AIC's President Speaks about "Iran's Perilous Choices" at the Brookings Doha Center

Speech at the Brookings Institution Doha Center (BDC)
Doha, Qatar, February 26, 2018

By Hooshang Amirahmadi, Rutgers University

Ladies and Gentlemen, good evening! Let me begin by thanking the Brookings Doha Center for organizing this timely panel on Iran and for inviting me to share my thoughts on the subject with you.

The title of my talk is: Iran’s Perilous Choices: State Alteration or Societal Disruption.

Unhappily, I must begin by saying that all is not well with Iran today: The nation faces formidable domestic challenges in economic, political, social and environmental spheres as well as tough external challenges, more notably in relations with the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.  Iran also faces a crisis of identity and confidence as it also faces an uncertain future. As things stand, the republic is neither Islamic, nor revolutionary or even nationalistic, and it has also lost confidence in its own future. 

The Islamic Republic began its life in 1979 as an Islam-Islam system, when Islam was all and Iran almost none. It then moved to an Islam-Iran stage, when Iranian nationalism was provoked for Iran-Iraq war mobilization. It subsequently entered an Iran-Islam stage, when post-war reconstruction and its relationship with the US became daunting challenges requiring a more robust Iranian nationalism. The republic now, at its 39th anniversary, is struggling to enter its last stage of Iran-Iran identity, where Iranian nationalism is to overtake regime’s Islamism.

Iranians overthrew a 2500-year-old institution of monarchy, replacing it with an Islamic Republic, in the hope that their revolution would provide for what the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s regime had failed to provide: political freedom, economic justice, an independent foreign policy, and a healthy society, developed and free from corruption, nepotism and social ills. These goals were even enshrined in the new Islamic Constitution, which has increasingly become dormant or purposefully misinterpreted.

Iranians have gained almost none of these goals. The Islamic governments have often blamed “sanctions” for their failure, but most independent economists believe that sanctions have had no more than a mere 20 percent impact on the economy, the rest caused by lawlessness, lack of discipline, and corruption of the post-revolutionary governments as well as their mismanagement and obliviousness to the requirements of the new world. Meanwhile, the Islamic governments have intentionally and increasingly moved away from the revolution’s goals towards counter-revolutionary measures that put the deposed Shah to shame, hoping, wrongly, that the move would solve their problems.

Let me provide you with a synopsis of the crisis in Iran. Political freedom is limited to periodic “engineered” elections between the same “bad” and “worse” political elite. Political parties are banned, human rights of Iranians are often abused, political gatherings are not allowed, activists are regularly jailed, independent press freedom restricted, and even most civil societies, like the environmentalists, are not tolerated. Unfortunately, under President Hassan Rouhani and following the nuclear deal (JCPOA), these trends have worsened, leading to a despairing political environment for the aspiring middle class.

Economic injustice has increased as poverty has amplified, and inequality widened. Some 40 percent of Iranians live below poverty line, and, as Gini Coefficients of recent years demonstrate, the gap between the poor and the rich is widening. Millions of young university-educated Iranians are unemployed, with their unemployment rate standing at around 30 percent, and they are also increasingly among the groups that are losing hope and patience for a better future as they cannot find jobs and are unable to form families. The participants of the recent nation-wide protests were largely (around 80 percent) unemployed young, between 18 and 25, and poor people from smaller communities. This is while a small minority in the country has amassed legendary wealth and lives an unprecedented luxury life.

President Hassan Rouhani in a speech during the protests acknowledged that income of Iranians over the last 5 years of his presidency has declined, and, given the growing price for essential commodities and services, that decline has led to a sharp drop in people’s purchasing power. The situation of social justice is so bad that the Leader of the Republic had to acknowledge it, and in a recent speech, extended an “apology” to the Iranian people for growing economic “injustice” and for the mismanagement in all branches of the state. What makes the declining economic condition of the Iranians even more troubling is the fact that the government, as President Rouhani inadvertently acknowledged in his speech, has no plan for making it better, and asked that the people should help him with ideas.

