On Feb. 11, 1979, an aging Shiite cleric, who had returned from long exile just 10 days earlier, seized power in Tehran. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran ushered in a new phase of tumult, confusion and terror in the Middle East that has lasted to this day.
Now, as Iran’s Islamic revolution enters middle age, having weathered countless challenges, it finds itself on the wobbliest ground yet.
The Islamic Republic is not on the verge of collapse, as some are predicting. Nor is it in the midst of a rebirth.
In fact, like so many others before it, the regime is going through an identity crisis of its own making. The further it gets from the revolutionary moment of 1979, the more it sounds like an old man repeating the same stories to adult children who have grown impatient.
Iran was the first country in the modern era to embark on a unique experiment: a system of governance supposedly rooted in Islam and mechanisms of democracy. Judging by current circumstances, Iran could also become the first country to see that experiment’s compete failure and demise. But when?
The people of Iran saw through theocratic rule long ago. Yet it remains unclear when the reign of the mullahs will expire.
Iranians want a freer, secular future that’s integrated into the world order, specifically the global economy, but foreign adversaries and the regime’s domestic partners — a network of mini-oligarchs, essentially — are standing in the way.
These 40 years have not been easy on Iranians. Current circumstances — including tough sanctions from the United States, misadventures in the region and the obstinance of the country’s leaders — suggest that the next few years could be even harder.
From its earliest days, the Islamic Republic presented a spectacle of violence and fear. Show trials and mass executions followed Khomeini’s ascension to power. Militant students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, sparking an eight-year war that did more than anything else to exacerbate the sectarian divides that still haunt the region.
All the while, though, Iran’s shaky concept of rule by Koranic law was bolstered by attention to more worldly concerns, extending the system’s power within its own borders. Leaders bought a measure of loyalty from the populace by using the country’s massive oil wealth to fund a wide range of public services. But that didn’t mean Iranians necessarily bought into the belief system that provided a foundation for the regime.
Its most loyal subjects — often people whose were most devastated by the war with Iraq — received favorable treatment, while the system’s dissenters were quashed by execution, imprisonment or exile.
This ruthless approach went against the natural inclinations of one of the Middle East’s most educated and sophisticated societies. But the regime remained viable because of an unspoken understanding: It subsidized a standard of living replete with nearly free access to utilities, basic food sources, medical care, education. These resources weren’t the best in the world, but they weren’t too shabby, either. People improved their lives where and how they could. When the opportunity presented itself, many left for life abroad.
As the years passed, the authorities mostly stayed out of people’s personal lives, especially when they came to understand they could capitalize on and profit from habits that were officially outlawed. Alcohol, satellite dishes and now Internet access are officially outlawed or limited, but the black market in each is controlled by regime insiders.
What resulted from this hypocrisy was a society that was publicly pliant but defiant behind closed doors. As long as the petrodollars flowed, it was an easy situation to control.
Iran is again experiencing rocky times. The Trump administration will tell you that sanctions have again pushed the regime to the brink, but that’s not the whole story.
The reality is that Iranian society is under pressure from all directions, domestic as well as foreign.
What Iranian officials won’t tell you about is the growing wealth disparity, the depravity of a society conditioned to look out for No. 1.
These realities are enough to make Iranians one of the most forsaken peoples on Earth. The sanctions and screeds emanating from Washington — usually as uninformed as they are disingenuous — only compound the challenges ordinary Iranians face. Meanwhile, it is the morally bankrupt regime and its quiet partners within Iranian society who profit.
The current system is directly responsible for the plight of women, ethnic and religious minorities and the country’s LQBTQ communities. We can also blame much of the environmental degradation on the regime and the greed of its members.
Iran’s biggest adversaries — Saudi Arabia and Israel, along with much of the U.S. political establishment — fund and shape the conversation on Iran in Washington. We should not welcome lobbyists for the Islamic Republic to this turf, but we should seek to see completely independent, transparent, authentic and representative Iranian voices involved in the debate over the future of U.S. policy toward Tehran. Right now, there are none.