Ray Takeyh on Iran: Are We Witnessing a Revolution?

October 14, 2022 (Episode 226)

Taped October 13, 2022

BILL KRISTOL: Hi, I’m Bill Kristol, welcome back to CONVERSATIONS. I’m very pleased to be joined today by Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow with the Council of Foreign Relations. One of the really leading experts on Iran here in the United States. Historian with a doctorate from Oxford. The author of several important books, and I would say for a layman like me, and most of our watchers, viewers and listeners, very accessible books, though serious scholarly books on modern Iran. The most recent one is The Last Shah: America, Iran and the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty which includes very interesting reconsideration of the 1953 coup in Iran. I think Ray did a lot of archival research for that. And I’m proud that at The Weekly Standard, we published one of the articles, an article by Ray that was kind of one of the early glimpse at some of that. He’s the co-author with Eric Edelman, who’s been on these conversations several times, of a book what, just three, four years ago, Revolution and Aftermath: Forging a New Strategy toward Iran. So Ray, thanks for joining us today.

RAY TAKEYH: Thanks very much for having me.

KRISTOL: No, it’s great to have you. And of course, Iran. So, let’s just dive right in. What’s happening there? Obviously very dramatic, very moving scenes from Iran. How should we understand what’s happening, how serious is it? How different is it from previous failed, unfortunately, efforts to shake the Ayatollah’s regime there?

TAKEYH: Well, these protests are more serious than the previous ones because they tend to encapsulate all the previous grievances within them. The catalytic event that sparked all this was the death of Miss Amini, in custody, early mid-September by the morality police for her head scarves. But these are not female emancipation protests, although they are that. They tend to be political grievances, economic grievances, cultural grievances, religious ones, and they have essentially — the female emancipation issue, has essentially become an umbrella under which all other forms of grievances are being expressed.

They tend to be throughout the country, as far as we know. They tend to encompass all the social classes, as far as we know. And they have generated something that should be very concerning to the regime, mainly economic strikes. Now, you can say the Islamic Republic has been a land of work stoppage. There has been strikes throughout the country for many years. Most of the strikes that we have seen have resulted because of work conditions and wages, then they become politicized very quickly. The recent strikes of oil workers were not a result of economic grievances, but as expressions of solidarity with other protestors. That’s qualitatively a different issue.

So the regime has to concern itself with popular protests marrying themselves with economic strikes, and that would be a crippling situation as it was for the Shah in the fall of 1970.

KRISTOL: Yeah, so let’s talk about that. So these began, as you say, protests about forced wearing of the hijab and the morality police. Were you surprised, or what were the key moments do you think, that led it beyond sporadic protests that we’ve had in the past that have died out or have been ruthlessly suppressed? Do you think it now really is now a broad enough to be a genuine threat to the regime?

TAKEYH: Well, throughout the summer, Iran had a very peculiar, uneasy summer. Even when I was observing it from this far away, I remember talking to my friends saying, there’s something weird about what’s going on in the country, because you had two phenomenons taking place at the same time. You had a lot of protests. Teachers were protesting about their pay, retirees about their benefits, farmers about lack of water. Women were protesting throughout the summer about the enforcement of their religious attire.

And the regime was becoming even more inflexible. For some reason, they decided to insist on reimposition of strict cultural strictures. So the state and society were moving in different ways. The protests were emerging and the regime was becoming more inflexible. And then it all blew up in September.

So September was the culmination of what was happening in the country throughout the summer, and it gained a symbolic significance beyond the individual act. That always happens when the individual — in Tunisia, the street power burned himself, that provoked a crisis. He wasn’t the first person to inflame himself, but that provoked a larger crisis. Iran today, in my opinion, is in some kind of a revolutionary stage. We are not in pre-revolutionary situation. So what I mean by that, I mean two, three things.

Number one, all social classes are united behind the idea that they want extinction of the regime. Number two, all the social classes seem to be united on the proposition that reform is not possible, that the regime cannot amend its ways. And therefore it has to be a root and branch. And the regime has a narrative that suggests all the opposition sentiments are foreign-inspired, by the Americans, or by what they call the Zionist entity. At times, they enlarge the menu of countries that are involved. Saudi Arabia gets into it, French Intelligence get into it, the British Intelligence get into it. But basically, their response is this a foreign instigated crisis.

So, the regime has a narrative that not only does not satisfy the opposition, the people in the street, but it is contested within Iran itself, within the Iranian press. There are many people that are saying, “No, we have to look at the root causes of this.” So the regime has lost its narrative because it has lost its bearings. Its typical strategy for dealing with protests, and it’s well experienced, as you said, in dealing with protest: they show violence very quickly and sharply, then disable social media and isolate the demonstrations from each other and wait for them to peter out. They don’t want to use massive violence, some would say, because they don’t want to create a cycle of protests that such violence sometimes generates. I would say, because they’re concerned about the reliability of their security organs.

So at this point, the containment strategy doesn’t seem to work. They have used violence, 185 people or more have died as far as we know. And now they’re in a position where the protests are not petering out, but they’re, in many ways, they’ve become aggravated. So we’re in a revolutionary stage. We’re at the beginning, we’re at the middle, where we are, how mature is this? You can only know, if at all, in retrospect. But Iran is no longer “an island of stability,” as Jimmy Carter called it in 1977.

