For more than a decade, the clerical regime in Iran has faced mounting domestic and international crises that have tested its political viability. The evolution of these challenges will, in all likelihood, eventually force the regime to undergo a “metamorphosis” in order to survive. In many ways, this transformation could look similar to that of the former Soviet communist system. Indeed, Russia eventually reverted to ultranationalism as the central organizing principle of its ideology, and Iran is likely to follow the same path.
If Iranian democratic forces cannot create a unified, pluralistic front to oppose the country’s ruling elites—and if the U.S. and the rest of the democratic world opt not to intervene and help Iranians build up democracy, like what happened in post-Soviet Russia—Iran’s next metamorphosis may produce an aggressive, ultranationalist regime. Such an outcome would not only be detrimental for the people of Iran, but would also further imperil the security and stability of the Gulf region.
Throughout modern history, Iran has frequently followed in the footsteps of its powerful northern neighbor, Russia. Both maintained their medieval authoritarianism as late as the early twentieth century, and both absorbed Western industry and technology while defying the democratic political developments that came with them. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to expect that the country’s political realities of tomorrow will mirror those of Russia’s today.
Throughout the 1990s, after more than seven decades of communism, a frustrated and penitent Russia turned once again to nationalism as its state ideology. As Russia underwent this transition, the United States and the rest of the West felt complacently triumphant in that they had defeated the Soviet Union, bringing about the end of the Cold War and ushering in the “end of history” through the unstoppable march of liberalism.
Rather than accept this new paradigm, a contingent of the former communist regime’s security-military apparatus led by Vladimir Putin succeeded in rebranding themselves as a nationalist movement. Although this movement initially downplayed its hostility towards the West, framing its patriotism in purely domestic terms, its irredentism toward former Soviet territories over the next two decades—culminating in the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022—have transformed it into the foremost threat to European security.
Rooted in an increasingly ultraconservative reading of Orthodox Christianity, contemporary Russian nationalism is a forcefully homogenizing ideology that is fundamentally incompatible with democracy. It actively—and sometimes violently—curtails human and civil rights, including the rights of ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities.
At the same time, Putin’s security apparatus is intensely outward-looking. It pursues a revanchist, imperialist foreign policy that has clearly demonstrated its intent to regain control over Russia’s “historical territories” by means of coercion, propaganda, and outright military conquest. The clearest inspirations for Putin’s regime are not Soviet-era leaders like Lenin or Stalin, but the great conquerors of yore—Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Grigory Potemkin.
Although Iranian society continues to bristle at the yoke of the Islamic Republic, there are already signs that a political shift away from clerical rule may result in a similar resurgence of extremist nationalism of the sort that Russia is experiencing today. Because the Islamists are currently ascendant in Iran, it is hard for many to imagine such a scenario. However, that does not make the possible outcome any less concerning.
The New Iranian Nationalism
Based on the Soviet model, the transition from one political system to another entails the survival of the regime’s security-military core, which will discard some of the more untenable aspects of the regime, surgically remove unwanted insiders, and co-opt part of the “opposition” to lend legitimacy to the new regime. In the Iranian context, the emergent leadership will attempt to downplay the former themes of Islamist authoritarianism and imperialism, promoting patriotism in their place. Islamist adventurism will metamorphosize into the well-known irredentism of ultranationalists who long for the revival of the ancient Persian Empire.
These ultranationalists already demonstrate the intense chauvinism and anti-Semitism of the current Islamist regime, and are most likely to maintain the current regime’s aggressive attitude towards the region by continuing Iran’s quest to become a nuclear power, accelerating Tehran’s acquisition of sophisticated missile technology, and maintaining the vast network of proxies that the Islamic Republic has created. In most likelihood, following a formula that was already in the making towards the end of the reign of the former Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a mix of strategic Shiism and open anti-Arab and anti-Israeli confrontationalism will drive the relationship between the new ultranationalist Iranian regime and its sectarian proxies across the region.
Like the ultranationalists currently leading Russia, Iran’s prospective leaders will show little respect for the ethnic and religious diversity of the country. A politically charged Shiism, the foundation of modern Iranian nationalism, will remain as one of the ideological foundations of the post-clerical Iranian regime.
Finally, to fully rebrand the new regime as a suitable alternative to the clerical paradigm, its leaders must co-opt members of the Islamic Republic’s opposition to join their cause. The truth is that the Islamic Republic has often been able to bring in line a considerable portion of the “opposition” that often espouses anti-democratic ideology.
Instead of advocating for human rights and democracy, these groups—on display across Persian-language media overseas—indulge in authoritarian nationalism, which has a rich history in Persia, from the ancient Achaemenids to the contemporary Pahlavis. Content found on well-known international Farsi television networks often harkens back to the glory days of imperial rule, reproducing the talking points of the Revolutionary Guards in a different guise. For a nation that already suffers from an obvious excess of authority, it is rather odd that the majority of the ideas the so-called opposition advertises to the Iranian society is authoritarian in nature.
These factors converge to paint a worrying picture. As things stand, even if the current clerical regime were to be replaced, it would be possible that a new government could match it for aggression and repression.
It is important to emphasize, however, that Iran need not go down this path. The country’s ongoing popular revolution, which has persisted against all odds for nearly six months and captured worldwide attention, reflects the best of Iranian society. Sparked by the murder of the young Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini at the hands of the religious police, the nationwide protests have demonstrated the desire and determination of the Iranian people for democracy and codification of human rights.
Going forward, as Iran’s political turmoil continues and its ultranationalist tendencies deepen, pro-democracy Iranians must do their best to keep the ideals of the protests alive, pushing for adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the rule of law, the separation of religion from the state, the creation of a multi-party political system with democratic circulation of power, the empowerment of women and minorities, and ethnic, cultural and religious pluralism.
In the end, the West must recognize that keeping Iran in its sphere of influence by supporting the repressive Pahlavi dictatorship, rather than developing democracy, was the fatal error that delivered Iran into the hands of the Islamists in the first place. The long-term security interests of the United States and its allies in the region and around the globe will be advanced by helping Iran establish a democracy that embraces liberal values and seeks to be a good friend of its neighbors and the democratic world.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.