This Newlines Institute Contours podcast examines dynamics in Iran to watch now that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s protégé Ebrahim Raisi has been elected president. In this episode, Newlines Institute Senior Analyst and Contours host Nicholas Heras sits down with three noted Iran experts: Professor Neda Bolourchi, associate director of and faculty member in the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Rutgers University-New Brunswick; Amir Toumaj, a research and policy analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and co-founder of Resistance Axis Monitor; and Dr. Kamran Bokhari, the Newlines Institute’s director of Analytical Development.
Nick Heras: Hello everyone, and thank you for joining us for today’s Contours podcast, a production of the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy. My name is Nick Heras, and I’m the senior analyst and head of the State Resilience and Fragility program here at the Newlines Institute. I will be the host for today’s discussion on future dynamics in Iran to watch, and dynamics in Iran which aren’t being talked about, now that the Iranian presidential elections are over and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s first choice, his protégé Ebrahim Raisi, has been selected president.
I’m joined for today’s discussion by three outstanding Iran experts. First, my Newlines Institute colleague, Dr. Kamran Bokhari, he is the director of Analytical Development here at the Newlines Institute. Dr. Bokhari is also a widely published analyst and sought-after commentator on Iran and the geopolitical impact of events inside Iran, as well as Iran’s external activities outside its territory.
Next, we’re joined by Professor Neda Bolourchi. She’s the associate director of and faculty member in the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Rutgers-New Brunswick, where she teaches courses on Islamic law, human rights, the modern Middle East, and Iran. Within the contours of Iranian studies, Professor Bolourchi specializes in the history of Iran, U.S.-Iran relations, and Iranian foreign policy. She has spent years on the ground in Iran, Syria, and throughout the rest of the Middle East and is also a widely sought-after commentator on U.S.-Iran relations, dynamics inside of Iran, and Iran’s regional strategy.
And last, but certainly not least, we’re joined by Amir Toumaj. He is a research and policy analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and co-founder of Resistance Axis Monitor, which provides objective coverage and analysis of Iran and its proxies. Amir is a highly regarded analyst on Iran, and he has previously worked for the Foundation for Defensive Democracies and the American Enterprise Institute as well as in the private sector. Amir is the author of an article, titled “After Khamenei,” for our very own Newlines Magazine, in which he provides a must-read assessment on the future struggle over who will be the next Supreme Leader in Iran.
Kamran, Neda, and Amir, thank you for joining us for today’s important and timely discussion.
Neda, I’d like to start off by asking you: What does Ebrahim Raisi’s election, or coronation as some have asserted, mean for Iran’s strategy toward the United States? Relatedly, should Ebrahim Raisi’s election change the Biden team’s approach to Iran policy?
Neda Bolourchi: Raisi’s means that Iranian strategy toward the U.S. will change to the extent that pragmatists and reformists, using those terms loosely, are no longer in any place of power, so there will not be an attempt to work with Western governments or companies beyond the necessary needs for passing the JCPOA. And to explain that, reformists historically have been inclined towards and sought to work with Western governments in order to gain access to the privity that comes with such relationships, namely learning from Western companies, buying, adapting, using their platforms. And some of this was very specifically for knowledge and technology that they wanted to gain but also as a counterweight to the natural inclination towards Eastern governments, specifically China and Russia. With these reformists gone, now that that period is officially over with the election of Raisi, we can say that the U.S., largely because of
the Trump administration but also added by the Biden administration, has lost Iran for the foreseeable future. With conservatives in power across all levels of government in Iran, that country and that government will continue, as I’ve warned, on its eastward trajectory, one that has slowly been moving since about, probably, 2004, but that the last five years catalyzed and solidified with the withdrawal of the U.S. from the JCPOA. And so Khamenei is and conservatives have been ideologically leaning eastward, and they wanted to align with China and Russia, but given the past five years, that is now a done deal. That is what we can see in the medium- to long-term ramifications.
The short term will be a little bit different; the JCPOA will, if we focus on that, those negotiations will move forward, that deal will happen because nothing that the conservatives want to do can happen without that deal and the sanctions relief happening. And that’s super important. It is really all about the economy, for those who studied American domestic politics here in the U.S., Clinton’s adage, or James Carville’s adage, “It’s the economy, stupid,” is so true. The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy failed, but what did do, it didn’t bring Iran to the negotiating table, but it tanked the Iranian economy. That produced domestic infighting, and that was compounded by COVID, and so the reformists, they could not sustain pressure by the conservatives and this rising and now really empowered radical conservative wing of the Iranian government. And as a coincidence, the timing works very well. Khamenei is, out of this chaos that has come out of the last five years, Khamenei, ever the strategists, ever the micromanager, has now a plan for his transition, in preparation for his death, in planning for even more stability in Iran. And so he has allowed the sweep of Iran right toward the embrace of China and Russia, a more authoritarian government is on its way and it’s more beholden to Khamenei than ever. Those are the very immediate, mid-term and long-term ramifications of this election, and the short-term of it is the Raisi election doesn’t do anything to change Iran’s policy toward the JCPOA, but it changes Iran from possibly looking westward to definitely looking and moving and solidly landing in an eastward alignment.
