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Iran, America, and the Democratic Impulse
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Iran, America, and the Democratic Impulse

The collapse of the theocracy could change American attitudes about promoting democracy.

(Photo by Omer Kuscu/ dia images/Getty Images.)

The United States being the engine and guardian of democracy abroad is no longer a compelling image for many Americans, though the sentiment isn’t completely kaput. The war in Ukraine has reanimated the idea, as bipartisan consensus is willing to supply matériel and intelligence to the struggling democracy under siege. Trumpian Republicans who oppose this aid often cite Ukraine’s corruption and illiberal politics—further proving the opposite of what they intend: that the United States’ inclination to align with fellow democracies is in the country’s DNA. 

But Ukraine might still be the exception. Vladimir Putin brought on a perfect storm. Donald Trump’s bromance with Putin, Trump’s soft spot for right-wing authoritarianism, and the Russian’s self-declared status as the guardian of conservative cultural causes guaranteed that the American left’s penchant to run from hot and cold wars would at least pause with the Ukrainian conflict. It might return depending on whether American support becomes more costly. Obviously the hard left in Congress is willing to cut back American support, especially if pressures mount to trim domestic spending, but the majority on both sides is for now willing to keep the arms flowing and support the expansion of NATO to include Sweden and Finland. 

Taiwan will surely be the great test of whether the U.S. is willing to risk a lot to defend democracy overseas. Taiwan’s evolution into a vibrant, prosperous democracy is one of the great success stories in East Asia. That evolution occurred, however, with far less encouragement from America than from places such as South Korea and Japan. It was, probably more than anything else, a byproduct of a Taiwanese national identity forming. This evolution was ironically encouraged by Beijing’s outreach to the Taiwanese, a special status that encouraged them to invest and work in China. The closer they got to the mainland, the more young Taiwanese realized they were different. The love of personal freedom naturally gravitates toward popular sovereignty. The Kuomintang junta, which didn’t spiritually threaten communist-now-fascist China, gave way to a plucky democracy that does. 

Putin’s war against Ukraine appears to have recalibrated Washington’s priorities. Joe Biden might actually mean it when he says, in his unscripted moments, that America would go to war to preserve a free Taiwan. If Xi Jinping believes he is serious, then the odds of a Chinese invasion lessen—provided Washington follows through with significant military aid to Taipei and fairly rapid growth in the U.S. Navy. 

But let us assume the U.S. holds firm in Ukraine, Putin doesn’t nuke it into a barren rump state, and the Chinese don’t do anything untoward in the Pacific. Will this increase in American confidence lead Washington’s political class away from dictatorships elsewhere? Perhaps most tellingly, would success in Eastern Europe and East Asia encourage America to look more askance at authoritarianism in the region where the United States has had the most rancorous internal debate about the export of representative government? What was true before 9/11 is true once again in the Middle East: Washington sees certain kinds of authoritarianism as better bets for our national security than the unrealized possibility of a Muslim state becoming a democracy. The one possible exception—and it may prove telling —is Iran. 

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last 20 years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government. 

Because of the Abraham Accords, now embraced by the Democratic Party however reluctantly, both parties are aligning U.S. support for Israel with monarchies in the region. Washington has essentially returned to a pre-1979 mentality: Kings, princes, and one president-for-life—Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—define our approach to Arabs. 

That could be overturned if Iran went democratic. In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow. 

A Second Revolution

The Iranian people will first have to pull off a small miracle by downing their overlords. It’s hard to imagine a peaceful end to the theocracy for the simple reason that most of the regime’s security apparatus may not be able to conceive of themselves in a new state. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his minions encouraged defectors from the shah’s military by suggesting they could have a place in the new order; most were later imprisoned, killed, or driven into exile. Ever since the crushing of the pro-democracy Green Movement in 2009, Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor, has been cleaning house in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, probably to ensure that higher ranks have the necessary unflinching temperament. The supreme leader’s selection of Ebrahim Raisi as president was likely part of the same process. Many political and clerical VIPs are increasingly trying to distance themselves from the current crackdown, but enough of these men would probably fight hard for the status quo, making a revolution bloody. When both sides radicalize, birthing a successful democracy becomes harder. 

