Argument

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Iran’s Revolution Is Eating Its Own

By purging veteran politicians, abandoning the pretense of free elections, and letting the welfare state decay, Tehran is playing with fire.

By , a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi addresses a press conference in Tehran.
Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi addresses a press conference in Tehran.
Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi addresses a press conference in Tehran on June 21, 2021. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

A few months into his presidency, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is already in trouble. Although the commentariat has focused on his nuclear truculence, Raisi is facing both elite defection and mass protest at home. His stewardship of the economy and his nuclear diplomacy are widely questioned. Unless Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his most ardent disciple make important changes in their approach to the great powers, they may endanger the republic they are committed to preserving.

Iran’s economy has been battered by a combination of mismanagement, the pandemic, and sanctions. The inflation rate hovers around 40 percent and the currency has lost much of its value. In the meantime, Raisi is pledging an 8 percent growth rate and creation of nearly two million jobs in the next two years.

These are fanciful notions, as Iran’s economy cannot be revived without sanctions relief. Only when the wall of sanctions cracks, can Iran sell more of its oil and repatriate its funds frozen in foreign banks.

A few months into his presidency, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is already in trouble. Although the commentariat has focused on his nuclear truculence, Raisi is facing both elite defection and mass protest at home. His stewardship of the economy and his nuclear diplomacy are widely questioned. Unless Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his most ardent disciple make important changes in their approach to the great powers, they may endanger the republic they are committed to preserving.

Iran’s economy has been battered by a combination of mismanagement, the pandemic, and sanctions. The inflation rate hovers around 40 percent and the currency has lost much of its value. In the meantime, Raisi is pledging an 8 percent growth rate and creation of nearly two million jobs in the next two years.

These are fanciful notions, as Iran’s economy cannot be revived without sanctions relief. Only when the wall of sanctions cracks, can Iran sell more of its oil and repatriate its funds frozen in foreign banks.

The idea that trade with China can sustain a nation of 85 million people is equally flawed. Selling around half a million barrels of oil a day to China at discount prices is hardly a judicious economic plan. The Iranian officials tout their 25-year deal with China, but thus far the promised investments have yet to materialize as Beijing has been reluctant to inject massive sums in a sanctioned Iran. Indeed, for an Islamist regime that insists on notions of self-sufficiency and self-reliance, to become a vassal state for China hardly enhances its political fortunes.


Despite impressions of autocratic stability, Iran is a land of demonstrations and strikes. In the past few years, the working class that was once considered a reliable pillar of support for the regime has joined other segments of society in opposition. Raisi’s brief tenure has already seen its share of convulsions.

In November, the city of Isfahan was rocked by farmers complaining about the government’s diversion of water needed for their crops. As usual, economic grievances quickly turned to politics with chants of “death to Khamenei.” In the meantime, teachers took to the streets in more than 50 cities demanding a raise. The government quelled all this with brutal use of force, further undermining its tattered legitimacy.

The Islamic Republic is skilled at turning its dedicated supporters into dissidents. In the aftermath of the contested 2009 presidential election, the reform movement was equated with sedition and Iran’s most popular politicians were excised from body politic. The problem for the government is that the reform movement’s leaders are still the most popular politicians in Iran.

For an Islamist regime that insists on notions of self-sufficiency and self-reliance, to become a vassal state for China hardly enhances its political fortunes.

Their goal of creating a regime that is democratic in practice but religious in character may have been thwarted by the hardliners, but they do command a unique place in the popular imagination. This is why the only way the government can stop them from winning elections is through mass disqualifications of their candidates.

The reform faction has been quick to issue warmings to the government that, unless it changes course, it is courting disaster. In a stinging rebuke of Raisi’s diplomacy, the reform movement issued a widely circulated letter, stressing, “At a time when the Iranian nation is facing economic exhaustion, a delay in returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will further damage the country.”

