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The Future of Iran

With Ilan Berman, Alex Vatanka, and Ervand Abrahamian

In this episode of Foreign Affairs Unedited, we’re looking at Iran’s use of cyberwarfare after the nuclear deal, the coming Iranian succession crisis, and Iran’s generational struggle to reconcile enlightenment ideals with political Islam. Hosted by Deputy Managing Editor Katie Allawala and featuring guests Ilan Berman, Alex Vatanka, and Ervand Abrahamian with Justin Vogt.

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This podcast has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is below. Music credit: FreeMusicArchive.org / Podington Bear

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ALLAWALA: This is Foreign Affairs Unedited, and I’m Katie Allawala.

Last summer’s nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 is back in the headlines thanks to a New York Times magazine profile of Ben Rhodes, Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications. The profile, written by David Samuels, describes the way in which Rhodes and the Obama administration presented the deal to the media and the public. In the United States, it has kicked off a debate about the relationship between government and the media, the Obama administration’s strategy in Iran, and the wisdom of the Iran deal itself. 

With those question in mind, we’re dedicating today’s podcast to Iran. We’re looking at the country’s strategy for regaining leverage after the agreement, whether a new Supreme Leader could turn the country into a more moderate partner, and how debates about Enlightenment ideas and Islamists are playing out since the deal.

We start today with Ilan Berman, Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council, and author of the recent Foreign Affairs article “Fallout Ploy.”

“Iran’s cyberwarriors are back in action,” he explained in that piece, “Late last fall, The New York Times reported that Iranian hackers had carried out an extensive hack on U.S. State Department employees. Among the victims were U.S. diplomats working on the Middle East and on Iran specifically, who had their email compromised and their social media accounts infiltrated.

At the time, he explained, it was the latest in what U.S. officials say are increasingly aggressive attempts to glean information about U.S. policies toward Iran in the wake of the nuclear deal.

BERMAN: Well first off, I think there's a difference between cyber activity and cyber attacks. I think the pattern that we've seen over the last year or so has been a decrease in actual cyber attacks.

ALLAWALA: That’s Berman.

BERMAN: Because as Iran has invested in this negotiated solution over its nuclear program with the P5+1 nations, it stands to reason that Iran is behaving a bit better in the cyber domain. But what we've seen since the signing of the JCPOA last summer has been an uptick in Iranian cyber activity, with regard to increasing information collection, increasing penetration of US targets of interest via social media.

ALLAWALA: What this means, says Berman, is that Iran is on the move.

BERMAN: Iran is still investing heavily in cyber capabilities, the scope and the sophistication of their cyber capabilities, even after the signing of the JCPOA. Cyber remains a key domain for them in terms of their asymmetric strategy and they're an increasingly mature and sophisticated cyber actor.

ALLAWALA: Of course, much of Iran’s cyberstrategy is cloaked secrecy. But there have been very public indications of what might be going on. For one, last spring, in the middle of the negotiations with the West, Berman explains, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei publicly called on Iranian youth to prepare for “cyber-war” with the West. There’s also Iran’s defense budget to consider.

BERMAN: Public pronouncements, public statements, reportage in the Iranian media about their defense budget, which beginning in 2011 began carrying a $1 billion line item annually on cyber warfare and cyber activities. All of that, I think, suggests strongly that cyber is a significant area of investment.

ALLAWALA: There’s a defensive and offensive component to the strategy.

BERMAN: Defensively, the Iranian regime has looked at cyber as a way to respond to, address, and throttle the domestic opposition as it emerges. And this really, I think, came of age after the rise of, or in response to the rise of the Green Movement in mid-2009.

ALLAWALA: The Green Movement made good use of social media to advance its protests against the reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

To put it simply, the regime identified what the Green Movement was doing in cyberspace, followed the Green Movement on to cyberspace, onto the Internet and throttled them there. And I think it's remained there.