And then there is the minority question. Around half of Iran’s population isn’t Persian: the Baluch, Arabs, Kurds, and Azeri Turks dominate in provinces along the periphery and appear to have an increasing sense of national identity. It isn’t clear whether any of the ethnic groups would want to break from the country; the Baluch, Arabs, and Kurds have a history of insurgencies ever since Reza Pahlavi in 1925 decided to convert an empire into a nation-state. The Azeris, by far the largest minority, represent at least a fifth and perhaps as much as a third of Iran’s population. While deeply integrated into the Islamic Republic’s ruling elite, they have nonetheless stubbornly resisted a 100-year effort to Persianize their heartland in the northwest. Introducing a real democracy into Iran could ignite fractious inclinations that Persians might have difficulty accepting. The authoritarianism required to check minorities might abort popular sovereignty. But democracy might solve Iran’s ethnic troubles by allowing minorities the free exercise of their languages in schools and real political power in Tehran. Persians would be obliged to compromise. It’s a certainty that the collapse of the clerical regime would rapidly bring on a great debate among Iran’s peoples about identity. 

And imagine a situation where Iran’s Arab Shiites enjoyed a decentralized arrangement within a democratic state. Would that not impress upon the Shiites of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, who have been wickedly oppressed by Sunni princes, the benefits of democracy? They are surely more numerous than their governments concede. Bahrain’s ruling family, the Khalifas, have tried to import Sunnis from just about anywhere, but the Shia may still comprise a majority of the island. A free, democratic Iran where its Arab Shiites had a voice might be much more alluring to the Bahraini Shia than the Islamic Republic, where Islamist Persians run roughshod over Arabs. 

And Iraq’s and Iran’s Arab Shiites would undoubtedly grow closer under an Iranian democracy, which could fortify democratic sentiments, as well as Arab ones, on both sides. Imagine Persians, who are overwhelmingly Shiite, retaining a certain Shiite pride and sympathy after the fall of the clerical regime, willing to advance their newly claimed beliefs beyond their borders as they once enthusiastically tried to export millenarian aspirations. Under a democracy, Iranians may loathe the Saudi royal family as much as, perhaps more than, Iranians of the Islamic Republic. The Sunni-Shiite animus will remain, as will the Persian high-brow contempt for civilizationally challenged Sunni Gulf Arabs; add on the democratic contempt for a pretty ruthless dictatorship that has literally built walls and trenches around “disloyal” Shiite towns in the Eastern Province.  How all of this might translate into foreign affairs would likely be haphazard and inspirational. But it’s a decent guess that democratic Persians and Iranian Arabs won’t look affectionately upon Sunni dictatorships that treat Shiites like indentured servants. 

Historically, Americans have often been able to root for and support the export of democracy in one place and ignore the democratic aspirations of peoples elsewhere. Especially in the Middle East. A functioning democratic Iran would, nonetheless, likely have a significant magnetic effect upon American deliberations. It’s one thing to espouse and defend popular sovereignty in Taiwan while effectively denigrating its practice in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Republic of Azerbaijan, and another to do the latter while a democratic Iran obliges us to rethink the cultural and religious assumptions behind blinking at Muslim police states. 

Powerful and persistent arguments for why America should tolerate and arm these dictatorships have revolved around the need to counter the Islamic Republic. If the clerical regime is no more, après-moi-le-déluge arguments about Sunni zealots winning elections will still have some traction, as will the Zion-friendly dispositions of the Abraham Accords signatories. Fear of Chinese, if not Russian, intrusion will incline some to take a softer approach toward Arabs who have something that Beijing and Moscow want. The undeniable suasion of oil will remain. But there will be more—perhaps a lot more—tension and debate in the generation of U.S. policy regarding Middle Eastern despotisms. 

