recent, Security, World Affairs

How Long Before the Regime Falls in Iran?

The death of Iranian Quds Force commander General Quassem Soleimani has produced some truly bizarre media coverage. Some Western media outlets are framing Soleimani’s death as the loss of a deeply beloved hero, such in this January 7th episode of the New York Times The Daily podcast. The podcast spends more than 20 minutes describing how Soleimani was a beloved totem, a living security blanket that Iranians believe protected Iran from instability (by fostering instability in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, apparently). The closest thing in the podcast to an acknowledgement that Soleimani led a group of armed thugs that viciously suppressed dissent in Iran, including turning their guns on Iranian protestors less than two months ago, was a single sentence in the podcast: “To be clear, there are plenty of Iranians who did not love or respect Soleimani.”

“Plenty” seems an inadequate way to characterize the majority of Iranians. Seventy-nine percent of Iranians would vote the Islamic Republic out of existence if given a chance, according to one poll. Yet somehow that torrent of anti-regime, anti-Soleimani sentiment was not deemed fit to discuss when describing how Soleimani’s death was received in Iran.

Even more oddly pro-regime were stories blaming U.S. President Donald Trump for the shooting down of the civilian airliner. The downing has since led to ongoing anti-regime demonstrations all over Iran, in which protestors are ripping down posters of the allegedly beloved Supreme Leader and Soleimani, while pointedly walking around U.S. and Israeli flags that the regime has painted on the ground to encourage people to tread on them. Iranians have limited ways to challenge pro-regime propaganda, but deliberately not disrespecting the U.S. flag is one.

Preference falsification

Far too many of those covering the Iranian reaction to Soleimani’s death never ask whether the crowds walking the streets in Tehran as part of Soleimani’s funeral cortege had reasons for being there that had nothing to do with mourning.

As the Iran analyst at the non-partisan Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Alireza Nader, told me, “The regime is good at coercing crowds through threats and intimidation.” Which means media outlets using crowd size as a metric to gauge support for the regime should try to learn how many people are there of their own free will, and how many are, for example, Iranian government employees given the day off from work and ordered to show up. That’s a tactic the regime routinely uses to whip up anti-American demonstrations. Duke professor Timur Kuran describes this mechanism in his book, Private Truths and Public Lies, which he calls “preference falsification, i.e. the act of misrepresenting our wants under perceived social pressure.”

People will falsify their preferences about what they really believe for a variety of reasons ranging from a simple desire to be polite, all the way up to a wish not to get shot. Or to paraphrase Alireza Nader from Twitter, “All the Iranians celebrating the death of Soleimani had to do it at home.”

Many clerics loathe the Supreme Leader

With pro-regime, pro-Soleimani parades being followed by anti-regime protests and riots, it is easy for outside observers to be confused about the true level of support for the regime, and how long it’s likely to persist. The answer, as with most everything to do with Iran, is complex and confusing, even for people who have been following Iran for years, as I have.

If, for example, you assume that because Iran is a theocracy, the majority of the other Ayatollahs support the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, you’d be wrong. He is quite unpopular among the Shia clergy. (I explained why in greater detail in this piece for Foreign Policy.) But the reason his clerical support is weak is that the whole ruling system he’s at the center of, which translates as “the Rule of the Islamic Jurist,” is considered a scam by most Shia clerics. Until Khomeini seized power in 1979, most Shia clerics believed—and many still do, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq—it is not a religious leader’s place to wield temporal power, but to provide wisdom in the form of clerical rulings, and to be a marja, a spiritual guide who lives life in a manner worthy of emulation. Other Ayatollahs have spoken out against the excesses of the “Rule of the Islamic Jurist” including Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, who was once Khomeini’s designated successor, but who was placed under house arrest and died there.

Which brings us to the other reason why most Ayatollahs don’t like the Supreme Leader. When Khamenei was selected as the successor for Khomeini he was a mid-ranking cleric. Think a monsignor in the Catholic church, slightly above a parish priest, but not by much. Then there’s the fact that Khamenei’s claim to be a bona fide Ayatollah is a bit dubious. The clerical rank of Ayatollah is granted by your peers after they have examined your collected clerical rulings. Khamenei tried to pass that test with a collection of uninspired rulings circulated among the Shia community in Pakistan that hadn’t even been published in Iran. Imagine how popular you’d be in the Catholic church if you promoted yourself from priest to Pope.