ALLAWALA: There is also an offense component to Iran’s cyberstrategy.

BERMAN: Offensively, I think the regime looks at cyber in the context of asymmetric strategy, as an adjunct to war fighting. Even now, but certainly in the past when they were under full spectrum sanctions, they were resource constrained, they were looking at technologies that could allow them to level the playing field against a whole host of adversaries, not least of them, the United States.

So a lot of what Iran has done historically in cyberspace has been to demonstrate their capabilities by shutting down US financial institutions, or at least their online presence, temporarily. Organizations like Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, and others by hacking into US critical infrastructure nodes. This was not intended to do lasting harm, it was intended to communicate that Iran has the potential to harm.

ALLAWALA: If anything, Berman says, that threat has grown since the nuclear deal, the JCPOA, especially since Iran is at least temporarily constrained in its nuclear investments. And so, cyberactivity has become a more attractive deterrent.

BERMAN: The increasingly capable level of Iranian activity in cyberspace is intended as a signaling tool. Not only for us, but also for other countries in the P5+1 and also in the broader community of nations in Europe and Asia, that are now all looking to re-establish economic contacts with the Islamic Republic.

And in this context, I think it's necessary to think about cyber as a way for the Iranians to shape continued engagement, to shape compliance. Because after all, trading partners which have corporate interest, which have business dealings, which have exposed networks that are connected with the Islamic Republic, are more vulnerable to the threat of Iranian exploitation of their systems and what have you.

ALLAWALA: There’s a second layer to the strategy too, Berman says, which has to do with verification of the nuclear deal itself.

BERMAN: The nitty gritty of the 159 pages of the JCPOA is that there is less in-person, on-site monitoring of Iran's nuclear facilities than would have been desired by a whole host of US experts and professionals. The default position, the compromised position generated by Iran intransigence, has been to create a work around that deals with technical needs.

Standoff monitoring using computers and sensors are intended to take the place of on-the-ground inspectors, in terms of keeping an eye on Iran's nuclear processes. This is all well and good, except we have learned in the recent past, through a number of cases in the corporate world, for example through the Volkswagen corporation's manipulation of emissions data, that it's possible to tinker with technology, it's possible to tinker with testing, it's possible to run the game on technical needs.

ALLAWALA: As a result, there are real challenges to the plans to monitor and verify Iran’s compliance with the deal.

BERMAN: On the one hand, our increasing reliance on computers and software to make sure Iran is sticking to the nuclear deal. And on the other, Iran's increasingly capable ability to manipulate cyberspace to see if it can work around these types of oversight conditions.

ALLAWALA: Whether the deal sticks or not, Berman says, the United States has to adjust to some new realities when it comes to Iran and to cyberspace.

BERMAN: Historically, the way the US intelligence community has thought about cyberspace has been as a binary problem. The big two, has tended to be historically Russia and China. China in the context of intellectual property theft and cyber attacks. And Russia in the context of exploiting cyberspace for gray and black market activity. But increasingly, as we move forward in time, you're seeing Iran rise in prominence As Iran sort of gets further and further into both being reintegrated into the sort of global economic community and also being constrained, at least temporarily, in its nuclear development, cyber naturally rises to the fore as an arena where the Iranians are gonna have more resources and also have more incentive to play .

ALLAWALA: That was Ilan Berman on Iran’s cyberstrategy. On March 10, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met with a group of elderly clerics from the Assembly of Experts. A few days earlier, on February 26, elections for the body had seen household-name hardline candidates routed and the number of moderates in the assembly nearly triple. That morning, sitting in a small hall with whitewashed walls, an animated Khamenei had something particular in mind: he wanted to speak about his successor.

And so the 77-year-old Khamenei turned to his audience and made his basic, but powerful pitch to the clerics, including those reelected for another eight-year term. I will not be around forever, he said, but “a supreme leader has to be a revolutionary.” “Don’t,” Khamenei implored, “be bashful” when it comes to choosing the next man.

