Foreign Policy, Middle East, Top Stories, World Affairs

The End of the Islamic Republic of Iran?

The recent explosion in Beirut was like the most recent episode in a tragic decline. Beirut used to be known as Paris in the Levant and the bride of Middle Eastern cities. It was once beautiful, cultured, and exotic. No longer. Last year, hyperinflation, shortages of food and energy, unaccountable government, and a steady erosion of social liberties combined to ignite widespread protests. The protestors only demand: That Iran get out of their country. A New York Times investigative team found that the explosion had been the result of negligence—a rot inside the government.

Those protests coincided with protests in Iraq, which also demanded an end to Iran interference, and in Iran itself, where protestors demanded that Iran stop meddling in Lebanon and Iraq. In neighboring Syria, half a million died between 2011 and 2016, and millions more were displaced. There are signs of life in Syria, but no sign of living. Everything Iran touches dies, and its regime extends its malign influence wherever it can. The civil war devastating Yemen began when the Iran-backed Houthis overthrew the Yemeni government in 2011. The Gaza Strip has been a totalitarian quasi-state since the terrorist organization Hamas seized the territory, which it continues to misgovern with financial and military aid provided by Iran.

In Iraq, Iran’s influence began in the mid-2000s during the American-led war to topple Saddam Hussein. That war produced two problems: An insurgency and a sectarian civil war, and Iran was happy to inflame both by supporting Shi’ite militias as they murdered Iraqi Sunnis and American peacekeepers. In 2011, the United States was negotiating an extension to its military presence in Iraq in order to protect the fragile democracy there. Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ notorious Quds Force, summoned Iraqi politicians and demanded that they reject US requests: The Americans will leave you one day, he told them, but we will always remain your neighbors. The Americans failed to reach an extension agreement and when they eventually left, Iranian influence inside Iraq only grew. The Iraqi democracy, for which the United States and its allies had sacrificed so much, continued to erode until anti-Iran protests erupted last year.

In Lebanon, the situation is even more distressing. Following the 1975–90 civil war, Lebanon became a flawed and frail democracy, but a democracy, nonetheless. Shi’ites, Sunnis, and Christians make up most of the country’s population, but Hezbollah, a Shi’ite sectarian militia backed by Iran, now operates as a state within a state, or, rather, the Lebanese state is now an arm of Hezbollah. When the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, Iranian support for Hezbollah grew, and at Tehran’s instruction, the group threw its support behind the genocidal regime of Bashar al-Assad. Heavily armed, richly funded, and now battle-hardened, Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanese politics tightened through bribery and armed intimidation. By the mid-2010s, there was almost nothing left of the Lebanese democratic experiment, as corruption led to a precipitous decline in standards of living.

All over the Middle East, wherever one sees bloody mayhem, one invariably finds Iran’s footprints. Iran has no interest in being a positive agent in the region or beyond, and it is time for American policymakers to come to terms with this fact. Iran is funding radical mosques in Latin America, while Hezbollah is operating in Mexico and elsewhere. In South Asia, Iran has been developing an Afghan version of Hezbollah, called the Fatemiyoun Brigade. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s powerful paramilitary group, is developing a naval base in the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, Iran is empowering America’s great power adversaries. Most worrisome is the forthcoming agreement to lend China an island in the Persian Gulf for a military base. Russia, too, has been a beneficiary of warm relations with Iran, and the two countries cooperated to thwart US attempts to facilitate a transition of power in Syria.

Mural on the south wall of the former US embassy in Tehran, Iran (David Gubler)

The Islamic Republic of Iran is a revolutionary and ideological state. Part of this ideology, from which the state derives legitimacy, is Shi’ite imperialism, anti-Americanism, and anti-Zionism. In fact, the IRGC’s mission statement mentions that it is the corps’ goal to export the 1979 Islamic revolution. To expect the Islamic Republic to behave as a normal state is to expect it to stop being itself. As Dartmouth Professor Misagh Parsa has written in his book, Democracy in Iran, reform in Iran is not a reasonable objective, it is a fool’s errand. Four decades of engagement and attempts to engage Iran have failed to modify the regime’s behavior. Even the Iran nuclear deal only fueled Iran’s conventional aggressions in the region.

