It is time for Iran to be set free from its Islamic Revolution

Iran can move from totalitarian regime to modern, commercial nation.

A woman displays a "Free Iran" sticker as thousands of Iranian opponents in exile stage a protest against the Teheran regime. Paris, France, February 8, 2019 (photo credit: BENOIT TESSIER/REUTERS)
A woman displays a "Free Iran" sticker as thousands of Iranian opponents in exile stage a protest against the Teheran regime. Paris, France, February 8, 2019
‘We [Iranians] are in 1640. But the remaining road [to modernity] need not to take 300 more years. It may well be covered in a time frame far less than that. Given... the necessary historical experiences that an ancient nation like ours has and must have gone through over the past 200 years, the remaining road will be much shorter to overcome. It will be possible to fill the philosophical, intellectual and theoretical remaining gaps in a fairly short amount of time. [Meanwhile,] we have no choice but to become international.”
Thus spoke Mahmood Sariolghalam, a professor of international studies, at an academic gathering at the International Peace Studies Center in Tehran in December 2019.
That same month, nearly every single metropolitan center across the country had witnessed the second major wave of widespread demonstrations against the regime in two years, an outburst of rage that, with a distinctive socioeconomic difference with the sociopolitical main component of the 2009 protest movement, had, 10 years later, brought to the streets what the revolutionary cult in charge of Persia fears most: la revolution des sans-culottes!
It came from the very social receptacle of what had once and for long been the Shia clerical authority’s main audience and faithful obedience in this vast Huntingtonian core state, in what Peter Frankopan may call the “geographical heart of history,” and for sure, the crossroads of civilizations and commerce since Herodotus.
One central point in the present discussion lies precisely there: obedience is over. Driven by empty bellies, the faithful have lost their faith. Driven by greed, the guardians of faith have lost their function. Or, to put it more into context, in what is considered the largest Shia country in the world, the ecclesiastic backbone of that centuries-long authority and influence has lost its raison d’être for the sake of its fond de commerce. Dollar bills having a marginal sacerdotal value, the central premise of the ecclesiastic rule is clinically dead, the mediators having become merchants. The revolution is over!
Rightly described by Henry Kissinger as “the first implementation of radical Islamist principles as a doctrine of state power [in 1979] in a capital where it was least expected,” i.e., Tehran, the revolution has, quite expectedly, become, not just the fault line of a regional conflict not dissimilar to the 30-year war that gave birth to the Westphalian nation-state order, but that of an internal conflict as the engine of an internal great divergence, one that has systematically widened the divide between an increasingly sclerotic cult on one hand, and a sui generis, organically growing society.
Ray Takeyh is right: “An Iranian state and polity have existed for thousands of years.” Unlike Iraq, Libya or Syria, Persia is not a cartographic artifact of British and French colonial geographers inebriated with imperial hubris. Persia’s “long and distinguished national history... [its] long-established reverence for its pre-Islamic past... [along with its] most coherent [regional] sense of nationhood and elaborated traditions of national-interest-based statecraft,” wrote Kissinger, are among those organic factors that have widened the divide between two diverging and increasingly antinomic forces: a sacerdotal state vs a secular society. Realism commands to bury the former and usher in the full development of the latter.
As it lays dying, the 41-year-old revolution that obstructs Iran’s “remaining road,” hindering the vastly young nation to become fully modern and “international,” needs not an intensive care to, desperately and obstinately, try to revive its presumably moderating functions, but an assisted suicide protocol.
Let us just remind the gospel chorus of totalitarian moderation that there is no instance in modern history of a totalitarian regime rolling back from ideology to reality, from revolutionary principle to normalcy.
Illusion is cost-intensive. The illusion that the Islamic Revolution is an exception to historical observations has outlived its empty promises: the annals of five successive US presidents are filled with dead policies built precisely on that illusion, an illusion that has had its own cohort of body bags on both sides of the great divide.
The European annals, on the other hand, is filled with assassinations perpetrated on European soil and migratory waves destabilizing its internal politics, not to mention its dependency on Russian gas monopoly. In Iran, there will be no change without regime change.
To preempt such an outcome, the regime needs a hard power and a soft one; the former for the outside, in an inevitable face à face with the US, as rightly envisaged by R. M. Gerecht; the latter for the inside. While the now-defunct Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action paved a highway for the acquisition of that hard power capability, discarding ideology is beyond the mental realm of the revolutionary cult built around the supreme leader. Personnel is policy as Americans say.
No contemporary state can thrive without a sophisticated technical apparatus. To borrow from Raymond Aron’s critical essay on the origin of totalitarianism, the bourgeois status of such a technocratic bureaucracy, in tune with “the spontaneous aspirations of the population,” inevitably runs into direct conflict with “the fanaticism and terrorism of the cult” ruling over the destiny of the revolution. Our assisted suicide protocol suggests empowering the former with a policy designed at disabling the latter.
From the unforeseen sociopolitical consequences of what an encapsulated piece of DNA is inflicting upon a divine state; to those of the demise of an increasingly obsolete imam who may be forced, metaphorically as well as literally, from a “poisoned chalice” once again; the great divide and divergence between a Shia state and a secular society can only widen with material necessities pressing from all sides.
A revolution that has systematically preempted its Thermidor is not immune to its 18 Brumaire. From Nader Khan to Karim Khan, from the “Advocate of the People” to Agha Mohammad Khan and on to Reza Khan, Persian history is rich with resolute, pragmatic and patriotic minorities risen from the abysses of deliquescent states to rebuild a new state for an ancient nation.
The rise of such a minority from the wreckage of a divine state gangrened with greed and stripped of its millenarian metaphysics by a piece of encapsulated DNA, is what reason commands. In its 21st century version, such a minority could take the form of a technocratic-military coalition back by popular aspirations while assisted by high-profile personalities from the civil society, one that encompasses a vibrant diaspora.
In the heart of history, while hope is a risk to take, to quote a French author, status quo is the cost to save, and chaos the option to avoid.
Dr. Ramin Parham is a prominent political intellectual writing extensively in Persian, French and English on Iranian affairs. Djavad Khadem, ex-minister in former Iranian prime minister Shapour Bakhtiar’s cabinet in 1979, ex-coordinator of coup plot Operation Nojeh and founder of Unity for Democracy in Iran, is an international counsel on Iranian affairs.