REGIME CHANGE IN IRAN?
By Brendan Daly
The replacement of a relentlessly Islamist regime — emerging, as it is, in competition with Turkey as the primary regional superpower — with a secular, constitutional, democratic government that will eschew domestic repression and international subversion is certainly attractive.  And it is not unprecedented, for Iran long struggled for constitutional and democratic rule. The constitutional revolution of 1905 was the first of its kind in the Middle East. Even the 1979 revolution, customarily referred to as the "Islamic Revolution," was in fact, initially, the result of a confluence of agitators: republican, nationalist, Marxist, and Islamist. But, in the months and years following the flight of the Shah and Khomeini's triumphant return, the Ayatollah wrested control from the constitutional democrats, and, through a brutal campaign of street violence, assassination, intimidation and expert propaganda, crushed any opposition to his totalitarian ideology. 
Any visitor who spends significant time in the country will find ample justification for the Iranians' reputation for open-mindedness, artistry, intellectualism, and an almost fanatical reverence for culture. The most popular poet in Iran is Hafez, a national hero who is more readily quoted by most Iranians than the Qur'an. His poetry is full of wine-soaked revelry, unrequited and requited love, and a palpable hatred of religious hypocrisy and austerity.
Indeed, even after decades of repressive Islamist rule, Iran is still full of apparent contradictions. It is run by a highly moralistic, puritanical clergy, yet cannabis and heroin are more freely available than in most Western countries;  a country where producing music with a lone female voice is illegal, yet relatively early-term abortion is not;  where most people are constantly on guard against expressing true political opinions, yet one will find an old woman who will loudly shout "Long live the Shah!"; where nepotism reigns at almost every level of society and wealth and power go hand in hand, yet many of its most powerful political figures were three decades ago "riding donkeys in the provinces" as one Tehran resident put it. 
Advocates of the Islamic Republic's imminent demise point to the small semi-nationalist, Zoroastrian revival burgeoning among the youth of Iran. The Faravahar, the symbol of the religion, is a common sight on key-rings and hanging from rearview mirrors. For some it simply represents Iran and its past glory. But for others, it is a real spiritual alternative to Islam. As Ali-Reza, a construction worker in his fifties from south Tehran told me: "My grandparents were Zoroastrian, but my parents were forced to convert. … We are still Zoroastrian in our hearts, but in Islam, if you change your religion, they kill you," he adds, followed by several expletives.
But one must be careful not to get carried away with this narrative. For every Zoroastrian revivalist, for every youth in north Tehran who spits at a passing bearded militiaman; for every exile who speaks in glowing terms of the Shah; for every student in Shiraz who visits the bathroom with the words "I need to say hello to our President (Ahmadinejad)" — it is hard to escape the conclusion while travelling around the country that those who demand nothing less than the total abolition of the Islamic Republic are in a clear minority. Still, it is a minority that history and demographics would suggest is steadily growing.
However, the bulk of the Iranian population did not back these February-April protests. Even among north Tehran's educated middle-class, the stronghold of the opposition movement, the prevailing feeling since the failed 2009 anti-government "Green Movement" demonstrations is one of cynicism and despair. Shokoufeh, 27, is an artist and veteran of antigovernment activity. When I asked her in March, 2011, of her estimated time-frame for the collapse of the regime, she said:
There is a hard-line element of the Iranian population, estimated at anywhere between 10 to 25 percent, that is willing to die and kill for the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, this militant minority has a monopoly on political and military power. The genius of the Islamic Republic is that for every state and civic institution — Parliament, Judiciary, Military — there is a parallel, unaccountable religious body to either mirror it or police it. The on-the-ground authority of the paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Basij militia exceeds that of the official Iranian military and police respectively. 
In short, the regime is strong and dynamic. Its byzantine political structure provides fundamental veto powers to any attempt at systemic, democratic change from within, and its sophisticated security and military apparatus dwarfs anything that could conceivably be mustered by the opposition. And there is no indication that the Supreme Leader and his circle of Ayatollahs have any intention of "giving up one iota"  of control over the reins of power. Indeed, just the opposite is true.
Virtually all serious commentators have alleged some degree of fraud in the elections. The accusations came not only from every opposition candidate, but from numerous nongovernment clerics and from foreign journalists.  Some results, such as Mousavi's loss in his own home province of East Azerbaijan, were too hard for many to swallow.  But to what extent Ahmadinejad's victory reflected, or failed to reflect, the majority's genuine preference has been hotly debated. Polls conducted by Western organizations both before and after the June, 2009, elections, showed anywhere between a 12 percent to 39 percent  margin in favor of Ahmadinejad. However, such polls are themselves subject to a myriad of weaknesses, not least self-censorship.
Still, the Guardian Council's alliance with the President turned out to be ephemeral. Ahmadinejad and his circle have never been true orthodox traditionalists. Instead, he is a part of a "religious nationalist" current within the broader traditionalist milieu. Ayatollah Khomeini was famous for his anti-nationalism:
In a Machiavellian twist, the President is now being derided as a "deviant" by the traditional Islamic establishment, accusing him and his inner circle of having messianic aspirations  and of trying to usurp the Supreme Leader and the Velayet-e-Faqih.
Ahmadinejad's closest friend and confidant Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, whose daughter is married to the President's son, is particularly loathed by the orthodox traditionalists and has even been jeered at by hardliners in the streets. It was the general opinion, both within and outside Iran, that Ahmadinejad was grooming Mashaei to be his successor (the Presidency has a two-term limit).  This now seems impossible. When Ahmadinejad caused outrage by appointing Mashaei as First Vice President (one of twelve VPs), Khamene'i quickly ordered Mashaei to resign from the Cabinet, forcing Ahmadinejad to appoint him his Chief of Staff instead.  After being relentlessly slandered in the traditionalist state-run press, Mashaei has now been implicated in the largest corruption scandal in the republic's history — as have several of Ahmadinejad's other close associates. 