KRISTOL: And you think this is different from 2009 or 2017 or 2019? I think you didn’t think, in real time, necessarily that — This isn’t just wishful thinking on our part? You think it really is qualitatively — may not ultimately result in revolution of course — but qualitatively a different kind of threat? And is that because of the explicitness of the threats to the regime, that’s at stake? Not just ‘we want more reformist policies’ or ‘we want more liberal economic policies’ or whatever. Or is it because of splits in the regime or —? Talk a little bit about that.

TAKEYH: Well, all those protests that you mentioned are precursors to this. This particular protest that we see today is a line on a continuum. 2009 was when the regime orchestrated a fraudulent election and it led to middle class revolt about franchise, and obviously to political overtones very quickly. 2017 and ’19 protests are very critical, because they were the revolt of the poor. The regime had always thought that no matter what happens, the poor that were tied to the regime by patronage and piety, were going to be its last source of support. The poor and the oppressed after all were those in whose name the revolution was reached. So they lost the poor.

And this protest is important because it’s galvanized all these social classes together. So this is a culmination of all these previous indications of dissents. So it’s not that those happened and failed, it’s the regime continually lost constituencies along the way. And this is a culmination of this loss of all of these constituencies today. So those protests were critical in terms of what they — They weakened the regime, they weakened the immunity system that made it vulnerable to what is, in my opinion, a revolutionary upsurge today.

KRISTOL: Are there splits within the regime, within the ruling elites?

TAKEYH: There are three narratives in Iran today. First of all, the regime since the 2021 election, Ali Khamenei the Supreme Leader, has engaged in massive purge of the political elites. There were people who were conservative establishmentarians who are now dissidents. Ali Larijani, who was a former member of the elite, former’s longest speaker of Parliament in history of Iran, was disqualified from running for the presidency in 2021. Hassan Rouhani today is in some form of opposition. So the regime

KRISTOL: Rouhani being the most recent —

TAKEYH: The most president from 2013 to ’21, ’12 to ’21. There are three narratives in Iran today. There’s a regime that says that all these are foreign inspired.

There are people like Larijani and many people in the political elite, and I want to differentiate the political elites from the govern elite. People who are in the political society, but they don’t hold government position because they’ve been excised from body politic. Their idea is we have to look at the root causes of this. Larjani was just interviewed yesterday, says that there’s corruption we have to look at, and he doesn’t in the least credit the regime’s argument that these are exclusively foreign-inspired.

And then there’s the street. The street is saying off with their heads. Now, what happens in this situation where you have these three segments? Does the political elite move this way to the street, or toward the regime? So, what you’re going to see now is a lot of hedging. And they’re going to start looking to see how this evolves. And the regime is likely to lose its first moral [inaudible].

And when a political society and an opposition movement meet together, then that’s going to be very difficult. For people in the middle, they have to make a decision about whether they side with the regime whose fortunes are declining or the street whose future is uncertain. They’re in a very difficult spot at this particular point. The Shah’s elite had a decision to make in that fall of 1978, and they decided to congregate in the Al Faisal Lounge and get out of the country.

Current elite don’t have, current political elites don’t have that choice. The Larjanis aren’t going to set up shop in Los Angeles, maybe France. But so they’re in a tougher spot now and that’s why they’re doing this hedging mess.

KRISTOL: You mentioned 1978, so let’s go back to that for a minute because it’s so important I’m struck when I talked to experts on Iran or Iranian expatriates. Also, of course, that was the formative experience that created the regime that’s lasted for more than four decades. But, how important is, I don’t know, how settled in is — After four decades, how solid is the regime? How much of it does still feel like an imposition on a country that had a very different history in terms of religion and many other things, and was moving in a different direction in the seventies? I don’t know, just talk a little bit about what the situation is in terms of the actual regime legitimacy and the memory of the revolution. Or does the fact that they had a revolution in ’78, ’79 remind people that there can be another one?

TAKEYH: The paradox of the current leaders of the Islamic Republic, the current situation is they’re making all the mistakes that the Shah did. They have not learned from their own revolutionary experience. The Shah began to purge the political elites. The Shah began to engage that elite in massive corruption, which led to class cleavages, which were quite provocative. The Shah pursued a foreign policy whose benefits were less obvious than its costs. So they’re making a lot of the same mistakes, that’s what the irony of all this is. They have not learned from their own revolution experience.

If you look at the Iranian society in the 20th century and into 21st century, the Iranian populace have always wanted to have a say in how their government is operating, in how their government is run. They always wanted to have an accountable government. The Shah’s bargain with them was a transactional one: political passivity for economic benefits. Even if the economic situation had not deteriorated in the mid 1970s, that bargain was not sustainable. The Islamic Republic’s bargain was some measure of representation with elections and so forth, before they totally emasculated the political process, and the promise of divine benefits and the government of God. That is also unacceptable. The Iranian people want an accountable government, and how that accountability is expressed, in what form of democratic modality, that can be sorted out. But the Islamic Republic has not been able to offer that, the Shah did not offer that, and there have been rebellions against both governments.

State and society have always been at odds. I would say in most cases, the state has prevailed. The Shah was in power for 37 years. The Islamic Republic is celebrating its 42nd year in power. But the grievances that have generated this sentiment they have not been evaporated. And in my opinion, at this particular point they have the position where, it depends how the future evolves, they are in a position to succeed again.

By the way, the post-revolutionary government may also be a disappointment, but we’re in a different situation.