And then to your second question, I think the Biden team’s approach to Iran appears to be pretty simple in that they just want to contain Iran. So we’re still using this very old Kennan idea that was used during the Cold War, containment and then selective engagement, where the aim is simply to achieve a limited objective. There doesn’t appear to be a grand strategy for Iran, possibly because the Biden team doesn’t really see a need for a grand strategy with Iran, but that objective, the simple, limited objective, is just get Iran into some version of the JCPOA that Iran will accept but which is also palatable to the Biden team’s Capitol Hill adversaries as well as other lobbying groups, and then, of course, even other Democrats. The Biden administration, I think it’s fair to say, is really trying to walk a fine line. There’s no bold moves, here. There’s no audacious statements, and so this is not Obama’s White House, as it were. But with that said, the critics might say that the Biden team have been a little slow to action, especially knowing what was going to happen with these elections, knowing the conservatives were probably going to win. There wasn’t really an attempt to help the reformists.
There was a very small window of opportunity at the beginning of 2021 to hit the ground running, and that didn’t really happen, for its own reasons as well as Republican problems, but you have postings in jobs that remain empty, work is undone, there’s some disarray, as it were, we hear rumblings within the Beltway. And so I think the Biden team and its supporters would
argue that it’s got so much on the domestic agenda, it’s trying to do and handle the great-power competition, and so it’s not moving boldly or quickly, so Iran fell by the wayside, here, and rather than trying to adopt or advance a grand strategy regarding Iran, I think it’s trying to focus on getting one for the great-power competition, and it has missed an opportunity to really either co-opt or neutralize Iran vis-à-vis China. It could have used an early success with the JCPOA as a platform vis-à-vis China, but that didn’t happen. And so now Iran is fully within the sphere of China and Russia even as it knows the dangers of doing so. By the end of March, this was all done, right. It was a fait accompli. And so here we are.
First, in terms of what the Biden team needs to do is take a look at the national strategy agenda developed by Gen. Mattis and see where execution needs to happen in the paradigm, right, and see if Iran can possibly fit within anything it comes up with as it’s moving to put some twists of its own on that strategy. But I think once it does that, the Biden team is largely done with Iran if and when, and I think it’s coming, but when the JCPOA is done.
NH: Well thank you very much, Neda, for a very nuanced an detailed analysis on both the local in Iran, as well as the regional and geopolitical implications of Raisi’s election. Amir, I want to turn to you. From your perspective, how does Raisi’s election change how Tehran might approach Washington, and then to follow up on that, Kamran, how do you think Washington and the Biden team might respon?
Amir Toumaj: Thank you. The fundamentals of Tehran’s strategy to the U.S. will essentially be the same. I would point to the leaked audio that Foreign Minister Zarif had where he complained that diplomacy was sacrificed for the quote-unquote “field” that was was set by the IRGC, and he spoke about that in various aspects within the Islamic Republic’s history. And what the supreme leader, office of the supreme leader, IRGC have done in the past decades when they’ve had presidents of various inclinations, including for sixteen years when a reformist or a reformist-backed candidate, Rouhani, was in office was that they essentially made the presidency largely irrelevant on the grand strategy of aspects of it. And they found effective ways to undermine the agendas of presidents who didn’t go with the program. I think with an Ebrahim Raisi presidency, we’ve had- now it’s a quote-unquote “yes man” being in line with the thinking and worldview of Khamenei and the IRGC to facilitate what they have in mind.
But overall what we saw during the course of the Syria war was that the supreme leader managed the war and the conflict virtually without any meaningful pushback by the Rouhani administration, not to say that it didn’t want to change war’s trajectory anyway, but we saw, following the JCPOA, Iranian increased intervention in Syria in coordination with the Russians, and what they achieved was permanent reversal of any gains that insurgents and opposition had. Al-Assad was saved, Aleppo was conquered, and they set their sights onto eastern Syria. That’s just one example of it, with how foreign policy strategy in the Islamic Republic has worked. And with Raisi moving forward, we can expect someone being in line with their worldview and their way of thinking who will go with the program, so to speak.
