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Ray Takeyh | November 1, 2022

Event Summary by Grant Wernick

On Tuesday, November 1, American Grand Strategy hosted Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, to provide insight on the growing protests in Iran following the death of a young woman in police custody. The scenes of widespread domestic unrest are familiar to Mr. Takeyh, who lived through the Iranian Revolution. While he emphasized how difficult it is to understand a popular movement’s root causes as it unfolds in real time, and even more so to accurately predict its ultimate outcome, he did describe six factors working against the regime that he believes bear similarity to the 1978-79 Revolution and have the potential to produce lasting change today.

First, the rhetoric around the protest movements is of abolishment of the Islamic Republic, not of reform. Second, a sharp severance exists between the political priorities of the state and the wider society. Third, there is newfound division among the elite in society, with even the conservative elite appearing to hedge between the regime’s and protestors’ stances. Fourth, different social classes are showing solidarity with each other’s grievances against the government, with work strikes and popular protests combining to strip the regime of its traditional narrative that they exist for and represent the oppressed. Fifth, Tehran is reluctant to violently suppress the young women who are the primary torchbearers of these protests (although their restraint is only relative, as security forces have killed an estimated 200 protestors). Finally, it does not appear that Iranian society widely accepts the government’s claim of interference and provocation by the typical scapegoats: USA, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Takeyh identified three likely priorities for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei should he survive the current period of unrest: To purge the elite of non-loyalists (even if their replacements are less capable administrators), boost the economy’s resilience to foreign sanctions, and make progress on the nuclear program. The combined effects of these measures would have the potential to transform Iran from an authoritarian into a truly totalitarian state. The corresponding foreign policy context would be Iran’s “pivot to Israel,” the country which has superseded the U.S. in the Ayatollah’s imagination as the primary threat to national security. Khamenei views Israel as not only pernicious to Iranian interests, strictly defined, but to a broader ideological mission that rejects nationalism and seeks the unity of the Muslim world. In the current climate, however, saber-rattling toward Israel or Saudi Arabia (public enemy number two) is unlikely to generate significant approval for his regime. What would garner the people’s good favor, or whether he even requires their support to maintain his iron-fisted grip on power, Mr. Takeyh believes remains to be seen.