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Iran may be on the cusp of change. A conversation with Arash Azizi.

James M. Dorsey



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Hello and welcome to the Turbulent World with me, James M. Dorsey, as your host.

Iranians vote with their feet.


Earlier this month, turnout for parliamentary elections and the 88-member Assembly of Experts that appoints Iran's supreme leader was at 41% an all time low.


In 2022 and 2023. Iran was racked by mass protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Iranian Kurd Mahsa Amini while in the morality police's custody, Mrs. Amini was detained for allegedly violating Iran's strict rules requiring women to cover their hair with a hijab, or headscarf.


Many hoped the demonstrations, like multiple earlier protests, signaled the beginning of the end of Iran's clerical regime that came to power in the 1979 Islamic revolution. The revolt overthrew the Shah, the first toppling in the last 40 plus years of an icon of US influence in the Middle East.


Hardliners in the United States and elsewhere have called for supporting civil society opposition.


Others advocate breaking Iran apart by supporting ethnic and religious minorities in the country.


A historian and political scientist at South Carolina's Clemson University, Arash Azizi argues that Iran may be on the cusp of change. It's just that the change may come from within the regime rather than from the street.


The change is likely to involve a polishing of the sharp edges of the Islamic Republic rather than a transition to democracy. Even so Arash, the author of two books, a biography of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran's notorious Quds Force who was killed in 2020 in an American drone strike, and a just published volume on the recent women's protest movement argued in The New York Times that Supreme leader Ali Khamenei's inner circle is populated by technocrats and pragmatists rather than ideologues and revolutionaries who want to perpetuate the status quo.


Few will challenge the notion that the eventual passing of the baton by 84-year-old Mr. Khamenei, who is believed to be in poor health, embodies the potential of change, even if the recent Assembly of Experts election was stacked against reformers who were banned from being candidates.


Counterintuitively, Arash sees a ray of hope in the eventual transition to a new Supreme Leader reason enough to welcome Aash to the show. Aash, it's a pleasure to host you today.


Arash Azizi (00:03:09):

Thank you, James. It's great to be with you.


James M. Dorsey (00:03:11):

Let's kick off with you giving us a bit of your intellectual biography and your engagement with Iran. Allow me to note that links to Arash's books will be at the bottom of the transcript of this podcast, which you will be able to find on my Substack newsletter early next week. Arash, the ether is yours.


Arash Azizi (00:03:33):

Thank you. My name is Arash. As said, I'm from Iran and when it comes to my intellectual biography, especially when it comes to Iran's struggle for democracy, it's really sort of inseparable from my life.


I was born in Teran in 1988, Iran is the country I grew up in, and I had the privilege of, and I really do see it as a privilege of growing up in one of the most fascinating periods in Iranian history in the late 90s.


When I was nine years old, Iran elected the reformist president Muhammad Khatami. And it's not so much just about him or internal politics of the Islamic Republic, but this election really opened the new era in Iranian history where millions of people were seeking change. Millions of people really had beliefs that Iran could be democratized, that it could change very quickly. It was a time of artistic and cultural and journalistic excellence.


There were tons of newspapers everywhere in the society. Everyone spoke about possibilities of change. It's really exciting time to grow up in, and I was and am from early on I identified as a Marxist and I still see myself always on the left side of things.


But what definitely hasn't changed is me being part of the Iranian quest, seeing myself as part of the Iranian quest to change things and to bring a freer and more democratic and more just Iran.


Now, I was a journalist for many years. I was a TV anchor. I then turned to academia, got a PhD in history and Middle Eastern studies from NYU.


But these are really all details. The broader picture remains, remains the same as I said with the broader reference, which is I am still really that Iranian citizen trying to imagine a different Iran and hopefully bring about a different Iran as part of a different world.


James M. Dorsey (00:05:46):

And yet you left Iran.


Arash Azizi (00:05:49):

That's right. Yeah. I mean I've left Iran in 2008 actually. So, I haven't been back like millions of Iranians. I unfortunately haven't been back to Iran for that many years, close to two decades now.

And it's funny, when I left in 2008, I couldn't have imagined that I won't be able to go back. I mean, I really didn't imagine that at all. In 2009 we had a grand movement called the Green Movement that started from contesting a presidential election, basically contestation over the results, but really morphed into a grand anti-regime movement. And really a lot of us thought this is it, and the regime would be gone.


I remember, I lived in Canada at the time and I was renting a place and I told this landlord, ‘Oh, I can't sign for another year because the regime would be overthrown.’ 40 years is over and I have to go back.


So, this is really kind of the perhaps naivete that you have also as to, I was 20 years old or something, but yeah, I left. I lived in many other countries. I lived in Malaysia, I lived in Britain, Germany, Canada, and now the United States.


James M. Dorsey (00:07:05):

And you seem to come to the conclusion that it won't be popular revolts that provoke change in Iran. Tell us why you think change will come from the top rather than the bottom and what that change may look like.


Arash Azizi (00:07:22):

Yeah, it's a very tough reality to sort of admit, if you will, and that sort of, I wrote this piece for The New York Times that you referred to where I'm talking about this, but also in the epilogue to my book, and this is a book that I wrote really with all my heart. It's called ‘What Iranians Want: Women, Life, Freedom.’