National independence, in foreign policy terms, has also worsened as the original no-East, no-West policy (that is, the “negative equilibrium” policy in Iran’s nationalistic lexicon) has changed to giving concessions to both East and West (“positive equilibrium” as in the late 19th century) to save the Islamic regime. The nuclear deal (JCPOA) and current negotiations on its reformulation and on the country’s missile programs are cases in point. The JCPOA was the first instance in Iran’s long history that the country gave up on its “inalienable right” before being defeated in a war. Problems with the US have particularly been damaging to Iran’s national independence as the Islamic regime, trying to cope with the US pressures, have made unacceptable economic and political concessions to China, Russia and Europe. For example, under Russia’s pressure, Iran did not vote for the UN resolution condemning Myanmar’s mass killing and forced migration of its Rohingya’s Muslim people.

Finally, the revolution’s goal of creating a healthy society remains all but an illusion. At the time of the revolution in 1979, Iran’s development level was about the same or above that of South Korea, Turkey, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, India, and Brazil, among others. Those days, countries like Qatar, UAE and others in Iran’s region were decades behind. Today, Iran is about 20 years behind some of these nations (e.g., Turkey) and in some cases even more years behind (e.g., South Korea). The political elite is highly corrupt, stealing billions in the name of salaries and loans, and through direct theft. Rent-seeking is a normal practice in the Islamic Republic and elite groups use it openly. Meanwhile, social ills of all types are becoming new normal in the Islamic Republic, including drug addiction, divorce, and prostitution.

All these have brought Iran to the verge of another radical revolution. The recent protests were an introduction to that anticipated volcanic rupture. I first predicted the coming revolution in a speech I gave last year at the Cambridge University, UK, and have repeated it frequently in my writings and speeches in Persian (Farsi) ever since. I have also stated that the Islamic Republic might be able to manage the anticipated societal disruption if the Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were to adopt a state-alteration approach before the revolution arrives. Whether he will assume such a “revolutionary” role remains to be seen. While most are doubtful, I remain hopeful because the Ayatollah is increasingly acknowledging the problems, finding it increasingly impossible to justify the existing order, and is increasingly under pressure from the “oppressed” people who remain loyal to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution. 

In a series of recent videos and several articles, more notably one published in mid-February in Iran and abroad in Persian, I have outlined what that state alteration must mean.  Specifically, I have proposed that, while the people continue to bring pressure on the regime through protests and civil disobedience, the Leader, with security support from the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and national-defense support from the Army, needs to introduce the following changes on an urgent basis:

1.     Allow for individual and press freedoms as well as the formation of political parties and free assemblies by political and civil society groups with different, but patriotic, political and ideological orientations. The key to this change is removing discrimination against women, young people, ethnic and religious minorities, and secular socio-political groups.

2.     Restructuring the three branches of the state, beginning with holding immediate free elections, that is, without intervention of the Guardian Council (who vets candidates) for the Presidency and Parliament Deputies, and overhauling judiciary practices and appointing a non-clergy to head the branch. The current elected office holders are irresponsible, some highly corrupt, and they are the product of political vetting. As such, they are not legitimate representatives of the Iranian people. The current judiciary practices and leaders are also highly despised by the public.

3.     Revising the Constitution with a view to separating religion from the state, thus eliminating its current dual sovereignty problem (between the people and the Vali Faghih -- Islamic jurisprudence). This change will also remove many conditional freedoms allowed and “ifs” in the Constitution that permits for its capricious interpretation by the Guardian Council.  This requirement is a must if Iran is to effectively deal with its domestic and international challenges.  The new Constitution must also include an article banning the Iranian age-old “political revenge” practice following political transitions.

4.     Revamping the Revolutionary Foundations, some of which are rent-seekers and corrupt, bringing them under the control of the legitimately elected government, and making their accounts and practices fully transparent. Some of these foundations are huge, and, together, they account for about 30 percent of the economy.  As such, the revolutionary foundations often and practically neutralize public policies and crowd out the struggling private sector, particularly its industrial and productive factions.

