Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 11 March 2024


Change Is Coming to Iran, Just Not the Change We Hoped For

The next generation of the country’s leaders want authority, not theocracy.

Women in black veils filling out ballots in a crowded room in Tehran.
Credit... Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times

By Arash Azizi

Mr. Azizi is the author of “What Iranians Want: Women, Life, Freedom.”

On March 1, Iranians went to the polls for the first time since the protest movement of 2022 and the war in Gaza. The vote, for the Parliament and Assembly of Experts, which appoints the supreme leader, was far from a referendum on current leaders, though. The big result was the number of people who didn’t vote. Even if we are to believe official numbers, the turnout of this election marks the lowest since the Islamic Revolution of 1979: only 41 percent of Iranian voters showed up at the polls.

Regardless of the turnout, change would not have come at the ballot box. The theocratic regime has never held free or fair elections, but this one made even the facade of fairness difficult to uphold. Most reformists and even centrists were banned from running. Iranians instead had the option to vote for varying degrees of conservative and hard-line candidates, often competing only in their effusive praise for the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But it would be a mistake to assume that hard-line victories and political stagnation augur the continuation of the status quo. Despite their Islamist declarations, many politicians in the Islamic Republic are not ideologues or revolutionaries, but technocrats or pragmatists who have gathered around Ayatollah Khamenei for proximity to his power.

Today’s Iran is held together by the octogenarian Ayatollah Khamenei and his authority. Upon his death, Iran is likely to make a sharp turn in its policies. A closer look at the cast of characters now vying for power behind the scenes shows that Iran’s policies are likely to be made more palatable both to its people and to the West, turning the country away from theocracy toward a mundane military authoritarian regime. A new Iran may be on the horizon, even if it’s not the Iran anti-regime protesters have hoped for.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s 35-year reign over Iran has resulted in economic isolation, societal repression and support for Islamist militias in Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere. In other words, he has committed Iran to the ideals of the 1979 revolution, no matter the consequences. In today’s Iran, few people are willing to continue paying the price.

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Millions of women, at the risk of arrest and punishment, keep up resistance to the mandatory hijab policy that helped spark the 2022-23 protest movement. This defiance of the regime signals massive dissatisfaction with some of its flagship policies.

The country’s workers hold regular protests against continuously declining standards of living. Even the country’s Supreme National Security Council admits that economic hurdles can lead to an “erosion of trust in society.” A former central bank governor recently said that Iran had “no strategy for development” and described its poor economic growth as “catastrophic.”

The dissent has reached the highest echelons of the establishment. Some of Iran’s top diplomats now openly complain about Iran’s anti-Western policies, which have brought crippling sanctions and have put the country on a path to potential direct conflict with the U.S. and Israel. Several former ambassadors have decried Iran’s support for Russia in the war against Ukraine. A former ambassador to Syria and Lebanon, a role that often involves overseeing Iranian aid to Hezbollah and Hamas, criticized Tehran’s close ties to the latter, arguing that it leaves Iran isolated from its Arab neighbors. Mohammad Javad Zarif, a former foreign minister, now bitterly complains about the outsize influence of groups that directly serve Ayatollah Khamenei and his clergy.

A closer look shows that even today’s conservatives and ardent hard-liners are likely to bring about change. Take Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, who was a leading commander of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, or I.R.G.C., in the Iran-Iraq War before entering politics (he became the speaker of Parliament in 2020.) Despite his loud declarations of support for the ayatollah, Mr. Ghalibaf is mostly known for his technocratic mayorship of Tehran from 2005 to 2017 when, amid astronomic corruption, he was able to make infrastructure transportation in Iran’s giant capital more efficient.

This technocratic edge isn’t unique to Mr. Ghalibaf — it extends to some of his hard-liner opponents too. A leading figure in Friday’s election was Saeed Mohammad, a former head of the Revolutionary Guards’ engineering behemoth. Holding a Ph.D. in civil engineering from a top university in Tehran, Mr. Mohammad’s political speech often emphasizes not his Islamist credentials, but rather his past in construction projects and his will to improve Iran’s economy.

When Mr. Mohammed ran for president in 2021, he attempted to strike a populist and even patriotic tone. Not surprisingly, he was barred from running. This election, he co-founded a new party, the Iranian Dawn Front, which backed several successful candidates. The party uses subdued references to the ruling ideologies of the Islamic Republic, despite it having backed the most hard-line candidates in the elections.

Military technocrats like Mr. Ghalibaf and Mr. Mohammad abound in Iranian power structures. Dozens of sitting and former members of the regime have made public comments criticizing Ayatollah Khamenei’s domestic and foreign policies. In my years of researching Iran and the I.R.G.C., I have regularly heard similar sentiments. Now that criticism of the regime’s policies is coming from top diplomats and groups inside the regime, it’s clear that these ideas have become widespread.

It is, of course, possible that I.R.G.C. leaders and other hard-liners mean what they say and that they’ll go on to continue the ayatollah’s policies, bringing about what the supreme leader has hoped would be the “Second Phase of the Revolution.”

But the sheer unpopularity of the Khamenei policies may propel change from whomever will come to power next, even if only to keep some semblance of control over the country. Change could manifest in a few ways: On the domestic front, this could mean an easing of the mandatory hijab and other repressive laws against women, relaxing the restrictions on culture and arts and maybe even a degree of freedom of speech.

On the foreign front, change could result in a nuclear deal with the U.S., a quiet winding down of the hostility to America and maybe even a re-establishment of diplomatic relations. Iran could reduce support to anti-Western militias in the region, establish deals with regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt and might even put an end to threatening Israel with destruction, finally acquiescing to its existence in the region. All of these policies are central tenets of Ayatollah Khamenei’s Iran.

Stripped away, it would lead to the lifting of sanctions, more foreign investment and thus a marked improvement to the economy. These developments might sound unthinkable today, but we only need to look at the recent history of the Islamic Republic to see major proponents of rapprochement with the West. Take former President Hassan Rouhani’s 2015 nuclear deal, for example, or the ongoing reconciliation with Saudi Arabia taking place even under the current leadership in Tehran.

This version of Iran would be a marked improvement to the struggling country of today, but it isn’t all that has been demanded by my compatriots who waged anti-regime protests time and time again — in 2009, 2017, 2019 and 2022. Nor is it the Iran dreamed of by our vibrant civil society, feminist groups, trade unions and student associations that have been at the forefront of confronting the regime: a truly democratic country, with social, economic and gender justice.

But it is the one most likely in the near future, due to the simple fact that military technocrats are more organized and likely to quickly fill the vacuum left by Ayatollah Khamenei’s death. Our struggles, however, won’t end with a mere change in rulers or some policies.

Arash Azizi is a senior lecturer in history and political science at Clemson University, and the author of, “What Iranians Want: Women, Life, Freedom.”

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