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Moderation Postponed in Iran

Walter Russell Mead

Somehow all those plucky moderates elected in Iran don’t seem to be having much impact on actual decisions:

A hard-line Iranian cleric who has been in the country’s power structure since its 1979 Islamic Revolution was chosen on Tuesday to lead the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body that picks the country’s next supreme leader.

The selection of 89-year-old Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, an ultraconservative who called for the execution of opposition activists after Iran’s disputed 2009 election and encouraged Iraqis to become suicide bombers against U.S. forces in Iraq in 2003, signals the power hard-liners still wield in Iran despite a recent nuclear deal with world powers.

In Tuesday’s vote, Jannati received the backing of 55 members of the 88-seat Assembly and beat two other candidates for the post of speaker, moderate Ebrahim Amini and conservative Mahmoud Hashemi Sharoudi. He will serve as the body’s speaker for two years.

Ayatollah Jannati has managed to reach the age of 89 without strapping on an explosive vest to go on a virgin hunt, despite his no doubt keen hunger to experience the martyrdom he encouraged on others. At that age his future influence on Iranian politics may be limited, but if the hardline bloc can get 55 out of 88 votes for its preferred candidate, it seems likely that the next Supreme Leader of the Iranian Revolution will be just as hardline and anti-America as the last two.

For those puzzled by the hardline show of strength, it’s worth taking a look back at some of the smarter commentary at the time of the Iranian parliamentary elections this winter. The White House echo chamber and the 27 year-old know-nothings that Ben Rhodes has on speed dial were gushing over the “triumph” of the moderates and spinning it as a big win for the White House policy—but those who looked under the hood saw something different. As Eli Lake put it at the time:

Beginning in January, the regime's Guardian Council began purging any candidates who espoused the slightest deviation from the country's septuagenarian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Candidates who favored releasing political prisoners -- including the leaders of the Green Movement that many Iranians feel won the 2009 presidential elections -- were disqualified. Even members of the Assembly of Experts, who had previously passed the vetting process, were disqualified. So too was the grandson of Iran's first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. To paraphrase a former top U.S. negotiator in the Iran talks, Wendy Sherman, Iranians on Friday will have a choice between hardliners and hard hardliners.

Bottom line: the much ballyhooed ‘triumph of the moderates’ was another piece of White House spin, presumably pumped into the national consciousness by those helpful folks at Ploughshares.

What’s really going on in Iran has almost nothing to do with the happy clappy Beltway talk about peaceable mullahs and the kinder, gentler theocracy they aspire to create. Unfortunately, hardline values are hard wired into the Iranian regime and Iranian foreign policy, and no White House spinmeister can make that grim reality go away.

Iran is a multi-ethnic state, like the Soviet Union, or the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Kurds, Azerbaijanis, Arabs, Baluchis and many others share the territory of the Islamic Republic with ethnic Persians, who comprise only about 60 percent of the total population. These ethnic groups haven’t always been happy under Persian domination. Kurds have rebelled against Iran, as they have against Turkey, Syria and Iraq. The Azeris and Kurds actually set up independent states under Soviet tutelage after World War II, and only strong pressure from the US and the UK forced the Soviets to withdraw and allowed Tehran to regain control.

The Islamic Republic needs an ideological bond to keep the country together; that is what the Shi’a identity does. (This doesn’t work in rebellious Sunni Baluchistan, but the large majority of Iran’s multiethnic citizens are Shi’a). As a Shi’a state, the government in Tehran can appeal to a broader public than just those who would be motivated by Persian nationalism—just as communism helped hold the Soviet Union’s many restive ethnic groups together. If Tehran sacrificed its hard Shi’a edge, it would face the same kind of centrifugal forces that have torn apart many other multiethnic conglomerate states in recent decades, from the Soviet Union to Yugoslavia and to, now, Syria and Iraq.

So an Iranian moderate leadership would risk looking like Gorbachev’s regime; when he broke with communist ideology, the Soviet Union crumbled under his hands. Convinced hardliners and fervent true believers aren’t the only members of the power elite who won’t want to do a Gorbachev; pragmatists will also see the need for Shi’a ideology, even if they personally would rather live in a more liberal atmosphere.

