No, the Islamic Republic Will Not Moderate

On March 11, 2024, Arash Azizi, a senior lecturer at Clemson University, penned an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that when the 84-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei dies, Iran’s regime will moderate. “A closer look at the cast of characters vying for power behind the scenes shows that Iran’s policies are likely to be made more palatable both to its people and to the West, turning the country away from theocracy toward a mundane military authoritarian regime,” Azizi writes.

Will a post-Khamenei Iran morph into a simple military dictatorship like Egypt, a country that, while short on democracy, does not sponsor terrorism or pose a threat to global security?

Alas, Azizi is wrong. The fatal flaw in his argument is his willingness to ignore the Islamic Republic’s ideology beyond the cult of Khamenei. Islamism and messianism have been at the core of the Islamic Republic for more than 45 years. The belief in divine purpose colored the decision to continue the 1980–88 Iran–Iraq War, after the Iranian military liberated Iranian territories from Iraqi occupation, under the slogan “The road to Qods passes through Baghdad.”

Iran’s decision-makers today are the veterans of that war. They have graduated from ideological indoctrination classes, taught them themselves, proved their purity, survived purges, and shown “practical allegiance” to regime values and its absolute rule. The clergy and the officer corps, the two most powerful factions in the Islamic Republic, believe what they preach. They are Islamists and imperialists.

Iran is not Russia, but the similarities between the Islamic Republic and the Soviet Union are uncanny. Just like Stalin, Khamenei has purged doubters, if not quite as cruelly. Other than Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, his son-in-law, no former president, prime minister, or speaker of parliament has avoided the leader’s ire. Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karoubi are under house arrest. Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cannot leave Iran or broadcast interviews. The Guardian Council disqualified Ali Larijani from the 2021 presidential elections. Ali-Akbar Nategh-Nouri and Hassan Rouhani avoided trouble by retiring from politics. Even military leaders are not immune. After the 2009 Green Movement, the regime purged and in some cases assassinated commanders who showed sympathy for the protesters. As such, the military leaders upon whom Azizi pins hope are actually more hardline than those of a generation ago.


Read the rest at ME Forum.

Shay Khatiri is a Senior Fellow at Yorktown Institute.

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