So begins a recent article by Alex Vatanka, Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute. We talked to him to learn more about the succession and the Assembly of Experts.

VATANKA: This is the body in Iran that has, really, two key functions. On the one hand, it oversees the performance of the Supreme Leader. So on paper, these 88 clergymen, Shia clergymen, and they mostly do have senior ranks within the Shia religious establishment, on paper, they have the power to dismiss the Supreme Leader. Now, in reality, it doesn't work that way because politics in Iran operates in less constitutional sort of ways than, perhaps, people might imagine. Now, the other power that they have, which is much more relevant, and that was the purpose behind the meeting, in many ways, is that these members of the Assembly of Experts will be choosing the next Iranian Supreme Leader.

ALLAWALA: More than anyone else, on March 10, Khamenei’s remarks about the succession were directed at the man sitting right next to him.

VATANKA His name is Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and he's been a friend and a rival of Khamenei going back to the earliest days of the revolution in Iran in 1979. And he is now, in the mind of Khamenei and that circle around Khamenei, Rafsanjani is seen as not really holding strong enough revolutionary credentials anymore. So basically what Khamenei was saying to the members of the Assembly of Experts was, "Watch out, if you're not careful, you might give the top job in the land to someone who might just bring about the downfall of the Islamic Republic.

ALLAWALA: Although the Assembly of Experts meets a few times each year, Khamenei’s statements about the succession were unusual.

VATANKA: That is not something he does that regularly, for one simple reason, once you start talking about succession and the fact that you will not be there forever, then you've already sort of a started the process where different factions are going to be maneuvering for sort of influence and been able to put whoever they think should be the next leader. But the fact that he has chosen not to come out and talk about it in this speech and in a number of other occasions in recent months, is an indication that he's now looking ahead. He wants to prepare the ground, he wants to start a process, because he feels if he starts the process, if he sets the tone, then he and his people have a better chance of deciding the outcome once that process has ended.

ALLAWALA: Vatanka warns that it is important, though, not to read too much into Khamenei’s timing.

VATANKA I don't wanna give the impression that we're around the corner that Khamenei is going to be leaving the political stage any time soon. He has had some health issues, but he's a pretty strong 77-year-old. Just listen to his speeches, he's very vivid, he still as energetic as he's been in recent years. There's no suggestion that he's going to be dying any time soon, he could be around for another 10-15 years. But here's the key, he doesn't know how long he's going to be, nor do the people who are waiting to see what happens, and that's why the process has to be regulated, controlled.

ALLAWALA: Khamenei’s urge to control the process might have something to do with the last succession process, in 1989.

VATANKA: Last time around back in 1989, when the founder of the Islamic republic died, it was basically anyone's guess who would be the next supreme leader. In fact there was a lot of questions about whether they would be another supreme leader. The people who we're talking about here today Ali Akbar Rafsanjani and Ali Khamenei, back then had actually by most accounts planned to create a five-man council a so-called Shura, a council that would be taken over once Khomeini died, because nobody really believed that anyone could fill the old man's shoes.

Khomeini dies, Khamenei and Rafsanjani and a few others including Khomeini's sons, Ahmad Khomeini they go to the then Assembly of Experts, and they put this table on the idea that there shouldn't be a one Supreme Leader, that they should be a five-man team. 

ALLAWALA: The Assembly of Experts rejected that idea, and Khamenei maneuvers his way into becoming Supreme Leader.

VATANKA: Khamenei is turned into the next supreme leader basically on the words of two individuals, one is Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the guy who's today become the chief nemesis in many ways of Khomeini. And the words of the son of Khomeini, Ahmad Khomeini who died back in 1995.

VATANKA:What that process tells us is that really there are no hard rules. This is not exactly a process where you tick away boxes and you get to a decision. It comes down to the political influence that the key players involved in that process would have at that particular moment in time. And back in 1989, last time they had a succession process, the key individuals were people like Rafsanjani and Khamenei.