This is a book that on every page of it I wrote about people that I really consider my heroes. These are my fellow Iranians, trade unionists, environmental activists, feminist activists. These are people who really, this era that I spoke about from late 90s to now, they wage the heroic struggle over decades against the Islamic Republic. They embody all the wonderful ideas that the regime doesn't…This book is really…a testament to them.


The reason I wrote it is that I wanted Iran to not be reduced to what you usually have in the headlines of whether it's a nuclear program or all the soldiers or the mullahs. And I wanted to see that there is a different Iran and much of the work that I do in fact is an attempt to ensure that there is this different Iran.


However, even in the epilogue of this book, when I'm trying to predict the future of Iran, if you will, I have to admit, one has to be honest, that it's not clear that it's these movements that will be the only ones who are calling the shots. I mean, it's clear that that won't be the case, right? And one has to be brutally honest.


Now, the reality is that the grand movements for civil liberties, for democracy that I talked about have had a basic failure in the last couple of decades, and that has been a failure to translate their power and their demands into a political channel.


This is a very important thing and I think it's an important ailment. Basically, I think we have a political deficit around the world. I often when in this conversation, I often point to this new book by Vincent Bevins about the missing decade of the  2010s.

 

 

This is a writer, a journalist, who goes and looks at all the different mass movements in the 2010s to show some of the reasons that they failed. I mean, he looked at it, whether the Arab Spring or a movement in Brazil and a lot of other places, even in Ukraine.


In some sense, actually what becomes clear is that there is a failure to translate these mass movements into a political channel, the political proper political channel, especially because there is a lack of a tradition of political parties, organized political forces that were very powerful in the 20th century.


And somehow by the end of the 20th century, we convinced ourselves, I might say we on the left and on the right, it's interesting, there's sort of convergence on the left in the name of Autonomism or Horizontalism, and on the right and the language of end of ideology and all that becomes  that this was sort of all the bad 20th century stuff and we don't need anymore.


All we need now are hashtags and it is spontaneous people coming together, but unfortunately you don't get political change like that. So, unfortunately in Iran, for a variety of reasons, these movements that I am very proud to be a part of have failed politically to cohere into a political alternative.


And we have to be honest, right? Everyone loves to, whenever you lose in politics, everyone loves to say you scored a moral victory. Unfortunately, moral victories don't change history. They don't change people's lives in politics. It's about winning. It's about being able to dislodge the dictators that are in power and there is no clear path for this sort of freedom movements in Iran to do so.


James M. Dorsey (00:11:36):

If I can interject, I think of course, just to sharpen what you're saying, I agree with you. I think the problem that you see with popular revolts, and you see that going back to 1986 with People Power in the Philippines and certainly with the popular Arab revolts in 2011, it's that there are two tensions. One is translating street action into backroom bartering and politics. And it's always the question, at what point do you surrender the street? Because once you've surrendered the street, you can't retake it.


People gathered at Quirino Grandstand for Tagumpay ng Bayan (Victory of the People) rally where Cory Aquino calls for a campaign of civil disobedience. Credit: LIFE Photo Collection.

 


Arash Azizi (00:12:20):

Yeah, absolutely. It's a fascinating way of looking at it. It's interesting that you brought up Philippines. I don't know enough about it, but you look at it actually as a positive example in some ways, because at least in Philippines, they were able to, when I look at countries that have gone through some sort of a democratic transition, I mean I look at Philippines as one and that one in which an authoritarian system was replaced by a very imperfect democracy.

But at any rate, it is a democracy. People are electing their leaders in the polls, which would be a dream for Iranians, frankly, if we got to a place where we had anything like that. But I'm fascinated by the way you put it because that's precisely the point though. Yes, you are right, that if when you give up the street to the backroom, then you cannot take it back.


But also, you cannot keep the street forever, right? Absolutely. If you're in politics, you either cash it in at some time or it dissipates because people…


Yes, if you are in your early 20s and you love going to demonstrations, this is a big part of your life, you come under the illusion that, goodness, wouldn't this be great if this was life basically, right? That all the time we did was this.


But even leftists themselves who say this, usually they get to an age where they get a job and they get married, whatever, and they're not interested in doing this every day.

Certainly, most people, they're not trying to be political actors every day. They're trying to live their lives. If they can help it, perhaps they like to even not think about politics as much, and we can be critical of that, but means that you have to work with new ones that you have.

So, I think the key thing is to know whether it's for popular worlds or any sort of political action, it's key thing to know what is your strategy and how you can channel it.


James M. Dorsey (00:14:12):

Yeah, let me just interject…. This is a fascinating discussion, but I do want you to come back to my question.


Arash Azizi (00:14:19):

Yeah, of course.


James M. Dorsey (00:14:21):

I co-authored a book several years ago, which compared political transition in the Philippines, sorry, in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. And what we concluded was that in the case of the Philippines, in the case of Indonesia, and in fact also in the case of Myanmar prior to the military coup, what worked was that there were three players in this. There was a strong civil society, but there also was a faction of the military that saw an advantage or an interest in supporting change. And so that's what you really had in Southeast Asia, and that's what in a lot of ways you lacked in the Middle East.


Arash Azizi (00:15:24):

Well, if there was ever a segue that said, yeah, that's really fascinating. Exactly sort of what I'm trying to explore in regards to Iran.


James M. Dorsey (00:15:39):

Let's go back to Iran. Indeed.


Arash Azizi (00:15:42):

Yeah, no, but I mean it's exactly this question. To go back to your original question, which relates to this point about the comparison between Southeast Asia and the Middle East, the way I would put it, by the way as I write in The New York Times, it's an op-ed, you need to always extend to it the point a little too much.