Kamran Bokhari: Thank you, Nick and thank you to Neda and Amir for setting the stage in quite some detail. I think that the Biden administration has a problem that it can’t manage, and it has to do what Neda explained earlier, which is that the Iranian government under Raisi, and the system
as a whole, just wants to be able to obtain sanctions relief and get back to the JCPOA. We don’t know what is really happening in the backchannels, what kind of hard discussions are taking place, but it does seem that at some point we may get back to the 2015 deal or its terms with maybe minor modifications here and there, but by and large I think that the Biden team wants that, Tehran wants it, and so that leaves the situation where it was at the end of the Obama administration. From a U.S. perspective, you have an Iran that is far more energized because of the financial relief: the ability to export oil, access to finances, lifting of just enough sanctions to make that happen.
What does that mean for the U.S.? Well, it means that if under a very biting sanctions regime the Iranian government was able to aggressively push into the Middle East, I’m referring to its power projection into Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and more lately Yemen, if that was being accomplished under sanctions, then we can only imagine what will happen once this regime has more cash to do that. Now yes, it needs to balance between the domestic political economic imperative because of what they experienced in the 2019 protests that were pretty serious but not sustained, but that doesn’t mean that the Iranian government doesn’t have to address the domestic political economic situation. What that does it that it will Raisi and the system to placate just enough people to to where there is no critical mass that is opposing the regime and the current government, and Raisi, despite all the electoral engineering and the irregularities with which he was literally, I wouldn’t even use the word “elected,” I’ll just downright say he was selected, all of that will be countered by him presiding over a relatively better economy. And therefore, that’s a problem for the United States. If the regime is not under any pressure domestically and has cash to push on the foreign policy front, then that will put the Biden administration under a lot of pressure. Its critics will say that you have energized a very aggressive regime and you have no solution for the ballistic missile threat that we face from Iran, much less its malign activities in the region, support for militias, and especially at a time when the Arab world is in a state of meltdown from a state stability point of view.
So this is the problem of the Biden administration that it does not seem to have a solution. I would agree with Neda when she said they don’t have a strategic view or a strategy to deal with Iran, it’s very transactional, we can go into further discussion about what are the broader problems of just leaving it or getting to a new version of JCPOA and then leaving it at that, not having anything beyond that in terms of a relationship. Because we see China aggressively pushing into Central Asia, and the recent MOU that was signed between Beijing and Tehran where literally the Chinese are committing hundreds of billions of dollars in rehabilitating the infrastructure, particularly the energy sector, of Iran, thereby making Iran into a much more stable and powerful political economy or at least having the political economic wherewithal. This is a very, very dangerous trajectory from an American national security, regional security, and a geopolitical point of view.
NH: Amir, you had a follow-up?
AT: Yes, following up to the great discussion so far. In terms of, I think, looking at it from a JCPOA view, and then we can also see at a broader, 30,000-feet view, there were a series of interviews earlier this year put out by the supreme leader’s office where the interviewees were advisers and senior members of Khamenei’s foreign policy team, and they specifically stated that
the goal of the current negotiation with the JCPOA is to lift sanctions, specifically oil and financial banking sanctions that have been reimposed. Once those are removed, from the Islamic Republic’s point of view, there isn’t much the U.S. can offer or can push to get the Islamic Republic to do follow-up agreements on a lengthier, stronger JCPOA agreement, let alone ballistic missiles and militias. So that is a question moving forward of how the Biden administration wants to negotiate between JCPOA restoration and the follow-up agreements. Something moving forward to be mindful is that Arab-Israeli threat perception of JCPOA “sunset clauses” as they call it, those are going to create a situation where these Arab states may feel they might have to go for the nuclear threshold option to counter Iran, especially in light of perceived U.S. withdrawal from the region. So realistically, that’s a sort of situation where we are headed to the region by the end of the decade.
NH: So I want to build on this point that Amir raised of the regional perspective, and I want to give it to Neda because I think it’s interesting that you tied the regional conditions and the fact that Raisi, in his first press conference, basically came out and said there would be no negotiations on ballistic missiles there will be no negotiations about our support for our partners in the region. That does make it complicated when it comes to sort of how the Biden team will think about what to follow up with the the JCPOA. So Neda, I want to ask you, where are we in the delicate diplomatic dance as we move toward some sort of, as you put it, grand strategy on Iran?
