Iran: Revolutionary Contradictions

Next Tuesday marks the 40th anniversary of Iran's revolution, the moment when religious clerics overthrew a monarchy that had ruled that country for 2,500 years and created the world's first Islamic republic. It's a moment that remade Iranian society, realigned the politics of the Middle East, and transformed Iran's relations with the West.


To understand what Iran's revolutionaries were rebelling against, we begin a generation earlier. In 1953, a Cold War-inspired CIA-backed coup toppled the elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh to restore a monarchy led by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Over the next 26 years, Pahlavi promoted both economic modernization and intense political repression.

In 1979, opposition groups sensed an opportunity to take him down. A motley assortment of Marxists, nationalists, religious conservatives and student groups, fueled by audiotaped messages from the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, launched widespread strikes and protests that pushed Pahlavi from his throne. The charismatic Khomeini then returned to Iran from France and began to consolidate power, in part by jailing and executing thousands of people.

The revolution's primary impact:

Shifting alliances: After the Jimmy Carter administration accepted the exiled Shah for medical treatment in the United States, Iranian students seized the US Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. Hostility between the former allies has never really abated.

Iran's revolutionary export: The newly formed Islamic Republic then worked to spread its unique brand of conservative religious politics across the Middle East by supporting Shia militias, like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hashd Shaabi in Iraq.

Saudi fear: The Saudi royal family, terrified by the toppling of the monarch next door and anxious to isolate a rival for leadership of the Islamic world, in 1981 founded the Gulf Cooperation Council, an alliance of Arab states, in part to isolate Iran. At home, Saudi royals launched a bid to bolster their Islamic credentials and placate religious conservatives by closing movie houses, banning concerts, and imposing strict new rules against the adoption of other Western customs.

Saddam's attack: Saddam Hussein, the secular Sunni leader of Iraq, feared Iran's revolution might inspire the Shia majority within his own country to rise against him. In response, and with the support of the US and Arab world, he waged an eight-year war on Iran that killed more than one million people.

Four decades later, Iran's revolution has a complex and contradictory legacy.

  • Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader since Khomeini's death in 1989, bases his right to rule on a revolution that more than 75 percent of Iran's 83 million people are not old enough to remember.
  • Iran is a democracy trapped inside a theocracy. Its politics are far more complex and represent a far broader diversity of views than can be found inside many of its Arab neighbors. It holds genuinely competitive elections, but its candidates for office are selected by a small group of unelected clerics and lawyers.
  • The Islamic Republic has a long history of brutally suppressing protests, but large public demonstrations remain common. For example, religious authorities continue to impose rules on female dress, yet Iranian women protest these restrictions in the streets and online.
  • Anti-Western anger remains an essential element of Iran's political culture, but the Trump administration's decision to withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear deal has incentivized Iran's government to pursue closer relations with the European powers who signed that agreement and oppose Trump's move.

In Iran today, a moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, has seen his reforms undermined by both hard-line supporters of the Supreme Leader and President Trump's decision to reimpose US sanctions. Recession looms and inflation rises.

For now, the clerical establishment remains firmly in charge, but public frustration with economic hardship, a Supreme Leader who will turn 80 in July, and uncertainty over succession leave us to wonder: How many more birthdays can Iran's current leadership celebrate? Can the Islamic Republic continue to adapt in order to survive?

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You've probably heard a lot in the past three days about Senator Kamala Harris, her background, and the ground-breaking nature of her candidacy for US vice president.

But now that the cheering crowds have logged off and the virtual confetti has been swept away, we're left with a basic question: will Kamala Harris make a difference — on the campaign trial and maybe in the White House — for Joe Biden?

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Kevin Sneader, global managing partner for McKinsey & Company, provides perspective on how corporate business leaders think in response to the coronavirus crisis:

What is the role of HR going into the next normal?

Well, this is a time of reset and one big reset that I see is around the role of HR. I think it's time for HR to shift from being a transactional partner around compensation, organization charts, and benefits to being a truly integral architect of change. Now, that's been happening for years in the best performing HR departments. It Involves rethinking talent requirements, capturing what was learned about individuals and organizations during the course of this pandemic, and even learning and growing in a world in which remote working has to be combined with working back in the office or the manufacturing facility. A world where incentives needs to be rethought. And where employee experiences need to reflect a very different reality. So, there's a big reset going on and I think that reset needs to embrace HR both in terms of what HR can do, the role of the CHR role, and indeed the way in which together HR becomes a true architect for change, just as it has done for many years, perhaps unnoticed, and not give enough credit by those who really should know better.