KRISTOL: And, I guess, how much loyalty is there to the Islamic Republic? I mean, it’s been two generations, literally, if you’re under the age of 42, you’ve never experienced anything else, and if you’re under the age of 55 or 60, you really haven’t, you certainly haven’t as an adult, right? So, I mean, is that just the way it is, and it’s got to be?

What’s striking for me, looking at the revolution, at what’s happening on the streets, they seem to have shaken off that sense, which is so important, I think, to the preservation of dictatorships. That this is either the way it has to be, because of overwhelming force, or the nature of things, or some kind of history, or whatever, or God. Or this is the way it has to be in the sense of, we just can’t fight it, because the power is overwhelming.

But how much of those two pillars, if I’m right to think those are two of the normal pillars that prop up authoritarian governments, kind of let’s call it fatalism and a weak sense of overwhelming power on the one hand, or a sense of history, destiny, fatalism on the other. How strong are those, or how not strong are those in Iran today?

TAKEYH: Well given the persistent protests that we have seen, fatalism doesn’t seem to affect the population. They still take to the street in the hope of having some sort of a change. And they even participated in various elections, in order to nudge the government in the right direction in the past. But as I said, the electoral process has been emasculated, and an important safety valve has been stuffed down.

The Islamic Republic today survives, or did survive —All authoritarian regimes rely, in my opinion, on three things. First of all, let’s talk about legitimacy, which is very difficult to measure. You know when a government doesn’t have legitimacy when it’s collapses. Then, it’s, “Oh yeah, that government did not have legitimacy.” So whatever legitimacy it had in terms of accountability to its citizens, it obviously doesn’t have that, given the widespread protest across social classes.

Fear. Authoritarian governments can stay in power because of fear. Given what we see in the streets today, fear does not seem to be an important obstacle to the demonstrations and the regime has to worry about the cohesion of the security forces as it moves to a period of repression.

The third thing that the Islamic Republic does have going for it is atomization of the opposition. And it does have that going forward today. In a sense, we don’t see a trade union, a local party, a charismatic personality, they have not evolved. That’s both an advantage and disadvantage.

The advantage is there’s no political leadership you can arrest, and therefore disable the system, disable, evaporate the opposition sentiment. The disadvantage is your revolution cannot succeed without revolutionaries. And at some point this latent and widespread opposition sentiment has to cohere in some measure and has to develop oppositionist leaders, whether they’ll be local leaders or some sort of a thing. It is my hope, and it is my belief that as the social protest movement matures, it develops its own oppositionist forces, organically.

But that’s one thing the regime has going for it at this point. The opposition has widespread discontent going for it. Social classes who have lost their fear. Its symbolic event, I mean these killing in custody. But it still has not generated its Lenin’s and its Solidarity’s and its clerical estate that it had the late ’70s.

KRISTOL: And how hard is it for that to happen, if they’re able to disable the internet and sort of connectivity within the society and it’s atomized anyway? And there are different parts of Iran, quite different from each other obviously. And the grievances of the women, middle class women are somewhat different from the grievances of oil workers. Or is that doable? Undoable? How much of a barrier is that?

TAKEYH: We’re seeing people come together and put aside their class affinities or even their ethnic differences. The regime is trying to portray this as an ethnic uprising and more of a Kurdish uprising because Ms. Amini was of Kurdish extraction. They’re becoming particularly ruthless in the Kurdish areas, whether that’s necessary or not. And they’re hitting Kurdistan in Iraq, so they’re trying to portray this as an ethnic issue.

But what we see is people who may not have the same grievances crediting the grievances of the other. The oil workers stood up for gender representation, they didn’t have to do that. They’re male and working in the factories. The political slogans lead me to believe that they’re shedding class and ethnic identities and coming together in a mass opposition to the regime in terms of this extraction, not in terms of this reform.

Whether this process will generate its own leaders that will be the hinge moment where the revolution goes from revolutionary stage to a culminating event that causes the collapse of the regime. Although, it’s difficult to say how exactly that regime collapses at that time.

KRISTOL: Oh, that’s very interesting. So we’re still not there yet and probably a little ways away though.

TAKEYH: Well, we don’t know.

KRISTOL: Because this could happen suddenly, right? Yeah.

TAKEYH: We don’t — You cannot predict revolutionary cycles.


TAKEYH: Because they move with such rapidity.

KRISTOL: Or they stall out for a while and then move rapidly

TAKEYH: Their ebbs and flows. If I put it in the context of the Iranian Revolution, 1978, ’79.

KRISTOL: Yeah, do that.

TAKEYH: It is difficult to say when the revolution started, but usually people say October, Fall of 1977, when you begin to see both religious and secular protests coming together. And then there were periods of ebbs and flows. In the spring of 1978 — the revolution succeeded in February 1979 —in May 1978, the demonstrations had petered out. The Shah was talking very confidently. The anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution, who was expelled from Iran in June 1963. The anniversary of this expulsion was not widely commemorated.

So going into the summer of 1978, one of the peculiarities of the Iranian Revolution, is in the summer of 1978, everybody left the country. The Shah went to the summer palaces for the whole summer. The American ambassador, Bill Solomon, went off on extended home leave, the British ambassador went on extended home leave. And they all said, “Okay. The government seems to have managed the latest crisis.” And then came the summer where the wheels went off. So a revolutionary situation is —

KRISTOL: So say a couple of more words just about the events, which you know this so well, but most of us don’t, of course, remember it or didn’t study it. And what were the key — Just it’s  such an interesting case study. What were there moments that were sort of just galvanizing?

