Iran’s problems are caused by the regime’s lack of pragmatism
Regimes that are built on ideology are doomed to fail. The greatest example in modern history is the Soviet Union. Not having a fixed ideology means a country is flexible enough to capture and answer the needs of society. In ideological regimes, the society is modeled to fit the dogma. This is not sustainable. It failed in the Soviet Union and today we see it failing in Iran.
Clearly, the ongoing demonstrations, which were sparked by the death in morality police custody of Mahsa Amini after she was detained for not properly wearing her hijab, extend beyond women’s attire. They are a sign of the bankruptcy of the ideology and the inability of the rigid system to adapt to society.
The Soviet Union failed because of the inefficiencies that are inherent in an ideological regime. While the Soviet Union collapsed, communist China prevailed. This was due to the visionary leadership of Deng Xiaoping. He realized that, to survive, the system needs to adapt to the requirements of society and not vice versa. He changed communism instead of trying to change the Chinese people.
Like the protests that erupted in the US following the death of George Floyd, the Iran protests are part of a movement that has been brewing for years; it just needed a trigger to express itself. It goes beyond discontent with being told what to wear and what not to wear. It is a sign that people are fed up with a totalitarian system that does not cater to their need for economic prosperity and personal freedom.
The Iranian leaders are now in a tough spot. One might ask why they do not just cede to the protesters on their hijab demand and calm the anger. However, the regime knows the situation is beyond this point. Any sign of weakness will encourage the protesters to demand ever more. The leaders see how in other countries like Egypt and Tunisia, when the regimes tried to compromise with the protesters, they ended up collapsing. In Syria, when the regime brutally crushed the protests, it was able to survive, at least until now.
Now, the Iranian regime feels like it is at the point of no return. The important question is how did the regime reach this point? Iranian officials blame the protests on international sanctions, which are creating hardship, and on invisible foreign hands. However, we are where we are because the regime lacks pragmatism. Mohammed Khatami, the Iranian Deng, was not given a chance. He spoke about reinterpreting the revolution, but the rigid deep state and its jaded ideology did not allow him to introduce the changes that could have catered to the Iranian people’s needs.
Reforms in an ideological regime are very hard because the ideology or principles are its raison d’etre
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
Every ideology loses its glow with time. Initially, people are infatuated with its big principles, but later on they forget about these and want to live in dignity. However, the ideology as set by the Khomeinist regime is above the well-being of the people. Ayatollah Khomeini himself said “we did not rise up to get cheaper melons.” This means that the revolutionary ideology is above the people and not a tool to serve them, hence the lack of pragmatism.
The lack of pragmatism is what has driven Iran to this point, where people can no longer accept the regime. Despite the repression, the protests are continuing. Those in the regime who protested against the shah back in 1979 understand what popular discontent means. They know that repression has its limits. Excessive force might, at a certain point, stop the protests. However, they also know that, even if this happens, the regime will be living on borrowed time, just like the regime of Bashar Assad.
It is now a bit too late to become pragmatic. The popular discontent has reached a level that is difficult to control. What the regime did not understand is that, with each round of repression — starting with the Green Movement in 2009 — the anger was growing. Squashing the protests was not a sign of success. On the contrary, it was a demonstration of the regime’s inability to satisfy the needs of the people.
It is easy to say “if.” If the regime showed flexibility and conducted reforms, it would not have reached this stage. Nevertheless, the reality is much harder than this. Reforms in an ideological regime are very hard because the ideology or principles are its raison d’etre. Some, like China, have managed to keep the appearance of the ideology, while totally changing the regime to be competitive on the global market and to fulfill the economic and social needs of the people. China is the exception rather than the norm. Ideological regimes are not able to be pragmatic and this is the reason for their eventual downfall.
So, will the regime in Iran fall? Maybe and maybe not. If it uses excessive force and if the army does not defect, the regime might survive for now. But again, it is living on borrowed time. The turmoil in Iran shows us how ideological regimes lack pragmatism, which leads to a disconnect between the masses and the leadership and this is the recipe for unrest and eventual collapse.
• Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is an affiliated scholar at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and is president of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization focused on Track II.