NB: Thank you. I think that’s a great question in terms of the regional conditions and what Raisi has said. It works a little bit well with the thought that I have had and have been talking about, and I think at this point, though, the clock may have run out on it, was this idea for an interim deal where there would be, if there has been all this hemming and hawing over who goes first, what gets included, Jake Sullivan wants more for more, and him as a representative for others as well, there was this attempt for a grand strategy of missiles and regional activity, how can you get there knowing that ballistic missiles are off the table and so that negotiations continue on without these two key points that the Biden team wants to include?
And my thought had been, and has been pretty much for quite some time, was that an interim deal where you do get sanctions relief but you return to some version of the JCPOA, contingent upon a new deal being negotiated by the conclusion of that short, interim period, i.e., you get six months and all of enrichment would have to come down to the JCPOA parameters, you would be at C1 centrifuges. And so all the things that had sort of set of alarm bells would be returned within the confines of JCPOA parameters, Iran would at least temporarily get sanctions relief, it would see and feel the benefit of that, all of this contingent on a new negotiated deal, and six months, twelve months, is neither here nor there.
In order to advance, we have sunset clauses and expiry, we’ve already reached the expiration date of several provisions, and so this would give more time to work those new parameters out. I don’t think, or I have not heard someone agree with me on this, and I do think that the time has passed, but I think it would have been very apropos. One, it would have benefited the reformists earlier this year, and two, it would have been a win also for the Biden team. But it would have allowed for more discussion about these other issue.
I do think, to your more direct point, Nick, on missiles, and I have said this repeatedly, the Iranians are not going to give up their missiles. This really is a nonstarter. And so for the critics who kind of went after the Biden team for their insistence on including the missiles given the noncompliance of the United States with the deal, I just didn’t understand really why there was such an insistence in this particular situation. U.S. allies absolutely have their reasons and their qualms and concerns about the missiles, and it should be included in long-term follow-up deals. But for the time being when the United States doesn’t trust those governments in the region, and Iran most certainly doesn’t trust the United States, and it has repeatedly said the missiles are a non-starter and it has the historic experience of the Iran-Iraq war as the basis for that argument, and it has followed through and has implemented this “forward defense” strategy, I think others call it something else, but the idea being if Iran is in Lebanon, if it’s in Syria, then nobody will be invading Iran. And how do you ensure those sort of things? Well, you put missiles in Lebanon and Syria and you put them all over the borders of Iran. And so this is the logical, coherent reason for Iran’s insistence on not discussing missiles. And I don’t really think that’s going to change anytime soon because that would require a fundamental change in approaching Iran and an approach that was more akin to, or at least was thinkable, or mentionable five or six years ago, not now.
I am not sure, maybe Amir or Kamran have an answer about the missiles and what can be done about them. I do think that it maybe helps a little bit in the sense that Khamenei has publicly said there is no reason for us to have missiles that go beyond 2,000 miles. So he is limiting those to the region, and that is why it is only regional actors and governments who are particularly concerned about them.
The only other thing that I can say is that for everyone who is concerned about the nuclear program, I have had the privilege while he was alive to work with the great Mike Elleman, the Iranian missiles are not capable of carrying nuclear weapons. There’s a very technical matter about missiles, and to the extent that the missiles that are publicly known, they are not capable of carrying nuclear weapons. For everyone who’s concerned about 60% enrichment, how much Iran is keeping, the development of missiles, those are all indicative, and everybody should be concerned about how they are rapidly improving, but as far as we can tell right now, the missiles don’t have the capacity to carry. So those are a few, I’m not sure how much they help in the conversation, but they are a few small limitations that exist on the missile program.
NH: So I want to follow up, because Neda, this is a great point that you raise about Iran’s forward defense strategy, the fact that the Iranians can provide strategic pressure on a number of their adversaries in the region, whether it’s via Lebanon or Syria on Israel, or via Yemen on Saudi Arabia, as well as in the Gulf. I want to ask Kamran, you have talked a lot about the idea that Iran is going through evolutionary regime change, and one of the factors with that is that you have a stronger IRGC role across the state, and there is, a lot of analysts are saying we’re now back at a moment we haven’t had since Ahmadinejad, where you have hard-liners controlling, unified all the pillars of Iran. So I want to ask you, Kamran, how does Iran’s evolutionary regime change tie into its regional activities, and are there opportunities for the U.S. or its partners to find ways to engage with Iran in this process?
KB: Thank you, Nick, that’s an excellent question. So, when I wrote the piece that you were referring to about evolutionary regime change, my understanding was that the clergy seems to be weakening. Most of the top and most respected clerics have been dying out over the years and Khamenei himself is at the tail end of his life span. Therefore, what we’re seeing is the rise of second-tier people, people who were not as respected, they don’t go back to the days of the revolution, they’ve not held the leadership of major institutions like the Guardian Council or the Assembly of Experts and other institutions.