But if Iran’s unity is linked to hardline Shi’a politics, its international position is even more tightly wedded to hatred of America and Israel. Iran wants to become a global great power by dominating the oil rich Middle East. Its Shi’a co-religionists and allies (who comprise a much larger percentage of the population in and around the Persian Gulf than they do in the rest of the Islamic world) can be and often are foot soldiers in Iran’s plans: think of the Alawites of Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. (Hezbollah is also aiding the pro-Iranian Houthis in Yemen.)

But working with the Shi’a isn’t enough: Iran needs to legitimate its presence as an aspiring hegemon in a mostly Arab, mostly Sunni part of the world. This is where the rage against the US and Israel comes in. Iran positions itself as the only true leader of Islamic ‘resistance’ to American imperialism and Zionist aggression. This helps discredit Sunni powers and clerics who are either ineffective or compliant allies of the US (the charge Iran levels against Saudi Arabia). If Iran drops the anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism from its foreign policy as part of a ‘moderating trend’, it doesn’t have an ideological leg to stand on in the struggle for hearts and minds in the modern Middle East.

For Iran to step away from its hardline politics would mean risking the country’s unity and abandoning its foreign policy ambitions. That’s not impossible; Gorbachev’s example shows that an imperial power can moderate its domestic and international stance. Unfortunately, the immediate collapse of Gorbachev’s empire at home and the ensuing loss of Moscow’s superpower status made it likely that not too many great powers in the future will follow this example.

We can’t understand the power politics of Iran without understanding that those close to power in that country understand this logic very clearly. The religious basis of the state isn’t something the Iranian power elite will lightly toss away, no matter how atheistic and hypocritical it might personally feel. King James I of England, whose string of young male lovers shocked respectable opinion and ennobled the Dukes of Buckingham, used to silence the Calvinist divines who wanted him to reform the Church of England by getting rid of the bishops by saying, “No bishops, no king.” What he meant was that the political structure of the country and his own throne depended on the support of the religious ideas and structures embodied in the episcopacy. He had no intention of modifying his personal behavior to conform with conservative Christian doctrine, but as a matter of politics he understood that the institutional power of the Church of England was an indispensable prop for his personal potential. In Iran today, they might say “No mullahs, no country.” Without the bonds of Shi’a religious ideas, the hierarchical structures of Shi’a religious organization, and the ideology of Islamic resistance grounded in hatred of America and Israel, Iran would not be the formidable power that it has become.

These truths don’t mean that we have to despair about the prospect of change in Iran, or resign ourselves to the inevitability of conflict between Iran and the United States. We learned during the Cold War that we can sometimes make pragmatic deals with strategic rivals, and there are good reasons why the US and Iran can avoid war even if we move to limit Iran’s aggressive regional policies.

But change will be slow. Optimists point to the Soviet example, arguing that the strategy of containment can be effective, and that ideological fervor does not last forever. The fierce burning certainties of one generation are the conventional pieties of the next, and often the worm eaten cliches and sterile formulas of a third. That happened to communism and something like it will probably happen inside Iran in due course.

This is probably true, but while we may someday get a string of Iranian Brezhnevs (corrupt guardians of a rigid status quo who just want to hold onto power), the odds against an Iranian Gorbachev popping up remain weak. The optimists underestimate the incentives for the hardliners to hold on—not just out of sincere conviction and zeal, but out of pragmatic calculations. China’s Xi is no fanatical Communist zealot, but neither is he prepared to throw away the ideology and political organization that keeps him and his allies on top. There are very few communist true believers in China, but the party is stronger than it was in 1990. There are many people inside the Chinese Communist Party who think that Marxism is a pile of ridiculous hogwash; but just because an ideology is foolish and outmoded doesn’t mean that it doesn’t remain an essential tool of social cohesion and national power. People believe in power long after they have lost faith in ideals. Any ‘moderation’ of the Iranian elite is more likely to manifest as an increasing cynicism about an ideology that they continue to deploy, rather than a naive embrace of western liberal concepts that would undermine the power and threaten the existence of the Iranian state.

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