What Would the Middle East Look Like Without the Meddlesome Ayatollahs?

Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. (Photo by Iranian Leader's Press Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.)

Demonstrations ongoing in Iran—lasting almost six weeks at this writing—have put the government of the Islamic Republic at risk for the first time since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Many of the ingredients of a regime-killing mix are there, including widespread unrest beyond the original liberals and women. University professors and students, shopkeepers and energy sector workers have called strikes, and ethnic minorities have also joined in, spreading the unrest throughout the diverse country. Still, the regime falling remains a possibility rather than a probability, and security forces have thus far remained loyal. As the leadership of Iran teeters ever so slightly, however, it prompts a fascinating question: What would the Middle East look like absent the malign machinations of the ayatollahs?

The Islamic Republic’s reach is wide and deep in the region, and involves far more than the occasional headline about Hezbollah, the Houthis, or Hamas. Indeed, Iran has patented a foreign policy model that has defined an era and transformed the political topography of the Middle East in ways that will fill textbooks for generations to come. Together with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and particularly the elite Quds Force late leader, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s ayatollahs have upended governments (Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen), fought and stage-managed wars directly and via proxies (with Iraq, Israel, and Saudi Arabia; in Syria and Lebanon) and enmeshed themselves in regional governance, economics, and culture. 

Predicting the future of Iran is as parlous an occupation as any in geopolitics. Should the regime fall, it is unclear who will lead Iran in its stead. Is there a liberal government in the wings, lurking overseas as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini did for many years? Or will the ever-more dominant IRGC step in and transform Iran from a theocratic dictatorship to a military one? Is there a “regime-lite”—styled after Iran’s elusive moderate Islamists? Or another version of the current regime, the dream of the cult-like opposition Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK)? There is no sure answer to the question. No deus ex machina is pulling the strings, maneuvering for a better leadership. The Biden administration is arguably passively pro-regime, or at best loath to seek to topple it in favor of something else. This is not unlike the Obama administration, which was palpably dismayed by Iran’s “Green Revolution” in 2009, believing it would stand in the way ofnegotiating a nuclear deal with the ayatollahs. 

Still, if imagining a better world is the prime directive of foreign policy, it’s worth asking what might happen if the cornerstone of the region-wide edifice Iran is constructing in the Middle East suddenly crumbled. Region by region, group by group, a change of that magnitude would be existential for many. 

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