5.     Revisiting the nation’s foreign policy by moving it away from ideology to nationalistic pragmatism and normalizing relations with any country interested in co-existing with Iran within the framework of world politics and legal structures.  This change will also require certain rewording of the Constitution, which currently obligates the Islamic government to support the struggles of the oppressed people globally, and Muslims, for independence and justice. Currently, the nation’s “defensive” foreign policy is caught between ideology and pragmatism, making its spasmodic orientation look offensive and expansionary to Iran’s adversaries.

6.     Replacing the current neoliberal economic policy with an economic policy based on utilizing the nation’s domestic resources and selective global integration. A critical component of this policy will be creating a lawful, disciplined, and honest state. Only such a developmentalist state can help Iran emerge from its current economic slump.  Establishing coordination between foreign and economic policies, and normalizing relations with the US, is another must condition for Iran.

Following the publication of my proposed changes, Dr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s former maverick President, sent a letter to the Leader Khamenei, echoing my proposal, asking him to immediately hold elections for the President and Parliament Deputies, and demanding that the current head of the Judiciary, a brother of the Parliament Speaker, be also immediately removed.  He wants the regime to alter its current political structures along the line of my proposal.

Rivaling my proposal, four other positions are held by various political orientations. First is that of the Islamic state’s zealous supporters, who acknowledge the problems facing Iran but are divided on how to move forward. Broadly speaking, they do not see the need for introducing state-altering changes. They continue to emphasize the revolution’s goals but believe they can still be delivered by the existing institutions if they are managed by the “revolutionary faction.” The Republic’s history proves them wrong. 

The second group includes the regime-loyal reformists. They hold that the structural changes taking place inside the society, including generational changes, will gradually force the regime to accept reasonable reforms while holding on to the power. This group began preaching its election-centered gospel some 20 years ago, when Mohammad Khatami became President, and has yet to show any meaningful progress towards its anticipated reforms. If anything, domestic politics have become even more conservative and limiting.

The next two groups are regime changers, one wants to accomplish this by a “referendum” on the future of the nation’s political system, imposed on the regime by “civil disobedience” and social protests. They preach a secular parliamentary democracy but are willing to take any political system that the people vote for. This group’s problem is that their “referendum” must be allowed by the Leader as per the Constitution. Logically, before the Leader becomes willing to allow for a referendum, he will be willing to take my offer for state alteration, which is more certain and less costly to him.

Besides, if social protests become so powerful to force the Leader to accept a referendum, logically such protests will not stop at that line and will push for regime change, as happened in 1979 revolution. This is what the last group, among them Royalists, the National Council of Resistance (MEK), and ultra-left groups hope for -- a total revolution, by any means, including domestic protests and foreign interventions.  The Trump administration,  Netanyahu's government, and Saudi rulers support regime change.  Most among this group will not reject an eventual Syrianization of Iran (civil war along with foreign intervention) if that should help their cause.

Of all these various options, mine is the only one with an actual written plan of action. The regime loyalists want to muddle through, and the reformists have no plan but focusing on elections as their main leverage for change. Of the regime-change groups, the pro-referendum clique is largely engaged in intellectual talks and political propagandas designed to agitate the Iranian people. The pro-revolution group, however, is better organized and has foreign support. It is also engaged in propaganda but has no specific plan for its political revolution or post-revolution Iran.

In conclusion, if I were the Leader of the Islamic Republic, I would not hesitate to take Dr. Amirahmadi’s proposal for immediate state alteration. The Ayatollah still has formidable supporters and he can manage a controlled transition to a more responsible administration. His procrastination, on the other hand, will only worsen the situation and increase the chance for groups focused on regime change and the Syrianization of Iran. In the absence of state alteration, societal disruption is almost certain.  Such an eventuality will have disastrous consequences for the country and its region given that Iran has traditionally been a trend setter in the region.  Thank you!