Recap: The Atlantic Council’s “Iran’s Political Future” Panel

The first thing I noticed about the Atlantic Council’s Iran panel event yesterday was the chairs — there were not many. The last time I was at the Council’s South Asia Center on 15th Street near McPherson Square, there were a lot more places for people to sit. That event, “Pushback: Exposing and Countering Iran,” had clearly touched a nerve in Washington. Timing may have had something to do with it, coming as it did amidst a storm of speculation about whether or not President Trump would recertify the Iran nuclear deal. As I recall, the place was packed with eager listeners hoping to gain valuable insight into the United States’ strategic approach to the Iranian issue. The only problem, as I wrote about in my recap post, was that pretty much none of the experts speaking that day were actually Iran specialists.

The same critique could not be made of yesterday’s event, which included several highly respected Iran scholars. The panel, entitled “Iran’s Political Future,” was organized by the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative, led by Barbara Slavin. That far more people were interested in “Pushback” than “Iran’s Future” is not an indictment of the panelists themselves as much as it is a critique of the overall climate of policy formation in DC. It’s a good thing that people still trust experts to some extent, but choosing which experts to listen to on a specific topic is an equally, if not more important decision than the choice to seek out that expertise in the first place.

The panel yesterday consisted of three distinguished Iran experts: independent scholar Alireza Nader, journalist Nazila Fathi, and the Brookings Institute’s Suzanne Maloney. Slavin served as moderator.

In her closing remarks, Slavin characterized the preceding discussion as “provocative.” This was an apt description. Over the ninety minute event, the panelists engaged a lively and thoughtful debate about various issues concerning Iran’s current status and future direction. Of the three, Nader offered the most controversial views. Nader, formerly a policy analyst for the RAND Corporation, penned a short piece that served as the starting point for discussion. In his paper, “Iran’s Uncertain Political Future,” Nader paints a grim picture of a government on the edge of collapse. The recent protests, he argues, point to an inherent weakness in the Islamic Republic system that is “facing systemic failure on all levels.” In his view, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the top elected official in the Islamic Republic and its most prominent advocate for internal reform, is a weak figurehead with no real power to roll back the influence of unelected officials or to enact meaningful change.

Looking toward the future, Nader prognosticates doom for the Islamic Republic. “It’s easy to imagine a series of cascading events, including mass protests, civil disobedience, and even anti-regime violence, which could lead to the fall of the regime and a referendum on a new political order.”

In his opening exchange with Slavin, Nader doubled down on many of the points in his paper, emphasizing that the protests signal the looming end of the current system. Looking forward, Nader could not say with certainty what the next iteration of Iranian governance would be. He dismissed the idea of military rule due to the strength of democratic norms among Iranian society before suggesting the possibility of a secular republic. Shockingly, Nader claims that the “rising popularity” inside Iran of Reza Pahlavi, the son of the last Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the nominal Crown Prince of the Pahlavi regime, indicates that creating a constitutional monarchy is not out of the question. When directly asked about this assertion in the question and answer session, Nader backpedaled a bit. His paper, however, unambiguously states that a constitutional monarchy is “believed to have significant support in Iran.”

Allow me to sidetrack here because I am interested in the origins of this claim. I have never heard any Iran expert seriously suggest a return of the monarchy may be in the offing. As far as I can tell, there was some media buzz in January about young Iranians’ interest in the monarchy. This article in Foreign Policy describes the role foreign satellite stations played in bolstering the Crown Prince’s image inside Iran, including the London-based Manoto station. Nader, perhaps coincidentally, directly cited Manoto as a model for reform of the once-popular Voice of America, a U.S. government-funded news broadcast service. As the FP article makes clear, Manoto’s programming plays a vital role in disseminating information — including historical depictions of pre-Islamic Revolution Iran — to Iranian citizens. Coupled with “superficial celebrations of unveiled women during the Pahlavi era” on social media, this may be giving young Iranians the impression that monarchical Iran was a paradise. Still, it seems like a very long logical leap to suggest that this yearning for an idealized past translates to an actual desire to see the return to the Peacock Throne of a hereditary heir who has lived his entire life outside of the country.

Both Fathi and Maloney were both slightly more cautious about predicting Iran’s future, although neither were bullish about the long-term prospects of the current political system. I found Fathi, in particular, quite insightful. She offered the idea that the successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei might not be a single individual but rather some type of committee of officials. Rouhani, she suggested, may win a seat on this council, but he will not serve alone. Conservative factions would never allow him this type of power.

Maloney started off by noting how skeptical she had become of Iran’s political experiment. She analyzed the various attempts at reform throughout the history of the Islamic Republic and the subsequent failures of these efforts. Efforts at reform in the Islamic Republic have typically taken one of two approaches: economic-led, as attempted by the Rouhani and Rafsanjani administrations; or socio-political-led, as tried by the reformist ex-President Mohammad Khatami. Ultimately, the economic-led version failed because the economic reforms were not matched by simultaneous political modifications. Meanwhile, the political model failed because unelected conservatives were not willing to cede the power necessary to make real change possible. Finally, Maloney highlighted Rouhani’s recent use of the word “referendum” in his speech on February 11 during the celebration of the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. She suggested this could be one of the most important thoughts expressed regarding Iran’s political future.

