By Bret Stephens
January 5, 2018
Last May an article in this newspaper asked, “Is Iran a democracy or a dictatorship?” After more than a week of protests in as many as 80 Iranian cities, it’s safe to say we have the answer. Again.
So much was apparent from the speed with which the demonstrations, initially about the rising price of eggs, morphed into calls for “death to the dictator,” complete with the burning of images of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. So much was apparent, too, from the force with which the regime cracked down on what it branded “sedition.” Real democracies don’t live in fear of their own people.
It’s too soon to say whether the protests have been stamped out, at least for now. But it’s not too soon to start rethinking the way we think about Iran.
For the most part, Western attention focuses on what Iran has — centrifuges, ballistic missiles, enriched uranium — as well as what it does — fund Hezbollah, assist Bashar al-Assad, arm the Houthis, or imprison the occasional British or American citizen. Administrations of both parties have spent most of their Iran energies trying to cajole or coerce Tehran to relinquish and desist, without much success.
Not nearly enough attention, however, goes to the question of what Iran is. This isn’t just about whether it’s a dictatorship. What kind of dictatorship? To get the answer right is to know what kind of pressure can change its behaviour or break its back.
The conventional wisdom is that it’s a dictatorship with democratic characteristics, and that it’s riven between hard-liners who want to make it more repressive and militant and reformists who want to make it less. Western policy, according to this analysis, should do what it can to encourage and reward the latter at the expense of the former.
But the analysis fails to explain why, for instance, the number of executions in Iran rose under the ostensibly reformist leadership of President Hassan Rouhani. It doesn’t account for Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif laying a wreath in honour of Imad Mugniyeh, the Hezbollah terrorist responsible for killing hundreds of Americans. And it doesn’t explain Tehran’s hyper-aggressive foreign policy in the wake of the 2015 nuclear deal, which was supposed to inaugurate its opening to the rest of the world.
A better way of describing Iran’s dictatorship is as a kleptotheocracy, driven by impulses that are by turns doctrinal and venal. Note how quickly the provincial protesters turned their sights on the supreme leader: Maybe it’s because they know better than most how thoroughly he’s fleecing them. As Steve Stecklow and his colleagues at Reuters reported in 2013, a supposedly charitable foundation controlled by Khamenei, known as Setad, had assets worth an estimated $95 billion.
“Setad built its empire on the systematic seizure of thousands of properties belonging to ordinary Iranians,” the Reuters investigation noted. “The organization now holds a court-ordered monopoly on taking property in the name of the supreme leader, and regularly sells the seized properties at auction or seeks to extract payments from the original owners.”
What’s true of Setad goes for other tax-exempt bonyad multibillion-dollar “charities” run chiefly for the benefit of their clerical masters. It’s true as well of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, estimated to control another 15 percent of the Iranian economy.
One of the reasons why easing sanctions on Iran was never likely to soften the regime is that the people who stood to gain from commercial ties with foreign companies are the same people most invested in the preservation of the regime and its system of preferences. There’s no trickle-down economy in the Islamic Republic.
But it also means that the kleptotheocracy is uniquely vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. All Islamist movements take the concept of justice (as opposed to freedom) as their organizing political concept, and all of them ignore it at their peril. The Iranian regime’s problem is that has spent nearly 40 years making its hypocrisy plain to all of its people, save those who profit from it.
This is an opportunity for the free world to exploit. Ken Weinstein of the Hudson Institute has argued that the U.S. government “should release details on the billions in stolen assets” held by the I.R.G.C. and the supreme leader. That — and making sure ordinary Iranians learn about them, one scandalous disclosure at a time — is the right idea.
Another right idea, this one from Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, is to once again put Setad, along with its scores of front companies and subsidiaries, under U.S. sanctions for corruption. The Obama administration did such a thing in 2013, only to reverse course as part of the nuclear deal.
In 1982, Ronald Reagan praised Poland’s Solidarity movement for remaining “magnificently un-reconciled to oppression.” Turns out, it’s true of Iranians today. A West that wants to help them can begin by exploiting the internal contradiction that defines the regime that oppresses them and which may yet prove its undoing.