The way I would put it is not so much that, oh, the change will come from the top, not the bottom. Although there is also truth to that.


But let me put it here if I may. I basically think that a variety of, let's call 'em civic movements, it's pro-democracy movements. These people that I wrote this book about, these people who want democracy for Iran and who are idealists, I don't mean that in a negative way, but I mean there are those who have ideals, right?


They want a different Iran, they have substantive ideas about gender justice, about social justice. They'll continue to be a big part of future of Iran, and that's sort of the camp that I consider myself part of.


In fact, whatever change happens at the top, I even do say whatever change happens at the top, they're not going to stop fighting, they're going to stop. They're going to continue the struggles.


But the thing is the Islamic Republic is not just that it falls short of these more substantive ideas of justice, but that it's in a really moment of crisis in which it's suffering from acute incompetency and acute sort of legitimacy crisis. It follows policies that seem to be in favor of no one really.


It's funny, we often like to compare the late Islamic Republic as we call it, a bit hopefully with the late Soviet Union saying that, oh, there was an ideological crisis, there was an economic crisis. But when you look at the late Soviet Union, it's doing rather great compared to the Islamic Republic.


At the end of the day, whatever you say about the state socialism, it had some coherence. It was followed around the world. There were millions of people around the world who saw some hope. With the Islamic Republic, it's really hard to see anyone really believing in it as an alternative model.


So, to make the story short, what I'm arguing is that Khamenei is going to be 85 next month. He is going to die and pass away at some point, and it's not just that his passing is important, but at the moment he is really the only thing that holds together this highly disparate system of people who have sharp segments with each other. The vie forpower, and no one really believes in the ideals of this revolution anymore. The idea of 1979 revolution, it hasn't been able to create even a coherent form of alternative. Iran is not more religious. Iran is ever more capitalistic.


It really, you cannot look at this and say, oh, this is a sort of Islamic model of life. If you look at all these foreign supporters of the Islamic Republic who come to Iran, it is very rare for them to praise the domestic regime. The most they can do is say, oh, Iran is great because it's supporting anti-Israel forces in the region.


So, my argument is that elements in the leadership of the Islamic Republic today and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, IRGC, see this militia as the ones who are most likely to come on top after the death of Khamenei.


I think popular movements will make their attempt, but frankly, I think it's most likely that these other established forces will come on top, at least initially, and that I do believe that they will make some fundamental changes in Iran because they want to make the country less of a basket case, frankly less of a crisis mode. So that that's sort of the root of this prediction or prognosis that I have for the immediate future of Iran.


Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaks during a meeting in Tehran. Credit: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/WANA/Reuters


James M. Dorsey (00:19:46):

This goes straight actually to my next question. You've described the technocrats among those people as military technocrats. In other words, if I read this correctly, and I think that's what you're saying, the post-Khamenei era would involve a transition to a greater role for the IRGC or the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which would drive the change, whereas the pragmatists that you also sort of point out within the regime and particularly within Khomeini's inner circle, are largely former diplomats. Is that correct?


Arash Azizi (00:20:27):

Actually, the first part is definitely correct is that so there is a yes.

I believe that this militia, IRGC, is likely to have the upper hand in the post a period. Now, it's a bit complicated because IRGC itself is not a united force. It has so many disparate groups, but people with different stakes in it. It's also not just the military group effectively because yes, it's a militia primarily, but it's also a massive economic power. So, I think Iran, I imagine sort of Iran looking more like a Pakistan or Algeria in sort of a place where a military cast, if you will, they will have the important role.

 

Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) attending a meeting with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran. Credit: SalamPix/ABACAPRESS.COM via PA Images

 


Now, the diplomats that you mentioned are, to be clear, when I say pragmatists, I also actually do mean some of these military leaders are in fact pragmatist. They care about lining their own pockets and they care about economic growth and they don't want Iran to be sanctioned and isolated and hated by everyone inside and outside Iran. So that's what is going to drive some sort of a pragmatic politics on their part


But the diplomats that you mentioned are one of the fascinating things for me looking at a variety of diplomats of Iranian diplomats, diplomats of the Islam Republic who are basically showing a lot of discontent with harmony. This is a very sort of delicate point because the Islamic Republic was founded in 1979, but Iranian diplomacy, if you're a diplomat of Iran, you didn't just become parrot of the regime immediately necessarily, and you weren't just following this idol, ideology. Iranians, as you can see from me and others, we have a very strong sense of our nation, and I'm sure you've had this experience of seeing it with Iranians, right? Doesn't matter whether you are a sort of dissident in Europe or you are someone in Iran, you have a strong sense of nation.


So, the Iranian diplomats wanted to follow a traditional sense of Iranian national interest. And if you see, even during Islamic Republic, for example, let's say in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, I mean Iran has often played a role that you can't say it's ideological or in support of Islamist revolutionary ideas. It's sort of traditional Iranian foreign policy sort of national interest rules, whereas they (the diplomats) see that that has dissipated on under Khamenei especially in the last years.


They're not happy that Iran is a supporter of Hamas that is banking, not just that it's supporting Hamas, but it's banking so much on it that it is helping Russia against Ukraine, that they're very unhappy about that. But this also shows you there's sections of establishment who are unhappy about the results of Khamenei, and that's why I sort of mentioned the diplomats. Now, yes, some of them, many of them, in the future of Iran can form a very different group than let's say people coming out of IRGC, right?