TAKEYH: Yes. The galvanizing moment in the Iranian Revolution of ’78, ’79, in my opinion, was August 1978. In August 1978, there was a movie theater in the southern city of Abadan, Rex Cinema, which was set on fire. 479 people died. It was the most egregious act of arson in Iran’s modern history. Ayatollah Khomeini, from his exile, which at that time was Iraq, managed to turn that as an act of the Shah, “The Shah did this.”

We now know from later testimonials, including court proceedings of the Islamic Republic itself, that it was the Islamists themselves that did it. That became the catalytic event, in my opinion, similar to Ms. Amini’s death in custody.

After that, the demonstrations that were in few thousands went much broader, became much broader. After that, you began to see oil strikes and economic stoppages come into the picture. And after that, the Shah lost his narrative. So August 1978 was an inflection point in the Iranian revolutionary trajectory at that time. It is —

KRISTOL: The Shah left how much later?

TAKEYH: The Shah will leave on January 17, 1979. In my opinion, Ms Amini’s death is the new Rex Cinema.


TAKEYH: Now, that doesn’t mean it’ll be six months from now, but we’re in that. The revolution today has had a symbolic spark. And the regime is behaving in a similarly ham-fisted way that the Shah did.

Just one example, Bill, in August when the Rex Cinema bombing took place, a week later, the Shah’s mother had a celebration of the 1953 coup. Which as you recall, also took place in August 1953. And they celebrated that with fireworks, massive fireworks throughout the country. That’s how much out of touch the Shah’s regime was in August 1978.

When Ali Khamenei goes out there and states, “The Zionists and the Americans did this.” That’s how out of touch he is. That’s the bubble that he lives in. So the resonance between the two events are quite striking. And history doesn’t happen just because it should. And history doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure is rhyming in the streets of Tehran today.

KRISTOL: Yeah, interesting. A couple things. So I very much like your phrase about the different groups of protesters crediting each other’s grievances. And that that’s sort of a key to getting from a bunch of grievances to a revolutionary situation. And that’s a nice formulation. I guess that happened also in ’78, ’79, right? You had Marxists and Islamists.

TAKEYH: Liberals, seculars.


TAKEYH: Yeah. Traditionalists, everybody.

KRISTOL: And so of these groups you mentioned earlier, the strikers, and that had been an important moment, I think in ’78 when the Bazaar went on strike and oil workers, petrochemical workers. And my sense is we see a little bit of that just beginning to happen now, is that right?

TAKEYH: Yes, that’s right. The Tehran Bazaar has closed, oil workers have stopped, have walked off, petrochemical workers and so on. So we have seen some work stoppages, which unlike previous occasions, were expressions of solidarity with the protestors.

KRISTOL: How broad based is the economic unhappiness? One thing that strikes me when you read about the Soviet regime falling, people like me were much more interested in, just naturally more knowledgeable, I guess maybe, about the protests against, obviously on behalf of freedom, but by different groups of dissidents. It turned out though also that I think people had by the ’80s understood that the economy was not doing what the leaders said it was doing. And they were just looking around the world and seeing how much behind they were falling. And there was enough ability to see what was happening elsewhere in the world that they gradually seems to have permeated quite a lot of the, at least the middle, upper middle classes, maybe the whole society for all I know. Waiting on lines, all those jokes, one reads from Soviet Union about waiting online for five hours for soap or something.

I mean, how much is A, empirically, analytically, how bad is the economic performance been? And B, how much do people sense that it really can’t be fixed by this regime?

TAKEYH: Well, the economic problems are quite pronounced. The inflationary problems, the budgetary issues, the lack of distributional wealth. There are a couple of problems that the regime has, which are beyond its ability to fix.

Number one corruption. Corruption is particularly glaring in developing society. But corruption is particularly burdensome in a government of God. Government of God whose leaders profess divine attributes, whose leaders demand sacrifice while they get into their BMWs and so on. So when the government of God is corrupt it’s a different sort of issue than when you have a run-of-the-mill third-world autocracy. When the Soviet Union, the working class party, was corrupt with these Dachas and privileged sources of material goods, that became particularly glaring. So they have that particular problem of corruption.

And the second problem they have, economic grievances are pervasive. Other countries have had economic downturns. My portfolio is down 25%. And so the question is, when do economic grievances embrace a certain political attire that makes them difficult to address through macroeconomic adjustments? That happened in the ’70s. That is happening, in my opinion, in Iran today. Namely, people are not just looking at their economic situation. What they said in ’78, and what they’re saying in 2022 is, “The good times are over and I didn’t get mine. I’m never going to get mine. The only people that got theirs are those people.” And so there’s a psychological accompaniment to current economic grievances that cannot be adjusted if the inflation rate goes down.

At the same time that the regime is removing subsidies because it wants to make its economy more self-reliant and resistant to sanctions. That is Ali Khamenei’s economic philosophy. He calls it the economy of resistance. His economic vision is to have an economy that is somewhat impervious to America’s sanctions regime. So essentially it means segregating Iran from the global markets, diversifying their sources of export, less reliance on oil market, and adjusting its trade patterns to deal with Russia, China, and Afghanistan, and Central Asia.

