Iranians are clear: the Islamic regime has lost legitimacy
1 Mar 2022|

Forty-three years ago, Iranians took to the streets to celebrate the end of the shah’s regime and welcome the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who, in exile, had become the shah’s leading critic. Iranians opposed the shah for many reasons. Political dissidents despised his human rights abuses. Many Iranians felt left behind by the booming oil economy. The shah’s liberal reforms chafed religious conservatives. Khomeini himself had gone into exile after opposing the shah’s embrace of religious equality, secular education and women’s enfranchisement.

What Khomeini promised was music to Iranians’ ears. ‘I don’t want to have the power of government in my hand; I am not interested in personal power,’ he said. Once in power, he did an about-face. ‘We will break all the poison pens of those who speak of nationalism, democracy and such things,’ he told students six weeks after his return. ‘You all have to obey the Islamic Republic. And if you don’t, you all will vanish,’ he added in a September 1979 speech. Many did. Khomeini’s regime decapitated the top ranks of the SAVAK, the shah’s secret police, but then he reconstituted it, hiring the same agents to employ the same tortures on behalf of the new regime.

Because of Khomeini’s bait and switch on democracy and human rights, Iranians began to turn against the clerical regime. One day before the seizure of the US embassy, Steven Erlanger, then a young journalist but later the New York Times’s chief diplomatic correspondent, reported that while the revolution wasn’t over, ‘the religious phase is drawing to a close’. Iraq’s 1980 invasion of Iran saved Khomeini. He cloaked himself in the flag, and used the emergency to distract from rampant mismanagement and corruption and simultaneously consolidate power.

The war’s end and Khomeini’s death soon after led to a wave of optimism both inside and outside Iran that there could be a fresh start. Diplomats believed Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader, and Iran’s new president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, would end Iran’s isolation, release hostages, and enable Iran to rejoin the community of nations. President George H.W. Bush secretly ordered the US government to prepare for normalisation with Iran.

Such optimism was misplaced. Khamenei was no moderate and Rafsanjani was insincere. When UN envoy Giandomenico Picco traveled to Tehran to facilitate rapprochement, Rafsanjani rebuffed him. He meant rhetoric to facilitate business, not bring reconciliation. It was under his administration—three decades before Donald Trump entered the Oval Office and years before US involvement in either Afghanistan or Iraq—that the Islamic Republic restarted Iran’s nuclear program.

Business in and with Iran does not bring moderation. At the conclusion of the Iran–Iraq War, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) began investing in the civilian economy in order to maintain their privileged position without subordination to Iran’s parliament. Today, Khatam al-Anbiya, the IRGC’s economic wing, controls about 40% of the economy and dominates the construction, manufacturing, trade and oil sectors. The income of the IRGC exceeds its official budget by an order of magnitude.

This has two results. First, the IRGC distorts the Iranian economy. Because courts have no jurisdiction over the IRGC, Iran effectively has no commercial law. Should an IRGC-owned company fail to pay salaries or violate a contract, neither workers nor investors have any recourse. This has nothing to do with external sanctions. It is among the reasons why Transparency International ranks Iran lower than Papua New Guinea, Russia and Myanmar in its annual corruption index. It is also the reason why ordinary Iranians didn’t benefit from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

According to the Central Bank of Iran, net capital stock—perhaps the best measures of the health of the trajectory of an economy—fell into negative territory even before President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA.

The Iranian government has agency. It is ironic that Iran’s external cheerleaders are more likely to absolve the regime for its situation than are ordinary Iranians. This is why ordinary Iranians have increasingly taken to the streets in recent years protesting Iranian mismanagement. This is why Iranian teachers on strike for back wages carried placards declaring, ‘Forget about Palestine and think about us.’

Second, it enables the IRGC to continue its terrorism and nuclear and missile programs regardless of any diplomatic agreement or the sincerity of the president in Tehran. When Mohammad Khatami was president, for example, he received plaudits in the West for his call for a ‘dialogue of civilisations’. During his tenure, trade with the European Union tripled and the price of oil quintupled.

The IRGC siphoned off the bulk of that money for its ballistic missile work and then-covert nuclear program. Those whom Western officials label reformist are well aware of the deception. Khatami spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh explained, ‘We had an overt policy, which was one of negotiation and confidence building, and a covert policy, which was continuation of the [nuclear] activities.’

The two points together have created a perfect storm for Iran. It’s hard to take the Iranian regime’s pleas of poverty seriously when it spends several billion dollars annually on terrorists, militias and proxy groups seeking to undermine regional states. Obstruction and terror support do not equate to influence.

The reality is that the Islamic Republic of Iran at age 43 is a zombie state. Its legitimacy is gone. Executions skyrocketed, notably before Trump walked away from the JCPOA. Nationwide protests have accelerated. In 1999, students took to the streets. Two years later, it was football fans. In 2009, the regime erupted after Khamenei oversaw mass election fraud. In 2016, anti-corruption protesters took to the streets. Economic protests reignited in 2018 and have continued sporadically ever since. This past summer, environmental protests broke out after Isfahan’s Ziyanderud River dried up, not because of climate change but because IRGC companies won corrupt contracts to build dams and undertake water-intensive agriculture.

Amin Saikal writes in these pages that the Islamic regime ‘still commands sufficient state instrumentalities of power to deal with any nationwide uprisings’. The same is true of any dictatorship that fears the free expression of its citizenry. Accelerating protests and the 82-year-old supreme leader’s health, however, suggest that the end might be near for the regime. How tragic it would be should Western countries snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by directing trade and investment not to the Iranian people, but to the Revolutionary Guards who oppress them.