Dina Esfandiary is an International Security Program research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, a fellow in the Middle East Department of the Century Foundation, and an adjunct fellow in the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Middle East Program.
In his State of the Union speech, President Trump touted his administration’s efforts to confront the “radical regime in Iran.” Many within the administration hold that the Islamic republic is merely months away from collapse. They believe that squeezing Iran harder will merely expedite this change.
They couldn’t be more wrong. Not only is the regime far from collapse, but Trump’s narrow focus on regime change goes against what Iranians really want — ultimately making substantive change less likely.
In January 2018, when protests were taking place throughout Iran, Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton declared that “U.S. policy should be to end the Islamic Republic before its 40th anniversary." Trump has made it no secret that his administration’s policies aim to bring about this change by increasing the pressure the government in Iran is under.
The Islamic republic is celebrating its 40th anniversary this month. Iran hasn’t collapsed and is no closer to dissolution than it was last year.
It is undeniable that the revolutionary regime is tired. Forty years after the revolution, its ideology is waning, its control is fractured, and it continues to operate in relative isolation from the rest of the world. Successive layers of international sanctions and mismanagement have weakened Iran’s economy, causing high inflation and unemployment and making life hard for the average Iranian. Meanwhile, Iran’s young people are well-connected and curious, acutely aware of more open and prosperous life outside Iran’s borders. Teachers, truckers and other sectors of society protested sporadically throughout 2018. And everyone is tired of the drama within the political elite.
But that’s still a long way from collapse.
Protests remained fragmented, localized and uncoordinated. The economy is under strain, but it continues to grow slowly. Tehran continues to trade with outside partners, including selling its oil, despite the Trump administration’s efforts to cut the country off from world markets. What’s more, in the eyes of the international community Iran has earned respect for continuing to implement the nuclear deal that the United States walked away from.
Today’s Iran is different from the one that emerged 40 years ago. Its deepening isolation has forced it to adapt and mature. It is pragmatic, no longer hellbent on spreading the revolution and its ideology. Iran aims to secure itself, increase its influence and create a buffer zone between its borders and hostile foreign powers. It has evolved domestically, too, trying to keep up with a dynamic and changing society.
The government’s reaction to the wave of protests last year was proof of this. Recognizing that the usual approach of blaming foreigners wouldn’t work, the political elites, including the supreme leader, legitimized protester demands and promised reform. “One cannot force one’s lifestyle on future generations,” said President Hassan Rouhani in a clear warning to the political elite. Rouhani was able to deliver on some modest promises, such as boosting Internet connection speeds and facilitating entrepreneurship. But Iranians continue to ask for more.
Iranians, the majority of which were born after the revolution, want change. But many are tired of political upheaval and don’t necessarily want to see the fall of the government. After all, the last time they had a revolution the result was disappointing and their lives didn’t improve by much, to put it mildly. Iran is also surrounded by countries in the throes of political upheaval: Syria, Yemen, Iraq. Fears of similar turmoil inside Iran are very real, and no one wants that. Instead, Iranians want progressive change and reform of the system: more predictable and less volatile than another revolution. The high turnout during Rouhani’s reelection proved that Iranians wanted change, but slow and measured change.
In addition, Iranians are weary of foreign intervention in internal affairs: The 1979 revolution overthrew the shah, who was widely considered to be a puppet of the United States. Any effort to sway political dynamics within the country from outside will be easily discredited by those who want to prevent it. Reform or lasting change can come only from within the country, spearheaded by Iranians, in the form they want it.
Many outside Iran continue to view Iran’s policies and actions through the prism of outdated visions of the clerical regime, based on how Tehran operated in the early days of the revolution. Today’s Iran is different. It has changed, along with its society and the region it’s in. And as a result, it is not on the brink of collapse. The Trump administration’s obsessive belief that Iran only needs to be squeezed some more before it falls apart is wrong. In fact, pushing for regime change does little but ignore Iranians’ desire to avoid a repeat of 1979 and discredit those promoting change inside Iran.