In his article published February 12, 2018, “Iran’s Uncertain Future,” Alireza Nader, an Iran expert who spent nearly 10 years working as a senior policy analyst with the RAND Corporation, raises serious questions about the stability of the Islamic Republic of Iran and offers a set of likely future political scenarios for the country.

He writes that in the aftermath of widespread protests in Iran this winter, “[Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani may realize that Iran is in need of major reforms, but his ability to enact meaningful change is hindered if not completely blocked by [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei and Iran’s unelected and deeply reactionary institutions….”

Khamenei, has, however, concurred with Rouhani on the need for economic reforms including reducing the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the economy. 

It remains to be seen how much actual political support Khamenei will provide to Rouhani to pursue these reforms and how the IRGC will react.  Khamenei is almost certainly aware that it is important to reduce patronage flows to the IRGC to some extent in order to alleviate the Iranian public’s frustration with the system. 

It would also be in Khamenei’s interest to reverse the ascendance of independent centers of power arising from within the Guards and challenging the authority of his office and to ensure that the Guards are not rendered an ineffective fighting force because of corruption within their ranks.

Nader continues, “In the absence of a strong or preferred candidate [to succeed the 78-year-old Khamenei], the Guards may opt to take power for themselves and do away with the institution of the Supreme Leader completely.” Nader also considers that they could alternatively “select one or a group of clerics as figureheads.” 

Afshon Ostovar, Assistant Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and author of Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, casts doubt on this possibility. He writes at the end of his book, “I do not believe overthrowing the leader or attempting to rule Iran as a military junta would be an option for the IRGC.  The leader is fundamental to the IRGC’s self-conception and legitimacy.  Its strength is contingent on the potency of the leader in Iran’s system and his support for the organization.  The IRGC knows it needs the leader.  But whether it knows it or not, it also needs the Iranian people.” 

Although clear-eyed concerning the problems the Islamic Republic of Iran’s ideology presents to the US, Ostovar also notes, “Religion is malleable.  How it is emphasized, when it is evoked, and to what degree it shapes behavior are all in part determined by political factors….  Religion and politics are continuously negotiated.  And while ideology provides parameters, it too is subject to change over time.”

How these variables evolve will depend in significant part on how the US chooses to engage with Iran and influence its threat perception of the “Great Satan.”

Nader continues, “The Guards played a critical role in ensuring [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s victory in the 2009 presidential election but had a more subtle position in suppressing the 2017 uprising.  They may be aware that their use of brutal force against Iranians could endanger the regime by sparking even more public protests or violence from their opponents.  Thus, Iran’s Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Intelligence—both under Rouhani’s authority, took the lead in suppressing the uprising and the Guards did not send their own troops into the streets.”

This is an indicator that the regime appreciates the importance of a proportional response to protests, which would favor its continued stability if it also proves successful in alleviating economic stresses and holding authorities accountable for human rights abuses.  If not, stronger repressive measures may be necessary and with such a response comes a relatively greater risk of revolution, civil war or coup attempts.

Nader concludes that if revolution does occur in Iran, “A new system could take many forms, from a constitutional monarchy to a secular republic.  Both models are believed to have significant popular support in Iran.”

He offers no evidence for the relative popularity of either of these models, however, versus the relative legitimacy of the status quo.  He cites noteworthy economic statistics indicating that the Islamic Republic may be resting on precarious foundations; less persuasively, he provides anecdotal evidence without quantification that offers little insight into how much of the Iranian population actually wants revolution, much less how successful they might be at achieving it or at what cost. 

An outcome similar to what has occurred in other countries in the region—most horrifically, Iraq and Syria—could lead to another massive wave of refugees to Turkey and Europe, more foreign military interventions, major disruptions of the global oil market, and an even greater risk of a third World War than what is already looming ominously in Syria.

Although some Iran analysts view IRGC ascendance over Iran’s clerical leadership as a threat to the US, this could also cause Iranian foreign policy to gravitate in a more pragmatic direction, although unfortunately probably not until after a major defeat in a new conflict between IRGC forces and their proxies and Israel.

The continued spread of corruption within the IRGC’s senior officer corps could be expected to have a debilitating effect on the IRGC’s morale, unit cohesion, and battlefield effectiveness, particularly if the US exploited this by exposing it to the Iranian public and the IRGC rank-and-file through various credible information channels.

It is also important to consider that Khamenei’s own experiences—particularly the trauma of enduring torture under the Shah—have profoundly shaped him as a leader.  This includes his threat perception of the US and his approach to US-Iran relations and related foreign policies including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Although Khamenei will likely have a major influence over the choice of his successor, the next supreme leader will have his own unique set of experiences and perspectives that may make him more amenable to compromise, if the US communicates its own willingness to negotiate with Iran on reasonable terms. Rouhani, who has shown himself to be a pragmatist and relative moderate when it comes to foreign policy, is one possible successor to Khamenei.

Thomas Buonomo is the Humanist Studies Coordinator with the American Humanist Association.  His views do not represent an official position of the American Humanist Association.