Democratic Change in Iran is Inevitable

30 March 2012, 13:19

U.W. Professor Milani, the Iranian question has been destabilizing world politics for many years now. What are the main reasons? Is more than the country's nuclear programme at play?

Iranis a critical force for instability because it is located in a part of the world where there are vast reserves of oil and gas. Moreover a large part of the world's energy travels through the Straight of Hormoz a waterway Iran can dominate, at least in the short run. The regime has shown a willingness to use its oil revenues to challenge the West, support radical Islamists, threaten the flow of oil, support the bloody suppression of the Syrian people, and finally, to finance a nuclear programme that has, at best, questionable goals. If you look at the regime’s behaviour in the last 10 years, whether in the Arab-Israeli conflict or in Iraq, in Afghanistan or even in Latin America, on every occasion the regime has chosen a path of confrontation not just with the US, but with the EU, and of course with Israel. Finally, Iran’s nuclear programme and its defiance of the UN and its potential departure from the Non Proliferation Treaty — more than once threatened by the regime — is sure to lead to an arms race, if not indeed a de facto end to the NPT agreement.

U.W. Is it possible in general to trust the group of unelected Iranian officials who have made anti-Americanism their top foreign policy priority?

I do not believe the current regime in Iran can be believed. A regime that lies to its own people—as the clerical regime does regularly—will surely lie to the international community. For the clerics in Iran, Taqiyya[*], a concept peculiar to Shiite Islam allowing the faithful to lie in order to preserve themselves and the faith, is a key part of their theology and thus lying and cheating is sanctioned by religion. Finally, Khamenei has made anti-Americanism a pillar of his legacy. More than once, he has declared his belief in the irreconcilability of conflicts with the United States. Under conditions like this, it is hard to see how the US can trust the regime, or how the ruling clerics and their allies in the IRGC can trust the US.

U.W. Pakistan has nuclear weapons and is relatively stable. Why do people think it is impossible for Iran to have nuclear weapons and be stable?

I don’t think anyone is comfortable with the idea of a nuclear Pakistan. I believe in a nuclear free world, including a nuclear free Middle East. Regimes like Iran, or Saddam, or even Pakistan, with their murky military and human rights records, simply increase the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons, if they have them. It is true that America has been the only country to use the bomb, but since 1945, democracies have succeeded in limiting the possibility of a nuclear nightmare. Every time a new country acquires the bomb, the likelihood of its being used increases.

U.W. If the Islamic Republic removed all its unelected officials from power and was willing to have an open and a free election, this would provide a gesture of goodwill to the International Community as a government which can be trusted. In the absence of that, I really doubt the Islamic Republic can be trusted by both Iranians inside and the International Community outside…

I have long believed that the only solution to Iran’s nuclear programme is the rise of a democratic, transparent, responsible government in Iran. Such a government can and must rise from the will of the Iranian people. It is, for me, impossible to imagine that the unelected officials who now rule Iran — Khamenei and his hand-picked clerical elite and their allies in the IRGC — will ever give up their perks of power willingly. If events in 2009, where three million people came out in Tehran alone and demanded the annulment of what they saw as a rigged election, are any indication, these unelected officials will use any means necessary to retain their power. If unelected officials in the regime agree to give up their position, then in reality you have to accept that the regime has changed its nature. It is a sign of democracy that those in power do not consider their positions life-long appointments. In Iran, the unelected clergy claim to have been anointed by an authority no less than God. The logic of their theory is that only God can take away what He has given — and their God is decidedly and unmistakably masculine.

U.W. When I was in Cairo visiting the tomb of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, I thought of where he committed errors. Could power have been transferred to other hands in 1979?

The Shah believed that the main threat he faced were the communists. He allowed the growth and development of mosques and religious institutions throughout the country as an antidote to communism. He did not allow Iranian secular democrats to organize. Unions, or institutions of civil society, unless they were dependent on the state, were crushed. When the regime went into crisis, as it did in 1977-78, the only force organized enough to lead the revolution and hold the country together were religious forces lead by Khomeini. The Shah should have democratized in the early seventies, when he was at the height of his power. Instead he went in the opposite direction and created a one-party system. The Shah’s problem was that though he meant well, he believed only he knew what was good for Iran. He was unwilling to compromise when he had power. His character — indecisive, and prone to depression and paranoia — made it even more difficult for him to make the right decisions on the eve of the revolution. What further complicated his situation was that he was suffering from cancer and undergoing treatment by then — and many of the medications he was taking only added to his inability to decide, or make the right decisions.

U.W. Iranian mullahs managed to suppress the people's revolution in 2009. Is there a chance of a similar revolution in Iran in the future?

I have no doubt that the current regime in Iran cannot last. Democracy is the wish of the Iranian people and inevitable on the country’s horizon. The regime has successfully suppressed the movement but all the forces that created the movement — from the women’s movement to a large democratic middle class — not only continue to exist but have become more powerful. The power of this coalition, the fact that three fifths of Iran’s population are under the age of thirty, and unemployment in that group is at least thirty percent, the regime’s utter incompetence in economic management of Iran — the currency has lost more than a third of its value in the last six weeks alone, in spite of record revenues in oil — the rising tide of democracy in the Muslim world and finally the power of the Iranian Diaspora to help underwrite the transition to democracy will, in my view, work hand in hand and make democracy in Iran inevitable.

U.W. Iran blocks internet access. What is causing this censorship?

The Iranian regime survives on its control of information and censorship—from books and films to the internet. All despotic societies need to censor, as information invariably begets a desire for freedom. The regime was caught off guard in 2009 by the opposition’s use of social media for organizing and for getting news to the outside world. Since then it has spent billions to control, censor and dominate the internet and limit people’s access to sites it deems subversive. It has created its own army of cyber-Jihadists whose sole purpose is to censor, infiltrate, track, and control the internet.

U.W. Professor Milani, under what conditions is a military operation by the West against Iran possible?

In my view, war against the current regime would be a total mistake — it is only likely to further consolidate the regime’s shaky hold on power. I hope and believe that Israel and the United States are both aware of the disastrous human and political consequences such an attack would unleash.


Professor Abbas Milani is the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University where he also co-directs the Iran Democracy Project at Hoover Institutions.

Abbas Milani earned his B.A. in political science and economics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1970 and his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Hawaii in 1974.

Milani was a research fellow at the Iranian Centre for Social Research from 1977 to 1978 and an assistant professor at the National University of Iran from 1975 to 1976 in addition to being an assistant professor in the faculty of law and political science at Tehran University and a member of the board of directors of Tehran University's Centre for International Studies from 1979 to 1986.

But after the Iranian Revolution, Milani was not allowed to publish or teach and he left Iran in 1986.

Before coming to Hoover, Milani was a professor of history and political science and chair of the department at Notre Dame de Namur University and a research fellow at the Institute of International Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

He is a member of the American Association of Political Science, the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and the Association of Iranian Studies.

His last book is The Shah, a new critical look at the life of Iran's last monarch and the roots of the Islamic Revolution.

Professor Abbas Milani Milani has also translated numerous books and articles into Persian and English.



[*] Taqiyya (alternate spellings taqiya, taqiyah, tuqyah), meaning religious dissimulation, is a practice emphasized in Shi'a Islam whereby adherents may conceal their religion when they are under threat, persecution, or compulsion. This means a legal dispensation whereby a believing individual can deny his faith or commit otherwise illegal or blasphemous acts while they are under those risks. 

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