After Thirty-Five Years, Iran’s Revolution Finds a Fragile Equilibrium

Iran’s revolutionary theocracy marked its 35th year in power today. The occasion was commemorated in what has become Tehran’s trademark telegenic style, with the stalwarts of the Islamic system marching through the capital amidst jubilant crowds, flag burnings, and epithets against the regime’s handpicked villains.

As the revolution lurches toward middle age, it has achieved a longevity that few imagined possible at its inception, or even just a few years ago. The forces that have sustained the system remain much the same as those that brought it to power: a brilliant amalgamation of nationalism and religious fervor; a leadership comprised of disparate and often divergent actors and interests; and a readiness to use violence in fierce but selective fashion to achieve maximalist objectives, counterbalanced by an underlying opportunism in its day-to-day governance.

These factors enabled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his allies to emerge triumphant from the chaotic events of 35 years ago, when Iran’s seemingly impregnable monarchy collapsed in the face of months of mass protests and strikes. And the same factors helped the revolutionary regime to survive a steady barrage of existential challenges over the subsequent three decades: invasion, isolation, civil war and terrorist attacks, the death of its charismatic founder, the steady intensification of economic pressure, and the tumultuous tenure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the large-scale protests that greeted his dubious 2009 reelection.

The turmoil of recent years appeared to many to shatter something essential in the system’s tenacity: its remaining legitimacy, for one, and the resilience of the regime’s power brokers, whose public schism over the election seemed irreparable. Meanwhile, the creeping reach and scope of the sanctions regime wreaked havoc on the economy, slashing oil exports and the value of the national currency by more than half in a matter of months.

Still, to the surprise of many, Iran’s revolution endures, thanks in part to the June 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani. By reviving some popular support and narrowing the rifts among the Iranian leadership, Rouhani has renewed the Islamic Republic’s lease on life in a way that many thought impossible. It is an epic turnaround from the uncertainty that beset the system only a year ago.

However, the salvaging of the regime’s prospects only compounds the fundamental dilemma confronting Iranians: namely, can the regime extricate itself from its principal altercation with the international community while preserving its core identity, its claims to authority, and the support of its loyalists, all which remain grounded in the official perception of an inherently hostile world and the need for resistance? Simply put, can Iran’s revolution truly reinvent itself?

With an aging senior leadership and a precarious political climate, Iran is facing a fork in the road, and its leaders appear to be testing the path toward rehabilitation. Rouhani is be navigating a careful course, but one that taken to its logical conclusions could gradually overcome the straightjacket of revolutionary ideology. His unprecedented telephone conversation with President Obama, empowerment of an array of provocatively pro-Western senior officials, efforts to advance an interim nuclear agreement that froze much of Iran’s nuclear activities without achieving substantial sanctions relief — all these point to a long-term investment in revising Iran’s terms of engagement with the world, one that would not proceed without the endorsement of its ultimate authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But the architects and advocates of diplomacy would do well to listen carefully to the other voices emanating from Tehran – the invectives (and obnoxious imagery) hurled against Obama and U.S. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, the flags and symbols set ablaze at today’s rallies, and perhaps most importantly the words of Khamenei in marking the revolution’s anniversary several days ago.

Khamenei’s address to Iranian air force commanders hit all the regime’s traditional high notes — accusations of deceit and sabotage against Washington, plaudits for the 1979 Embassy seizure, and a lengthy historical digression into the “neocolonial” conditions that the revolution purportedly discharged. Still, like many of Khamenei’s speeches, it evokes his deeply-held suspicions and his clear constraints on the nature and level of Iran’s re-engagement with the world. This is the worldview that still governs Iran’s future prospects, and for that reason, key passages of Khamenei’s February 8 speech are excerpted below:

“Independence was one of the bases of the Islamic Revolution and the Islamic Republic… Independence means that a country knows the interfering power and that it confronts and stands up to it. Independence does not mean behaving in a wrong and harsh way towards the entire world. Rather, it means confronting a power which wants to interfere, command and take away the dignity and honor of a people for the sake of its interests…

“Independence does not mean breaking off one’s relations with other countries. Rather, it means building a dam against the influence of other countries so that they cannot overshadow the interests of our country and our people by their own interests. This is the meaning of independence and this is the most important goal for any country…”

“The positions of the Islamic Republic in the face of its opponents, friends and enemies should be clear positions. Tactics can be changed, methods can be changed, but principles should remain strong and solid. This is the secret to the solidity of the Revolution and the progress of the country…”

“The way to solve the economic problems of the country — this set of problems — is not to turn our attention to the outside, to do something to make sanctions be lifted and to adopt other such measures. Fortunately, the officials in charge of economic affairs of the country have paid attention to this issue. The way to solve problems is to turn our attention to the inside and to strengthen the domestic infrastructures of the economy…”

“Our hopes cannot be pinned on the enemy. The enemy cannot be expected to help us…What saves the country is reliance on domestic power and attention to the inside both in economical areas and in different social, political and cultural areas…”

“What is important is that all of our people should preserve their unity and that officials and outstanding personalities should not let different peripheral issues sideline the main goal. Today, the main goal of the movement of the people of Iran is achieving inborn power and resistance in the face of opposing and hostile storms. During the past 35 years, there have been many storms, but thankfully, the people have stood firm and have counteracted the moves of the enemies over the course of these many years. From now on too, the people should and will be able to — by Allah’s favor — counteract these moves.”