An open letter in Politico by a group of foreign policy experts says the US should take a much tougher approach on Russia. In this edition of The Red Pen, Ian Bremmer is joined by Eurasia Group analysts Alex Brideau and Zach Witlin to point out some reasons why diplomacy and realism are critical in the US approach to Russia.

And today, we're taking our Red Pen to an open letter titled "No, Now Is Not the Time for Another Russia Reset." It was published in Politico and signed by 33 foreign policy experts, including diplomats Bill Taylor and Kurt Volker, who both testified at the impeachment hearings, as well as a bunch of military intelligence and diplomatic figures. And as it turned out, actually, we were Red Penned here, because it's a response to this piece, also in Politico recently, that I cosigned with a different group of Russia experts, including Fiona Hill and Jon Huntsman.

Both letters talk about the road ahead for US relations with Russia. The one I signed argued that the US needs to know when there will be opportunities to work with Russia and when Washington has to push back. The central argument in this article is that there's no point in talking to Russia until Putin changes his mind. So, what we have here is an open debate about the issue. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty we agree on and plenty of places where no red ink is required.

We agree that Russia bears plenty of responsibility for the current state of affairs. It occupies territory that belongs to Georgia and Ukraine, two sovereign states. And it interfered in the 2016 US election and continues to do so as we speak. Moscow has also killed dissidents in Europe, assassinated them. So, I mean, you know, no one is trying to justify any of that belligerent behavior. And we also agree that while the United States can fine tune its policy all we want, it actually takes two to tango. Recent talks with the Russians have not been too successful, but since the red pen is here, it is time to highlight some areas of disagreement. So, here they are.

Point one, the authors argue that there's no point in talking to Russia about much of anything until Putin changes his act. They write that "by arguing that it is the United States and not Russia that needs a 'current change of course' the authors of the open letter (that's us) get it exactly backward."

If the US takes an all or nothing approach with Russia, it will end up with nothing. Look, I mean, I certainly expect and understand that we should have a more hawkish line on a bunch of things with the Chinese as well, but that doesn't mean you can't work with these countries on climate change, on space, on a bunch of areas where it's actually really important. These are still large economies. In the case of the Russians, the largest nuclear arsenal in the world along with the United States, and I would argue that leaving the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Agreement was a mistake, leaving the Blue Skies Agreement, the Open Skies Agreement was a mistake. That you have to work even with your antagonists, and that's important. That means that we should be pursuing diplomacy and cooperation where we can while also vigorously defending our own interests where we can't. This strikes me as a fairly obvious baseline understanding of international diplomacy, and I'm always surprised when people push back against it.

Point two, the authors write that the US should "maintain, even enhance sanctions" on Russia unless a long list of demands are met, like withdrawing troops from Ukraine, including Crimea, and ending cyberattacks and election interference.

Nobody is saying we should give in to Russia on any of those issues. The bottom line is that the above list of demands is already US policy. How more sanctions would change Russian behavior? Doesn't make a lot of sense. You need your allies on board for sanctions to work. And sanctions work best when they're calibrated and targeted. When they have clear benchmarks that when met, lead to easing of those sanctions. And when they're paired with diplomacy. Russia's a big nuclear armed country, unlike, say, South Africa. Russia's not going to simply be sanctioned into surrender. Maintain the sanctions but expanding them at this point strikes me as having very little likelihood of return and only marginal increase of sanctions that we could do.

Point three, the authors say that the US should not resign itself to accepting "Russia's repression, kleptocracy and aggression" as that provides no incentive for Putin to change.

Now, we agree. The US cannot accept Russian misbehavior, but we need to be realistic about what we can actually change, like stopping Russian election meddling, and what we can't, like Russia's kleptocracy. We can and should do our part to stop dirty money from coming into the US and Europe but changing Russia's domestic system is another story.

So, in conclusion, the Russians are an antagonist of the United States. Their revisionist power, they're in decline. They are trying to undermine the Americans, the Europeans, and the transatlantic relationship. All true. But I actually think that there are areas where we still need to be working with lots of states that we really don't like and don't trust, and yes, Russia is one of them. By the way, New START, the nuclear arms reduction treaty signed in 2010 by the US and Russia expires in February 2021. Open dialog right now could save it and I think it's worth saving. Let's work on that.

"We now have for the first time, pre-COVID, a very good sense of where the gaps are" says former CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden on pandemic preparedness. But in order to prevent another pandemic from bringing the world to its knees, he argues, the United States must play a more proactive role on the global stage. First step: work much more closely with the CDC (and don't, for starters, pull funding during a pandemic).