So my understanding was that with the IRGC aggressively having its hand in every cookie jar within the Iranian political establishment, it would seem to be the one that would be the driver, if you will, of policy, not in an overt manner but in an indirect manner because ultimately the IRGC derives its legitimacy from the clergy. Put differently, what that meant was that the next supreme leader and the next whoever emerges as the top clergy in the judiciary, in the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts, they will be more beholden to the IRGC as opposed to the other way around. That was sort of my view, and my view was that the IRGC would still have to do business with the popular elected centers of power. Parliament, yes, the IRGC has its own retirees and veterans who get elected to parliament, they also take up positions in the executive branch and the cabinet, and so on and so forth, but there is still a class of politicians, people like Rouhani, and technocrats who, whether it’s the clergy or the IRGC, they would still need in order to function, in order to do governance, in order to do policy making and move forward.
The way that Raisi has been, really, frontloaded into the presidency, Amir wrote a really good piece for the magazine side of our institute on how Raisi may be overseeing the transition to a new supreme leader under his presidential watch, that has created a new dynamic. The new dynamic is that the IRGC and the clergy seem to be more in line, in other words the clergy isn’t exactly moving out, but at the same time, you’ve pushed out a whole bunch of people in the political class who could assert power. So, I think it was Neda who mentioned yes-men earlier, you now have people amongst the political class who are yes-men to both the clergy and the IRGC. So to me, this seems like evolution in a different direction. I thought that the balance of power would be between the civilian political class and the IRGC balancing each other, with the clerics being weakened. So that’s where I am with the evolutionary regime change theory.
But what does this mean for Iran’s overall behavior, especially on the foreign policy front, is simple, and Neda mentioned this earlier, that, look, if you have left-of center clerics and politicians, and even perhaps military officers, then you just don’t want a transactional relationship with the West. And that means there is a certain level of political learning that happens. The interaction with the west is far more substantive, you have people-to-people exchange, there’s more openness in the relative sense, and there’s more competition between the political right in Iran and the political left, and therefore it isn’t dominated by this narrative that, let’s continue to look east.
And that’s terrifying for both the IRGC and the clergy, where if you don’t have a hard tilt toward the east, looking at Russia and Iran, because they see- there was a debate a few years ago, a fierce one amongst the leadership in Iran, where the left, this was during the perhaps better days for the Rouhani administration, where clerics and hard-liners, for lack of a better term, were accusing the Rouhani administration of allowing infiltration of the political culture in Iran and
the ideals of the revolution were being diluted, whereas the Rouhani camp was saying, hey, this is all extremist thought, we can’t be extremists. Yes, we’re true to the ideals of the revolution, but we can’t just isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. I think that debate has really swung in favor of the right, the political and the religious right, and therefore the United States does not have any more leverage in terms of reshaping the behavior of this regime, the thinking of the regime.
At the end of the day, look, whether you’re on the right or the left of Iran’s political spectrum, you’re still an Iranian nationalist. You look at Iran’s national imperative and its constraints from the same lens. I don’t think there’s any reformist or pragmatic conservative who would say, oh, we just don’t need to be in Syria or Lebanon or Yemen or Iraq. They may say, hey, we’re willing to negotiate far more openly in terms of tactics, but they’re not gonna give that up. Neda is absolutely right, they’re not gonna give up the ballistic missile capability, and that’s a separate conversation we can get into in terms of the effectiveness of those missiles, in just a conventional sense, of course, nuclear-tipped missiles are a completely different level of engineering that I don’t think that the Iranians have. They’ve yet to actually demonstrate that they actually have a device like North Korea, which requires further enrichment and a level of advancement that the JCPOA has limited, but the question is for how long. But at the end of the day, the evolution that’s happening in Iran is unfortunately taking place in a direction that doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for external influences to shape the behavior of the Iranian political and have a, if you will, a competition, a robust competition between competing ideas of how Iran should pursue its national security and foreign policy objectives.
NH: I want to follow up because Kamran, you made a very interesting point in your discussion of the evolutionary regime change in Iran about the youth. And Khamenei has talked about a young revolutionary government, and there’s this very interesting dynamic about what does the next generation of the Islamic Republic look like. So I want to ask Amir, if you were writing a strategy for Khamenei for the purpose of ensuring a strong core of young, loyal Iranians to assume the mantle of power in the Islamic Republic of the future, what would that strategy be? And relatedly, which demographics within Iran would you recruit from, and how would you empower them to ensure the system’s long-term survival?