The good news is that the desire to see the back of the Islamic regime has never been stronger inside Iran, and outside it, Arab states are aligning co-operatively with Israel against the regional Iranian threat. Before the pandemic, protests were more common in Iran than ever, and the regime’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis has made it even more unpopular. An IRGC intelligence officer who defected reports that the regime’s popularity is in single digits among Iranians, which—if true—points to a complete collapse in its popular legitimacy even among its traditional base. Demographics are working against the regime, as well. Declining birth rates indicate a concomitant decline in religion, which is bad news for a theocracy.

Furthermore, the Persian Shi’ite population is in relative decline. Credible statistics are scarce, but even official reports (which are almost certainly exaggerated) suggest that Persians constitute only 60 percent of the population, and the vast majority of minorities have historical grievances against the regime. A recent poll has found that 73 percent of the society object to compulsory hijab, a core value of the regime, while 58 percent personally do not want to observe hijab. 37 percent drink alcohol, despite the legal prohibition, and an additional eight percent do not drink because of a lack of access and not due to any religious objection or medical restriction. To make matters worse for the regime, 68 percent believe that religion should not be a source of legislation, even if religious factions are democratically elected, and only 32 percent identify as Shi’ite Muslims.

The regime is a victim of its own fanaticism, corruption, and incompetence. The failure of the reform movement in the 1990s and 2000s has convinced Iranians that the regime is incapable of change. After eight years of domestic and foreign policy mismanagement under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it was hoped that the presidency of Hassan Rouhani would bring some pragmatism to governance. In 2015, Iran signed a nuclear deal with the United States and its partners that released frozen Iranian assets worth a quarter of the country’s GDP. Campaigning on this success, Rouhani was re-elected in a landslide. Just months after his second inauguration and before the re-imposition of US sanctions, however, hyperinflation and depression plunged the country back into economic crisis, and sparked unprecedented anti-regime protests.

Iranians have now realized that the problem is not the sanctions or Israel or America or its own “hardliners” but the Islamic regime in its entirety. The beneficiary of the regime’s unpopularity, on the other hand, has been the Israeli government. As I have reported elsewhere, Iranians are developing a more positive attitude towards Israel, and especially towards Prime Minister Netanyahu. Even during the spring and summer explosions inside Iran, which were almost certainly carried out by Israeli agents, Iranians did not rally around their flag, and some even celebrated the attacks on social media and thanked the United States and Israel.

The Islamic Republic has been the source of much evil in the Middle East. But for the first time in its history, it finds itself opposed by a coalition of the United States, Israel, the Arab countries, and its own people. By supporting democratic actors and anti-regime elements, this alliance can force the Islamic Republic to direct its resources to domestic security and in effect self-contain, while the bloc of anti-regime states provides external containment. Beset by internal unrest and economic strife, overextended in its costly foreign entanglements, and facing unprecedented unity from its external foes, the Islamic Republic has never looked more vulnerable. An end to the Revolutionary theocracy and the misery it has inflicted on its own people and the region since 1979 may finally be in sight.


Shay Khatiri is an MA student of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). You can follow him on Twitter @ShayKhatiri.


  1. While I believe Khatiri is an earnest man with earnest ideals, I am not sure about the claim that “for the first time in [Iran’s] history, it finds itself opposed by a coalition of the United States, Israel, the Arab countries, and its own people” and that this will prompt change. The US and Israel have often had a strong bond, Iran has often had fractious relation with its neighbors (most notably Iraq, which is now down for the count) and there were always citizens at odds with its rule. I just doubt there is much anyone can do. You can say Iran is a vulnerable state, but so too are the US and Europe. The Arab Spring failed to flower, except perhaps in Tunisia. The best the outside world can do is not empower Iran. For example, I hope Biden doesn’t revive Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. But, while I empathize with Khatiri’s pain (and hope that he lives to see his country become a democracy), it’s hard to see change occurring any time soon. I dearly hope I’m wrong.

  2. One of the many things that Trump will not get credit for is the degradation of Iran as a world sponsor of terrorism. Helped greatly by disastrous Iraq war and a $150 billion infusion of funds from the Obama Administration, Iran has been carrying out a policy of terrorism, not only against Israel, but also against its Arab neighbors. They include but are not limited to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen. Iranian money and technology have also been used to kill American soldiers.

