Is the Iranian Regime Amenable to Change?

Could the Iranian regime take the path toward change? The answer to this question has implications for a host of other issues raised in the wake of the recent so-called presidential election in Iran. In Iran as well as abroad, people are grappling with this question. The change of tone by Hassan Rouhani – the new president of Iran – and the varied international reactions to it, underscores the importance of this question.

Some seem hopeful that Rouhani will bring about change in Iran’s foreign policy conduct. Others remain skeptical, and rightly so.

There is reason to be skeptical since a regime that has been committed to “exporting the Islamic revolution” for the past three decades, cannot change in this way.

Nevertheless, the regime’s concerted efforts to project a “moderate” image and its public commitment to engaging the international community, including the United States, warrants critical reflection and analysis.

There is no doubt that the survival of the Islamic regime is the number one priority for all Iranian leaders. At the same time, whenever the policies and actions of the regime endanger the existence of the Islamic Republic, its leaders do everything that is necessary to ensure its survival. For example, Ayatollah Khomeini was unwilling to accept a ceasefire to end the Iran-Iraq War. However, once Iran was about to be defeated, the Ayatollah accepted a UN-mediated truce. To the Ayatollah, this was like “drinking poison.”

The Iranian regime finds itself in a similar situation today. The regime is feeling the pain of international sanctions and apparently is worried that they could endanger its existence. Although Mahmoud Ahmadinjead dismissed their impact, the leaders of Iran today publically acknowledge the crippling effects of the sanctions. They do not only pose a risk to the regime’s hold on power inside Iran. The sanctions could also undermine the regime’s policy of arming its most important terrorist proxy, the Lebanese Hezbollah, as well as the funding of the Assad regime’s brutal war against civilians and insurgents in Syria. As a result, preventing further sanctions and having the existing ones lifted are the top priorities of the regime.

Rouhani’s public relations campaign, including his telephone conversation with Barack Obama, is a response to this multifaceted crisis. This is the case because the crisis has become a looming danger for the clerical regime. The release of a few prisoners was another aspect of this effort to deceive the international community. If the regime has really changed, why have we not witnessed the release of all political prisoners, a halt to executions, and an end to the institutionalized torture in Iranian prisons? If Rouhani and his “moderate” rhetoric signifies a change in the polices of the Islamic Republic, why do the systematic violations of human rights in Iran persist?

At the same time, one should bear in mind that it is the policies of the regime that have caused the sanctions. Given the ideological nature of the regime and its policies, many states in the world are concerned about the regime’s quest for nuclear weapons. As with the Iran-Iraq War, whenever the consequences of the regime’s policies risk endangering the existence of the Islamic Republic, it will back down and compromise to stave off threats.

Given the historical record of the Iranian regime’s actions, we may be witnessing yet another critical moment when “drinking poison” becomes a necessary option for the regime’s survival.

This analysis suggests that the Iranian regime has not changed in the sense that it will respect human rights, or the yearning of Iranian citizens for freedom and democracy. Nor does it mean that the regime will stop supporting terrorism or give up its nuclear program. It will probably compromise in return for having the crippling sanctions lifted and to buy time.

The regime is not amenable to change because of its ideology and structure of power. The regime’s ideology is, in spite of the sham elections it organizes to manipulate domestic and international opinion, antithetical to human rights and democracy. Although there are various factions competing for power, real power lies in the hands of the “supreme leader” Ayatollah Khamenei. Equally important to consider is the fact that all these factions, irrespective of their differences, agree on preserving the Islamic Republic. They might disagree on how best to achieve this.

Real change in Iran’s policies, whether in the domestic realm or internationally, is to be expected only if this regime is replaced by a democratic government. This means that it is the responsibility of the various nations of Iran to struggle to replace the current oppressive regime with a democratic and federal one that respects human rights and accommodates Iran’s religious and national diversity. Only such a regime will be able to have genuinely constructive relations with the outside world.

Mustafa Hijri
General-Secretary
Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan