The Iranian regime’s turbulent path to the 43rd

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This month marks the 43rd anniversary of the rise of the Islamic regime in Iran. It seized power after the 1978-79 revolution that toppled the Shah’s pro-Western monarchy and transformed mainly Shia Iran into an Islamic republic with anti-American stances. It challenged the US-dominated regional order and the international system.

Many critics at the time considered the regime a curiosity in world politics and seriously doubted its longevity. Yet the regime has defied all predictions and has grown into a major player in the region and on the international stage. What made it so durable?

The regime has managed to weather many serious domestic and foreign policy problems, resulting in periodic regional and global isolation that has exacted a heavy price on Iranian society. Challenges included internal power struggles, a devastating war with Iraq in the 1980s, ongoing hostility towards the US and its regional allies, and Israel in particular, and US-led sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program and alleged support for international terrorism. There was also the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq (both neighbors of Iran), and the rise of the anti-Shiite Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Several factors account for the regime’s resilience, but three stand out. The first is the politically pluralistic, theocratic nature of the regime as defined by the founder and first supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1979-1989). The system of velayat-e faqhi (the tutelage of the Islamic jurist), which Khomeini established, produced an interplay primarily between two clerical factions.

One is jihadist or conservative and uncompromising, professes a traditionalist view of Islam and advocates a “combative”, revolutionary and largely inward-looking approach to Islamic government and Iran’s transformation. The other is ijtihadi, or reformist and internationalist, and relies on a creative interpretation and application of Islam according to changing times and conditions, based on independent human reasoning.

The Jihadi faction, which describes itself as a core supporter of Khomeini, has held the reins of power since the early days of the Islamic regime. The ijtihadi faction took shape from 1988 to support Khomeini but advocate a moderate, pluralistic Islamic system of government with a humane face.

Although the two factions, multifaceted as they were, initially worked together in conducting Iran’s domestic and foreign policies, over time they have been at odds over what constitutes a good and functioning Islamic system of government. The result has been an Iranian Islamic state that has become less ideological and more pragmatic in managing the country’s affairs. It has acquired a degree of internal resilience and external flexibility, regardless of which faction was in power. For example, anti-extremist President Hassan Rouhani signed the nuclear agreement (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) in 2015 with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany.

Impulsive Republican US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in May 2018 and imposed tough sanctions to push Tehran towards a better deal in line with American interests and those of Iran’s two regional rivals, Israel and Saudi Arabia push. Tehran retaliated by expanding its centrifuges and uranium enrichment to the alarm of Trump’s Democratic successor, Joe Biden.

Biden has attempted to revive the JCPOA, and Rouhani’s hardline successor, Ebrahim Raisi — a close ally of powerful Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — has shown kindness. Raisi is keen to secure a deal in return for lifting America’s crippling sanctions and a guarantee that future US administrations will not repeat Trump’s actions. Biden wants to secure a deal to prevent Iran from acquiring a military nuclear capability and allow the US to focus more on its global adversaries Russia and China.

The second factor is that despite all the economic and financial difficulties caused partly by US sanctions and partly by mismanagement and wrongdoing, the regime has managed to bolster its hard and soft power capabilities. It has done so with the clear aim of making any attack on Iran very costly for the perpetrator through an asymmetric warfare strategy. At the same time, it has taken advantage of America’s political failures in the region to forge close organic and strategic ties with multiple national or subnational actors, particularly in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, to build a regional security architecture and deterrent system. In the event of war with the US or Israel, or both, the regime has secured the means necessary to turn an attack on Iran into a regional inferno – a matter which must make its opponents weigh the cost of confronting the country to think about Iran.

The third factor is that while the regime has lost much of its luster among the Iranian public – most of whom belong to the post-1978-79 revolutionary generation and want political and social rights and freedoms, as well as economic prosperity – it still commands sufficient state instruments of power to deal with nationwide insurgencies. It has forged a mix of heavenly and earthly standards of legitimacy, based on a mixture of Islam and Iran’s historical sense of fierce nationalism, to support electoral polyarchy.

While Iran, and for that matter the Middle East, has often defied predictions, Iran’s Islamic regime is well equipped to ensure its survival against all internal and external odds. It has achieved a position of regional solidity and influence that was never foreseeable. Rejoicing in the US defeat in Afghanistan, she forged close ties with Russia and China to counter US pressure. How long will this situation last? Only time can tell.

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