It was never a suitable economy for a country of 85 million people with a youth bulge. But he was okay with poverty. The price of resistance was poverty. Except poverty generated a political protest that has now taken a political coloration which, in my opinion, has escaped the regime’s control.

KRISTOL: And if you’re a middle class Iranian who did okay in the current regime, got along, and was a professional, an engineer, a lawyer, do you think now it’s not going well? Do you think your kids’ prospects are less good than yours? I mean, how deep is the economic concerns and grievances, and really, more than grievances even, deep pessimism among the sort of middle, upper middle class? But that would be important, wouldn’t it, for whether the elite split or whether the regime loses their grasp on that?

TAKEYH: Well, the Iranians have their own share of Brezhnev jokes that the Soviets did. And the one is that the cleric gets up in a mosque and says, “If you pray and you fast and you abide by the regime, you’ll have a great life.” And somebody says, “You mean like the Shah’s time?” He says, “Oh, no, no.” And that would be that good idea.

So the idea of a lost generation is a fairly poignant fact in Iran today. The idea that, as I said, the good times, to the extent that they ever arrived, are now irrevocably over so long as this regime remains in power. The class stratification [inaudible] is more provocative than the late 1970s. There is a lot of grievance about what they call [foreign language], the sons of the clerical elite, the people who drive Lamborghinis and race the streets of Tehran, the people who have these opulent drug parties in the palaces and the neighborhoods, the people who go on shopping sprees abroad.

I’ll give you a couple examples. The Speaker of Parliament’s family went on a shopping spree in Turkey. That became a big issue in Iran because people are informed of the fact that they get the medical services they want. And when one of the leaders of the regime’s wife wants to shop, she goes to Europe. She goes to Turkey. You don’t.

So it’s the class resentments. They’re not typical in a sense that the lower class doesn’t resent the upper class. Everybody resents the clerical class that’s in power, and that has created a substantial problem. Add to that the corruption and the arrogance of the sons of wealth, sons of the regime, the people who essentially live a very decadent life in the midst of an Islamic Republic with all the palaces and parties and drugs and gyms and healthcare centers. And whenever they want to take a breather, they go abroad to the Gulf, to Europe, to North Africa. That is a very emotional issue that creates this whole set of pronounced resentments.

KRISTOL: Interesting. So I want to talk, get to the US policy here in a minute, and then other policy, the rest of the world for that matter. But just one — On the actual just brute correlation of forces, as we used to say back in the Cold War, I mean, security services are strong and pretty ruthless, and they certainly suppressed plenty of things in the past. I mean, are there signs of any weakening there? Are there signs that splits there would… Would that be a key thing to look for, do you think? And which of the… I’m sort of very interested and I think political scientists are starting to look at past revolutions and say that the elite splitting is a really important moment. The governing class, people defecting, suddenly the solidarity that’s allowed them to make their internal deals with each other starts to crumble. How much of that do you see? And talk a little bit also just about the pure brute force of the security.

TAKEYH: Well, that’s a subject of considerable debate. There are different people on different views. I can offer you my view, but yeah, just to notify you that there are other views. In my opinion, the regime’s security services are likely to prove unreliable if they face a determined opposition over a prolonged period of time. Why did I say that? First of all, the regime has overlapping police forces and intelligence services, by the way, as same as the Shah.

So one of the things we can say about the intelligence services of the regime and its own internal cohesion is we can safely say that they have put the word ‘failure’ in intelligence failure. So obviously they’re not doing well in assessing the society’s ills; otherwise they would have told the leadership, “Look, as you engage in this activity, you better be worried about the popular backlash.” Or it is possible that they did offer that analysis and that analysis was ignored or was not relayed to the top. We don’t know how the intelligence information is being distributed in the Islamic Republic. The only thing we can say is that they seem to be suffering from some sort of failure to understand their own society.

Number two, almost all the Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces, which they haven’t sought to deploy, I don’t think the [inaudible] paramilitary militia, popular militia they have is going to be that reliable anyways. But the Revolutionary Guards is a force of 125,000 people. I think about 10% to 15% are officer corps. So that puts them at 100,000 foot soldiers. By the way, that’s not enough to deal with the nationwide protest movement. But even of that 100,000, about 50,000, 60,000 are conscripts. So, if you’re a conscript, you’re not going to be a conscript forever. You’re there for one year, two years. You got six months left, seven months left. And here’s what the regime is asking you to do. It asked you in 2017 and ’19 in particular, before the recent outburst, the regime itself identified 2019 as one of the most serious protests. Why? Because some of these security forces, who are conscripts from lower classes, were asked to go into neighborhoods that were familiar to them, to deal with people that were culturally similar to them, and actually engage in repression. That’s the hard thing to ask a conscript to do.

So right now, if you’re a conscript, you’re standing outside of a middle school, an all-female middle school at three o’clock in the afternoon, and a 13-year-old adolescent female comes up to you, takes her scarf off and cuts her hair. You have three options to deal with the situation. You can shoot her and all hell breaks loose. You can arrest her and all the neighbors come in and throw garbage at you and curse at you and say, “What are you doing? This is our daughter.” You can look away. If you look away, tomorrow, instead of one, three of them come up to you.