Javad Zarif, the former foreign minister eternally, you think, I mean, may want to have political ambitions, (even if) he always says he doesn't. He would never run for anything, but if he was going to have political ambitions, I think frankly he probably would be good at it. He definitely has come with some, obviously a lot of us don't buy much from him, but anyways, he definitely can come with some, yeah, so variety of former officials of the regime, whether it's diplomats, whether it's those who are in more economic positions or in politics can have some sort of a future in the post-Khamenei era as they vie for power. But those who hold the guns and power currently are the IRGC folks, so it's likely that they'll be the ones sort of running the game for a while. They're the ones who are organized.


Iran's Former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gestures during a press conference in Tehran. Credit: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images, FILE



James M. Dorsey (00:24:23):

What's also interesting is that the people you're talking about are already now or for some time been publicly expressing their dissent and their criticism. So, it's not just an assumption of what these people say. They're actually willing to go out and say it.


Arash Azizi (00:24:44):

Absolutely. Yeah. I mean it's very interesting in a regime like Iran, because there's actually a lot of this discontent that's being spoken about, so I'm not even talking about the circle of dissent. It keeps getting wider in a way the Supreme Leader permitted.


The opposition, people like me who oppose the Islamic Republic, obviously we are nowhere near power. There's no way we can even publish newspapers and all that. In Iran, then those who are, let's say reformists or loyal opposition critiques of the Islamic Republic, they've been effectively booted out of parliament. They don't have a public political life, but inside the conservative and ultra conservative camp, no matter how much you exclude, right? Still, there's a lot of fighting against the corruption of this or that individuals or for different policies. I mean, when things are so bad, you have to blame someone.


The thing is, Iran has a declining economy, which I think is a key of everything.

By the way, none of the discussions we had really would've meant much, if I'm honest with you, if Iran was doing economically very well. People don't like to admit that. I would ask my students, would you prefer to live in a poor country or democratic country? And a lot of them always say, oh no, I would live poor, but free.


But the reality is when the economy is bad, it really, that's sort of fundamental change, and you realize how bad the Iranian economy is, right? The GDP per capita of Iran now in real terms, significantly less than, and I don't have the numbers in front of me, but significantly less than 10 years ago by some estimates, I think it's like a third of 10 years ago.


This is crazy. Imagine you're living  standard falling to a third in just 10 years, so you have to blame someone. So, yes, there's tons of those who are always attacking each other and who are always expressing criticisms.


As I said, the foreign policy in support of Hamas or support of Russia and Ukraine is being critiqued by, not by people like me, but by leading former diplomats or establishment figures, public intellectuals, those types inside Iran, and this is after prisons are full of thousands of people who are there because they're predicting, but still people are still making the criticisms.


And I think the other thing I'll tell you is that look, just if you get outside of immediate sort of political common atheists, common that there are, if you are honest and sober, if you are someone Iran who really cares about Iran, Iranians care about their country. Usually they like to sort of have this state of Iran discussions often, right? It's very clear to everybody that we are in some sort of a very deep crisis, I think, and many others agree with me that this is the worst Iran has been since easily a hundred years ago.


So, naturally, when you're in conditions like this, people are voicing critique publicly. It's just that usually in order to not get into trouble, regimes like this, afford this, you can critique everything and be like, oh, of course the supreme leader would agree with me. He doesn't want this, right?


Because that's how you save yourself, himself also, this is one rule of dictators. Mao Zedong also did the same thing. I guess you control everything, and yet you always act as an opposition leader, right? So, in this Maoist moment, if you will, he is always waging a revolution against the regime like saying, we need to renovate things and things are not being done well, even though he is really micromanaging even the smallest decisions.


James M. Dorsey (00:28:38):

Presumably the notion of change will also depend on who the next supreme leader will be among those touted as potential successors. Are there those that would be more supportive than others?


Arash Azizi (00:29:01):

The next supreme leader is most likely going to be a very weak figure who won't wield much power. That's sort of my two cents or my guess. This is also a state of the art for the last few years, if you have Iranian analysts getting together after a couple of drinks or whatever, everyone likes to predict who will succeed.


So, my line here is that it basically, it's going to be a weak figure or perhaps a leadership council. It would need to require constitutional change for that to happen. But in the first constitution of the Islamic Republic, there was a possibility of a leadership council, and then this was gotten rid of in the current version, but they can change it again. Let me tell you that the supreme leader is a very strange position, right? Political scientist Said call the Islamic republic’s constitution, the platypus of humanity’s constitutional development because it's a very strange position.


It's closest analog. It's the philosopher king in Plato's Republic, right? It's this idea that this wise man can rule over everything, but in effect, of course, it becomes a sort of broader indicator.


Look, the reality is there's no one, there's no cleric that has the charisma or political expertise or kind of figure who could replace Khamenei as a convincing supreme leader. All the major candidates died. So, the most likely thing in my opinion is that it will be very weak, clear, and others will run the show until eventually they might even get rid of the position basically.

So, I think Khamenei will be the last real supreme leader of the Islamic RepublicI should tell you that the hottest rumor for some years now, and especially in recent couple of years, is the possible candidacy of Khamenei's son, Mojtaba Khamenei, and I personally don't buy it.


