Mehrdad Khonsari, a former Iranian diplomat under the late Shah who has been living in the diaspora since Iran's 1979 revolution, spoke to a June 27th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) in an interview with Cliff Smith, director of the Middle East Forum's Washington Project. Khonsari discussed his efforts to counter the Islamic Republic of Iran's "deep state" control of the Iranian people.
Khonsari served as foreign policy adviser to Dr. Shapour Bakhtiar, Iran's former prime minister. Since then, Khonsari has worked with opposition leaders to enable the Iranian people to pursue "modernization, democracy and progress." Khonsari stressed that the main target of the regime has been the people of Iran, who are suffering under the dual pressures of inflation and unemployment. "The overwhelming majority of Iranians" are "averse to violence" and fear their country becoming like Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan. They are desperate to find a way to "peacefully advocate a policy of transition" away from the "suffocating" fundamentalist rulers.
Iran's "deep state" is comprised of Ayatollah Khomeini's constituency which ascribed to his post-revolution version of Islam. Khonsari said the ayatollah's "personal doctrine of religious jurisprudence" effectively subsumed the general population under the control of the clergy, "a doctrine [that] has been incorporated into the national constitution of Iran." As the country's fall into economic decline damaged its international standing, the ayatollah lost support among his followers.
Currently, there is a "minority of people holding all the key levers of power from Khomeini's initial constituency," Khonsari said, but the deep state is actually comprised of "no more than ... fifteen percent" of Khomeini's supporters. Tehran is invested heavily in supporting its proxies who keep the international community absorbed with their meddling in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, along with its more recent proxies, including Hamas in Gaza, and the Houthis in Yemen. All these proxy forces "promote this asymmetric strategy of deterrence." This deliberate policy is designed to "distract attention" from the unrest in its own population, where the "real Achilles' heel" of the regime is within Iran.
Iran, a "rich country" drained of resources and "squandered by a corrupt elite," is experiencing daily demonstrations protesting the deprivation of basic staples. Khonsari said this deprivation is attributable to the regime's "abhorrent" policies. The international community has a moral obligation to acknowledge the crisis the Iranian people are in and should find ways to assist them. He said the deep state can be challenged because there is a "critical mass" of the population that, if empowered, is willing to stand up against the regime, despite the threat of imprisonment and torture.
Khonsari said there are "decent" leaders "from the old segment of Iranian society" who are "united" in confronting the deep state and who demand a new constitution "based on the will of the people and not on religious aberrations." What is needed is for Western leaders to "support ... these demands," citing South Africa as an example of the role of international assistance in enabling a population to "transition" towards "national reconciliation."
Khonsari acknowledged it is difficult to gauge the strength of Ayatollah Khamenei's forces, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which are employed to secure the Ayatollah's grip on the deep state but said there are "signs of cracks there." IRGC's head of intelligence was removed because of the successes of Israeli "incursions" within Iran, and there are other IRGC leaders who have spoken out against the regime's policies. Khonsari said it is important to remember that the Iranian armed forces are "three times the size of the IRGC put together," and their relatives are also suffering under the Tehran's crippling policies.
Khonsari said the main problem with countries confronting Iran, such as Israel, the U.S., and the Gulf states, is that they are approaching the problem where Iran is at its strongest -- its well-equipped regional proxies. A new nuclear deal, with the accompanying hundreds of billions of dollars for the regime, will only see more resources poured into sustaining and strengthening its proxies. While "hotspots" need to be addressed, there is little focus on the regime's "underlying weakness ... within Iran." Focusing instead on the mullahs' vulnerability within Iran "can be used as leverage" to exact concessions from the regime for the benefit of both the international community and the suffering Iranian population.
The last time there an international movement challenged the Iranian regime was in the "aftermath of the American hostage crisis." Since the late eighties, the international community's approach to the regime has been to find a "modus vivendi" with the mullahs to avoid conflict. The mullahs responded by becoming "masters at diverting [attention]" to keep the West at bay and by funding, equipping, and fortifying the regime's proxy forces and surrogates. Khonsari said, "... those are the branches of the tree, whereas the root of the tree is inside Iran, and it is inside Iran where this current regime is facing its major threat."
The merchant class, a key economic sector within Iran, formerly supported the "religious establishment," but the sanctions have caused it hardship. The merchants of the bazaar are among the "over eighty percent of the Iranian population [who] are living below the poverty and extreme poverty line," in what used to be one of "the richest countries in the region." However, Khonsari sees a "window of opportunity" to challenge the deep state with the "so-called election" of Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, who will be in office for another three years. Having an ideology "worse than Ahmadinejad," Raisi can galvanize the private sector, the business class, those in favor of reform, and the "overwhelming majority of the religious establishment in Iran who are against the present leadership on religious grounds." Khonsari said there are religious leaders in the Holy City of Qom who share the view of Ayatollah Sistani, the largest Shiite religious leader based in Iraq who is critical of Ayatollah Khamenei's doctrine.
Former Iranian president Rouhani and Iranian defense minister Hatami have endorsed the national reconciliation movement "along with the construction of a new constitution based on popular will." Despite the "more or less stagnant" opposition movement outside of Iran, support for national reconciliation within Iran is growing into a "united" determination "which respects the rights of all Iranians for equality, justice, and peaceful coexistence." Khonsari said, "This, in short, is what I've been doing for almost forty years."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.