In the summer of 1988, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered the secret execution of thousands of political prisoners over a two-month period. About 4,500 people were murdered, and the massacre was covered up by a media blackout inside Iran. Twenty-eight years later, the official website of Khomeini’s heir, the late Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, released an audiotape of an August 15, 1988, meeting on the purges. Montazeri can be heard lashing out at the clergymen present for facilitating the mass killings, declaring, "You all will be judged as the biggest criminals in history." The audiotape reveals the ruthlessness of the clergymen, some of whom—like Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi and senior judiciary official Hossein Ali Nayeri—hold senior positions today in the Iranian regime.
This kind of information, linking the Islamic Republic’s early radicalism to today’s government, was what I expected to read when I opened Hamad Albloshi’s informative book, The Eternal Revolution: Hardliners and Conservatives in Iran. Albloshi, a professor at Kuwait University and an Iran expert, argues that, while most political science studies assert that revolutions tend over time to become more pragmatic and "retreat from ideological goals, heralding a [new] phase of institutional development," no such shift has occurred in Iran. The 1979 revolution is alive and well among the "hardline conservative faction," a powerful group within the country’s Islamic regime. Albloshi details the many competing factions that emerged since 1979, all of which have different interpretations of and visions for the revolution. He also analyzes the reformist movement inside Iran and the emergence of the hardline conservatives, examining the latter group’s ideology.
Hardliners, according to Albloshi, view the supreme leader as above the law. They strictly adhere to the Islamic Republic’s core foundation: velayat-e faqih, or guardianship of the jurisprudent, Khomeini’s concept of an Islamic system of clerical rule that gives the supreme leader ultimate political and spiritual authority until the Twelfth Imam returns as a messiah figure. Those who want to reform the system are acting against God’s will and are tools of the West, which is trying to destroy the regime from within through "cultural assaults."
Albloshi’s thesis is important and he does a commendable job describing hardliners in Iran, but the book suffers from two flaws. First, it does not sufficiently discuss the regime’s geopolitical and strategic objectives, choosing to focus instead on intellectual and ideological issues. Second, the book fails to note that Iran’s "reformers" share many of the views of "hardliners" in Iran. Albloshi implies–perhaps unintentionally–that anyone who promotes some moderation does not share the hardliners’ big picture beliefs. These flaws are closely linked.
Albloshi briefly discusses Tehran’s foreign policy, focusing on internal dynamics, but U.S. policymakers should see its external activity as the main determinant of whether Iranian factions can be long-term partners. If there is one aspect of American grand strategy that most people agree on, it is to prevent hostile states from dominating key regions, because they could become strong enough to threaten vital U.S. interests.
Persia has been an imperial, expansionist power for at least 2,500 years, since the founding of the Achaemenid Empire. Today, Iran exerts heavy influence on Arab capitals Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, and Sana’a, supports Palestinian groups, incites the Shi’ite populations in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to subvert their governments, and is trying to expand its influence in Afghanistan and beyond in Central Asia.
Few would quibble with the fact that hardliners like Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps wish to dominate the region, but what about so-called moderates in the Rouhani administration? Take Ali Younesi, senior adviser to Rouhani and ex-head of intelligence for former President Mohammad Khatami, himself known as a prominent "reformer." Younesi told the "Iran, Nationalism, History, and Culture" conference in March 2015 that "Since its inception, Iran has [always] had a global [dimension]. It was born an empire. Iran’s leaders, officials, and administrators have always thought in the global [dimension]."
Younesi stated that "Greater Iran" encompasses the Persian Gulf, the north and south Caucasus, and the Indian subcontinent, stretching to China in the east with present-day Iraq the site of the empire’s traditional capital. As CIA official Michael Morell has noted, Younesi merely outlined what many Iranian elites believe: that Iran’s grand strategy is to recreate the Persian empire at its height, with the added element of the Islamic Republic’s militant Shi’ism.
It does not matter whether an Iranian faction seeks regional hegemony because of Persian imperialism, militant Shi’ism, or anything else. While those motivations are crucial to understanding Tehran and countering its threats, America’s dividing line between hardliners and reformers should be based on the strategic and geopolitical ambitions held by the Iranian in question, regardless of his underlying ideology.
If one looks at ideology and internal dynamics, so-called moderates in the regime differ little from hardliners on the most fundamental issues. Albloshi describes true reformers, like Abdolkarim Soroush, who write that religion must be separated from politics and question the concept of velayat-e faqih. Figures like Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who are often described as reformers, do not ask these questions. They want economic reform to attract foreign investment and avoid sanctions for terrorism and human rights, but they do not want political or cultural reform. Their goal is to "sustain the Islamic Republic’s authoritarian structure," as Ray Takeyh has argued, adhering to Khomeini’s principle of "expediency of the regime." That principle holds that Iran’s brand of Islam cannot survive if its government falls, so leaders must put national interests above Islam to ensure the revolution endures.
Some figures, like Rouhani, believe economic growth is the way to accomplish national greatness; others, like Khamenei, think economic engagement will culturally undermine the Islamic Republic. But they share the same strategic goal. Differences that exist on culture and religion are geopolitically insignificant.
And that is not to mention the threats to Israel and America, Holocaust denial, nuclear activity, and human rights violations that have occurred under reformist Presidents Khatami, Rouhani, and Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Economic pragmatists are not the future of Iran. As Iran expert Mehdi Khalaji has written, the Islamic Republic has an "anti-institutional mindset" with many power centers. Much of the country’s power lies in entities outside the purview of the elected government and constitution. In this context, the elderly Khamenei is putting the pieces in place to ensure that his vision for the Islamic Republic long outlives him, regardless of who may be elected president in the future.
Take Ebrahim Raisi as an example. On March 8, Khamenei named Raisi, one of his close confidants, head of Iran’s wealthiest and perhaps most important entity, the Astan-e Qods Razavi organization. Moreover, Raisi was elected earlier this year to the Assembly of Experts, the body charged with choosing Iran’s next supreme leader. Raisi was present at that fateful meeting with Montazeri in 1988, arguing in favor of Khomeini’s summer purge. Some observers have even named him a possible successor to Khamenei as supreme leader.
The revolution lives on and is here to stay.