Rethinking Iran

It’s not yet clear whether the Iranian regime will succeed, for now, in stamping out the protests against it. Regardless, Bret Stephens says the protests have made apparent the need to reject the conventional wisdom about the regime.

Stephens describes the conventional wisdom as holding that Iran “is a dictatorship with democratic characteristics, and that it’s riven between hard-liners who want to make it more repressive and militant and reformists who want to make it less.” Thus, Western policy, according to this analysis, “should do what it can to encourage and reward the latter at the expense of the former.”

Stephens’ description of the conventional wisdom is accurate. However, we at Power Line have long rejected it as inconsistent with the facts.

Stephens presents some of those facts:

[The conventional wisdom] fails to explain why, for instance, the number of executions in Iran rose under the ostensibly reformist leadership of President Hassan Rouhani. It doesn’t account for Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif laying a wreath in honor of Imad Mugniyeh, the Hezbollah terrorist responsible for killing hundreds of Americans. And it doesn’t explain Tehran’s hyperaggressive foreign policy in the wake of the 2015 nuclear deal, which was supposed to inaugurate its opening to the rest of the world.

Reports that the notorious hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been arrested by authorities for allegedly inciting unrest against the government also call into question the hardliner vs. reformist model.

How should we view the regime? Stephens says we should view it as “a kleptocracy, driven by impulses that are by turns doctrinal and venal.” Mostly venal, I submit.

As Stephens notes:

[A] supposedly charitable foundation controlled by Khamenei, known as Setad, had assets [as of 2013] worth an estimated $95 billion. “Setad built its empire on the systematic seizure of thousands of properties belonging to ordinary Iranians,” [a] Reuters investigation noted. “The organization now holds a court-ordered monopoly on taking property in the name of the supreme leader, and regularly sells the seized properties at auction or seeks to extract payments from the original owners.”

What’s true of Setad goes for other tax-exempt bonyad, multibillion-dollar “charities” run chiefly for the benefit of their clerical masters. It’s true as well of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, estimated to control another 15 percent of the Iranian economy.

What are the practical implications of understanding the Iranian regime as a kleptocracy cloaked in religious garb? Stephens argues that we should focus on further exposing the chasm between the regime’s professed championing of justice, Islamic style, and its profoundly corrupt and unjust practices. For example, we should, as Ken Weinstein of the Hudson Institute advocates, “release details on the billions in stolen assets” held by the I.R.G.C. and the supreme leader.

My guess is that most Iranians already understand the true nature of the regime that oppresses them. The winners are fine with it; the losers, increasingly, are seething. Still, it’s a good idea to release as much information and as many details as we can.

In addition, we should reject arguments of Obama apologists that are founded on the flawed conventional wisdom Stephens describes. We should not worry that imposing sanctions plays into the regime’s hands. Iranians understand by now that because, as Stephens says, “there’s no trickle-down economy in the Islamic Republic,” sanctions hurt those in power, not ordinary Iranians.

Similarly, we should stop worrying that expressions by the U.S. of support for protesters play into the hands of hardliners at the expense of “moderates” within the government. Among thieves, there are no hardliners and moderates — just opportunists jockeying for a larger share of the spoils.

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