Iran Hawks Should Be Careful What They Wish For
Pushing for regime change in Tehran could put Qassem Suleimani in power.
Regime change in Iran has been a desire, masked to various degrees, of nearly every U.S. administration since the Iranian revolution in 1979. Today, Trump administration officials such as National Security Advisor John Bolton, who argued for regime change before joining the White House, are now exerting maximum pressure on Iran in order to shake its stability. Since withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, the United States has moved to reimpose sanctions on the country and has demanded that purchasers of Iranian oil cut their imports to zero over the next four months. With the Iranian rial sinking to record lows, the economic pressure on the regime seems to be at an all-time high, with some, including in Foreign Policy, calling on the United States to take advantage of this crisis to bring about change in Iran’s political system.
In a May 21 speech outlining a strategy of pressuring the regime, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the Iranian people to “decide the timeline” of a leadership change. One month later, with his #IranProtests tweet, Pompeo expressed support for a population “tired of the corruption, injustice & incompetence of their leaders.” However, the Iranian regime is not as fragile as perceived. And even if pressuring the regime were to prompt a change, the Trump team should be careful what it wishes for.
Although times are turbulent, the Iranian regime is not on the verge of collapse. Two factors in particular suggest the durability of the current leadership. First, for the past four decades, the regime has demonstrated its staying power in the face of ever growing sanctions. Notwithstanding the power of U.S. secondary sanctions targeting Iran’s oil exports, international trade, and financial transactions, these measures are unlikely to be as effective as those in place prior to the nuclear deal because the international community is no longer united against Iran.
Europe is promising to find ways to undermine secondary sanctions and impose blocking regulations in order to continue to buy oil from Iran and protect its trade; China is considering increasing its oil purchases from Iran; and even if businesses withdraw from the country, the sanctions will not have the same impact when other parties are actively seeking ways to undermine them.
It’s worth recalling that Iran did not forgo its domestic uranium enrichment efforts even at the height of sanctions before the 2015 nuclear deal. The so-called crippling sanctions of 2012 hurt Iran’s oil exports and auto industry and, most importantly, sidelined the country from the global financial system, causing serious domestic economic damage but which failed to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear program.
The Iranian regime has survived sanctions and isolation in the past by finding workarounds and relying on the resilience of its people in adapting to economic hardship. This round of sanctions is unlikely to be any worse than what Iran has already endured.
Second, while protests have broken out over the past months, flaring up in December 2017 and again more recently over economic and water scarcity issues, they are reflective of widespread public discontent about the economy, corruption, and mismanagement of resources, not of an organized opposition capable of overthrowing the regime. It is important to recall some of the key factors that brought about the 1979 revolution, none of which, aside from economic discontent, exist today.
The 1979 revolution occurred after decades of organized opposition to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Moreover, there was a strong charismatic leader figure in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. For more than 15 years before the revolution, Khomeini maintained an organized, systematic, and influential voice in expressing opposition to the shah through distributing written statements and recorded sermons, including lectures on governance, a plan for the Islamic Republic, and continued calls for his supporters to “rise up” against the monarchy.
What emerged as a result was a national network of religious communities throughout Iran—from cities to small villages—that created a powerful uprising, supported by powerful institutions such as Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, against the shah.
Even if the current turmoil did lead to regime collapse—as unlikely as that is—the forces that Bolton, Rudy Giuliani, and some others hope to see in power, such as the exile group Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), are the least likely to take the helm. The MEK has no support base inside Iran; in fact, its members are viewed as traitors because of their collaboration with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War and because of the group’s terrorist operations in Iran during the 1980s.
The secular part of Iran’s population—and the younger generation, in particular, who are critical of the regime—views the MEK as even more extremist than the ayatollahs. Thus, despite decades of foreign support, the so-called opposition forces lauded by U.S. hawks have been ineffective in gathering any backing inside the country to be even considered as a viable option to replace the regime.
One possible path is a descent into outright civil war, which could be catastrophic not only for Iran but for wider regional stability. The current quagmires in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria are examples of worst-case scenarios for the West. For the Iranian people, the fear of descending into instability and war, as their neighbors have, is a crucial factor in restraining their actions against the government.
Iranians have experienced a revolution once before, followed by eight years of war, and that experience is still too fresh in the minds of many people. The economic hardship they are enduring is difficult, but if the alternative is the sheer chaos of Syria or Iraq, then Iranians will choose safety, security, and order.
The second, more likely result of regime collapse would be a military seizure of power in the name of restoring order. And the most likely candidate to lead such a coup would be the man Washington’s Iran hawks fear the most: Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, the division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) responsible for foreign military and special operations. He has been the mastermind behind Iran’s military operations in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria; he led all operations in mobilizing Shiite forces from Lebanon and Iraq to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces; and he is seen as a threat by U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Suleimani is the most likely successor because he is increasingly regarded as a hero in Iran for his role in fighting the Islamic State both in Syria and in Iraq. Indeed, he is regarded as “one of Iran’s biggest celebrities.” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has called him a “living martyr of the revolution.” According to recent polling, nearly 65 percent of Iranians view Suleimani very favorably.
Moreover, he has the legislative authority to step in to restore order; the mandate of the IRGC is to protect the revolutionary regime from internal and external threats. If the uprisings escalate, Suleimani has both the legal and practical authority to handle civil unrest. Even if Suleimani does not formally assume power, he would become the de facto leader and decision-maker.
Given these circumstances, a U.S. policy that seeks to exert maximum pressure on Iran, even if successful, could bring about America’s (and Israel’s) worst nightmare. The Trump administration and those pushing for regime change ought to pause before they encourage instability and chaos and carefully consider what comes the day after. Iran’s next regime could prove to be an even bigger headache for Washington than the current one.
Mahsa Rouhi is a research fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. She is also an associate with the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Twitter: @MahsaRouhi