Is Iran headed for a revolution?

In the mid-1980s, I asked a retired French diplomat whether he thought the Iranian regime would be overthrown within the next ten to fifteen years. It seemed plausible to me that the mullahs, who seemed to be ruining the country, would lose power by the end of the century.

The retired French diplomat had grown up in Iran, served France there among other countries, and maintained strong connections with and affection for Iranians. He knew the country and its people as well as anyone I was likely to encounter.

His view was that there would be no overthrow of the regime in the foreseeable future. He told me that Iranians tend to be passive followers, and therefore not prone to rebel.

He attributed the 1979 revolution to lack of resolve by the Shah and lack of support from the U.S. The mullahs, he was sure, would be more resolute, and thus would likely retain power for years.

More than 40 years after the revolution and at least 35 years after my conversation with the retired diplomat, the mullahs are still in power. There is talk, however, that their days are numbered.

They might well be. Whether passive or not by nature, Iranians are protesting in fairly large numbers. And even the retired French diplomat didn’t say the regime would hold power forever.

Ray Takeyh, an Iranian-American, is a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. An expert on Iran, he assisted Dennis Ross when Ross was senior Iran advisor at the U.S. State Department under former president Obama.

Writing in the New York Daily News, Takeyh detects large cracks in the Iranian regime that he thinks might well lead to its demise sooner rather than later. He sees in the assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakzhirzadeh a clear sign that the Islamic Republic might be on its way out:

First, it has often been suggested that no matter how unpopular the Islamist regime has become over the years, it is firmly in control of the country given its overlapping and omniscient intelligence services. Now, this widely accepted truism has to be called into question. In recent years, Iran’s nuclear installations have been sabotaged, its scientists killed and its secrets stolen.

Moreover, the country has been rocked by a series of demonstrations that its intelligence organs did not anticipate. To say the least, the Islamic Republic today suffers from persistent intelligence failure, an ominous sign for a regime that rules through fear.

Takeyh’s next observation is more ominous:

The second worrisome aspect for the Iranian regime has to be the probable collaboration of its own elites with a foreign power. These killings could not have taken place unless many in the system were so disenchanted with Islamist rule that they were willing to provide critical information to an adversary.

A regime is in trouble not only when its populace grows disenchanted but when important segments of its elite give up on the system. If those who are the chief beneficiaries of the system don’t believe in it, then who does? The Islamic Republic has long suffered from brain drain as its best and brightest have often chosen to leave the country, but now, it seems, even those who have stayed behind are starting to crack.

This is how regimes fall.

Takeyh cites the demise of the Shah:

In retrospect, all this is eerily similar to the predicament of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whose monarchy collapsed in 1979. During the 1970s, the signs of discontent in Iran were all too visible. A cooling economy, a disaffected public and large-scale migration out the country. But the façade of authoritarian stability was most visibly disrupted by the advent of urban guerrilla movements. . . .

In the 1970s, as Iran was coming undone, many Americans assured themselves that the shah could always rely on his secret police, the SAVAK. The organization had spies and informers everywhere and was thought to know all and act with ruthless efficiency.

In the aftermath of the revolution, we have come to know that SAVAK was just another ham-fisted organization that was too often blind to all that was happening in Iran. Far from being in control of the situation, they did not even recognize the gravity of the crisis they were facing. It was the SAVAK that could not handle the spat of terrorism that afflicted Iran and yet no one called into question its famed reliability until it was too late.

Takeyh acknowledges that Iran’s current leaders are “made of tougher stuff than the Shah and his generals” and that therefore “The Islamic Republic may endure.” That’s probably how I would bet. But maybe I’m unduly influenced by the words of that retired French diplomat all those years ago.

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