Khamenei retains the grudging support of much of the Shia clergy, which largely amounts to agreeing to stay quiet and not interfere, by the simple expedient of paying them off to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. This made the news when an Iranian budget document was released in late 2017 and immediately set off demonstrations because spending on items like infrastructure was being cut while clerical subsidies increased.

An opposition without leaders

Opposition to the regime is not just to be found in the clergy. It is wide and deep but also unfocused. That is no accident. If there is one thing police states are great at, it is making sure there are no credible opposition leaders to rally around.

The last two major “opposition leaders” currently alive in Iran are Mehdi Karroubi and Hussain Mousavi. Both have been under house arrest for a decade after trying to lead anti-regime protests in 2009. As opposition leaders, they have major flaws, including advanced age, but more importantly, they are tainted by association with the regime. Both served in the government of Ayatollah Khomeini just after the 1979 Revolution. During this time, thousands of Iranians were designated as “enemies,” including Marxists, intellectuals, and supporters of the deposed Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq. These secular allies, who had helped Khomeini overthrow the Shah, were immediately stabbed in the back once the Shah was gone as part of Khomeini’s consolidation of power.

Cartoon by Nikahang Kowsar

Outside of Iran, opposition to the regime has two homes.

The first is Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, living in exile in the United States. Several sources I spoke to suggested that Pahlavi has a deep well of support to draw on. But Pahlavi is currently sitting on the sidelines and not trying to rally opposition to the regime. This lack of activity may be one reason Pahlavi is still breathing. Iran hasn’t been shy about using assassins to take out opposition figures, including a wave of killings in Europe in the 1980s, and at least one in the U.S.

The other is the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or MEK, a militant political organization with roots in Marxism dedicated to overthrowing the regime. The MEK has an effective propaganda machine, plenty of money, and ties to the American government. Several years ago, it not only managed to get itself off of the State Department’s terrorism watch list, a place it had earned by planning attacks against Americans in the U.S., but got Republican luminaries Rudy Giuliani and John Bolton to speak at MEK-sponsored rallies.

The main problem with the MEK is that everyone not on the MEK payroll considers the group to be a cult.

That stems, in part, from having taken money from Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, and then fighting on Saddam’s side. Now that Saddam has gone, the MEK is reported to be taking stacks of cash and gold from the Saudis, whom many Iranians hate even more than they hated the Iraqis during the Saddam era.

It’s not about oil. It’s about water.

One man I spoke to believes he knows what will ultimately fire up the opposition to the regime: water. Iran is running out, fast. Nothing to do with climate change, and everything to do with the sort of epic state mismanagement reminiscent of China’s “Great Leap Forward.”

I learnt this from Nikahang Kowsar. Dedicated Iran watchers know Kowsar as an outsized critic of the regime, a voice amplified by his skill as a political cartoonist. If you’ve ever seen a cartoon about Iran imbued with a brilliant, brutal sarcasm, odds are Kowsar drew it. His work has appeared in prominent outlets around the world, but before he ever picked up his cartoonist’s pen he was a geologist. He was ultimately forced to leave Iran after being imprisoned and interrogated for his cartoons mocking the regime. But before that happened, he told the so-called “moderate” president of Iran, Mohammed Khatami, that Iran’s water management practices were going to eventually push the regime off a cliff. Kowsar believes his warning, delivered almost 20 years ago, is about to become a reality. Iran is headed for a drought of biblical proportions, according to him, one that is already underway if you look at rural migration patterns. And continuing regime mismanagement is making it worse:

I believe that Iran is going to face a dire situation in the next few years and it’s not going to be sustainable. Based on the numbers that the government just published last year, by 2013, when Rohani became the president, we had 12 million people living in city margins. In 2018, the number rose to 19.5 million. That means seven-and-a-half million in just five years.

