Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev visits the International University in Moscow, February 9, 2012.
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev addresses students as he visits the International University in Moscow, February 9, 2012.
Denis Sinyakov/Courtesy Reuters

Could Iranian President Hassan Rouhani be another Mikhail Gorbachev -- a real reformer who opens his country’s political system and creates the space for détente with the United States and Europe?

Historical analogies are always fraught, of course, and leaders who are championed as reformers almost always leave disillusionment in their wakes. In addition, the jury is still out on whether a nuclear deal between the United States and Iran, which would open the door for a relaxation of painful sanctions, is even a good idea -- the specifics of the agreement matter greatly.

But whichever side one comes down on, it is worth considering where the Islamic Republic might be headed. In that regard, there are a few areas to watch.


Gorbachev was unique, a true believer in Soviet renewal who sat at the very top of a profoundly centralized political system.

Rouhani is nothing like him. In fact, Rouhani came to power precisely because of Tehran’s deep fragmentation, particularly within its right-wing establishment. The fracturing created an opening that Rouhani burst through in a surprise electoral victory in June 2013. But it also means that he cannot impose far-reaching reform. No one in Iran could, not even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. (If anything, the ceaseless invocations of Khamenei’s “supreme” authority testify to its absence, as well as his desire to have it.)

That said, the Iran state structure is similar to that of the former Soviet Union in some respects. Namely, both were born of revolution, which created a theocracy -- in one case with a clerical establishment, in the other with a Communist party -- that overrode the formal institutions of the state, such as parliaments, judiciaries, and civil service. In Iran, as in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the revolution is aging, with far-reaching consequences. An official ideology, whether Marxism-Leninism or political Islam, can give a regime great power. But it can also destabilize the theocratic system if the populace and the rulers lose faith. And there, Iran is vulnerable.

A second similarity can be found in Iran’s imperial overstretch. It is problematic enough that Iran’s geopolitical ambitions significantly exceed its capabilities. But it is really taxing that the places and causes in which the country has chosen to become enmeshed are so volatile. Soviet leaders would sympathize: as KGB analysts ruefully lamented, mostly after the collapse of the union, the regime’s allies almost always seemed to be impoverished basket cases whose only industry was perpetual civil war. Working with them might have poked the United States in the eye. But it did little for Soviet prestige, economic well-being, and security. From Afghanistan and Angola to Cuba and Yemen, to say nothing of North Korea, hawkish Soviet foreign policy often resembled a very determined stomp on a rake. (Thwack.)

Something similar, on a smaller scale, could be said of Iran's foreign policy. By now, most Americans understand that the intervention in Iraq (the second Iraq War), waged at great cost in American blood and treasure, redounded to Iran’s geopolitical benefit. Many analysts argue that the United States’ failure to intervene militarily in Syria did the same. But it is difficult to pinpoint, precisely, what Iran gained in Iraq or Syria. It is unclear that Iranian regional “successes” improved its security or its citizens’ well-being. One could even argue that Iran’s support for mischief (and worse) has only heightened the regime’s vulnerability -- just like the domestic failures of political Islamism.

Like the Soviet Union, Iran lives in a tough geopolitical neighborhood, one that has only been getting tougher. Statelets concocted by French and British colonial officials, the bankruptcy of pan-Arab nationalism, the recent struggles to the death between hopelessly corrupt authoritarians and the opposition (which is also often authoritarian), some violent de facto partitions -- these have created a regional tangle that inflicts immense suffering and that no outside power can readily unknot.

Simply put, U.S. policy in the Middle East is in shambles because the Middle East is in shambles. Iran’s Middle East policy is in shambles too. Persistently playing the role of spoiler in one’s own neighborhood brings few long-term rewards -- and that is even before the recent round of international sanctions (a stunning achievement made possible by the fact that China and Russia, as much as they chafe at U.S. power, dislike any kind of revisionism other than their own). Thanks to Iran’s behavior, its neighborhood has become still more treacherous, and the pain is multiplied by the country’s international isolation, high inflation, and collapsing currency.

