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If the ayatollahs go, the nuclear pursuit will remain

Iran has changed, but not in a way that matches Western logic

Iran is no longer enamored of theocracy. The passion of the 1979 Islamic revolution has not only cooled, it has gone out of style. The sharp, negative reverberations from the murder of a young woman by Iran’s “morality police” last September may graduate into repercussions — but not in the way the West hopes for.

Repercussions — permanent changes in Iran — are likely to be confined to social norms, nothing more.

Even now, not much is heard from the morality police anymore. But once Iran’s supreme leader dies — he is 84 and ill — don’t expect a new Iran, an Iran that will turn to the West, an Iran that will renounce its nuclear ambitions, an Iran that will cease its export of terrorism, an Iran that will no longer be controlled for all practical purposes by its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

True enough,with the death or incapacity of the current supreme leader, many Iranians would push for a liberal democracy. But many others would continue to support the IRGC, or at least the clerical character of the country. True enough, the current regime is unpopular. Demonstrations, once unheard of, are now widespread. Demonstrators chant “death to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei” (the supreme leader.) But what would mollify many of the demonstrators? An end to the morality police and a better economy. More personal freedom and prosperity. But none of that would likely end Iran’s desire for nuclear weapons. It’s a matter of national pride.

The West tends to associate Iran’s nuclear program and export of terrorism exclusively with its theocratic regime, such that if the regime were to go, the dangerous nuclear pursuit would too, and so would the export of terrorism. However, to the extent it is possible to gauge popular sentiment in Iran’s totalitarian society, the government’s nuclear pursuit is popular. The sanctions that the program triggers against Iran are unpopular, but not the program itself.

It is strictly Western logic to say that Iranians in a post-ayatollah world would think: Let us end the nuclear pursuit in order to end the economic sanctions against us. Let us enjoy a fine standard of living.

Westerners see self-interest as driving national policy, but a deeply rooted Middle Eastern culture can see national pride as primary. The nuclear pursuit can privilege national pride over pragmatic economic benefit.

Political prophecy is unsafe anywhere anytime, but our reading of Iran is based not so much on its present or its unknown future as on its well known past. Societies don’t simply sink into theocratic authoritarianism, as Iran did in 1979; a culture prepares the ground. Iran knew happier and better times under the shah, but his rule was still a dictatorship and his country was still a fundamentalist religious society, if not always in practice then in orientation.

When the shah was succeeded in 1979 by the ayatollahs, this was not some foreign implant, as in, for example, the Soviet takeover of what they artificially called the “Soviet Socialist Republics.” When the ayatollahs came to power, they were no doubt feared, but their theocratic message was familiar.

See: Saudi Arabia. Its social mores have been loosened by its current ruler Muhammad bin Salman (“MBS”) in a way and to an extent unimaginable 15 years ago. Women drive. Women participate in the economy. However, the dictatorship remains. The state religion remains. The orientation to the West — the political ties with the US — does not remain. Saudi Arabia has changed, but the this has not brought the country closer to the West. To the contrary.

There is no reason to suspect it will be any different in a post-ayatollah Iran.

We would love to be proven wrong.

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