Why Biden Is Betting Iran’s Latest Revolution Will Fail

A new assessment concludes that the regime is prepared to use violence on any scale to crush the uprising now playing out on streets across the nation.

Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, center, reviews a group of armed forces cadets during their graduation ceremony at Tehran Monday. Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP

The Biden administration’s latest assessment is that Iran is not on the verge of a regime collapse and will be able to defeat the protesters who have been in the streets for more than two weeks, according to two Congressional staffers briefed on preliminary estimates on the current unrest.

The main reason for the gloomy — not to mention defeatist — outlook for the Iranian resistance is that the Biden administration reckons the regime’s own internal security services are prepared to use violence to quell the uprisings, now in their third week and throughout the country.

This analysis is based partly on recent history. In 2019, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered the suppression of uprisings that began that November and continued into 2020. According to Reuters, citing statistics from Iran’s interior ministry, that crackdown claimed more than 1,000 lives.  

It appears that the regime will be taking a similar hard line against the demonstrations that began last month after a Kurdish student, Mahsa Amini, died in the custody of the morality police for not properly wearing her hijab. Her death inspired defiance of Iranian religious authority across the country. 

On Monday, Mr. Khamenei complained in a speech that the riots in cities and towns were being orchestrated by Zionist and American saboteurs. The assessment that the regime will ultimately prevail helps explain the president’s  half-in, half-out approach to the current crisis in Iran.

On the one hand, Mr. Biden has sanctioned the regime’s morality police and approved a license for Elon Musk’s Starlink to provide satellite-based internet to Iran. At the same time, the president’s advisers say they still want to negotiate a nuclear deal with the regime those Mr. Biden claims to support would like to topple.

Any nuclear deal with Iran would enrich the state by unfreezing billions of dollars of oil revenues and the removal of significant sanctions. As I’ve written, the Biden approach won’t work. For now, it’s worth focusing on the assessment that eventually the regime will be able to shoot its way out of its current crisis.

The American government has historically been loath to predict the collapse of authoritarian states challenged by their own people. The CIA famously assessed on the eve of Iran’s revolution that the country was not in a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary state. A declassified CIA assessment sketches why the agency erred.

The assessment, declassified recently, argues that Yank spies considered domestic politics under Shah Reza Pahlavi to be a low reporting priority. Reporting on the Shah’s loosening grip on power did not make it to senior decision makers in the administration of President Carter. 

The CIA missed the 1979 revolution with the benefit of a fully staffed American embassy in Tehran. Today, the American government has no such diplomatic presence in Iran. It must rely on the assessments of foreign allies in Iran and on what Iran’s resistance has managed to beam out of the country.

The main reason to be wary of any assessments on the success and failure of the current Iranian revolution is that the most important information is practically unknowable. The Iranian people will succeed if enough officers of the domestic intelligence ministry, national police, and the state-aligned militia side with them.

Put another way, the real competition today in Iran is for the loyalty of the mid-level and senior ranks of the state’s security institutions. Tyrannies fall when the police and the army refuse to fire on the people demonstrating against the tyrant. There is little the CIA can do, and the real push has to be from within.

Who else other than Iranians themselves could, when one stops to think about it, persuade a functionary to side with the women burning their hijabs instead of staying loyal to the Ayatollah? What this means is that the Biden administration has no basis on which to predict defeat of this uprising, and success for its negotiating partners at Geneva.

The New York Sun

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