    By reinstating sanctions against Iran and whacking Soleimani, Trump has done more to advance peace in the Middle East that any of his predecessors. The peace agreements between Israel and Bahrain and UAE are not coincidental. They are the direct result of misguided policies by the Obama administration that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Sunni Arabs in the Middle East. AIPAC has monthly internet briefings for their members by various officials in the Israeli government. One of them I listed to was with the third highest official in Israeli intelligence. He observed that Soleimani was an “evil genius” in motivating and coordinating terrorist groups in the Middle East. His successor is not nearly as competent and “does not even speak Arabic”.

    When I first started in the oil biz, I met many who has worked in Iran before 1979. It was a modern western country with a large middle class. There were significant Jewish and Christian communities that lived there with little or no repression. I actually know several Jews who fled Iran after the 1979 revolution. We don’t need to go to war. I truly hope Khatari is right. I hope Iran rots from within and the people revolt. But it is the people with the guns and the money that run the show, not the Iranian people. And Harris, stated in the debate with Pence, that they would restore the Iran deal. Sadly, under a Harris administration, the Iranian people will continue to suffer. Terrorism will increase.

  3. Enforcing strict sanctions against the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism is not meddling.

    Giving Iran $150 billion to sponsor terrorism and kill Americans IS meddling.

  4. Show me objective documentation for your statement that 500,000 children died as a direct result of the sanctions as opposed to anything Iran did and then show me documentation that fewer children died when Obama was coddling the Iran regime. Right now you are making things up.

    Iran has always had a choice. They can spend money on their people or on exporting terrorism. They choose to spend it on exporting terrorism. How exactly is that our fault? This may be a hard concept for you to understand but the U.S. is not obligated to support regimes that want to kill us.

  5. Dear Iranian Troll,

    There are countless well documented events demonstrating the fascist, evil activities of your government. I could link hundreds of articles but as you’re a cowering slave to your religious masters posting state sponsored propaganda, there would be little sense in bothering. For the benefit of other Quillette commenters I’ll link the latest example I’ve encountered:

    Iran is a fanatical dictatorship little different than Hitler’s Nazi Germany. The type of coward who doesn’t believe WW2 was necessary is the same moral weakling who protests using force against Iran. Iran is a predator on the world stage; like a serial killer they will continue to cause harm until they themselves are stopped. By force. There are no other functional alternatives.

  6. That is not documentation. That is Madeline Albright’s opinion about a policy. The fact that she elected not to question the number means nothing. Where does the number come from?

    Why do you believe we should support a regime that want to kill us and that has killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers? What if Iran actually spent money on their people instead of exporting terrorism? Did fewer children die when Obama was sending them $150 billion? Do you think Iran bears any responsibility to reduce terrorism and use the money to care for their people?

    I find it absolutely fascinating that no matter how poorly a country treats its own people, according to the left it is always the fault of the the U.S.

  7. Heroic Resistance??? Iran used child soldiers in human wave attacks and to clear mines while Soleimani sat safe in his bunker

    They continue to do so today,combat%20situations%20with%20limited%20training.&text=The%20Optional%20Protocol%20to%20the,recruitment%20or%20participation%20in%20hostilities.

    Do you actually believe what you write or do you just think we are stupid enough to do so?

  8. What about Iran killing Americans do you not understand!!

    Most of what you recall is not true

    Although Iran did fight ISIS, they simultaneously supported extremist Shiite and Sunni groups with similar ideologies and commitments to terror. Iran’s main goal when ISIS was ascendant was to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, who put ISIS on the backburner to focus on other protagonists in his civil war. Iran was NOT instrumental in defeating ISIS, That was the hope of the Obama Administration but they outsmarted him.

    Not true!!! Hezbollah the strongest adversary by far in Lebanon, is funded by Iran

    I think Trump has handled the situation perfectly. Sanctions have greatly degraded Iran’s ability to export terrorism. There is no necessity to go to war. Hopefully, Iran’s population will decide they have have enough and they will join the world community again . But it is up to Iran’s leaders to renounce terrorism. They are the ones that are forcing their people to suffer, not the U.S.