One of the things we know from the archives of the monarchy that the Islamic Republic itself has published, the Shah was the ultimate Nixonian state. Everybody recorded each other. Everybody was tape recording each other, as was the Islamic Republic, by the way. The military deliberations of the Shah’s generals are recorded, and Islamic Republic published them. And when we read their deliberations, the Supreme Military Commanders Council, as they call it, the Supreme Commanders Council, what they’re most concerned about is the psychological pressure on the troops and the possibility of defection if these troops are battered psychologically, day after day, day after day, day after day. If you have to send conscripts day after day to poor neighborhoods and to shoot 14-year-olds, I just don’t think that’s a reliable army.

By the way, national armies don’t like to shoot their people. We know how difficult a time the Chinese had in Tiananmen Square between military, within the military, between civilian and military, within the civilian leadership. So, if the Islamic Republic has only its own forces to rely on, to repress a national sentiment, then I think they’re in deep, deep trouble.

KRISTOL: And those guys you see on the clips on motorcycles, I don’t know, that’s more the… What do they call it? The internal sort of thuggish forces, I guess. They’re paid, I suppose, so they do it. But how strong is that do you think?

TAKEYH: Well, I mean, that’s the question, right? Can they do it day after day, day after day? Because at some point, if this gets out of hand, which it is getting out of hand, they don’t have that capacity. Look, in 1999 when the universities rebelled, you can send a conscript to a university and you say, “Go beat up a middle class, upper middle class college kid.” Happily. But now you’re saying, “Go to an all female university.” [inaudible] went to a religious university that was all female. He was heckled.

KRISTOL: Yeah. That was striking. It was just last weekend. Yeah.

TAKEYH: Yeah. He can’t tell the security services, “Go shoot those women.” The Islamic Republic has to now shoot a lot of women. And there’s a problem with that because women in the Islamic societies may be second class citizens, but also their protection and guardianship is a male duty and a male virtue. And it’s silly now. The average age of person being arrested is 16 years old.

By the way, when they arrest them, they process you out because the last thing they want when they arrest a 16-year-old is the family to come outside the prison, say, “Where’s my kid?” And then other people join. There’s a demonstration. Okay. So you defuse the demonstration by getting this 16-year-old kid and releasing him. Well, he just got in his mind what the people in 1978 got in their mind. “I can be virtuous in opposition to the regime, and the penalty may not be overwhelming.”

They’re in an impossible position. If you keep them, you generate more protests. If you release them, you create a sense of impunity. I just think this is a very tough situation for them to navigate themselves out of.

KRISTOL: Very interesting. We’re speaking, I should have said this earlier, on October 13th, just so when people look in the future, they’ll know at which stage of the revolutionary process we are. We’re giving this real-time, very interesting and helpful I think, real-time commentary on it.

So let’s talk about the US. You worked in the US government, and obviously we have… Maybe we do, maybe we don’t have some influence. I don’t know. Do you? I mean, what should we be doing? What are we doing? What did we do in the past that was right or wrong? How much can we help?

TAKEYH: Well, this is an Iranian internal situation, and it will evolve accordingly. The United States will have a limited role, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a role. I think the rhetoric of denouncing the regime coming from all Western governments, not just the United States, has been very healthy. I think the cultural figures embracing the opposition has been very important. Whether it’s the athletes, whether it’s the students, Kanye, whoever, these people that are embracing the opposition, in Hollywood, I think that’s important.

KRISTOL: I just know that’s happened internally too, right? I think Shay Khatiri wrote a piece in The Bulwark saying that had not happened earlier, that the wrestlers, the Olympic team athletes, the movie stars have embraced the demonstrations and made it —

TAKEYH: The global culture even is embracing this because this is no longer — Iran has been for too long a partisan issue in the United States. It’s now exceeding those partisan parameters. Different people from the liberal Hollywood to the more conservative elements of our society are beginning to embrace the protests, and that’s a good thing.

Now, what role can the United States play? Obviously, penetration of the social media and technology is important. As I mentioned when we began, there are three political— There are three narratives in Iran. The middle narrative are former regime stalwarts who are hedging. The question is: what role does United States have in order to help them hedge the right way? One of the things I would talk about if I was in the US government and Western governments, France, Britain and others, is that in the post revolutionary period, there’s a possibility for those in the elite who wish to disassociate themselves from this government. The future of Iran should be more of a South African future with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as opposed to 1979 situation of executions.

“We believe that reconciliation will be the future of Iran; whilst the current government with its limited base and limited [inaudible].” I would try to essentially say those things, a vision for post revolutionary Iran, in order to help those in the middle to say, “Okay, if this revolution succeeds, I’m not going to be one of the Shah’s generals executed on the second day.” The opposition should start talking about truth and reconciliation, about the future where the country comes together as opposed to falls apart, about the future where the social classes unite as opposed to conspire against each other. So that gives some degree of… It was like South Africa. If you confess to your crimes, you can have a life in the society. That’s one thing I would work on in terms of messaging if I was the US government.

Now, the fourth thing, the elephant in the room, is the United States may not be able to expedite the revolution, but it can, in my opinion, prolong the life of the regime. Let’s go back to the seventies, Bill, our favorite decade. It is my opinion that détente prolonged the life of the Soviet. That’s my — I realize it’s a contest view. Different people have different perspective on it. It is my view that détente and the injection of commercial and financial contacts in the Soviet Union prolonged the life of the Soviet Empire.

An arms control agreement today, which will result in billions of dollars going into the regime, will have two impacts. Number one, it will help fortify the regime. Number two, it will deal a psychological blow to the opposition. In a sense, it will credit the regime that there’s nobody out there that cares about your sentiments. So the Iran nuclear deal was never a good deal. It never provided sufficient obstacles to the Iranian nuclear trajectory. It certainly … arms control, in my opinion, is no longer a suitable situation today. So it’s what the United States shouldn’t do that may be as important as other things it can do.