Kowsar asserts the people moving to the cities—shantytowns and slums, for the most part—are rural people who can no longer work their land as they’re running out of water. He estimates that Iran has an annual water deficit of close to 20 billion cubic meters of and is making up the shortfall by drawing down the aquifers at a terrifying pace:

Iran has lost more than 85 percent of its groundwater resources the last 40 years. The population has gone from 35 million to 84 million. So, you have more consumers, less water and that means less food, less opportunity. So, nothing is sustainable.

Kowsar went on to explain how the regime created the looming water crisis. One of the first things that happened when the Shah fell is the regime threw out his sustainable water management programs, but it did not stop there. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that Soleimani helped run is not merely a paramilitary organization; it’s also a commercial conglomerate that owns, among other things, the giant construction company, Khatam-al Anbiya, which makes a lot of money from building dams. The problem is, building a lot of dams can be stupid water management if you are living in a hot, dry environment where keeping water above ground leads to massive losses from evaporation, instead of letting it stay underground in the cool aquifers, where it does not. The other thing the dams do is prevent rivers and other bodies of water from recharging the same aquifers Iran is drawing down.

All the regime’s guns won’t matter when nobody has any water, and the Iranian masses recognize that it is the regime’s fault. Iran’s Minister for the Environment, Issa Kalanatari, has admitted that the country’s water woes are self-inflicted.

Kowsar says he is a friend of Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, noting he has gone with the Prince to brief U.S. lawmakers like Senators Ted Cruz and John McCain in the past. According to Kowsar, the Crown Prince is surrounded by a coterie of advisors, with younger advisors begging the Prince to take more aggressive action to rally opposition to the regime, and older advisors counseling inaction and caution. To date, the older advisors seem to be winning, per Kowsar.

The Crown Prince broke a years’-long silence in a speech about Iran at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. on January 15th, 2020. It was live-streamed on YouTube and watched by about 1,300 people. Pahlavi listed the regime’s historical sins and cast it as absolutely unredeemable, not worth negotiating with. He called on foreign governments to stop supporting the status quo merely because they fear chaos in the region, and for a policy of maximum pressure to continue. He suggested Iranians start forming political parties and preparing for the succession.

But when asked about how the regime will go about relinquishing power when it shows all the signs of wanting to keep it, he sidestepped the question. He said there had to be planning for what comes next, not just hope for regime collapse. But he didn’t say who should be doing this planning. Those hoping Pahlavi’s speech would result in specific policy proposals and/or calls to action were disappointed.

Will blood run in the streets?

Even if the regime manages to stave off the looming water crisis, Kowsar is worried about blood running in the streets. “The people I’m talking to in Iran, especially the nationalists, they want just one thing: revenge on the regime,” he says.

Kowsar was not the only Iranian I spoke to worried about what Iran may look like if average Iranians, sick of 40 years of regime exploitation, finally indulge the urge for retaliatory violence. I spoke with former Iranian diplomat Dr. Mehrdad Khonsari, who used to run a small London-based dissident group, The Green Wave, and now heads a think tank based in France called the Iranian Centre for Policy Studies. Like Kowsar, Khonsari talks to many people in Iran, including current members of the regime. Khonsari is concerned that as the regime moves closer to collapse, which seems inevitable, Iran could quickly descend into a bloodbath unless something like a South Africa-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission is established to manage the transition.

Khonsari may well be right, but the trick, of course, is how to persuade angry Iranians to negotiate with the regime that has been repressing them. Nobody I spoke to had a good answer. Khonsari’s view is that if there is no safe exit path for senior regime figures they’ll have no choice but to cling to power until the bitter end. Khonsari believes the best hope of a peaceful transition is if some members of the regime negotiate a withdrawal, in which they’re allowed to escape punishment, and keep at least some of the fruits of their corruption. Otherwise, why voluntarily relinquish power?

Khonsari also believes one should not dismiss figures like Mehdi Karroubi and Hussain Mousavi. While the two men under house arrest do have a troubling past, for the last 10 years their identity has been that of men who tried to stand up to the regime during the contested 2009 presidential elections. Khonsari believes the Iranian youth who never experienced the excesses of the regime in the 1980s and so don’t have grudges to bear will value that defiance.

