old Islamic Republic is facing an existential test. The transition is looming as Iranians discuss what could happen after the death of 82-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who was an Iranian dictator for more than three decades. The importance of the election of tough justice chief Ebrahim Raisi as president lies both in Khamenei’s efforts to maintain a revolutionary atmosphere and in the advantage that the presidency gives Raisi if a vacuum suddenly emerges at the top. After all, Khamenei was president when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died and quickly succeeded him.
The upcoming succession might not go so smoothly because Khamenei lacks the religious credentials and charisma that Khomeini enjoyed. Shortly before his death in 1989, Khomeini signaled that Khamenei should follow him as supreme leader. Even those who disliked Khomeini politically respected his religious credentials and his revolutionary significance. They didn’t mind Khamenei either: the Islamic Republic was already faction, but most senior Iranian officials viewed Khamenei as weak and colorless, a good compromise. The Expert Assembly, the spiritual body charged with selecting a new leader, essentially became a stamp.
However, Khamenei had greater ambitions. In 1994, Khamenei attempted to use the same religious credentials as Khomeini, but faced widespread rejection and ridicule. He never regained his stature; he based the rule that followed on more violence than intellectual persuasion. This means that after Khamenei’s death his influence will fizzle out; nobody needs to fear him.
Raisi may now seem like a likely successor, but a lot could go wrong. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps could undo its efforts. Other candidates – for example Mojtaba Khamenei – could throw a wrench into the gears. Compromise may require a leadership council rather than an individual creating a new dynamic of faction formation at the top. Iranians of all stripes, meanwhile, could use the temporary vacuum left by Khamenei’s death to demand an end to the Islamic Republic.
Raisi himself could prove to be a catalyst for the downfall of the Islamic Republic. He is a true believer. Those who heard him speak during a reception in February 2021 at the Iranian embassy in Baghdad described a fiery red revolutionary who was reminiscent of a Lenin of the 1920s. Should he step up the Cultural Revolution before Khamenei’s death, he could unleash a spark that could spiral out of control. Regardless, it would be foolish to believe that the Islamic Republic is permanent. What could Iran become if the Islamic Republic fails?
While wishful thinking prevails among the Iranian Ã©migrÃ© population, the likelihood that Iran will become a pro-Western democracy is slim. Consider the possible scenarios:
– military dictatorship: The Revolutionary Guards now control up to 40 percent of the Iranian economy, monopolize weapons, and are well positioned to fill any vacuum. However, a military dictatorship may not make Iran an ally of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt. To assume that the Revolutionary Guards would shed their ideology easily is projection. The Revolutionary Guards indoctrinated some of their high-ranking leaders when they were nine or ten years old while participating in extracurricular programs sponsored by the paramilitary Basij. Their rhetoric may sound far-fetched and conspiratorial to the West and cosmopolitan Iranians, but no one should underestimate the effects of a generation of brainwashing.
–Civil War: At almost every moment of central government weakness, ethnic and sectarian minorities have rebelled along Iran’s borders. While many Iranian scholars accept that Iran, despite its ethnic mosaic, is a coherent whole because its identity as a unit predates the rise of the ethno-nationalist state, other scholars – above all Azerbaijani expert Brenda Shaffer – argue that ethnic identities are more more pronounced and more corrosive to the Iranian whole than many acknowledge. If Shaffer is right, Iran could face a serious challenge to its integrity following Khamenei’s death or during an ongoing uprising. The Revolutionary Guards can counteract this. Recall that Reza Khan – the father of the ousted Shah – became famous for his role in cracking down on rebellions in the late 1910s and early 1920s, and eventually ascended to the throne. Add to this the fact that neighboring states could try to stir the pot, as the Saudis allegedly did with Jundallah and the Baluch, and the result could be uprisings and civil wars for several years.
-Civic transition: When Khomeini led the revolution, he united Iranians against the Shah, but was vague about what might come next: he promised an Islamic democracy but never defined it too late. Many Iranians complain that what came out was neither. But while some realists claim that democracy is out of reach in the Middle East (apart from Tunisia, Israel and Iraq), Iran could become an exception. Iranians do not see democracy as a Western imposition, but have their own indigenous experiences with a constitutional revolution in the first decade of the 20th century. The son of the Shah, meanwhile, remains a stronger symbol than many outsiders realize; I saw how Iranians from inland met the former crown prince unexpectedly and reacted with knees, tears and hugs. Restoration of the monarchy is unlikely, however, although the Crown Prince could play an important role as a unifying force in presiding over a new constitutional convention.
Regardless of the scenario, no Western official should expect Iran to be pro-Western after the revolution. The 1953 coup against Mohammed Mosaddegh is a diversionary maneuver: Mosaddegh was not only constitutionally wrong and tried to stage a coup himself, but it is also bizarre to ignore the US occupation of part of Iran just seven years earlier. Yet perception is more than reality, and four decades of anti-American demonization are affecting the mindset. Anti-Americanism is real for other reasons, especially given the abuse and humiliation Iranians suffered in the 1960s and 1970s. Greedy Western politicians who bind themselves to the Mujahideen al-Khalq are worsening the perception of America among ordinary Iranians as this organization embraces Saddam and the terrorism it is perpetrating in Iran.
Another story matters. While the colonial powers – Britain and Russia – never formally colonized Iran, they harassed and humiliated it. As a result, Iranians are paranoid about the intentions of external powers, especially in the West. Intellectual history is also important. Khomeini’s revolution was successful because it connected not only Islamists, but also xenophobes and leftists. In 1962, for example, Jalal Al-e Ahmad wrote an extremely influential book Gharbzadegi, often translated into English as Westoxification, in which he argued that Western influence is poisoning Iranian culture and undermining its potential. In fact, she claimed that the key to Iranian greatness was to free the West from Iran, not unlike an Iranian nationalist equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood theorist Sayyid Qutb Milestones. Ali Shariati has meanwhile successfully combined Islamism with socialism and the Third World concept. Shariati died young and under mysterious circumstances, but his ideas still permeate Iranian political thought.
The downfall of the Islamic Republic should be a goal of the US – it is certainly an Iranian one. Although the Iranians are not seeking intervention, the goal of any US government should be not to do anything that would maintain the revolutionary system. Still, it is crucial to approach Iran’s transition with realism, rather than the Pollyanna notion of a pro-Western public waiting to embrace America. The Iranians will eventually win their democracy, but it will be a long transition, tinged with history and with a sharpness that makes French and Turkish nationalism seem casual.
Michael Rubin is a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the wider Middle East. He also regularly teaches at sea on Middle Eastern conflict, culture, terrorism and the Horn of Africa for deployed units in the US Navy and Navy.