Sitting in the audience, I kept thinking about the economist Robert Samuelson’s remark about how the stock market has predicted nine of the last five recessions. Iran commentary sometimes feels a little like this. For as long as there has been an Islamic Republic, there has been speculation about its imminent demise. Perhaps now really is that moment, and later this year I’ll be back here writing a post about my misplaced skepticism. As Paul Krugman says (I know, I’m quoting a lot of economists today), the only people who don’t make bad predictions from time to time are those who are too cowardly to do so in the first place. Likewise, I recognize that it is never wise to assume past results as an indication of future performance (the roulette fallacy).

It feels like the conventional wisdom is in the process of shifting. The presentations left me to question whether there are sufficient structural flaws in Iran’s governing system to support predictions of its demise. While the recent protests indicate a broad-based discontent within Iranian society, the lack of leadership or coherent messaging makes it difficult to assign meaning beyond widespread unhappiness. Ironically, this general facelessness allows observers to project almost any message onto the protests. I think this is what Nader is doing in his paper: he is assigning the protesters the goal of seeking the downfall of the Islamic Republic.

I also see the lack of leadership as suggesting the difficulty for translating the discontent into a sustained political movement capable of effecting real change in Iranian governance, with or without regime change. In the run-up to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, cassette recordings of Ayatollah Khomeini’s sermons were smuggled into Iran and passed around the country, making him a prominent symbol of opposition to the Shah even while living in exile. Theoretically, the prominence of social media and messaging applications should make this process easier today. As of yet, however, there is no obvious candidate for opposition leadership. Until some figure or structure emerges that articulates demands and organizes action to achieve them, I do not see the current regime as having much to worry about.

To be sure, I am not condemning the speculation as without merit. I would prefer that these predictions come with disclaimers about the scope of their sourcing. Disparate videos or messages transmitted over social media or a handful of headlines in the Persian press are not on their own sufficient to sustain confident predictions about the intent of these protests. It’s worth noting that there are videos of protestors chanting “Death to Khamenei” and torching police stations. But it may not be accurate to declare that these videos — which in the context of massive, country-wide protests can only capture a tiny fraction of the participants — represent a singular message.

In the current DC climate, there is danger in overstatement. When a credible Iran expert declares with certainty that the regime is tottering on the brink, his or her word could be accepted uncritically by certain listeners. A policymaker seeking to confirm his or her bias might initiate steps toward regime change that will prove counterproductive in the long term.

Given that risk, maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that the audience yesterday was relatively small.

Exhibit B: Iranian Cheetos

I’m a little late on this, but in case you missed it, there was an amusing recent development in the ongoing Iranian missile debris saga. On January 30, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took to Twitter to suggest that the “evidence” of Iranian interference in the Yemen conflict may not have been all that it seemed. He posted photos of the alleged Iranian missile debris — supplied, it should be noted, by Saudi Arabia — that served as a backdrop for a highly publicized speech by United States Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley last December along with two new photos. The first is a closeup of some kind of rod or ring that clearly says “Made in Iran” on it. The second is a bag of cheese puffs.

As the Iranian Foreign Minister noted, the symbol next to the “Made in Iran” writing is the logo for ISIRI, the Iranian Insitute of Standards, essentially a consumer protection/quality control organization for the Islamic Republic. Several Iranian Twitter users pointed out that ISIRI is usually responsible for verifying the standards of things like potato chips or laundry detergent. Artillery isn’t typically considered a consumer good, but who knows? Maybe they’re expanding.

As far as I can tell, the photo of the “Made in Iran” stamp originally came from the Twitter account of the United Kingdom’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Jonathan Allen following a briefing from U.S. personnel on the Iranian missile debris at the storage warehouse where it is being kept. As you can see in this Tweet, posted January 29, the briefing was followed by a lunch with President Trump and a visit to the Holocaust Museum. All-in-all a very busy day.

Allen posted other pictures from the briefing that day that he claimed pointed to the Iranian origins of the weapon, including a photo of a Persian (Farsi) keyboard and a Persian calendar inside the gas cylinder on an anti-tank missile. What purpose these items serve inside heavy weapons he failed to explain. It’s hard to dismiss the nagging thought that all of this evidence feels a bit too obvious. Then again, it’s hard to know without some sort of independent expert context about weapons design what any of this means.

Regardless, none of this looks good for the Trump Administration’s ongoing PR campaign against Iran. Haley’s December speech, which was supposed to provide incontrovertible evidence of Iran’s involvement in Yemen, fell flat. Nothing the administration has done so far has convinced any countries beyond those who were ideologically predisposed toward confrontation — Israel and Saudi Arabia, mainly — to join the United States in its effort to re-isolate Iran. Despite President Trump’s decertification of the Iran Deal back in October, the deal remains in force and nuclear sanctions have not been reimposed. The administration’s only success, if you can call it that, is that their wavering with regard to their actual Iran strategy moving forward has generated a lot of uncertainty in the global business community and is making foreign firms hesitant to invest in the Iranian market.

Ultimately, this uncertainty may be all that matters. Whether foreign firms refuse to invest long-term in Iran out of fear or due to sanctions is irrelevant; the result for the Iranian economy is the same. If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that Iran’s citizenry is anxious to see economic improvements in the country. President Rouhani has staked the fate of his administration — as well as that of the moderate/reformist camp — on the ability to bring tangible improvements to people’s lives. Failure to deliver could result in a backlash of some kind, and with it, an additional injection of uncertainty straight into the spine of an already unstable region.

If it comes to that, the Trump Administration’s bungled smear campaign will have achieved its goal.