Iran: Historical Context and Latest Developments

[On October 21, 2022, the Middle East Policy Council held a panel discussion on Iran moderated by retired Ambassador Richard J. Schmierer. The following is a summary of highlights and not intended as a transcript of the event]:

Ms. Barbara Slavin, Director, Future of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council.

When she first went to Iran, shortly after the revolution that established the Islamic Republic, women said that the forced wearing of the headscarf was the least of their problems. What has changed is that the scarf has now become the symbol of all that is wrong with the regime.

Mr. Ali Alfoneh, Senior Fellow, The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

The Iranian Revolution has been a modernizing force on Iran.  The problem is that it has not been willing to adapt to the modernization of society that its own policies have provoked. Education, especially of women, availability of not only television but satellite television and the Internet has changed social values and ambitions in ways the state is not willing tolerate let alone support. The regime is not on the verge of collapse, but it is on the verge of a fundamental change. The Revolutionary Guard has the ambition of becoming like the army in Pakistan, the custodian of the state. When the Revolutionary Guard reaches the conclusion that Mr. Khamenei is a liability rather than a source of legitimacy, a military dictatorship that doesn’t care that much about religion may emerge.

Alex Vatanka, Director of Iran Program, Middle East Institute.

Observers do not know if this is the end of the regime, but it has become clear that the Islamic Republic can no longer (if it ever could) reform itself. Iranians born in 2000-2010 are fearless. 70% of those arrested in the recent demonstrations are under 20. Iranian sociologists on Iranian TV are stating that the leading force turning young people away from Islam in Iran today is the regime.

Alfoneh. The killing of Mohandis in Iraq was a disaster for the ways that the loss of Solomeini was not for Iran because the Iranian military is so institutionalized, not so dependent on any single individual. The IRGC calculation is that without the JCPOA we will pursue a bomb and be like Pakistan. If there is a JCPOA it demands positive economic consequences.

Slavin. There has been a deal on the table since March, but whoever is in charge in Iran has not accepted it. This may be because they have no faith because the U.S. can’t be trusted to keep it, but that point is moot, because the taste for this deal is gone “wherever you look.”

Vatanka. I agree there is no  sign of a deal, but if the alleged drone sale is why there is no nuclear deal, the Iranians are losing much more in oil and gas sales than they are making in drone sales. It is evidence that IRGC is poor at long-term strategy.

Alfoneh. The IRGC calculation is that once you get a nuclear bomb you have a blank check. No one would dare to sanction you, as Pakistan remained unsanctioned even after it was found to be housing Osama bin Ladin.

Slavin, North Korea has a nuclear weapon but no blank check. It is one of the most heavily sanctioned places on earth. Before Iran got a bomb, the Isrealis may do something first.

Alfoneh. I am not aware of large scale Iranian deployment’s to Russia in support of the invasion of the Ukraine.

Vatanka. Support for Russia can only be justified as snub to the West. It does not serve Iranian national interests: it does not help the Iranian economy and there is no possible “Islamic” justification.

Mr. Richard Schmierer. What should the response of the West if the nuclear deal is not reinstated and Iran moves to pursue a nuclear weapon?

Slavin. Sanctions have already maxed out. There will probably be cyberattacks and attacks on Iranian scientists and nuclear facilities, although massive strikes may only press Iran to move faster. If they obtain nuclear weapons there would be a balance with the Israeli nuclear weapons in a kind of India-Pakistan situation where neither side could use them. One question is if JOCPOA is bot revived would Iran work more closely with Russia and China in the nuclear field. An alternative approach is to offer a trade of unfreezing some Iranian assets in exchange for a freeze on their nuclear development. Israeli strikes, even if supported by the U.S. would be a disaster.

Alfoneh. Iran’s nuclear program was started by the Shah and the Islamic Republic inherited it along with the Shah’s nuclear ambitions. Any successor to the current regime may inherit both, and if provided with economic means, may more effectively develop nuclear weapons. Nuclearization of Iran is the most likely outcome.

Vatanka. UAE already has a live nuclear project and the Saudis are moving in that direction. Iran must calculate the risks of regional proliferation. Unlike North Korea, Iran has a lively civil society and the risks of nuclearization to the population cannot be ignored. There are many inside the regime who, given a better alternative, would chose it.

Schmierer. When he was in Oman the Omanis were nervous even about the safety of Iran putting a nuclear generator on line. What are the prospects of reducing the Sunni-Shia tension in the region?

Slavin. With the perception that the U.S. is withdrawing from the region, the regional actors se the need to reduce tensions since no side can count on U.S. intervention. But if Iran goes for nuclear weapons, so will the Saudis.

Alfoneh. The regime feels threatened by Iran International television which is backed Israel and the Saudis and they might well bomb the Saudis soon as evidences by allusions made by Iran to the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities.

Slavin. Iran’s interests now are to survive and get what benefits it can from relations with Russia and China. A direct attack on the Saudis is not promising.

Alfoneh. Iran has found that bullying its neighbors had improved relations ion the past.

Vatanka. Iran has been rewarded by recklessness in the past has been rewarded, but a direct attack on Saudi Arabia can’t be counted on to have the same effect. The allegations of Saudi involvement in Iran International comes fro Iranian propaganda.

Schmierer. How should the West on react to the current protests?

Slavin. Biden has been doing a pretty good job, enabling tools to circumvent internet interference and avoiding direct intervention. Advocacy for reform without calling for foreign imposed regime change or direct foreign intervention. One thing that can be done is to kick Iran off the UN Women’s commission.

Vatanka. We need to focus on how to get people within the regime to see its bankruptcy and desert it. I see no sign of compromise on Khamenei’s part. We must start thinking about what we do the day after Khamenei leaves.

Schmierer. Are there forces at work that might allow Iran to evolve put the current morass into a better position.

Slavin. Iran already has somewhat democratic constitution If you get rid of the Supreme leader, the guardian council, and the council of experts, you have a baseline for post-Islamic Republic.

Alfaneh. If the regime in Iran develops into a military dictatorship, then within five to ten years we may see a successful move for democratization as Samuel Huntington outlined in The Third Wave of democracy.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute






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