The antipathy does not end there. On November 21, 2011, Ahmadinejad's top media advisor and chief of the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Ali Akbar Javanfekr, was arrested and handcuffed by Security Services in his own office. Reportedly, only a personal telephone call from the President secured Javanfekr's release. 
In the ultimate affront to what semblance of democracy the country has, in mid-October, the Supreme Leader casually remarked that the position of a popularly-elected President may be abolished "someday in the distant future" and replaced with a Prime Minister appointed by the Parliament. 
These events mark a high point in Khamene'i's involvement in politics from which he is traditionally supposed to be aloof. With Mousavi under indefinite house arrest,  and Ahmadinejad's faction despised, if not decisively discredited in the eyes of the Guardian Council, it is hard to imagine what kind of reformist candidate might be allowed to run — let alone succeed — in the upcoming 2013 presidential elections.
Keeping all these recent developments in mind, it is easy to understand why the rhetoric in favor of regime change and confrontation has escalated in the United States. At a recent Republican Party presidential debate, Newt Gingrich argued that not only was regime change in Iran possible, but that it could be accomplished within a year.  Indeed, some of the Republican presidential candidates seem to have been trying to outdo each other in their willingness to use the "military option" to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
The problem with this kind of posturing, and any possible campaigns of solidarity with the opposition, is the strengthening of the regime's already dominant "siege-mentality" — thereby forfeiting more credibility, in a domestic political sense, to the hard-line traditionalists. The success of the elites running the Islamic Republic depends heavily on their ability to assume the moral high-ground for their domestic audience — regardless of how twisted their moral compass might seem to outside observers. Events like the seizure of the U.S. drone or presidential candidates hinting at invasion are huge propaganda coups for the regime.
In the words of the pro-Western, antigovernment Parisa, a 28-year-old teacher from Shiraz:
For all the Ayatollahs' political maneuverings, there is no doubt about the regime's "protracted crisis of legitimacy"  since the 1990s. So much so that, in sharp contrast to the Islamist surge elsewhere, Iran may be the world's only sizeable Muslim-majority nation where Islamism is on the decline. Whether this makes the regime's collapse both inevitable and unpredictable, as suggested by Carnegie Endowment scholar Karim Sadjadpour, remains to be seen.  For now, all eyes are on the 2013 elections
 Melik Kaylan, "How a Regime Change in Iran Would Transform the World," Forbes, July 24, 2010.
 Ervand Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2008), chap. 6.
 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, July 18, 2005.
 BBC News, Apr. 12, 2005.
 Author interview, Mar. 2011.
 The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 17, 2011; Frontline, Public Broadcasting Service, Tehran Bureau, Feb. 16, 2011.
 Harold Rhode, "How Iran's Rulers Think about the Nuclear Program," Hudson New York, Dec. 15, 2011.
 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Islamic Republic of Iran, Tehran, Oct. 9, 2011.
 Time Magazine, June 15, 2009.
 Press TV (Tehran), June 29, 2009.
 See, for example, Agence France-Presse, July 7, 2009; Reuters, June 13, 2009.
 Ynet News (Tel Aviv), June 13, 2009.
 "Iran: Public Opinion on Foreign, Nuclear and Domestic Issues," International Peace Institute, New York, Dec. 8, 2010; "Iranian Opinion on Current Issues," WorldPublicOpinion.org, Washington, D.C., Sept. 19, 2009.
 Mehregan Magazine (Washington, D.C.), Spring and Summer 2003, p. 16.
 Mohebat Ahdiyyih, "Ahmadinejad and the Mahdi," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2008, pp. 27-36.
 The Guardian (London), Apr. 21, 2011.
 Reza Molavi and K. Luisa Gandolfo, "Who Rules Iran?" Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2010, pp. 61-8.
 Newsweek, Nov. 21, 2011.
 The New York Times, Nov. 22, 2011.
 InsideIRAN (New York), Nov. 1, 2011.
 Amnesty International, London, Sept. 29, 2011.
 ABC News, Oct. 11, 2011; al-Jazeera TV (Doha), Nov. 19, 2011.
 Voice of America News, Nov. 10, 2011.
 BBC News, Dec. 1, 2011.
 The Scotsman (Edinburgh), Dec. 14, 2011.
 The Daily Telegraph (London), Dec. 5, 2011.
 The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 24, 2011.
 Paul Klebnikov, "Millionaire Mullahs," Forbes, July 21, 2003.
 Danny Postel, "The Specter Haunting Iran," Frontline, Public Broadcasting Service, Tehran, Feb. 21, 2010.
 Paul R. Pillar, "Inevitable and Unpredictable Regime Change in Iran," The National Interest, May 14, 2011.
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Brendan Daly is a journalist with extensive experience in the Middle East.
The foregoing article by Brendan Daly was originally published in the Middle East Quarterly, Spring, 2012, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum, a foreign policy think tank which seeks to define and promote American interests in the Middle East, defining U.S. interests to include fighting radical Islam, working for Palestinian Arab acceptance of the State of Israel, improving the management of U.S. efforts to promote constitutional democracy in the Middle East, reducing America's energy dependence on the Middle East, more robustly asserting U.S. interests vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, and countering the Iranian threat. (URL: http://www.meforum.org/3225/iran-regime-change)
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