When the lying stops

Assessing the opposition to the regime is difficult because it’s hard to know how much preference falsification is going on. It seems fitting to give Professor Kuran the last word—as a professor of economics, political science, and Islamic studies, he has a Venn diagram of expertise that makes him well qualified to comment on the potential for regime change in Iran. He sent me the following comment via email:

A regime sustained by preference falsification cannot survive indefinitely. In Iran, everyone now understands that the theocracy is widely hated. But few Iranians oppose it openly, because this exposes them to brutal retaliation. They will do so only if something sparks a critical mass of open dissenters. At that point, a cascade will make the growth of opposition self-enforcing. In a short time period, millions can come out of the closet, making it impossible for the theocracy to continue governing. There are plenty of potential flashpoints. The economy is in shambles. Sooner or later, people with little to lose will say ‘enough is enough.’


Art Keller has covered Iran issues in and out of government for 20 years. His novel about the CIA and Iran is Hollow Strength. You can follow him on Twitter at @ArtKeller


  1. Curious to see if the regime falls, if Trump is credited by Iranians.

  2. “These secular allies, who had helped Khomeini overthrow the Shah, were immediately stabbed in the back once the Shah was gone as part of Khomeini’s consolidation of power.”

    Talk about useful idiots…

  3. Seventy nine percent of Iranians would vote the Islamic Republic out of existence if given a chance, according to one poll.

    I think a democratic and peaceful change via the ballot, one that includes the possibility of ending theocratic rule if it is willed by the people, is practically impossible because of the Guardian Council of the Constitution. This twelve-member body, six of whom must be Islamic jurists (known as faqih) and the other six appointed by the legislature, has the right to accept of reject legislation passed by the Islamic Consultative Assembly, the nation’s parliament. Further, it approves and disqualifies candidates seeking to run in local, parliamentary, presidential, and Assembly of Experts elections. The Assembly of Experts is not a law-making body; its job is to elect the Supreme Leader of Iran. All members still have to be approved by the Supreme Leader.

    This stacks the deck against those who wish to reform or end theocratic rule. In the 2016 election only 51.4 per cent of parliamentary candidates were approved to run (6,229 out of 12,123), the second lowest rate of approval for these elections ever - surpassed by the upcoming one. For the Assembly of Experts only 20.1 per cent were approved to run. Reformist parties have to use subterfuge, such as overwhelming the Guardian Council with candidates’ petitions, as a way to have some of their desired candidates approved.

    Iran’s next parliamentary election is on 21 Feb. More than 16,000 people registered to compete for the 290 parliamentary seats - registration began 3 Dec 2019 with vetting following - but 848 of applicants then withdrew. The applications of 90 currently sitting lawmakers were rejected from running; 247 of 290 submitted applications. The reason for this? “Corruption,” was often stated by the Guardian Council. How many of the 15,185 candidates were approved by the Guardian Council? About 5,000.

    If voting the regime out is prevented, are the Iranians allowed to pursue other means to attain a democratic government?

  4. Likely those covering Iran are of the same sort as most of those that inhabit the western media. At some point reporters were replaced by “journalists” and the focus changed from the actual subjects of the story to instead the journalists themselves. Determination of the underlying truth of the story is transmogrified into yet another presention of the approved arrative. In a story such as Iran, reporting can be hard and dangerous work done in a hazardous locale, journalism on the other hand is relatively easy and can be done from the safe confines of a New York, London or Ottawa office.

  5. Trump took Sulemaini out. Trump is the bad guy. Ergo Suleimani must be the good guy, a loved and revered figure. That’s the extent of the logic.

  6. Someone pointed out years ago that since WW2 the regimes the US has fought against the hardest have generally lasted the longest:

    • Vietnam
    • Cuba
    • China (in Korean War)
    • N. Korea
    • Iran

    Panama, Libya and Iraq don’t change the overall picture. Venezuela and Iran are both examples of how an unpopular regime can blame US sanctions and hostility for internal economic problems. Plus, there’s no particular reason to think that the fall of an autocratic regime will produce a flowering of democracy. Libya, Iraq and most of the former Soviet Republics replaced autocracy with autocratic, corrupt or ineffectual governments.