  9. We are not going to invade Iran and you know that. Right now we have fewer than 3,000 troops in Iraq. I do not know what Biden will do but Trump wants to get the troops in Afghanistan down to 2500 by Christmas. I support those troop drawdowns. The sanctions are working. But we have been the “Great Satan” in Iran since 1979. To assume that Iran presents no threat to us and to our interests is naïve in the extreme.

  10. It’s incredibly irritating to see, after all this time, nasty little middle class (mostly) white weasels (not referring to anyone in particular) coming out of their safe spaces to repeat that preposterous lie about 500,000 Iraqi children dying as a result of UN imposed sanctions in the years leading up to the Iraq invasion.

    That figure came directly, and solely, from Saddam Hussein, whom Lesley Stahl apparently trusted to be a truthful man of great integrity, if she was herself being truthful about what she believed.

    Even UNICEF took the figures directly from Hussein at face value for their reports, and so nasty little middle-class (mostly) white weasels (again, not referring to anyone in particular) can say, “Look! Madeleine Albright and UNICEF confirmed the numbers! Half a million children! MURRRRRDERED!”

    BEIRUT — During the rush to wage war in Iraq in the early 2000s, one figure widely cited both to justify and oppose the U.S.-led invasion was that more than 500,000 children had died as a result of U.N.-imposed sanctions in the previous decade.

    Nearly two decades later, researchers at the London School of Economics have concluded that the figure simply wasn’t true.

    Instead, child mortality figures provided to the United Nations were deliberately doctored by Saddam Hussein’s government to discredit the international community, the researchers said in a new report published by the British Medical Journal of Global Health.

    (Note that this three-year-old news story comes form the Washington Post, itself a hotbed of lefty middle class (mostly) white weaseldom, so that tells us something about the plausibility of the 500,000 dead Iraqi children story.)

  11. Are you trapped here?

  12. The anti jew and anti gay sentiment plus being Iranian, it was a safe bet. Surely there must be Muslims around? Can you ask one for me??

  13. Jew Masters should be capitalized.

  14. Our troll here is not Iranian. He is as American as apple pie. He doesn’t even know that Fereshteh (or Fersehteye) is a women’s name and means angel in Farsi. No Iranian would use the term “Thank Christ” and there are just not that many non Muslims in Iran. It is not exactly a tolerant country.

    This is pure 100% troll. He is just screwing with everyone to see what happens. He is Trump’s 400 pound teenager sitting in a basement.

    1. We did not overthrow the government of Mossadegh, The Iranian Army did. We and the Brits assisted and approved. We also convinced the Shah to take power But they did all the work. The real reason for the coup was that after the nationalization of British and American oil companies the economy cratered. There were widespread demonstrations on the streets against Mossadegh by Iranian civilians that both the clerics and the military joined. Iran could not export its oil and its economy deteriorated sharply. The Iranian public was weary of the confrontation with the West and did not like Mosaddegh’s refusal to compromise.

    2. The Shah was our ally but never our puppet. Ask anyone who negotiated an oil deal with him. He looked out both for his own interests ( he was a dictator) but also the interest of his country.

    3. We did not greenlight the overthrow of the shah. Carter simply had his thumb up his ass when it occurred and was caught totally by surprise. Carter was far and away the most incompetent president of my lifetime

    4. The coup occurred in 1953. That was 67 years ago. 75 years ago we defeated Germany and Japan in a war that cost each county millions of lives, They are now two of our strongest allies. 47 years ago we fought a war with the Vietnamese that cost them hundred’s of thousand of lives. They are now becoming one of our lead trading partners in Asia. The Iranian government proclaims us the "Great Satan, not because of an event that happened 67 years ago, but because it is in their interest to do so. Obama apologized for the coup. All that did was convince them, that we were weak and could be taken advantage of, which they did with the Iran deal.

    Whether you like it or not we, along with other western countries, have strategic interests in the Middle East. That does not means we go to war at the drop of a hat but it does mean we we do not trade with people who the leading exporters of terrorism in the world, have killed tens of thousands of Arabs, and westerners, want to wipe us off the map and could have nuclear weapons’ in the next ten years.

    You may not be interested in Iran, but Iran is interested in you

Continue the discussion in Quillette Circle

80 more replies