Iran’s Greatest Myth: Moderates Waiting in the Wings

Every time Iran is in the news, the same old myths about the country’s politics seem to fill the airwaves and the print media, fueled by politicians and commentators.

By far the most important myth is the one that divides the regime between hardliners and moderates. According to this view, a significant part of the establishment, including President Hassan Rouhani himself, is made up of closet moderates who are waiting for the opportunity to restore relations with the West and reform, perhaps even dismantle, the political system and begin a transition. The opportunity for them to overthrow the Ayatollah and the mullahs, the story goes, will come about as a result of western pressure.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence of an existing moderate wing inside the Iranian regime, just as there was no evidence that prior to the Soviet Union’s implosion Mikhail Gorbachev and fellow supporters of glasnost and perestroika constituted a liberal current within the Soviet regime, waiting to bring about its destruction. If such evidence had existed, Gorbachev would not have been picked to lead the state. He himself had no intention of actually dismantling the communist system. His intention was to save it by making it more open and productive, and less onerous—but his actions had unforeseen consequences.

The Iranian regime is made up of people with varying degrees of fanaticism, conviction, and courage, which means that many of its members are probably there out of cowardice or opportunism. They, and even some of those who pass for hardliners, would betray the system if they had to so in order to save their necks, but they are not working as a group towards any democratic goal.

Sure, there are those who are natural economic populists such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the infamous former president, and others, such as President Rouhani, who understand the need for austerity when things get out of hand—which is why he presided over unpopular austerity measures at the end of 2018. But the “moderates” around Rouhani are just as responsible as the hardliners for viciously repressing the economic protests that erupted at the end of 2017 and those that were sparked off one year later by the tripling of gasoline prices. The second time hundreds of protestors were killed and thousands jailed and tortured.

From time to time, in order to survive, the regime makes tactical concessions or opens a big divide between its words and its actions, as we recently saw when it responded to the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani ordered by President Trump with an attack on U.S. bases in Iraq aimed at avoiding casualties. They wanted to avoid an open conflict that might endanger the regime. But the regime’s imperialist foreign policy in the Middle East continued even under the heavy international sanctions before and after the 2015 nuclear deal, and it will continue now that the deal seems to have collapsed.

The liberation of Iran will likely come from internal developments we cannot anticipate yet rather than from external action. Evidently, there is a powerful anti-government sentiment as shown by the periodic riots and protests that sometimes involve the rural poor, sometimes the liberal, educated middle class, and sometimes the so-called “middle class poor”. Given that almost two-thirds of the population is under 30 years old (in large part because having many children was encouraged by the mullahs in the early years of the Revolution), the people’s rage is a testimony of the utter political, economic and religious failure of the theocracy. Only through brutal force is it able to maintain its power—until one day that will no longer be enough.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include Global Crossings, Liberty for Latin America, and The Che Guevara Myth.
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