ALLAWALA: It is unclear that the people involved this time around will be able to come together around a single candidate.

VATANKA: If the individuals involved are not able to compromise, one of the key risks associated with that is that the entire fabric of the Islamic Republic unravels. Now, we talk about reformists or moderates and hardliners, and that's true, there are definitely distinct differences, but all these factions in many ways still believe in the Islamic Republic. Ayatollah Rafsanjani, or President Rouhani might be moderates. They don't want to bring the Islamic Republic down, they just wanna change the course on which it's traveling. But if you have a process where things get out of hand. Then the whole future of the system, or as in Farsi they call it the Nezam would be at risk, and that's not in anyone's interest.

ALLAWALA: In a sense, then, the stakes of this succession process might be higher than in 1989.

VATANKA On both occasions the question was what should the Islamic Republic look like at home, and what should Iran's foreign policy or role be on the international stage. I think that those questions were genuinely present back then in 1989, and they are also present today. But they are arguably far more intense today. They're far more intense today because the stakes are so much higher and because the revolution has matured to the extent that people are really questioning the long term health of the system if it continues to be the way it is.

ALLAWALA: Although the succession last time around ended up being relatively smooth, that doesn’t mean that it didn’t create some frictions.

VATANKA Ayatollah Khamenei not only owes his political ascendancy back then in 1979 to Rafsanjani, but also owes his supreme leadership in 1989 to Rafsanjani whose words basically reassured and carried the vote in favor of Khamenei in the Assembly of Experts in 1989.

Now, Rafsanjani if you ask him today would tell you he did his biggest blunder in his political career when he supported and essentially paved the way for Khamenei's supreme leadership and we can get into why Rafsanjani did that but he probably never thought that Khamenei who back then in 1989 was a mid-ranking clergyman, only 49 years old, that he would over the course of the next quarter of a century, out maneuver Rafsanjani repeatedly and create the kind of power-base for himself that he ended up creating.

ALLAWALA: In other words, the role of Supreme Leader that Khamenei is leaving behind is somewhat stronger than the one he inherited, something Rafsanjani might be looking to undo.

VATANKA The role of the Supreme Leader was created for one man and his name was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Nobody was supposed to take over from him. Nobody thought... That includes the present Supreme Leader... That anyone else could come in and fill Khomeini's shoes. And Khamenei for a very long time didn't even try. If you remember, when Khamenei came to power, he wouldn't even say that he was the most senior Shia religious voice in the country. He openly would say, "I'm not. There are many more Shia religious voices in the country that are senior to me."

VATANKA But as we know what power does to people, over the last 25 years, Khamenei has gone from being much more humble about who he is and how lucky he was to get the job to today saying... Basically, he would say he knows best.

ALLAWALA: As to what Western observers should look for as the succession process heats up, Vatanka warns caution.

VATANKA Right. I say this first. Revolutions, as the cliche, goes tend to eat their own children, and that was no different in the Islamic Republic. In fact, Khomeini's big grievance when he was still around was that what happened to his inner circle, an inner circle that was full of people who had been in jail together, who were in exile together, who had fought together against the Shah, but as soon as they were in power, they ended up attacking and sometimes killing one another. And the story that we have here with Rafsanjani and Khamenei is that same story.

VATANKA These two individuals in many ways have swapped positions. If you go back 30 years ago, Khamenei was the one who was more reformist. Rafsanjani was the hard liner. Today, they have exchanged places and Rafsanjani is the big hope for reform in Iran. Iranian reformers don't look at Ayatollah Rafsanjani and think the man means it when he says he's for reform. They think he says so because he thinks that's were the country wants to go.

Do reformers genuinely believe he's at heart a reformist? Probably not, but they don't care. They want someone powerful within the regime to facilitate a new era in Iranian history and its relations with the world.