This call was joined by the centrist National Trust Party that was created by Mehdi Karubi, a former speaker of the parliament, and a 2009 presidential candidate who continues to languish under house arrest. A leading figure in the party, Ismail Gerami, has warned Raisi that his government is risking mass unrest: “It is natural that when people fall below the poverty line, they will choose protest.” But these and other voices are being ignored.

The 2021 presidential election was one of the most consequential in the history of the Islamic Republic. It was an occasion where the regime turned on its own, disqualifying conservatives with a long history of service to the theocracy. Khamenei demonstrated that he will brook no disagreement. The predicament of two stalwarts of the revolution, former speaker of the parliament Ali Larijani and former president Hassan Rouhani reveals how Iran’s elite circle is narrowing.


Larijani is the scion of one of Iran’s most illustrious families. He was the longest serving speaker of the parliament and is a reliable member of the conservative faction. During his long tenure in government, he held many important positions, including as lead nuclear negotiator. Yet he was disqualified for the presidency because of his comments during the 2009 revolt and his support for the Iran nuclear deal.

In an act of rebellion, he issued a stinging rebuttal that tied the entire regime to the JCPOA. In the long letter he stressed, “To discuss the nuclear deal, the parliament convened 20 meetings in the presence of the leadership and about 40 meetings were held in the nuclear council under the direction of the president and at least four meetings were held in the Supreme National Security Council.” For the first time in his career, Larijani stands outside the councils of power with no real prospect of redemption.

Rouhani finds himself in a similarly unenviable position. The Islamic Republic usually accords its former presidents a measure of deference by appointing them to various governmental bodies. For instance, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was the longtime head of the Expediency Discernment Council responsible for mediating disputes between various branches of government. Far from being accorded with such honors, Rouhani is being threatened for prosecution by the hardline parliament. As with Larijani, he has largely separated himself from the regime.

The Islamic Republic has faced public protest for decades from rebelling university students, disenfranchised members of the middle class, and lately the urban poor. The issues that have animated these groups range from electoral fraud to financial hardship. The masses seem to understand that the regime cannot reform itself, as its politics are too rigid and its leaders too uncompromising.

The regime has survived this not just because of its security organs but because the demonstrations eventually petered out. Lack of organizational structure has given the government the upper hand. It is entirely possible that as the protests continue, they will create their own leaders. But the regime would be wise to be concerned about the defection of its own leading lights.

The world may be witnessing an important inflection point in the history of the Islamic Republic. The hardest thing for a politician to do is to go from a dissident to an opposition politician. Many reformers are joining the ranks of the disaffected, giving voice to the masses. For the purged conservatives, this will be a more difficult journey but, as the regime becomes more exclusionary at home and reckless abroad, they will form their own circles of dissent. In essence, Khamenei is creating a system where loyal opposition is impossible.

Khamenei and Raisi have seemingly forgotten the reason for the theocracy’s longevity. It was never a regime sustained just by brutal force. Even though the choice of candidates for public office was circumscribed by the ruling authorities, elections offered the public a diverse choice of politicians and thus acted as a safety valve. In the meantime, an elaborate welfare state tied the poor to the regime.

Khamenei and Raisi have seemingly forgotten the reason for the theocracy’s longevity.

Iran’s Islamist government has now dispensed with both of its sources of power. Its treasury is drained by sanctions and cannot sustain a basic standard of living. Meanwhile, through purges and disqualifications, the elections are used to rubber-stamp Khamenei’s choices. The 2021 presidential election was the least competitive and the least interesting race in the past four decades.

Iran cannot afford a confrontation with the great powers it seems to be relishing. The United States and its European partners are offering Iran a path for the dilemmas of its own choosing. Should it opt for a return to the nuclear deal, it can regain much of its financial footing and at least restore a measure of economic growth. Such a move will not mitigate its many problems, but it may help forestall the nascent opposition movement that is gradually forming.

Regimes often collapse when they ignore the secrets of their own success. Raisi’s lack of imagination is matched by his historical illiteracy. An empowered nuclear program will not save the Islamic Republic, but a more measured diplomatic approach may yet prolong its tenure.

Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Last Shah: America, Iran, and the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty.

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