Iran is a driving force of terrorism and unrest within the Middle East. They have pursued nuclear ambitions, in spite of international sanctions and the economic unrest it has caused. Unemployment is up, but so too is the oppression of political opposition, women and those who do not worship in the fundamentalist way of Islam as defined by the Supreme Leader Khamenei.
The international community has used various methods to encourage change and address the human rights violations within Iran. The United Nations has issued directives, sanctions and reports, but Iran has defied them all. At home, the regime has stamped out protests through multiple human rights violations, including executions of political prisoners, public floggings, torture and long prison sentences, often without the benefit of a jury trial.
When looking back through Iran’s history, it is easy to see that political power has often been centralized to strongmen. These might have been shahs or mullahs, but the power is rarely found within the institutions themselves. Khamenei has proved to be a shrewd politician, playing individuals against each other to keep the power of the government centered in his hands.
“…‘moderates’ in the Iranian regime aren’t moderate by any objective international definition. Everyone who gets to run in the election for the Assembly of Experts will be hand-picked by the Supreme Leader. And every single one of them will be an Islamic theologian. That’s what the Assembly of Experts is. A theocratic institution of Islamic theologians,” said Michael J. Totten, a journalist for the World Affairs.
The question is can Iran’s regime be reformed and a more “moderate” government join the international community. With the current regime, the answer has to be no. Here are just a few reasons why the regime is unable to reform itself.
- The power structure and most of the civil society are centralized under the personal control of the Supreme Leader, making it an entrenched dictatorship with little reason to create real change.
- The regime itself was designed to resist change by adopting a theocratic structure based on Islam and brute force allowing it to maintain absolute power.
- All the bureaucratic agencies are approved by Khamenei. Any individual or coalition who might try to check his absolute power often find themselves beholden to him and his caprices.
- Elections do not make a democracy. This is especially true if all the individuals running have been vetted by the Supreme Leader. There are no factions based on ideology, but just competing for the favor of the Supreme Leader (Velayate Faghih).
- Western governments provide concessions to the regime in order to empower “reformists” or “moderates”, but the reality is that these concessions are strengthening Khamenei and decreasing any chance of real change.
The regime has been consolidating its power since 1979, both at home and abroad. “While Khamenei is the commander-in-chief of all the armed forces, his most feared weapon is the parallel army founded by his predecessor: the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Fiercely loyal to the Supreme Leader and brutally ruthless, the IRGC is lethally efficient in protecting the regime at home and exporting the ‘revolution’ abroad, in places as varied as Yemen and South America,” said Heshmat Alavi, a political and rights activist in an article published by the Gatestone Institute.
Additionally, the Supreme Leader has a special representative over each division of the armed forces. Commanders are promoted or retired by the Supreme Leader and his advisors. The IRGC has also acquired major financial stakes in various industries, and has become a source of power in its own right.
Change within Iran can only happen if the entire structure of the Supreme Leader’s organization and the IRGC were dissolved. Otherwise, no matter who sits in the president’s chair, the policies will never really change.