I don't think they'll be stupid enough to try to go with that. I think, I mean, put yourself in place of all these IRGC leaders, all this sort of variety of people who are of power in the Islamic Republic. Do you really want to, after all these years of answering Khamenei, do you really want to answer his son who has no qualifications you can really speak of?


Sure. He's like a relatively, relatively informed cleric. He's teaching in the home seminary and all that, but I don't think they'll go with it. I don't think they'll accept it. And also, it's like the irony, it's one thing for (Egypt’s Hosni) Mubarak to put his son forward for power, but for revolution that is all about Islam and justice and blah blah, to then just turn out into a new monarchy with Khamenei as the ruling family. It's a little too much on the nose, I think.


James M. Dorsey (00:32:04):

And to be fair to Mojtaba has emphatically denied that he has any ambition to succeed his father. But coming back to what change may look like, it strikes me that we've seen hints of change, at least in terms of foreign policy in recent month. For example, at the Islamic and Arab Emergency Summit in Riyadh last November, Iran adopted a hardline position in the preparatory talks, but then signed off on a final statement that endorsed a two-state solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Also, Iran has not categorically rejected a potential Saudi recognition of Israel, but said that a Saudi Israeli alliance against Iran would be a red line.


Arash Azizi (00:32:56):

So, the Iranian foreign policy establishment still does have the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to use relatively pragmatic language at times. The first thing we should remember is that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not run Iran's foreign affairs, right? None of the major diplomats will be running the region are in any shape or form answerable to the foreign minister. Don’t take my word for it, the prime minister has said this repeatedly. He just repeated it a couple of weeks ago in an interview. Others have said it, the Minister of Foreign Affairs is not really the one running the show, and that's part of the problem. By the way, this is symptomatic of how many rule, right? What Kamenei has done is that he's built a parallel estate effectively, which runs things. He’s even built a parallel parliament, even though the Parliament is super dominated by ultra conservatives effectively.


Now he has high councils,  a high council for cyberspace, a high council for the economy, and they are the ones who pass the laws. But I think what that shows you is things that you mentioned like that, oh, they wouldn't object necessarily to a resolution that would implicitly or explicitly endorse a two-state solution or what they'd say about potential a Saudi Israel recognition. It shows that there are definitely elements in the Iranian establishment that are happy to be more pragmatic about it. The reality of all of this is, I mean, we can talk about a specific issues, but if I just give a broad picture, the reality of it is Iran, again, I think it's very important to remember that Iran is an ancient civilization. I know everyone is sort of tired of hearing this of Iranians saying it, but it really does matter because Iranians see themselves that way, right?


We were a founding member of the League of Nations, the only Muslim country as a founding member of the League of Nations. We were in fact in the Council of the League of Nations. We were founding member of the United Nations. So, when Iranians, whether on a popular level or on policymaking level at some point, think of their country, they're often thinking of Iran, right? They're not thinking of first the Palestinian cause or first the Israelis. They're thinking of Iran. They're Iran-centered in this way and on that basis, it's not that strange that it doesn't, from the Iranian national interest, frankly, it doesn't make sense for us to be very one-sided in any conflict in the region. It doesn't make sense for us to be very one-sided either for Israel or Palestine. Same with Azerbaijan and Armenia.


And that's why in many ways it has backed Armenia. My point is not this Iran centeredness and the priority of Iranian national interests means that there are many who think Iran should play a much more constructive role in this region. And a part of the reality is that today no Arab state, not one fights against Israel, doesn't fire a single bullet against Israel. When I teach the Arab Israeli conflict, I usually tell my students that effectively we know the Arab-Israeli conflict mostly ended in 1979 (when Egypt signed the first Arab peace treaty with Israel). It's a Palestinian-Israeli conflict that continues, but Arab states are not fighting Israel since 1979. Ironically, Iran was born in 1979 and it carries the mountain and it just doesn't make sense for us. Basically, why is it that Iran, which is not an Arab state, which doesn't have any reason to want to destroy Israel from the perspective of its national interest, why should it be the only state that puts itself in danger and that it's the only one firing shots at Israel against the wishes of the Palestinian leadership, more importantly and the leadership of every other Arab state.


So, I think a lot of Iranians, both on the popular level as I said that, but even in foreign policy decision making levels think we can't be, and they say this publicly, again, it's not just me saying it that we can't be more Catholic than the Pope, right?


We cannot be more Arab than Arabs, basically than an Arab cause and has always long been, of course. And Iran can play an auxiliary role. It can play a role of its own national interest, but it doesn't make sense for it to act like it's a frontline state who's put all its eggs on the basket of this goal of illusion of wanting to destroy Israel as its leadership repeatedly says, and as all these militias that it supports say.


Whereas in effect, when you look at alternative, (Turkish President Recep Tayyip)  Erdogan is pretty anti-Israel. He doesn't even cut diplomatic relations with Israel and none of the Turkish Islamists, it's very interesting. Islamists have been in power since 2003. They've never, in the worst moments when Israel killed almost a dozen Turkish peace activists, they still didn't, they suspended, but didn't entirely cut diplomatic relations with Israel. Not to mention trade ties, and we can bring other examples.

 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Credit: AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

 

So, this is to say that many in Iran see that Iran should have its own policy and it should prioritize itself, and it should not lend, you cannot lend a foreign policy of a country of 80  million people to some ideological goal somewhere. You should prioritize the wellbeing of your own citizens and peace in the region, and I think it's very likely that this is the sort of direction of change that you'll see in the future of Iran after Khamenei.