And even a deeply chaotic, post-clerical Iran striving to figure it all out could send shockwaves into neighboring states, animating or reanimating a lot of questions that likely will unsettle the region’s status-quo powers. 

What we do know for sure is that Iranians have experimented with governance like no other people in the Middle East. They have run the gauntlet of a relentlessly Westernizing dictatorship to 43 years of a fun-killing, impoverishing theocracy with a penchant for Shiite imperialism. Yet since 1978 the democratic ethos has always hovered in the background, acknowledged however reluctantly by Iran’s mullahs as an essential part of post-Pahlavi legitimacy. A big reason why the Islamic Republic has experienced increasingly existential turmoil since 1999, when the reform movement that propelled Mohammad Khatami into the presidency was crushed, is because the theocracy gradually gutted the limited democracy that had allowed for some serious debates. Internal frustrations had an outlet. The theocracy is now just brute force. 

For more than 100 years, Iranians have been trying to develop some form of constitutionalism to restrain the arbitrary exercise of power. That quest has been a failure. But they still yearn: Iranian dissent inside the country is overwhelmingly democratic in aspiration. Only in the diaspora does one find an open hope for a restoration of the monarchy. (The cleric-kicking, veil-dropping Reza Pahlavi, the Cossack officer-turned shah, is their hero.) Tellingly, the last shah’s son, “Reza II,” who has spent most of his life in America, is a sincere advocate of popular sovereignty. He spends little time trying to defend the heavy-handedness of his grandfather and the Achaemenid delusions of his father. 

If Western democracies were overwhelmingly born in an ugly process of trial and error (with an enormous helping hand after 1917 from a New World superpower), Iranians have followed a similar, mournful playbook. They are going into uncharted territory as they aspire to down the Islamic Republic. The anti-theocracy movement, which the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16 intensified, has turned into a slow boil that the regime seems unable to cool. 

The supreme leader is probably too historically minded to take the advice of disgruntled regime conservatives who are now advocating that the theocracy unofficially drop the veil requirement. As Khamenei knows, one concession can lead to many more, effectively repeating what happened to the shah in 1978-79. As nationwide protests since 2009 have made ever more clear, a really big slice of the Iranian people detest the Islamic Republic. This isn’t spiritually crippling for the supreme leader, who sees his revolutionary struggle as a vanguard leading (coercing) the people through a vast array of Western-inspired temptations. Shiism is about the charismatic few against a misguided and deceived majority. But the 83-year-old cleric may now be the exception within the ruling elite. Khamenei’s liege men remain lethal, but even militant modern Shiism needs to have the illusion of popular support. 

The Iranian democratic revolution, if it’s going to happen, will likely be “gradually, then suddenly.” The amorphous, leaderless opposition, which the regime can’t kill because 50 percent of the population can spark new protests through spontaneous disobedience, may lead eventually to either mass demonstrations that crack security services or a terminal meltdown of government services, leading to an irretrievable breakdown of the “system.” Opposition leaders in a successful revolution likely won’t become obvious until after the regime has fallen. Leadership among the ethnic minorities may appear first since the Kurds, Arabs, and the Baluch have had an organized opposition in exile and in-country for decades. They have developed the skills to survive. Among the Persians and the Azeris, this may be a much more challenging process since it’s a good bet that those who have been part of the regime or cooperated with it won’t have traction in a new order. It’s unclear whether Iranian expatriates who have successfully integrated into America and Europe will have the patience and endurance to return home and invest themselves in another revolution. 

