David Menashri, emeritus professor at the Middle Eastern and African History Department of Tel Aviv University, spoke to a May 28 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about the nature of Iran's regime and how Washington can bring it to heel.
According to Menashri, a scholar of modern Iranian history, Iran is "the only country in the Middle East which [had] two big revolutions in the 20th century." In contrast to the Arab world, which has been mostly quiescent save for the so-called "Arab Spring" that roiled the Middle East in 2010-2011, Iran has experienced multiple "Persian Springs," from the student uprisings of 1999 to the Bloody November protests of 2019-2020, interrupted only by the pandemic.
Menashri said Iran is a "very complex" country where what seems obvious on the surface is not always as it appears. The 1979 Islamic Revolution, according to Menashri, was Islamic in name only. The revolution's roots were not religious, but "social, economic, political, cultural, [and] international." The basic issues behind the population's unrest were "bread and freedom, welfare and liberties, social justice and political justice," causes that were "hijacked ... to make it an Islamic revolution."
There are differences in belief within the regime over "interpretations of Islam," but these are secondary to the pursuit of regime survival. In a "religious society," it is expedient for rulers to claim their actions are the "will of God," particularly when they use force to "suppress people," but what constitutes divine will depends on the exigencies of regime survival.
The factions that vie for power in Iran, "hardliners" and "pragmatic realists," mainly disagree over strategy. As for the latter, "I would not call them moderates," said Menashri. With the (then-expected) election of Ebrahim Raisi as president, hardliners now control all the leading "institutions of power" and "are not hesitant to suppress people."
But hardliners have a further advantage in the fact that Iran faces "naïve enemies," above all the United States, who undermine pragmatists by rewarding or unduly tolerating bad behavior. The U.S. provided "the greatest service to ... the Islamic regime's national security" by defeating Iran's archenemy, Saddam Hussein, in 1991 and finally removing him from power in 2003. After 9/11, the U.S. ousted the Taliban in Afghanistan, also Iran's enemy. The conspicuously muted American response to the brutal crushing of the 2009 Green Movement protests by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was yet another unrequited gift to the regime. Now the U.S. is looking to return to the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that it entered in 2015 and withdrew from in 2018.
The Iranians have been "allowed to think that they can dictate the rules of the game."
Menashri described the confrontation between Washington and Tehran as "the weakness of American strength vis-à-vis the strength of Iranian weakness." The U.S. seeks to re-engage with the Iranians, but the Iranians, who are weak, "are being allowed to think that they can dictate the rules of the game." The latter are "sharks in diplomacy," keenly experienced in strategic thinking, and adept at tactical innovation.
Menashri believes the "first priority" for the U.S. must be to "stop [Iran's] march towards a nuclear weapon" and that this can be achieved "through negotiations" if Washington stands firm on its demands. Iranian hardliners "don't retreat from dogma voluntarily, but when they see that the price ... they have to pay is beyond what they can pay, they will usually find a way to go back."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.