ALLAWALA: Motivated by cynicism or not, then, it seems that Rafsanjani would be looking for change.

VATANKA  Rafsanjani on this side feels then, "You know what? The 1980s are long gone. And Iran, this country of 80 million people really want something very different. It's tired of the revolution. The revolution hasn't delivered on so many fronts that it's about time to turn a page. And that's where they are today. Should you turn a page or not? And this fight will continue while they're alive. And the various factions around the two men will certainly continue after these two individuals have left the political stage.

There's one thing that is constant in all of these. And that's the Iranian civil society which is one of the most dynamic, if not the most dynamic in the Middle East. It's a civil society that's full of ideas and energy. And it's a civil society that if you go back to the 1906 Iranian Constitutional Revolution shows that it constantly wants change and reform and better political representation. This is a country that's been fighting a constitutional, basically in battle for 110 years who'll continue, how fast they can go forward? Well, it will always be to a great extent depend on what for instance happens in this next upcoming succession process.

VATANKA But even if it doesn't work out so well for the moderates in this next juncture, the fact is the civil society will be there. The civil society cannot be silenced.

ALLAWALA: That was Alex Vatanka on the battle to succeed Supreme Leader Khamenei. As Vatanka argued, the ideological disputes at play in the succession process are not just of concern to the political elite. Rather, the Iranian population is also divided on their country’s future direction, something that Foreign Affairs’ Justin Vogt met with recent author and Baruch College Professor Ervand Abrahamian to discuss.

VOGT: Iran is portrayed often in western media as a devout, authoritarian, theocratic society that doesn't have a whole lot of dissent or political debate or discussion.

ALLAWALA: That’s Justin.

In reality, there is a pretty rich tradition of political philosophy, contestation with different factions and different views, different ideologies. You write in your review that a lot of that struggle, both prior to the revolution and since it, is over how to reconcile enlightenment ideals, individual rights and liberties, with Islamic thought and Islamic belief, and the sort of theocratic system that emerged after the revolution. Can you tell us a little bit more about that struggle in Iran between those two competing forces, enlightenment ideals on the one hand and Islamic thought on the other, and how it's played out since the revolution? 
ABRAHAMIAN: Well you have to go back to the constitutional revolution of 1905, 1906, which was very much motivated by the enlightenment ideas, the French revolution, and then the intelligentsia at that time was very much committed to the idea of how to protect individual rights, constitutional rights, limited monarchy.

VOGT: And at that point, there was a monarchy, the dynasty at the time, and the constitutionals were looking to reform it and limit the monarch's power.

ABRAHAMIAN: But it went beyond that because, actually, in the Constitution, there was a Bill of Rights, individual protection, and so on. So all the things we would consider individual rights of the enlightenment were there ingrained into the constitution, and that premises was very much molded in the intelligentsia in Iran, all the way 'til the late '60s and '70s. And then you get a shift in the late '60s, '70s, about return to roots, authenticity, basically rejecting westernization, western thought, and, of course, the Islamicists became very much part of that.

VOGT: So in '79 the revolution happens, where does that debate go from there in the Islamic republic?

ABRAHAMIAN: Well, the people who were inspired by the enlightenment got very much marginalized, and then they became, actually, denounced as basically apostates because if you're secular, you're not actually... Don't accept the idea that rights come from Islam, not from the enlightenment. Many were killed, destroyed, or exiled,

Now you're getting a new generation, born right... Well, well after the revolution. They've been brought up with a very authoritarian, Islamic society where they can see that, actually, when you talk about, "Reject enlightenment rights," you're actually playing into autocracy. So they're rediscovering the wheel when they're talking about, "Let's not use the language of Islam, but use the language of the enlightenment for protection of individuals."