KRISTOL: No, that’s so important. I was against the Iran nuclear deal, I thought, just as a kind of matter of do we know that it really slowed down or stopped the nuclear program and do we have sufficient checks and safeguards and visibility? There were like arguments, let’s say, within the nuclear context, within the nuclear deal context against it. But what you’re saying really is I think very important. At this point it would legitimize the regime. It would weaken the protestors at a moment when there really is a chance for a transformation in Iran that would be so healthy for the people of Iran and presumably for the whole region. Right?

TAKEYH: Well, we have to grasp our head around the fact, and it’d be very difficult to do, that this is no longer an arms control regime. And I think that’s going to be very difficult to grasp one’s head around.

KRISTOL: Yeah, say it. Explain that a bit. So what do you mean when you say this is no longer an arms –

TAKEYH: This is about the state versus society. This is about the regime. This is about the future of Iran. It’s no longer about which year you put rotors in centrifuges, year six or year seven, of an evaporating agreement. And that’s going to be very difficult to do for the American bureaucracy because arms control is easy. You just have a couple of nuclear scientists and try to figure out what to do. To understand the characteristic of a rebellious society and how you can attenuate the strength of this whole new regime, that’s hard. In any context.

And it’s particularly hard today because we’ve been incarcerated in the arms control mentality. I would say arms control, any arms control with any country requires two assumptions. The first assumption is that the country on the other side is pragmatic. In a sense, it will put ideology aside and it abide by its agreements.

The second is that it is the responsible stakeholder for residual nuclear assets because you’re talking about arms control, not to solve it. Those two assumptions, pragmatism and responsible stakeholders. We’re wrong about the Soviet Union. We’re wrong about North Korea. They are wrong about Iran. So arms control seems to me always a deficient exercise, but is particularly misplaced today.

Now I would say the proponents of arms control, if Henry Kissinger was here, he will say that arms control with the Soviet Union in and of itself is a moral cause because you’re reducing nuclear danger and so forth. So there are arguments on the other side. I just think this issue is no longer to be considered as an arms control issue, it seems.

KRISTOL: And to what degree do you think — So when we’re advising the Ayatollahs it seems to me someone could come up with two different arguments actually. One is, “Take whatever offer is on the table, get back into the JCPOA, get American and West European legitimation of the regime, disable the protestors. You can cheat five years from now and do whatever you want on your nuclear stuff. But this is a crisis.” So do you think there’s a chance they’ll go in that direction?

And then second, in the opposite, or could they go for a breakout and sort of try to terrify the West in a sense to legitimizing the regime by, “We are now one step away from having nuclear weapons.” Sort of a Putin play in Ukraine. “You can’t mess around with a regime that’s nuclear,” and so forth.

TAKEYH: Well, you offer two arguments whether they want to take a deal, whether they’re going to escalate in order to get a deal. Well, we see they’re escalating. They announced the advanced new machines are being operated. Now whether this escalation is for the purpose of an agreement or detonation is a different thing, Bill.

KRISTOL: So I put the detonation in that second scenario. Is that something that they could do to show they’re strong? They’re not –

TAKEYH: I think when you talk about dire scenarios, I do think that’s one thing you have to be concerned about. Look, right now, if the Iranian regime wanted a porous permissive agreement, it could have it. There is an offer on the table. The offer has not been withdrawn, it has not been amended, it has not been adjusted. If they want a porous, irresponsible arms control agreement that will immediately deliver billions of dollars in dividend, all they have to do is call the director general of IEA or the permanent European. That’s all they have to do.

KRISTOL: Incidentally, just to be clear, it delivers billions of dollars because sanctions come off if the deal goes back.

TAKEYH: That’s right. That’s right. So whatever time it is, it’s 6:00 PM in Taiwan. If they call up the director general, the European permanent representative and say, “Yeah, we’re going to sign on the dotted line,” that agreement will go through. As far as I know, that agreement has not been — Our offer, the Western offer to Iran has not been withdrawn. It should be withdrawn. But it has not been withdrawn. So what the Iranians will do is certainly escalate their nuclear activities.

They’re already talking about it. They’re already doing it, whether they’re doing it in order to get an agreement to generate billions of dollars and demoralize the opposition or go for the bomb, it’s very difficult to say if you’re not in their council. But certainly I think as we see the protest movements evolve, you can see the specter of nuclear danger similarly escalate.

And then you’ll have the arguments that we can stand up for human rights in Iran and have arms control at the same time. It is a circular argument. You can’t have both. You have to make a choice, but that argument is likely to do more credit. By the way, that’s the argument of the US government today and the European governments. That’s what we’re saying today is that although we care about the welfare of the Iranian people, we are still prepared to engage in the arms control discussion and agreement with the Iranian party because the nuclear danger has to be addressed through diplomatic means.  That’s the position of the Western powers today.

KRISTOL: And how worried are you about other kinds of lashing out by the regime, that authoritarian regimes that are under pressure do sometimes try to rally the country with patriotism or just kind of Putin type situation? Maybe I’m not sure why he decided to invade Ukraine, and maybe he didn’t do it out of weakness, but out of a sense of strength. But now that he’s weak, clearly weaker, there are threats of nuclear weapons and stuff. I mean, how worried are you about Iran? I don’t know, doing more aggressive vis-a-vis its neighbors and so forth, sponsoring more terror.