James M. Dorsey (00:39:01):

Before we come back to the issue of change, it's one thing just to add to what you said about Iranian identity. It is of course a fact that Iran is only one of three Middle Eastern states with maybe Israel four with a very deep seated sense of identity, and certainly Israel accepted here with a history of empire alongside Turkey and Oman, which really says something about, or reemphasizes what you were saying about Iranian identity. I want to just for a moment, dwell on the Palestinian issue, and it strikes me that what support for the Palestinians or what Iranians feel or this regime feels support should be for the Palestinians, helps the regime basically maintain a facade, a revolutionary facade, even if the revolutionary zeal in the revolution itself is long vanished, would you think that would be an accurate analysis?


Arash Azizi (00:40:13):

I think yes, in many ways, yes. The way I put it is when you think about Islamic Republic, I put yourself in place of ho. Ho is a genuine revolutionary. He, he's been a revolutionary all his life since he twenties. He went many years to jail and internal exile, and he fought for this revolution. He was among its founders of the Islam Republic, and then he's led it since 1989. What achievements do you have no real achievement to speak of in terms of Islamic Republic has not created much of a better life in Iran. His achievement is that Islam Republic has endured, you can say that, but it's not in a good shape. But one thing you can say is that yes, it has built a multinational army, an impressive multinational army that does fight against Israel, right? Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthis in Yemen, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a variety of accumulation.


Hezbollah fighters take part in a military parade. Credit: AFP


These are all the ones, as I said, not a single Arab state fires a bullet against Israel, but all of these groups are so it is not just a facade. The reality is that this project does have some reality. There is this, the access of resistance exists after all, and it's funded and headed by the Islamic Republic, and it's something to be proud of if you are into that sort of thing. Right? After all, there were people in the system of London who were shouting in support of Houthis, unfortunately. So the point is you can look at this and be proud of it. The problem with it though is that, as I said, it doesn't have much support inside Iran because it's just hard to convert an entire population with a strong sense of national identity to this particular Islamist Zionist sort of line. It's very hard for them to buy into this.


It's hard for most people to buy into any ideology for an entirely entirety of a nation, but in this case, they see it as diametrically opposed. It's not clear how the access of resistance is serving Iranian interest. It looks like for Iran, it has brought economic isolation, international isolation, declining a standard of living. We being hated on around the world, having to live under the sanctions and without advancing any of our national interests. So there is not much support for it inside Iran. So I hope it's clear what I mean. So it's not a facade in terms that it's a general revolutionary project, and yes, if you are a member of Hezbollah in Lebanon, you might really be happy that you are part of this. Although what I should add to this though, what I should add to this is that not only it hasn't brought a good life for Iranians, it also hasn't brought a good life for anybody else.


I mean, look at all these countries that I mentioned. None of these Hezbollah is hated across Lebanon effectively, including by many of the Shia, and I hope I don't exaggerate it, I don't want to be naive, but it's clear that Hezbollah is not some very popular group in Lebanon anymore. The way that it was when it was fighting Israeli occupation, actually in the sort of nineties and maybe even a bit after that, but just not anymore because Lebanon is effectively instead of collapse in Iraq, these militias have really ruined the sovereignty of the country. And similar examples in other places in Yemen at best, they're part of this tapestry of civil war in that country.


So they really haven't provided a model that would be really attractive, and that would become sort of a pool of attraction. So it could be a source of inspirations for some revolutionaries who are interested in these groups, but really not a sustainable source of supporting in any of this country. I should also add that as my friend Danny Postel has argued acts of resistance effectively plays a counter-revolutionary role actually, not just revolutionary by which he means that effectively it's become part of a status quo, ironically, in countries like Iraq and Lebanon, right? The axis of resistance, part of the status quo. So it actually has to actively fight against change. So the Iraqis had a mass movement in 2019 against these conditions, as did the Lebanese. So these so-called revolutionary forces are actually country revolutionary is stopping the aspirations of the people in this country is for effective national governance and a sovereign country and an opposing and opposition to the sectarian system that has really defined them


James M. Dorsey (00:45:15):

Coming back to the issue of change or pragmatism or whatever one wants to call it, perhaps you can describe how this will manifest itself on the one hand, domestically. You spoke a little bit about it internationally, but maybe you can take that a little bit further in terms of what it would mean for Iran's relationship with the axis of resistance, its various non-state partners, but also in terms, for example, of the nuclear issue,


Arash Azizi (00:45:54):

So, you mentioned domestic and international, right? Sort of the consequences in other words.


James M. Dorsey (00:45:59):

You spoke about Israel, but there are also, of course, the  issues of the relationship with Hezbollah, with the Iraqi groups, with the Houthis and Yemen, with Hamas, and there is of course the always lingering issue of Iran's nuclear program.


Arash Azizi (00:46:21):

And there's also a question of domestic policy, and as you want, we can talk about that. What do I mean? Let me make a prediction again, sort of what I think this pragmatic sounding post-Khamenei Iran is going to do in relation to all of, and I have since I wrote the oped, I've had interesting debates with different friends actually about this. Some of whom said they agree regarding domestic policy, but maybe not so much about regional policy because the IRGC is proud of its achievement, so they'll continue it.