VOGT: Let's talk a little bit more, actually, about the present situation. Secor's book is mostly an intellectual history and focuses more on the past and even the recent past, and less on the last, say, five or six years. But of course, during that time, we had the Green Revolution in 2009, protesting the result of the election but also sort of opposing the system; it's crushed. But four years later, we have a sort of relative moderate... Or at least the way it's presented in western press, a relative moderate and Hassan Rouhani is elected. Who sort of has the upper hand in Iran politically now?

ABRAHAMIAN: It's still very much the conservatives. Rouhani and his foreign policy is, I would say, pragmatic, realistic, and he's made a good deal with Obama about the nuclear issue, but his entourage is still very much wedded to the language of Islam. That means reformers are actually very much still in opposition when it comes to intellectual issues, and I don't think the system itself can change its own discourse, but it does mean that the new generation is really not interested in that discourse, they're not interested in arguing against it, basically they want to start a language or talking of language of individual rights which goes back to the enlightenment.

VOGT: And how would you rate their sort of prospects of being able to do that?

ABRAHAMIAN: In the short term I don't think there's much hope but in long term I think it's more and more people basically think about politics, they realize that the language returned to the roots is a cul-de-sac.

ALLAWALA: As Abrahamian says, the arrival of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has complicated the story. 

ABRAHAMIAN: This of course for Iranians it's a nightmare, and of course Iranian regime now in fact denounces the caliphate as sort of this isn't true Islam but when you have this, what's the true Islam? What's true, well of course Islam, but who decides?

VOGT: Right. So, there's a sort of contest between those two visions and both trying to reach back to you and establish their own legitimacy based on that, yeah.

ABRAHAMIAN: In some ways it's actually not that different from Europe after the wars of religion. The enlightenment didn't comes out of Christianity but it really came out counter intrusion because after 30 years war in Germany or when both sides are arguing that they are the true religion well the logical conclusion is basically that keep religion out of politics.

VOGT:  So, you think in long term you're sort of hopeful for that the idea is that something like that will take place in that society as well?

ABRAHAMIAN: Yes, and I think the fact that the young generation when they start talking they're not really talking about religion, they're talking about rights.

VOGT: Let me ask you one last question which is you mentioned the nuclear deal, you called it a good deal. One of the arguments made by President Obama and other supporters of this deal was that by bringing Iran out of its international isolation a little bit helping to liberalize its economy that the deal might actually have a liberalizing effect on Iran's politics as well. Do you think that that was a credible sort of idea and if so is there any evidence that that's happening now?

ABRAHAMIAN: It would have happened if Rouhani actually brought in liberals like the ____ period but he didn't do that.

VOGT: Why not?

ABRAHAMIAN: Because I think he comes from basically from a conservative establishment and some of the key people he appointed in his cabinet are very strong basically right wing Islamists. So, they are not people who are going to relax, so it's one thing to be pragmatic in foreign policy and terrible at home, I think Stalin is one of those figures. So, I think we shouldn't expect liberalization because of the nuclear deal.

ALLAWALA: True change, Abrahamian says, will take a long time. But as he concludes in his recent review, “Reading Hume in Tehran,” change will come. “Khomeini’s towering charisma,” he writes, “allowed him to dominate Iranian politics so thoroughly that it became difficult to participate in debates without addressing religious thought. Today’s activists and reformists do not have to contend with a figure such as Khomeini, and they are discovering that an increasing segment of the Iranian population is no longer enamored of the Khomeinist notion that “Islam is the solution.” So although the clerics remain firmly in control for the moment,” Abrahamian continues,  “it is unlikely that the regime will be able to avoid for much longer the difficult task of acknowledging and responding meaningfully to the central tenets of the Enlightenment, whose appeal refuses to wither away.”

It remains to be seen, of course, what difference such changes might make in the U.S.-Iranian relationship, but we at Foreign Affairs will certainly be covering the story as it plays out.

That’s all of this week. We’ll be back in two weeks with another episode. Until then, check out the Iran coverage on ForeignAffairs.com and tell us what you think of the show on iTunes.

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