TAKEYH: In terms of direct invasion less so. We’re sort of [inaudible] less so. Because what the regime had tried to do by its intervention in Syria, let’s take that as an example. Initially it sort of tried to popularize that. It said, “Hey, we’re intervening with Syria. We’re defeating the United States in Syria.” But the regime’s foreign policy has not refurbished its nationalist credentials. As a matter of fact, the regime’s foreign policy has become an aspect of the opposition grievance system. You’ve seen them like, “No money for Syria. Why are we paying Hezbollah?” The Persians don’t like to spend money on Arabs. So if you say, “Well, we’re going to take a chunk of Iraq and liberate the Arab —” That’s not going to work to their advantage.

I think if they’re clever, and I don’t know how clever they are today, they seem particularly maladroit—you shouldn’t assume that they have greater imagination than they do—they would significantly escalate the nuclear danger. That’s what —

KRISTOL: Say again. They would significantly —

TAKEYH: Significantly intensify the nuclear danger.

KRISTOL: The nuclear danger.

TAKEYH: That’s the safe thing to do for them because it does not invite retaliation, but it does invite diplomatic treaties. If they’re smart, they will do that.

Now, everything they have done in the past couple of months leads me to believe they’re not smart. And when the political system purges itself, it also lowers the IQ of those remaining. You saw that in the aftermath of, just to demonstrate my age, in the aftermath of Prague in 1968, Prague intermission, when Eastern European parties began to purge themselves. It led to moronization of the Eastern European local leadership. And they were less capable of dealing with the crisis in the seventies when the crisis came. Similarly, you see, President Raisi is the least imaginative, least thoughtful president that Iran has ever had. So the purging of the political system doesn’t make brilliant… Brilliant people are not left behind. Let me put it that way. I think [inaudible] would’ve handled this situation differently than the current regime, perhaps more adroitly.

KRISTOL: And I’m told Khamenei is elderly and supposedly quite ill. Is that —

TAKEYH: Right, yeah. And he certainly is a person of considerable strategic imagination and intelligence. He should never be underestimated. He’s like Kevin Durant, he’s on your team. When he’s on your team, you always have a chance.

KRISTOL: I guess his health would be — I mean, wasn’t the Shah’s health in retrospect kind of an important part of the Revolution?

TAKEYH: The Shah got cancer in 1974 and began to think about succession and that’s when he got in trouble. Ali Khamenei got cancer and he’s thinking about succession. That’s why he’s getting into trouble because as he thought about succession, he tried to do three things. Purge the political elite, leave behind only the most reliable element. Number two, refashion the economy in order for it to resist the Western sanctions. And number three, in my opinion, go for the bomb.

KRISTOL: Interesting, interesting.

TAKEYH: But you see how the attempt to cement his legacy is undoing his Republic. That’s what the Shah did, by the way.

KRISTOL: Yeah. The parallels are kind of amazing given the —

TAKEYH: It is striking. Yeah, it is extraordinary.

KRISTOL: See what happens. Okay, so it’s October 13th. I mean, any particular, as you say, these things are extremely unpredictable, but any particular dates, moments, events we know are going to happen? Anniversaries, I mean, anything for people like us to watch for? Or we just have to watch events day by day, I’m sure, but —

TAKEYH: I would watch one thing in particular, not so much in terms of anniversaries, is is the revolution that is unfolding in Iran creating new symbols of power. Now since… I mean the number of 16 year olds that have been killed in custody and the regime says no, they committed suicide.


TAKEYH: One thing is that the coroner’s office came out and said, “No, they died because of blows to the head.” So as the regime’s narrative becomes contested even more by official organs of the state, when they’re coming out saying, “Oh, this person didn’t jump off the roof.” So what I would look for is the cohesion of the institutions of government and to what extent are they going out there contradicting the official narrative.

The head of the Iranian judiciary, the Iranian prosecutor’s office [inaudible] Ejei says,”Maybe we can have a dialogue with the opposition.” He obviously didn’t clear that with the boss. So the interagency process is not working because if he had cleared that with the boss’s office, they would say, “No, that’s not what we’re doing here.”

So as different people within the regime are beginning to suddenly distance themselves and call for a different alternative, I would look for that because we know about the political elite, but has the governing elite started essentially moving in different directions.

The Islamic Republic’s revolution had its own martyrs in terms of the Shia’ cycles when somebody’s killed they commemorate them. So maybe similar commemorations, we could look for those who have been killed. The regime is very concerned about the dead being buried immediately and not commemorated, but as it loses control, we can look for that.

And as I said, we’re in an ongoing process where the regime strength is eroding and its controls are evaporating. History doesn’t always go in the direction that one wants to, but in my opinion, we’re in a — I’d rather be the opposition than the regime today.

KRISTOL: Wow. Well, that’s a very striking statement by someone who’s a hardheaded observer of this, and who has been —we have been disappointed several times, but I think you’ve never been wishful about it in terms of what might happen there. So that’s maybe a good note to end on, that not only are we in a revolutionary situation, but one might rather be the opposition than the regime.

TAKEYH: Right, right.

KRISTOL: Striking. Ray Takehy, thank you very much for joining us today, October 13th. And thank you all for joining us on CONVERSATIONS.