So I think, look, they are, they're not going to immediately cut ties to all these militias because obviously, well, once you have it right, it's not a bad thing to have a few groups linked in different countries that you can use. But I think their direction is the general direction is going to be, so with the nuclear program and in regards to these militias is going to be coming into some sort of regional and international agreement that can end the sanctions on Iran, end the Iranian isolation, and give a bit of a breeding space to Iran.


The nuclear question is a bit dormant right now. Actually, if you look at just the last intelligence estimate that came out of the United States, they basically are saying Iran is not continuing, which is interesting, right? They're not crazy. They know how to pace themselves on this question.


So I think they'll try to come to some sort of an agreement even in status quo if they want the sanctions to be lifted, no matter who is in the White House, they'll try to do some sort of negotiations. Maybe it wouldn't be as splashy as 2014, 2015 and nuclear deal like that, but quietly make some agreements, draw back the nuclear program enough so that these sanctions can be lifted. There will be an agreement with Saudi Arabia, so they'll come into some sort of a peace agreement basically. And by peace, I mean they'll basically say, look, we're not going to rock this boat too much.


We're not going to threaten to destroy Israel time and time again. But given, obviously there should be a place for Hezbollah and Lebanese Shiites, after all, generally in the Lebanon and structures in Yemen, there can be a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia where there's some sort of a solution there after all, even without the change of the Islamic Republic.


There are elements of this already, the relationship between Iran and the militias, it's interesting. Even now, the regime of Iran and the militias effectively is usually not the case that Iran says go attack all the time.


In fact, it's usually the opposite. It's to say basically it's always trying to restrain them. And now again, we have the US intelligence estimate. Thank God the United States has a system in which the intelligence is not super partisan and is released in a way that there's some objectiveness to it.


Because if you really read the detail, they're very clear that Iran didn't know about October 7th, right? They didn't know about it, and it's unlikely that they would've encouraged something like this out of the fear of getting into this conflict.


So, I think the important difference would be that the goal of building a powerful Iranian state that will have its own interest will take precedence over this revolutionary ideological project of building a group of militias that are leading Iran right now. And I think that will change, and I think the nature of these militias in this country would also change after all.


One thing that is a very delicate thing for us to all remember, let's forget Palestine for a second, but in the case of Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, yes, these militia all have a revolutionary anti-Israel sort of Islamic ideology, but they are also sectarian actors and they get much of their sustenance in these countries as sectarian actors, right?


The Lebanon Hezbollah wouldn't exist if not for the fact that the Lebanese Shia had a history of disenfranchisement. And so they sometimes channel this energy into the communist party as in the past. Then they channelled the Amal movement, and then they end up channeling to Hezbollah. You know what I mean?


So they'll always continue in some ways, but when the tune changes in Teran, their tune is also going to change. And in terms of Palestine, again, the real story here, of course, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, these are not Iranian groups. They have their own origins. They're not even Shia. They're always looking for foreign sponsors.


The history of Palestinian militancy is that they're always looking for different foreign sponsors, it used to be Saddam or Muamar Ghaddafi, Soviet, China at some point, and in the last few decades it's been the Islamic Republic. So, the nature of that is going to change once Iran goes on a more pragmatic route.


Former Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. Credit: AP/Ben Curtis

 


James M. Dorsey (00:51:47):

Would you see the fact that Iran is trying to ensure that support for Hamas and the actions of its non-state allies like Hezbollah or the Houthis in Yemen stops  short of sparking a regional configuration that could involve the United States? Is that an indication of the change to come that you envision? And does it suggest that there may be more common ground between technocrats, pragmatists, and hardliners?


Arash Azizi (00:52:19):

I think it's a very good question. I think it shows a couple of things. First of all, it shows that even now, Iran doesn't want to get into a conflict or a war. Iranians don't want to do that. Not the leadership, not the people. And they know that we can't afford it.


We are not a society ready to go to a war in this condition. They know it would have no real support in society. So even now that's the case, and it does show that after all, we have to remember, my argument isn't that there are a bunch of hard liners in power now they're going to be replaced by technocrats, right? My argument is that a lot of these so-called hard liners  have a heavy technocratic edge. It's just that in the current conditions, the constellation of power around Khamenei is such that they play a role right now.


It is a bit of a risky proposition to make, and I do sort of hedge this in the article by saying, I don't know if it is possible that Khamenei dies and these people really mean all that they say, and they're going to lead a new ideological Iran, and they're not technocrats or pragmatistss after all.


There are people who have written on Mahdism, and they believe Mahdist Arian ideology. With all due respect, I don't really buy it. I don't really think, yes, I know that Said Mohammed, whom I write about in some of my work, this sort of military figure, I know he talks about the Mahdi all the time and the hidden Imam, and I don't think they're serious about it.


I don't think it's true. I don't think it will hold, although it's always a possibility. But yes, the argument is that even these guys are effectively technocrats and pragmatics and its Khamenei who keeps the revolutionary flame alive.


My argument is really that, look, in 2019, in the 40th anniversary of the Islam revolution, Khamenei gave a speech called the Second Phase of the Revolution, and he basically says the second phase of the revolution is going to be built by this young revolutionary.


I basically think he has failed to build this young revolutionary. He has failed to build the next level leadership that could drive this revolution. And if you want to take a very broad view, you can say this is the fate of revolutions that you cannot usually build a revolution beyond a couple of generations.


Even in the Soviet Union, after a couple of generations, these were apparatchiks, and after all, when communism failed, most of them very happily transitioned into becoming sort of national elites in these new republics. And there are many other examples that you can give. So, I think that the Islamic Revolution is dead, and that's the next generation of leaders will innovatively be more pragmatic.


