Michael Rubin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), author of Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes and former editor of the Middle East Quarterly, spoke to the Middle East Forum on April 25th (video) about the future stability of the Iranian regime.
According to Rubin, the regime in Tehran is "entering its zombie phase, of dead men walking." There have "warning signs which are flashing" about the "future stability of the regime."
U.S. policy decisions must bear this in mind, he argued: "... [T]he last thing we should want to do is throw a lifeline to a failing regime and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory." But he warned we should not presume the fall of the Islamic Republic of Iran would "result in something democratic, liberal, progressive and peaceful."
Within the long history of Iran, Rubin sees the Islamic Revolution in 1979 not as an inevitability, but an "anomaly." Ayatollah Khomeini "got lucky" on his return to Tehran from France, hijacking the popular uprising that toppled the cancer-stricken shah's monarchy by seizing the U.S. embassy. Establishing himself as the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Khomeini further solidified his rule by stoking nationalist fervor among the population upon Saddam Hussein's 1980 invasion.
Because of his mistrust of the regular army, Khomeini formed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and empowered the force over the next decade to protect the country's Islamic political system. Rubin said the IRGC not only works "to conduct terrorism against the West," but also serves in "defense of the Revolution." Consequently, the IRGC fight enemies both "internal and external." Dialogue with the true power behind the regime is not possible, Rubin argues, because the IRGC serves as the "Praetorian Guard to protect the person of the Supreme Leader."
The IRGC, which is tasked with maintaining order in every province of Iran, faces significant, increasing pressure. Starting in 1999, Iran has been racked by massive protests. It also experienced a riot in 2001, post-election unrest in 2009, and, since 2017, "constant economic unrest."
In the four decades since its formation, the IRGC's financial influence has grown to where it "now controls 40 percent of Iranian trade ... manufacturing, oil [and] construction." Rubin said the IRGC "distorts the economy, stands above the law, and refuses to pay wages." To funnel funds to the IRGC, the government pays IRGC-owned companies to build unnecessary dams that have resulted in rivers running dry and a devastating water crisis.
Rubin said the IRGC's reach has increased the "tone" of rioting not only to be anti-regime, but also anti-IRGC. Consequently, the crisis threatens the IRGC's chokehold on the population. Environmentalism is "the one movement that can unite people across the ethnic and political spectrum."
Despite periodic episodes of nationwide unrest, the regime has proven adept at crushing resistance. The regime has developed ever more ruthless and effective methods to counter uprisings, such as by incorporating Chinese facial recognition software, which tracks and identifies protesters, allowing security services to round them up in the dead of night.
Sentences include torture, life imprisonment, or death. For those sentenced to life, the regime permits "a weekend break" to enable them to return home for a visit. According to Rubin, the regime intends its strategy to "create a reign of terror" among the population. Once the prisoner's family and friends see that their loved one is "not the same person they were when they went into prison," the prisoner is returned to jail.
Khomeini's successor, Ali Khamenei - whom Rubin described as a "rather colorless figure" possessing "little religious legitimacy" because of his lack of "religious credentials" - was chosen in 1989 as a "compromise candidate" to quell "factional divisions" in the regime. Who succeeds Khamenei, now eighty-two years old, partially paralyzed, and a cancer survivor, is today a topic of conversation among the regime's power brokers. Officially, a "clerical body called the Assembly of Experts" chooses a Supreme Leader, but the actual decision is made by "backroom deals." If they cannot reach a consensus on an individual, factional divisions could prevent a Council of Supreme Leaders from assuming leadership. Such a scenario creates an opening, Rubin reckons, for the IRGC to run the country as a military dictatorship.
Although it is in America's interest to have a "stable Iran" that is willing to "live within its own borders and not export its ideology," dissident groups in Iran should not rely on the U.S. because "too much outside support will be delegitimizing." Rubin believes that "the Iranians need to do this on their own." He is "not optimistic" that any power transition in Iran will be smooth, but if and when chaos ensues, "you have the most opportunity when you have a vacuum of leadership, and that's why I'm focusing on the impending mortality of the Supreme Leader."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.