By Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar
April 3, 2019
Demonstrators burn a picture of President
Trump during a protest last May in response to his decision to pull out of the
international nuclear deal and renew sanctions.
Forty years after the 1979 revolution,
Islamism is exhausting itself as a legitimizing force for the Islamic Republic
of Iran. Studies sponsored by the Iranian government show that resentment
toward the state’s religious symbols is at an all-time high.
According to the research arm of the
Iranian parliament, around 70 percent of Iranian women do not strictly follow
the official diktats for wearing a veil. Anticlerical sentiments have turned
violent. Regardless of their ties to the government, clerics are routinely
attacked and stabbed in the streets by angry anti-regime individuals.
Iran is responding by cautiously
downplaying Islamism and emphasizing nationalism and foreign threats to win
over disgruntled citizens. Iran’s leaders acknowledged the societal shift away
from Islamism by making unprecedented references to nationalism and showing
their determination to incorporate patriotic sentiments into the state ideology
during the 40th anniversary celebrations of the revolution in February.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei, has repeatedly appealed to Iranians to back the government, even if
they do not endorse its Islamist ideology, for the sake of their country and
for their own security.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,
which was established to preserve the Islamic Republic and the ideals of the
1979 revolution, now portrays itself as the guardian of the nation and the
symbol of Iranian power against foreign aggression. Images of the ancient Persepolis
ruins and references to the pre-Islamic Persian past have become omnipresent in
the state-controlled media.
The change in government strategy came as
Iranians demonstrated a new yearning for nationalism, challenging the
self-proclaimed religious political system. Impromptu grass-roots gatherings at
the Tomb of Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire known for his tolerance
toward conquered nations and other religions, surprised observers and prompted
crackdowns by security forces.
Iranian leadership’s anti-Americanism is
increasingly at odds with the Iranian people’s long-held desire for an end to
their international isolation. People have openly rallied against the regime’s
use of religion, anti-Americanism and its support of the Syrian government and
proxy groups at the expense of their well-being. During countrywide protests in
2018, many Iranians shouted, “Let go of Syria, think about us!”
Popular pressure also played an important
role in getting Iran to sign the 2015 nuclear deal. Iranians hoped that the
deal would be a step toward forcing the regime to further open up to the world.
In his book “National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy,” President Hassan Rouhani
acknowledges that the leadership paid close attention to the government’s
classified public surveys before making critical decisions with regard to the
Iran’s supreme leader and the Revolutionary
Guards commanders made no secret about their reluctance to accept the deal and
what could follow. In his campaign for re-election in 2017, Mr. Rouhani
promised that after securing the nuclear deal, he would resolve other
outstanding issues, implying establishing relations with the United States.
The election of Donald Trump, followed by
his withdrawal from the nuclear deal and renewed American sanctions against
Iran, has brought Mr. Rouhani’s reformist momentum to a halt. Instead, a sense
of betrayal by the United States and of a threat to the country’s territorial
integrity appears to be emerging among Iranians.
Iranian hard-liners have sensed the
beginning of a change in the popular mood. Two weeks ago, Kayhan, a daily
newspaper known for its close ties to the supreme leader and the Revolutionary
Guards, declared “The End of the Western Illusion” as “the greatest
achievement” of the last Persian year, which ended on March 20. Iranian elites
who once galvanized society and received votes with the promise of better
relations with the United States now simply repeat the angry anti-American
rhetoric of their conservative rivals.
These days, Javad Zarif, Iran’s
once-smiling foreign minister and the chief nuclear negotiator, sounds more
like the former hard-line president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Even Ali Akbar Salehi,
the M.I.T.-educated head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and nuclear negotiator,
recently said that everyone from the proponents to the opponents of the regime
“and from the revolutionaries to the anti-revolutionaries have come to believe
that the United States is our enemy.”
In taking away Iran’s nuclear leverage,
reimposing the sanctions and heavily arming its regional rivals, the United
States has intensified anxieties about national security in the republic.
Consequently, a national security discourse that brings the elites and the
masses together is being constructed, and the Trump administration is providing
credibility for it.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has survived
not just because of its security apparatus but also because its leaders have
been able to manage public sentiments and intra-elite conflicts. And Iran’s leaders
have found that President Trump’s hostility toward Iran is helping to rally
otherwise resentful citizens behind the regime and create a new cohesive
This could have a demobilizing effect on
Iran’s underground but still vibrant civil society and further boost the
Revolutionary Guards’ influence over foreign policy. There is less and less
popular and elite opposition to Mr. Khamenei’s claim that if the Revolutionary
Guards did not fight terrorists in Damascus, it would be fighting them in
Tehran. It is likely that many will consider investment in the regime an
investment in their own and their homeland’s security. What was once considered
regime security is increasingly seen as national security.
For four decades, the American and Iranian
governments have simultaneously pursued a system of reward and punishment
against Iranian citizens for opposite goals. Washington has hoped to foment
public uprisings leading to regime change; Tehran has sought compliance and
Sanctions and isolation together with
regime repression have often bred popular discontent, turning elections into
political movements, and students and women into courageous protesters. Tapping
into these sentiments, President Barack Obama conditioned better opportunities
for the nation on a nuclear agreement in his messages on Nowruz, the Persian
New Year. President Trump set a new bar for Iranian citizens in his Nowruz
message on March 20: regime change.
Washington’s unreliable policy toward Iran is
jeopardizing the Iranian people’s favourable view of the United States.
Sanctions may have passed their optimal point of channelling public grievances
against the regime, beyond which they only alienate Iranian citizens from the
United States. The statements of American officials that they target the
Iranian regime and not the people are a bad joke. To ordinary Iranians, they
are targeting the people.
American policies are effectively
empowering the hard-liners and pushing Iranian citizens toward the regime.
Exhausted by 40 years of state repression and international pressure, Iranian
citizens may very well shift their anger from sponsors of the former to the
latter and signal a reluctant preference for those who wear the garb of Persian
nationalism and national security.
Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, an associate professor at the Bush School of
Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, is the author of
“Religious Statecraft: The Politics of Islam in Iran.”