AT: If I may briefly allude to some discussion on the missile side that we had, and we can have a whole other podcast about it, I would just be a little more, from my perspective, less optimistic about where, or that the Islamic Republic doesn’t have the capabilities to marry a nuclear warhead on a missile, for example, or continue to advance because what we’ve seen, similar to North Korea, there’s been a steady, long march to achieving capabilities that people at the time didn’t think it was possible, and I briefly allude to the IAEA list of 12 questions that still remained unanswered when the possible military dimensions file was closed in 2015, portions of that question was about whether the, were about the Islamic Republic’s effort to marry a warhead on a Shahab-3 missile, and there’s still a lot of unanswered questions that I want to get into that, but I just wanted to briefly allude to that.
And on Nick’s question, which is really good about the supreme leader talks about, the next generation, before answering this we should note that Khamenei has relied on an Islamist subculture and subgroup in Iran, where we can say, let’s for the sake of argument assume, take
the Interior Ministry’s number about the people who voted for Raisi as a caveat just to advance the argument that it’s about 20 to 30 percent of the population. And the supreme leader has briefly spoken, it was a couple years ago, said that the government opens its arms to Hezbollah, meaning people who support the regime and the government. And the IRGC have been able to socialize a new generation of people among the current generation that’s smaller than the Iran-Iraq war but still nevertheless people who are really electrified and energized about the narrative of waging a holy war in Syria and Iraq to defend holy Shia shrines from perceived Sunni extremists, well, perceived and actual Sunni extremists.
They have a view, a worldview where it promotes a millenarian ideology that it views the Islamic Republic within this framework that human action can facilitate the arrival of the 12th Imam, Mahdi. And this is a different brand of millenarianism as opposed to the traditional Shia one, which said that the Mahdi will come at a time of his choosing, all the faithful can do is pray. And now we have among the latest one that says the, that they frame the Islamic Republic’s actions in Syria and Iraq as, they say, creating the groundwork for the arrival of the Mahdi as they like to describe it. So vague enough action, but not something too specific that the Mahdi’s coming on so-and-so date.
So what we’ve seen is a very energized base, about 20 to 30 percent of the population, from which the IRGC recruits, and we saw the IRGC shift its recruitment after it saw in the ’90s that among the rank and file there were people who were reformist-leaning, and even after 2009 when the then-chief commander Jafari said that they had people who sympathized with the Green Movement, so what the IRGC ended up doing was emphasize more ideology in its recruitment, more screening, more indoctrination to make sure that the people that from which it recruits go with the program and are true believers, especially as they advanced through the ranks.
If I were writing a strategy from the supreme leader, I would try to see why the previous effort of the Islamic Republic to promote quote-unquote “security nationalism” was superficial, for example there was a period of time, which the Islamic Republic still does now, but its argument that we have to fight Sunni extremists in Syria and Iraq or else we’ll fight them in Iranian borders was salient for a time, especially after the brutal rise of ISIS in 2014, its genocidal actions and proclamations against Shias and also following the terrorist attacks in 2017 in Iran. And we also saw briefly that there were hundreds of thousands of people, with the caveat that Iran has a population of 80 million people, but still there were people that showed up for Qassem Soleimani’s funeral that wouldn’t necessarily you could say that they were quote-unquote “true believers” previously. But all of these were very superficial, and they evaporated very quickly.
So the main reason for that, it goes back to how people perceive the Islamic Republic, and a lot of younger generation, they have issues with the Islamic Republic’s corruption, mismanagement, politicization of culture, enforcing morality law, so on and so forth, lack of political freedom, and these have really caused a problem for the Islamic Republic to tap into this quote-unquote “security nationalism” so if I were advising the supreme leader, I would take a page from Qassem Soleimani’s advice when he said that the Islamic Republic should open its arms and be friendly towards people with hijab and without hijab. And that sort of approach would start to take away some of the grievances that people face in Iran with daily lives towards the Islamic
Republic. I’d tell him to do this gradually so as not to project weakness and not to anger your main Islamist support base. And if he were to follow up on this, which means relaxing social laws, allowing nightclubs, all off this sort of a thing, it requires a rethinking and reversal that Khamenei has expressively been unwilling to do because he believes, for instance, that it is the role of a proper Islamic government to uphold and defend morality laws.