  7. From inside, Although I can’t represent all, it’s true that many people are tired of this regime but those who haven’t forgotten the genocide by the English and Russian during 2 previous world wars in impartial Iran, may wisely say to all oppressing powers that it’s none of their business. It is we who must change it without any interference and surely stealing our sources.
    In addition, it was against any international law to kill Soleimani such a way, the ONE who really defeated ISIS UNLIKE the claiming Americans and Israelis who has supported ISIS to make the region insecure via bombing the bases of people’s Army. Those who were really defending their families against ISIS… So you see: nothing proves that the USA and Isreal care about people esp Persian and/or Shia ones. We wisely truly don’t want them here, either.

  8. The US and the Brits don’t have clean hands when it comes to meddling in Iran after WW2. See especially Mohammad Mosaddegh:

    Regarding the short-lived nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, Mosaddegh said in 1951:

    ‘…Our long years of negotiations with foreign countries… have yielded no results thus far. With the oil revenues, we could meet our entire budget and combat poverty, disease, and backwardness among our people. Another important consideration is that by the elimination of the power of the British company, we would also eliminate corruption and intrigue, by means of which the internal affairs of our country have been influenced. Once this tutelage has ceased, Iran will have achieved its economic and political independence. The Iranian state prefers to take over the production of petroleum itself. The company should do nothing else but return its property to the rightful owners. The nationalization law provides that 25% of the net profits on oil be set aside to meet all the legitimate claims of the company for compensation. It has been asserted abroad that Iran intends to expel the foreign oil experts from the country and then shut down oil installations. Not only is this allegation absurd; it is utter invention…’.

  9. I’ll not be surprised if, in case of a fall of the regime, those who will replace will be even more dangerous. Nations live by certain patterns hard to change.
    PS. The people who used to attack foreign embassies and to shout on Fridays “Death to USA", “Death to Israel”, “Death to …” don’t make me too optimistic even when they shout “Death to Khamenei”.

  10. Why not look back further? How about 1925?

    What is known today as Iranian Khuzestan was for about four centuries the Sheikhdom of Mohammerah, aka Emirate of Arabistan, an Arab land far and isolated from the Persians in Tehran. Its sheikhs paid the shahs and were left to run things as they saw fit - think of it as a vassal state.

    The D’Arcy Concession was granted by both the Qajar shah, ruler of Persia, and the Mohammerah sheikh Khaz’al in 1901 and oil was discovered in 1908 in Mohammerah. As the Qajar shahs were spending themselves into ruin, Khaz’al was earning greater amounts as more oil production came on line and was exported.

    Anglo Persian Oil Company invested a considerable sum to build drilling platforms, refineries, storage tanks, port infrastructure, transportation infrastructure – the whole kit and caboodle that doesn’t magically fall from the sky when a resource is found. In 1914 the British government bought a majority stake and control of APOC for £2.2 million, approx. £250 million today adjusted for inflation, and thus the precursor of UK state-owned British Petroleum was established. APOC continued to invest more to expand its facilities both in Iran and elsewhere.

    A problem arose because the shah also wanted APOC to pay him for oil extracted and incomes earned outside of Iran beyond what his shares provided.

    In 1921 the Qajar shah was overthrown by a former general of his own Cossack Brigade, Reza Khan, and the Pahlavi Dynasty was established under Reza Shah. One of Reza’s first acts was to go to to war with Khaz’al and bring independent Mohammerah tightly under his rule. He needed the money. In 1925 Khaz’al was toppled, later kidnapped and murdered by Reza Shah. Khaz’al assets were seized - he had been one of the world’s wealthiest Arabs.

    One of the problems APOC (later AIOC) found with Iran’s rulers was they couldn’t stick to a contract. These agreements were for a period of decades, but soon enough the earnings for Iran weren’t enough and they wanted to squeeze more.

    In 1933 a new 60-year agreement was reached. APOC’s concession area was reduced by 80%, a minimum annual payment of £750,000 (approx. £50m today) was provided, and royalties were to be calculated on physical volume of oil extracted in Iran rather than profit. Whilst this protected Iran from the risk in oil’s price fall, it also failed to provide Iran increased revenue in the case of oil’s price increase. The Iranian government’s revenues from oil sold inside and outside the country increased 75% from 1933 to 1951.