Khamenei’s Conspiracies

If Iranians can keep up nationwide protests, we will see who within the regime really believes strongly enough to beat, torture, and kill young women. The theocracy probably doesn’t have the guts to undertake large show trials, as has been threatened by Tehran’s magistrate, as the anger it could cause seems likely to outweigh the fear it would generate. It’s not unlikely that Khamenei has or will soon call a conclave where he and his lieutenants try to devise a plan to stop the corrosion of authority and respect before it spreads through state institutions. Doing so without a deadly frontal assault against protesters is likely impossible—provided young Iranians, especially women, don’t back down. Khamenei’s real paranoia about foreign influence behind the demonstrations may be so consuming that it clouds his ability to assess the tug-of-war between the opposition and the regime.

In his longest speech yet on the protests, Khamenei showed he is in a different universe from many of those who were once in his inner circle and now freely criticize the government’s response. “They [foreigners] devised schemes for large and small cities,” the supreme leader told students commemorating the National Day of Fighting Against Global Arrogance (that is, America). “The case now is that there are a handful of young people or teenagers in the field. Well, these young people and teenagers are our own children, we don’t have anything against them. They are filled with excitement and emotions and they are a bit inattentive to the real issues. No, we are more concerned about those who are orchestrating the events. They are the ones who entered the scene with a plan in mind.” The supreme leader clearly has no desire to kill these protesters; he would prefer to reeducate them. 

Khamenei once thought the 2009 pro-democracy Green Movement, which brought millions onto the streets of Tehran, was his near-death experience, where the regime was on “the edge of the abyss.” It’s a decent guess that he views his current troubles as equally dangerous. He’s not yet using the historically loaded language that he used to describe the 2009 collision, a fitnah, the most destructive division among the faithful. It’s tricky to do this when protesters are tens of thousands of teenage girls.

It’s a great irony of Khamenei’s conspiracies that the West has done so very little to show support for Iranians striving for democracy. The White House and the Europeans can’t yet let go of their hopes for a new nuclear deal. It beggars belief, however, to envision this deal after watching Khamenei’s November 2 speech. His quick dismissal of Biden as a president of any merit, his juxtaposition of him with the iniquitous Trump, and his caustic retrospective on Barack Obama, don’t suggest that Khamenei sees any merit in another agreement. Realistically an internal uprising probably offers the only way of derailing the theocracy’s atomic ambitions—either before and especially after the Revolutionary Guards have the bomb. 

And yet neither Democrats nor that many Republicans seem comfortable with regime change—if that means that Washington actually has to do something dangerous. With Republicans, a little rhetorical fiction—regime change by another name—might gather a larger crowd and more money. Biden’s recent, probably spontaneous comment about an American liberation of the Iranian people (“We will free Iran”) isn’t likely an example of latent-but-still-potent neoliberalism. His senior officials’ obvious continuing desire to close a new nuclear deal and the administration’s lax sanctions enforcement against the regime are better indicators of where Biden wants to go. 

Without White House support, the options for U.S. aid to the Iranian people are nil; even with a radical change of heart, effective American support to the protest movement would be mostly rhetorical. (Good, constant presidential rhetoric has value.) The CIA should have been preparing to aid mass uprisings in Iran after the Green Movement was crushed. According to active-duty officers, no such planning has taken place. There has been no political will, in the White House or on Capitol Hill, or bureaucratic passion within Langley to commence such planning, let alone start operations. Even relatively simple covert action would require bipartisan congressional support since leaks could kill most operations. And when it comes to operations inside the Islamic Republic, nothing really is simple. A Republican president in 2025 might try a different approach; the women’s hijab protests will have either won the day by then or been vanquished. The Islamic revolution took about a year to gain decisive speed; this time around it could take longer. A leaderless opposition may be like a slow-moving cancer; without charismatic figures dueling with Khamenei and his minions and organizing the fight, regime collapse could be almost imperceptible. (Some generosity should always be shown to State Department and CIA officers in Tehran who didn’t see the revolution gaining speed in the late 1970s—these things are easier to see in retrospect than in the moment.)

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

Reuel Marc Gerecht's Headshot

Reuel Marc Gerecht

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, is a resident scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.