February 12, 2019
The Islamic Republic Nears a Turning Point
Forty years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran is on the brink of change. The Islamic Republic has long been an aggressive and destabilizing actor globally, often threatening the U.S. and its allies. The same individuals have ruled for decades, and Iranian behavior has changed little over that time. A new generation will take power in the next decade and Iran’s population is restive as never before. Iran will transform – but not necessarily for the better.
The generation of leaders that will succeed the revolution’s founding clerics and fraternal Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) command network may be just as radical or even more so. The clerics and IRGC officials who currently dominate Iran are aging and dying. The next leaders are currently in their 50s and 60s. We must not assume these younger individuals will be less radical or less hostile toward the U.S. and its allies. Iran’s next leaders still remember the Islamic Revolution and fought for it during the Iran-Iraq War in the ‘80s, both crucible experiences that have unified Iranian leaders against the U.S. for decades. They have come of age and will come to power in the context of constant conflict with the U.S. and expanding direct military conflict with Israel. This conflict infused their formative years and molded their generation. They have had limited interaction with different worldviews or ideologies in Iran but remember just enough of the authoritarian rule of Iran’s last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to loathe it (since they opposed it, they are unlikely to sympathize with the nostalgia for the old regime manifested in 2018’s protests). Iran’s next leaders are at least as likely to behave aggressively to defend their revolutionary ideals at home and abroad.
Certain young clerics have already demonstrated their willingness to brutally repress the population. Sadegh Amoli Larijani and Ebrahim Raisi, who are a part of this emergent generation, are widely considered potential successors to 79-year old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Both are judges who have overseen the trials and executions of thousands of political prisoners. There is no indication they will moderate in the future.
These new leaders will also confront a growing protest movement, which has rooted itself in Iran demanding change. Demonstrations have become more demographically and geographically diverse and are flaring up more frequently than during Iran’s previous protest waves in 1999 and 2009. They will continue evolving as the population becomes increasingly frustrated with the government’s unwillingness to address its concerns. The protest movement does not yet threaten regime survival, but it is growing.
The current regime leadership could not stop the movement’s growth after its outbreak in December 2017, nor can it resolve the people’s primarily economic grievances. The Islamic Republic would need to fix inherent structural problems (which benefit the regime) and relinquish much of its economic control to address protester grievances. It is unlikely to make such changes given its choices thus far to favor violent repression and blame foreign provocateurs for its domestic unrest.
Iran is changing, therefore, but not for the better. American foreign policy must also evolve. The continuing protest movement combined with economic and diplomatic pressure from the West will more likely lead to increased domestic oppression and greater adventurism abroad than to moderation and openness. Relaxing the pressure, on the other hand, could encourage regime aggression by demonstrating weakness. Any U.S. strategy predicated on exerting pressure to pushback on Iran’s malign activities must account for these trends as they could elicit similar responses. The regime will remain committed to opposing and antagonizing the United States. The rising generation could surprise us, of course, and moderate its domestic and foreign policies – but there is no reason to think it will.