    After unilateral expropriation in 1951, which dispossessed the British people of their property and was a violation of the 1933 agreement, the withdrawal of British workers, and the severing of diplomatic relations by Iran in ’52, the Iranians were left on their own to run AIOC. They ran it into the ground. The British embargo and its threat of legal action against shipping companies and refineries contracting with the Iranians left Mosaddeq with no way to counter it. Though controlling the domestic facilities, the Iranians failed to realise the principal market was overseas which required the control of the distribution, refining, and sales channels, all of which were beyond his hands. In denying these to Iran, Britain were supported by its allies, chiefly the USA amongst many others.

    Mosaddeq was incompetent. Though desiring to increase Iran’s takings and improve opportunities for workers, the decrease in oil production – plummeting from 650k barrels per day in 1951 to only 20k bpd in 1952 – reducing Iran’s revenue and labour was left without incomes. Mosaddeq’s popularity soon diminished and his support dwindled, both in government and in the streets. His political ambitions were no substitutes for the needed foreign exchange that the flow of oil to international markets used to generate. Failing to understand the operation and dynamics of the market, Mosaddeq and his supporters overplayed their hand. Mosaddeq’s advisers had convinced him that given its size and importance, the Iranian crude oil and petroleum products were irreplaceable in the international markets. Consequently, the loss of such a volume of oil would bring the Western economies to their knees, forcing them to accept the Iranian terms, and bring about the success of the nationalisation. They could have not been more wrong; they were clearly not sufficiently informed about the development of large-scale crude oil production capacities in the neighboring countries such as Kuwait.

    His domestic support largely evaporated because he was unable to deliver on his promise of increased national prosperity, he was left vulnerable to rivals who wanted to re-establish ties with Britain, return Iranian oil to the world market, resume receiving revenues to fund the government, and recover the economy. Saying the CIA and MI6 overthrew Mosaddeq is an oversimplification. He was overthrown because his own ambition, his his familial enmity to the Shah (Mosaddeq was a descendent of the last Qajar shah), and misguided actions made him vulnerable to domestic rivals. The CIA and MI6 couldn’t orchestrate against him had he still retained domestic support. Mosaddeq made nationalisation his hill to die on, and died on it he did.

  11. You’re welcome. Don’t be surprised when you breach a contract to steal things and the victim uses a variety of punitive actions it has at its disposal.

  12. You might be surprised at how little folks in the Middle East yearn for democracy, as it doesn’t always work out so well in countries that are majority Muslim. I’d have to write a book to explain the nuances of Muslim society but if you could take my word for it just look at Iraq is a good example… tribalism and religious sectarianism is more akin to what works for them.

    They want a society that works, but not necessarily one that looks like ours.

  13. It amazes me how Americans seem to think that their own values are the product of the human genome. Democracy is one of them. America claims to invade countries to institute democracy, and it’s not always lying. Both Afghanistan and Iraq now have parliaments. Surely it was ‘worth it’, like the deaths of half a million Iraqi children (Madeleine Albright)? OK, they also have Islamic insurgency, bombings of wedding parties, etc., but people get to vote! The Romans used to debate whether tyranny was better than democracy. Similarly, modern Pakistanis sometimes say they were better off under military dictatorship.

  14. Thanks for the clarification, unfortunately your only alternatives are to “swallow” propaganda from the US or from the Iranian mullahs. No thanks. Comparing Czech patriots to Quds Forces and US troops to the Nazis amounts to hysterical hyperbole.

  15. Lets try again. Whether deliberate or not, using German occupation in a comparison will always invite the moral comparison. If you are unaware, then expect more landmines to blow up conversation. In regards to conversation it began with a question which you answered, but then felt necessary to torpedo further positive interaction by implicating any other view to be the result of “neoconservative” propaganda. I’ll exchange barbs on occasion but if scoring points is the only objective then there is little point in continuing.

Continue the discussion in Quillette Circle

76 more replies


Comments have moved to our forum