I think the next regime or the next generation of people, there is a distinct possibility that we have to keep in mind the Russian experience, that with the rise of Putin, who was a junior officer at the time of the Soviet Union collapse and then he and his team of former KGB officers ended up ruling Russia with a strong emphasis on Russian nationalism and Orthodox Christianity because that has its own topic, and in Iran there could very well be the possibility of junior officers in the current rank who could rise but they sort of downplay the sort of Islamic, Islamist ideology part and promote nationalism.
NH: Neda has talked about the fact that we need to have a grand strategy for Iran and that the Biden team needs to think through, for now, how it wants to approach Tehran. Part of designing a grand strategy is understanding where the current leadership in Iran wants to go. So Kamran, I want you to start and then have Amir and Neda weigh in on this. What has the Islamic revolution not achieved, internally inside Iran and externally since 1979, that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei would hope to create the conditions for it to achieve now and even after his death?
KB: Thanks, Nick. I think that, look, from the U.S. point of view, we’ve talked about this before, and I think that the areas that the United States government is having a whole lot of problems dealing with in terms of formulating actual policy on how to contain Iran, shape its behavior, make sure it doesn’t become a bigger threat to regional stability than it already is, I think there’s a huge gap in terms of policy-making capabilities, strategic thinking, and D.C. needs to up its game. So clearly, you can’t just say to Iran, we don’t like you to have these missiles, that’s not a strategy. That’s great in terms of talking points for the media and for whatever public relations value that brings, but in reality, you don’t have leverage to shape Iranian behavior. The United States will have to demonstrate in some shape or form that it is not in the Iranian interest to develop these missiles because there’s a cost to it, and unfortunately, that leads to an escalatory ladder that obviously the United States does not want to get into. But if you are going to approach or start this conversation, you have to compel Iran, Iran has to have a compelling reason to limit its production of ballistic missiles and realize that if it goes too far, then instead of this becoming a strategic asset it could become a threat. So that’s number one.
Number two is, okay, what happens when the sunset clauses that Amir was speaking about kick in? We don’t have a plan for that, we’re just sort of kicking the can down the road, making sure that at this point in time, Iran is not rushing to the nuclear threshold, and therefore we don’t have a plan for the future. And there has to be some plan. And that plan is then tied into Iran’s regional ambition. At the end of the day, no nuclear-powered nation has ever acquired nuclear weapons by publicly declaring that they’re doing so and actually telegraphing that they’ve reached this stage and that stage. I don’t think Iran is an exception. Iran will not let you know when it will cross that nuclear threshold. There’s a long way between that point and where we are right now, there are a lot of thing the Iranians have to do, and from an Iranian point of view, what’s more valuable? Is it more valuable to have nuclear weapon
the region? My own view, and I come from the school of thought that believes in the geopolitical value of the influence in the region. Syria matters far more to Iran, Iraq matters far more, Lebanon, Yemen. That regional influence matters far more to Iran than nuclear weapons.
So there may be some opportunity there for some creative thinking as to how to achieve a balance of power in the region where Iran’s influence can be balanced with the security needs of the nations in the region. This includes Israel and the Arab States. Turkey, we haven’t spoken about Turkey. I wrote a piece back in February for the magazine on how in the future, it will be Iran and Turkey confronting each other, and the United States needs to look into that because Turkey’s interests and Iran’s interests run into one another. That’s something that Washington can leverage in order to contain Iran and maintain that balance of power or at least move away from this current imbalance of power that we have arrived at because of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq and engage in regime change.
AT: I would wrap up on a few points is that when talking about missiles, I think the first step is we and our allies in Europe need to come to a mutually agreed-upon set of parameters about what specific aspects of the missiles that we are going to quote-unquote “have issues with,” so to speak, because there’s some sections, broadly speaking, there’s some things that aren’t as problematic as there are about other aspects of the missile program. So before we even set about the grand strategy, we have to sit with our allies to come to a set of mutually agreed upon parameters about what specific aspects of the missile program, of regional issues, of other aspects with the Islamic Republic that we’re going to have issues with because we throw the phrase “ballistic missile program” out there but we don’t have a set of parameters that we need to agree upon with our European allies, and I think that there’s a lot of room that we can talk with them to have a united front towards that.
Then, as Kamran mentioned excellently, we have to start thinking about having in the future, that one of the potential opportunities when the sunset clauses expire and this is when states in the region, our allies, Arab states and Israel, really feel that threat perception coming, then there’s opportunities. I would say that Tehran, Turkey, there’s some things that they don’t see eye-to-eye, there’s other things that they see they do, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t try to exploit the fissures and the weaknesses over there as much as possible, and we really have to be mindful of what allies in the region feel because at the end of the day that’s going to be the main driver of where the region will be headed because I think that the American people have chosen in the elections, have voted for candidates that want to reduce the involvement in the Middle East and that policy-makers should respect that view.