James M. Dorsey (00:55:39):

That takes us back to the beginning of this conversation, and the question is, what makes today's Iran different to the Iran of 1979 when the regime of the Shah was toppled by a popular revolt or the 2011 Arab revolts that initially succeeded in overthrowing four autocrats. So why, in a sense, is it going to be that in Iran you envision a change that comes from the top rather than the result of a popular revolt?


Arash Azizi (00:56:13):

That's a great question. I think number one, as I said, I still have hopes for popular revolts that will play a role, but I don't see, I think the reason is in 79, you had the Shah who, what is common in 79 and 2011, frankly, the reason this dictator's fall is that they're the type of people who run away.


The Shah doesn't even try when you really think about it. Now, he had cancer, he wasn't feeling well. If you want to be very generous to him, you can say he didn't want to kill his people. But the Shah is not the kind of, he doesn't do any real resistance.


It's actually very striking if you think about all the options he had. And the Shah, by the way, if you look at his life, he's a runner, right? This is not the first time in 1953, he runs away, couple years late in 58, 59, he's basically ready to run away.


He is not one who wants to stay there and defend his rule. So this is why the revolution wins in 79. This is one of the key reasons that revolution wins in 79, is the lack of resistance on the part of the shop.


I mean, 2011, it's also the case that a lot of these dictators are, after all, they kind of run away early, right? So whether you mentioned four, I guess you mean what's the Mubarak (of Egypt) and Ben Ali (of Tunisia).


They kind of resigned pretty sort of early. Ben Ali I believe ran to Saudi Arabia, indeed. And then I guess you're talking about Saleh in Yemen and Ghaddafi in Libya. But Ghaddafi was effectively overthrown by foreign intervention. So that was pretty different, right? That's not in the cards in Iran, and Saleh was the head of basically a civil war situation that dislodged him from power.


So none of these situations exist in Iran because there is no foreign intervention, thankfully. And there is not going to be unlike, and you mentioned this at the beginning, and some uninformed, malicious Israeli analysts wrote this in the Jerusalem Post recently.


Iran is not going to split into different ethnicities. Permanent dreams that people have are not going to happen for Iran. Khamenei is not going to give up power.


So that's why I believe the change is the most likely to come from the top in this way. And what is common with the Arab spring, if you look at what happened in the Arab Spring, and Egypt is sort of a classic case, people come out, there's this mass movements, they bring down the government, and then it's the organized forces that run the show.


Cairo's Tahrir Square, pictured in February 2011, has always been a focal point in Egypt for protests. Credit: Mosa'ab Elshamy/Moment/Getty Images

 

So, it's the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood that duke it out over power. And 20 of my friends also had a Tahir Square, which is very touching, but it's not going to change things.

So unfortunately, I see the situation the same in Iran. I don't see how the resistance movements and all that could come together to get organized in time to be the beneficiary of the immediate change.


My hope is though I'm not just the analyst, right? I'm part of this as well. My hope is that we can cohere into an alternative so that we can play a role in the next phase of this fight. And if one is to be more hopeful, you would think if at some point the equilibrium of different power centers in society is such that they'll allow for some of multiparty elections, then a variety of Iranian progressives can continue that work, build a strong voice, build their civil society, build political parties, and can affect change in that way.


But it's going to be a long growth. It's not a short growth. The idea that Iranians come and fall and the regime is replaced by a democracy and then we are all happy ever after, unfortunately, it's not in the cards, and the future of Iran is very scary to me. That's also the fact, right?


There are terrible things that can happen, and that's why I think we should be smart in what we advocate for and that we should remember important values at every point.

Opposition to Iran breaking up, opposition to the possibility of civil conflict, opposition to all form of foreign intervention. It's very sad for me and very concerning. And that unfortunately opposition figures have broken something that was a big taboo and they've effectively called for United States or Israel to attack Iran. It would not be good. It would not lead to anything good. It would not lead to any positive development from any sane view. And anyone who advocates this, it's either malicious, insane, or both.


James M. Dorsey (01:01:23):

Arash, time is not our friend, even though this has been a fascinating and enlightening conversation, I learned a lot and I hope so has our audience. Thank you for joining me on this show, and thanks to our listeners and viewers. Please share any comments or questions you may have in the comment section of this podcast on Substack, and please stay tuned for my twice weekly episodes best wishes. Take care and see you soon.


Thank you for joining me today. I hope you enjoyed today's column and podcast. The turbulent world with James M. Dorsey depends on the support of its readers. For the past 12 years, I have maintained free distribution as a way of maximizing impact. I am determined to keep it that way. However, to avoid putting up a paywall, I need the support of a core of voluntary paid subscribers to cover the cost of producing the column and podcast. If you believe that the column and podcast add value to your understanding and that of the broader public, please consider becoming a paid subscriber. You can do so by clicking on Substack on the subscription button at www.jamesmdorsey.substack.com, and choosing one of the subscription options.


Thank you. Take care and best wishes.

 

 

Arash Azizi, The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US, and Iran's Global Ambitions, Simon & Shuster, https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-Shadow-Commander/Arash-Azizi/9780861541171 


Arash Azizi, What Iranians Want: Women, Life, Freedom, Simon & Shuster, https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/What-Iranians-Want/Arash-Azizi/9780861547111

 




Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.


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