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A Candid Discussion with Abbas Milani


Abbas Milani on the Islamic Republic’s Declining Fortunes

Abbas Milani

Dr. Abbas Milani, is the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University and a Professor in Division of International, Comparative, and Area Studies. He is considered one of the leading experts on Iranian contemporary history and politics. Dr. Milani is also one of the founding co-directors of the Iran Democracy Project and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. His writings on Iran and the Middle East have been published in leading American and European news publications and academic journals. He has authored many books and articles including biographic works of influential Iranian political figures. Dr. Milani is the author, most recently, of The Shah (2012), Eminent Persians (2008), and The Persian Sphinx (2004). Dr. Milani sat down with Reza Akhlaghi of Foreign Policy Association to discuss Iran’s upcoming elections.


Given the country’s increasingly poor record in social and economic indicators, particularly in its immediate region, do you believe Iran is a country in decline? If that is your view, what are the key dynamics of the Iranian decline? On the contrary, if you believe Iran is rising, what are the key factors behind Iran’s rise?

Iran is, as a country, full of paradoxes, and thus, while the regime is in my view in strategic decline, the society is bursting with youthful, innovative and ultimately democratic social energies — the kind that will, inevitably beget a more democratic polity. The regime is in decline because of its strident ideology, sclerotic and fractured structure at the apex of its military/intelligence/political apparatus, and because its status quo, and its nature and designs, are incommensurate with the expressed wishes of the majority of Iranian people. This status quo survives partly because of oil, and partially because of its small base of dedicated, over-compensated, and potentially violent coterie of supporters. The society, on the other hand is on the rise because of the vibrancy of its cultural and social domains, manifested in its assertive women’s movement, its defiant youth, its experimental artists, musicians, directors, and finally its increasingly sophisticated democratic discourse.

In the coming administration, irrespective of its political tendencies, is there a potential to break with the status quo of the last eight years in Iran’s static domestic politics as well as foreign policy? What are the key strategic imperatives for adopting a new path that would be considered a break with the status quo of the last eight years?

I think the break with virtually all of the last eight years is not only possible but an imperative in the new administration. The status quo, or more specifically the increasingly isolated triumvirate of the IRGC commanders, Ayatollah Khamenei and a small cadre of clerics who are the ideologues of the status quo, is faced with a critical choice: They can accept defeat of their paradigm — empty populism at home, rhetorical defiance abroad, and continued confrontation with the international community on the nuclear issue — and opt for a more or less competitive elections, inclusion of serious (and not token) reformist candidates, an end to aggressive monopolization of the economy by the IRGC and Basij, and more accommodation with the international community on the nuclear front. Barring such a radical departure, the triumvirate has no option other than more political brutality to contain what will be a more angry population, and acrimony in dividing the shrinking economic pie.

In the new administration do you anticipate the adoption of a form of Iranian nationalism aimed at garnering support among the country’s vibrant youth as a policy tool? Do you think Iran’s youth would embrace a revitalized form of Iranian nationalism — however manipulatively conducted — to have hope for a better future?

Clearly, the Ahmadinejad camp, getting ready to keep the presidency — and thus at least keep most of the presidents’ advisors out of prison or courts or out of political purgatory — believes that some form of Iranian nationalism is the way to the hearts and minds of the majority of Iranians. But where they apparently miscalculated is that in spite of their effort to play the “Iranian nationalist” card — everything from bringing the Cyrus Cylinder to Iran to praising Iran’s pre-Islamic grandeur — there has been little evidence of popular support for the camp.

Given the dire need of the Iranian economy to rid itself of current tough international sanctions under what appears to be a militarized economic management, could the conflict of interest between the senior management of military industrial complex and the factions associated with the office of the Supreme Leader manifest itself in a new administration? To what extent could this conflict of interest hurt their eight-year alliance?

I believe that the power of Ayatollah Khamenei is now altogether dependent on the continued support of the IRGC and the Revolutionary Guards’ continued domination of the economy and politics is best guaranteed if it has the ideological veneer of clerical rule. I think both sides of this alliance realize the relative balance of power. If sanctions are not lifted, the shrinking economic pie will on the one hand increase tensions within different factions, but it will also increase the economic muscle of the IRGC by affording it more opportunities to reap huge benefits from the lucrative contraband black and grey market economies. The alliance was made possible in fact when Ayatollah Khamenei, bereft of Khomeini’s charisma, clerical legitimacy and political capital, was forced to invite the IRGC not only into a more active political role, but also into the economic domain — and thus began the group’s transformation into the economic juggernaut it is today.

The West is maneuvering Iran’s internal political dynamics to find the best route for revitalization of its ties with Tehran. To find the best possible resolution with key decision makers in Iran’s elite, is the West prioritizing between the conflicting interests of the militarized and non-militarized economic institutions in Iran?

It is hard to talk about a unified Western plan — the interests of Europe and the U.S. are both complimentary and contradictory in Iran. While they share a common concern about Iran’s nuclear program, and about its support for such regimes like Assad, they also are strategic competitors for bigger shares of Iran’s market. Moreover, even amongst the Europeans, and even here in the U.S., it is hard to formulate a common consensus on how to proceed with sanctions, and with possible assistance to advocates of change in Iran. I think there should be a consensus that the “Iranian Problem” — from its nuclear program to its suppressed democratic movement — does not have a military solution, and that war, or threats of war only strengthens the most radical elements of Iran’s military/intelligence complex.