Iran’s Leaders May Have Nowhere to Run

Iran exploded in revolt again yesterday. Demonstration organizers cleverly announced a march in solidarity with the people of Egypt, whom the government says it supports wholeheartedly. The regime, then, was caught in a bind. It can’t very well cheer the Egyptian street while cracking its own people’s heads. Well, it can, but not without losing even more credibility at home than it already has.
The Iranian people will have a harder time than the Tunisians and Egyptians did, not only because Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are much more thoroughly repressive than Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, but also because Iran’s tyrants may have nowhere to run. Mubarak has reportedly retired to the resort town of Sharm El Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula while Ben Ali has decamped to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but only three Middle Eastern countries could conceivably give shelter to Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, and they’re all long shots.
The Iranian regime is a Shia theocracy, and almost all Muslim lands are governed by Sunnis. That poses a serious problem for theocratic Shias all by itself. Iraq is an exception, but Tehran sponsored militias that tried to destroy Baghdad’s elected Shia-dominated government. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has tried to establish decent relations with Iran lately, but he also sent his army into battle alongside Americans against Iranian-sponsored militias.
The Syrian government is the junior partner in the Iran-led Resistance Bloc, but it’s an alliance of convenience on both sides. If the Islamic Republic regime is pushed over, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will have no incentive whatever to give aid and comfort to Iran’s vanquished former oppressors. They would no longer be useful to him.
Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have genuine supporters in the Hezbollah-controlled parts of Lebanon, but, like Syria, Hezbollah derives most of its power from its alliance with Tehran’s current regime. A moderate Iranian government would almost certainly cut off support for Hezbollah and undermine its dominant position in Lebanese politics. The odds that Beirut would grant asylum to ex-dictators who once sponsored a terrorist army inside the country are not large.
Iran’s tyrants could be offered a miserable and alienated retirement in a place like Russia, but that’s not likely either. There’s no upside to sheltering these characters.
The Saudis are willing to help out their fellow Arab Sunnis, but despotic Persian Shias will find themselves completely alone in the world once their power is gone. There’s always a chance they could negotiate immunity for themselves inside Iran if they step down at some point, but, at the moment anyway, there’s no one they could strike a deal with who has the power to promise they’d be protected.
Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are ruthless and ideological, and they are not stupid. They know Syria’s equally ruthless Hafez al-Assad preserved his family dynasty by killing tens of thousands in the city of Hama when the Muslim Brotherhood took up arms against his government. And they know China’s Deng Xiaoping kept the Communist Party in power, post-Marxist though it may be, by annihilating demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.
Anything can happen, of course, but Iran’s rulers are far more likely to go down fighting than Ben Ali and Mubarak, partly because that’s their style, but also because they may not have much of a choice.