At this point, Iran has little to lose but its own chains if it reforms and cooperates with the West. Of course, that is no guarantee that it will. Just because something is necessary does not mean that it is politically feasible. In fact, Iran’s political establishment is far from ready for a drastic turnabout in relations with the Great Satan. The structures that facilitated the U.S.-Iranian alliance during the Cold War are long gone -- the genuine Soviet menace, the strongman regime installed by a U.S.-sponsored coup, even the intense dependency on foreign oil. At the same time, the U.S. alliance with Israel, Iran’s sworn enemy, has only deepened. Any mini-détente with the United States, which is vital for Iran’s domestic development, is going to require far-reaching domestic changes.

And herein lies Rouhani’s Gorbachev moment.


Gorbachev was able to push through deep reform for three reasons. First, everything he did was in the name of renewing the system. Second, he was a master political tactician, at least within the context of the Soviet Communist system, and had promoted hapless conservatives to key positions at the head of the central Communist Party secretariat, the Soviet military, and the KGB. Third, U.S. President Ronald Reagan not only put major pressure on the Soviets but, when the concessions came, showed the foresight -- and had the credibility -- to pocket them and afford Gorbachev a lot of running room domestically.

It is hard to imagine Rouhani meeting all three of these conditions. Were he to introduce major domestic reforms, including an end to clerical disqualification of electoral candidates and to Basij and Revolutionary Guard control over large swaths of the economy, he would certainly claim that they are in the name of renewing the system. And he did show some Gorbachev-esque skill when he seized on a political moment, won elections, and promptly hinted at the possibility for nuclear negotiations. Further, he is already working overtime to further divide and conquer the hard-liners. But it is less certain that he will find a deft negotiator in Washington -- one able to cut a deal and keep to it, and to deepen that deal over time should Iran begin to institute major reforms.

And that is not all. An even greater challenge for Rouhani will be to find a path toward reform that does not also destabilize the regime. Parsing the news out of Tehran, it is hard to say what the regime’s plan is. In fact, beyond winning sanctions relief and ending isolation, Rouhani might not have one. The Iranian public, media, and academic institutions, as well as the diaspora, seem to have plenty of bold ideas. But as Gorbachev found, it is not enough to be bold. There has to be a tenable end state -- a safer and better place -- into which the system can settle. If there isn’t, Rouhani could indeed turn out to be Gorbachev: a man who is not able to reform his polity without unintentionally liquidating it.

1989 AND 2013

The final question, then, is how observers can judge whether any apparent reforms are for real. This was one of the great problems with deciphering Gorbachev too. Analysts could not tell what was going on because Gorbachev effectively claimed to be both undertaking radical change and not undertaking radical change at all. He was democratizing the Communist Party, revitalizing the Soviets with elections, energizing central planning with some decentralization and market mechanisms, and pursuing peace abroad. Skeptics had an easy time dismissing these initiatives, which sounded very Communist, very Soviet.

Gorbachev did not come out and say, “I am going to end the Communist Party monopoly,” because that was never his intention. It was only a consequence of allowing alternative civic associations to form, relaxing censorship, and introducing competitive elections. He never said, “I am going to destroy economic planning.” It was only a consequence of introducing legal market mechanisms. To believe that Gorbachev was a genuine reformer, one also had to believe two other things. First, that he did not understand the dynamics of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 -- namely, that reform, as his predecessor Leonid Brezhnev had concluded, was tantamount to self-annihilation. And second, that Gorbachev was as good a tactician as he seemed -- that he could outmaneuver the establishment opposition and pre-empt the kinds of crackdowns that had ended Communist reforms in Eastern Europe and had been Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s downfall.

In other words, to grasp in real time the immense impact of what Gorbachev was doing, one had to understand that the underlying threat to reform derived not from conservative opposition but from the system’s unreformability, and one had to surmise that Gorbachev held the opposite (erroneous) view that successful reform was possible, but conservative opposition would try to snuff it out.

If Rouhani launches a program of far-reaching economic and political reforms -- a big if -- the vast majority of analysts will be dismissive. His program could well resemble window-dressing: “streamlining” or “enhancing” clerical rule, “promoting” true Islamic values, strengthening Iran’s security against the machinations of the Zionist entity, and so on. But watch for two signs. The first is rising anger and organized sabotage on the part of the conservative establishment, which would signal Rouhani’s continued attempts to have his own way. The second, and more important, is socioeconomic or political developments that go beyond the reform agenda’s putative intentions, which would signal that Rouhani had unleashed a process that he could no longer control.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now