The question is how to do that in a more responsible manner. And I think the way containment would, some sort of policy would have to be, is unavoidable, and there’s different aspects to do about it, whether we rely on Turkey and certain tactical issues, whether we rely on other allies in some other issues. One observation when the U.S. is trying to have an approach to Iran is to generally avoid the temptation of trying to manipulate the domestic dynamics in Iran in a way to favor one faction over another, and the main reason for that is that the IRGC and Khamenei are very sensitive to this idea, as Kamran referred to, of infiltration. They have a real fear and concern about meeting the fate of the Soviet Union with the rise of a Gorbachev-like figure who ends up in power, loses the will to fight, and ends up to the destruction of the system.
NH: Neda, you are the last person in the room with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, before he advises President Biden on how to create a grand strategy for Iran. What would you recommend?
NB: My recommendation to him is to try and get the Iranians to an interim deal so that we can get to a longer, bigger deal on these regional and ballistic missiles. I’m gonna advise him that he should know, if he doesn’t already, that missiles are a non-starter and so this is a much longer process. And he’s not gonna want to hear it because he’s trying to walk a fine line with Republicans and other Democrats to keep Biden in office, to keep his own job, and to basically get the United States out of the Middle East. And so how you get everyone to agree is you have to remind the U.S. lobbying efforts and groups and politicians and the electorate that there is in fact a larger imperative. American national security requires that we not only address Iran’s nuclear program, that is the first, most immediate need is to address the nuclear program, the Iranians have said that they’re clearly willing to abide by it, but we need to go beyond that.
And so in order to deal with, let’s take ballistic missiles or we can talk about regional issues, is that Iran has to feel safe. That is really what they’re going to- I mean the Iranians will tell you, why would we trust you, and they say it now, why would we trust you in some deal or some future deal when you can’t even keep the deal that’s already in existence? And the Iranians have wanted guarantees about the deals they’re negotiating, they want guarantees about a future deal, and nobody can give it to them. And so when you can’t guarantee those things, when you don’t have a foreign policy establishment that has some basic level of agreement on how to deal with another country, i.e., regardless of who comes into office in the midterm elections in 2022, who comes into office in 2025, there has to be, as there was for the Cold War, some basic agreement about a strategy to deal with Iran.
And everyone wants to say, and yes, it might be true, that Iran is just a mid-level concern, but clearly it is causing major concerns and ones that are immediate. And so this is the part where Jake Sulliven, where President Biden himself, fixes or addresses what President Obama was not able to do. You have to get out there, you have to do the work, you have to sell the idea, and if they don’t sell the idea, if they’re not convincing about the need for this, it’s not gonna get any traction. And if it doesn’t get any traction, you’re not gonna convince the Iranians because you weren’t even able to convince your own people. This is the salesmanship part of being a politician. Everybody’s a politician in this town, but nobody wants to sell this idea. And it’s going to take a little bit more belief, legwork, and insistence, and those are the things that seem to really be missing.
And I think that comes from not being given a bit more free range and not having necessarily the green light, as it were, because you are tackling a bunch of problems but I think the Iranians would want to see a much bolder move. I talked about how they actually, believe it or not, have an appreciation for historically Republican foreign policy advisers, the senior advisers. The senior advisers, they want somebody like a James Baker, big, bold initiatives that even they saw with Obama, and some confidence and swagger. The language should go with it, even if there isn’t immediately the substance. To the extent that that is now gonna be possible with this new
government, I’m not sure. But what I do know is, if you don’t try it, if you’re not really willing to go to bat for it, you’re gonna fail without even having attempted it, and that might just be worse.
We keep talking about what to do, what to do, nobody seems to be doing the actual nitty-gritty of getting the U.S. there, and so what I would advise is make a plan, make it big, make it bold, take that action, and sell it. Sell it to the constituents, all of them in the U.S., and that’s gonna be costly, but you have Democrats on every level of power on Capitol Hill. Corral your people together, take a book from Khamenei, corral your people. The infrastructure deal has passed its subcommittee. So corral them, make your own internal deals and then aim for the big sky. Really see what happens there. That would be some advice I have to give.
NH: Well thank you Kamran, Neda, and Amir for a detailed, nuanced, and geopolitically savvy discussion on the aftermath of the Iranian presidential elections, the future of Iran’s state system, and potential relations moving forward between Tehran and Washington. We will keep our sentinel stare on Iran, the evolution of the Islamic Republic, and the U.S.-Iranian delicate diplomatic dance and potential sources of conflict.