Iran increasingly dominates international newspaper headlines and foreign policy agendas, but its people and regime remain poorly understood. In his new book, Let the Swords Encircle Me, Scott Peterson provides readers with a rich insider’s view of today’s Iran, gleaned from more than 30 visits to the country in the past fifteen years. Carnegie hosted Peterson for a discussion of the current political situation in Iran. The event was moderated by Haleh Esfandiari of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East Program, and Carnegie’s Karim Sadjadpour.

Iran’s People

Iran has a unique place in the Middle East and Iranians have a strong sense of their own exceptionalism, Peterson asserted.

  • Iran has over 2,500 years of history and culture. Despite restrictions on expression during the early years of the Islamic revolution, Peterson argued that Iranian culture has survived and blossomed far beyond that of neighboring countries such as Iraq or Afghanistan.

  • In spite of a repressive regime, Iranians are often eager to speak to outsiders and express their political opinions.

  • Iranians are relatively pro-American, but even those most opposed to the current regime do not want to see a regime change imposed from abroad.

  • Iranians tend to have an extreme relationship with religion. One sector of society is deeply religious while another sector believes that religion has kept Iran back from modernity, Sadjadpour noted.

The Perspective of Iran’s Leaders

The world view of Iran’s leaders is heavily shaped by their history, Peterson argued, and particularly by Iran’s war with Iraq.

  • The Iran-Iraq war, which begun in 1980 with the invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, lasted eight years and mobilized all of Iranian society. Iraq received significant support from foreign powers, especially the United States, and Peterson noted that many Iranians felt they were fighting a holy war against overwhelming odds.

  • This experience was a kind of crucible and those who survived believed they had a divine right to rule.

  • The war also helped cement the concepts of resistance and self-reliance into the core of the Iranian identity.

Peterson noted that the Iranian leadership has studied past examples of regime change in an effort to learn from the mistakes of others, but he argued that the response to the 2009 election shows they are absorbing the wrong lessons from history.

  • The 1979 Islamic Revolution: The lesson Iranian leaders took from the fall of the Shah in 1979 is that any show of weakness creates an opening for revolution. As a result, Peterson said, the regime stole the 2009 election for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and cracked down on election protesters. Yet he noted that the Shah might have avoided the 1979 revolution had he been more open to reform in the years leading up to the revolution. Similarly Iran’s leaders could have avoided a regime crisis by accepting a presidential victory by Mir-Hossein Mousavi in 2009. Mousavi was a former regime insider who was committed to reform from within the system.  Now, however, it is too late for the regime to back down.

  • A Velvet Revolution: The Revolutionary Guard worried about a Velvet Revolution sweeping through the country and forcing the regime out of power in the lead-up to the 2009 elections, similar to what had occurred in Eastern Europe. However, they did not absorb the historical lesson that such bottom-up revolutions are often caused by stolen elections. The regime, Peterson said, stole the election anyway.

Iran’s Nuclear Program and Relations with the United States

President Obama came into office promising to engage Iran, but bilateral relations have deteriorated and Iran’s nuclear ambitions remain unclear. 

  • Easier to Refuse: The main problem facing the U.S. relationship with Iran is that it is politically easier for both sides to refuse to negotiate and maintain the status quo than to resolve their differences, Peterson noted.

  • The 2009 Elections: President Obama attempted to reach out to Iran and there was some indication that Ayatollah Khamenei might respond positively, but the June 2009 elections changed the calculus on both sides. Iran’s leaders are now principally concerned with the survival of the regime.

  • Iran’s Nuclear Program: Peterson expressed his belief that the regime has not yet made a decision on whether to go forward with developing nuclear weapons. Iran wants to have nuclear capability and be treated as a powerful nuclear state, but Khamenei has repeatedly said that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic. If the regime decides that it needs nuclear weapons to survive, however, it will not hesitate to acquire them, Peterson warned.

Prospects for Change

Slow evolutionary reform is more likely in Iran than a new revolution, Peterson observed, but events remain highly unpredictable.

  • Societal Anger: There is significant pent-up anger against the regime from a broad swath of society, both because of the post-election violence and the less visible purges inside the government. Ultimately, Peterson said, the Iranian Revolution has failed to live up to the expectations of many people.

  • The Green Movement: Esfandiari asked whether the Green Movement was part of a possible change, and Peterson replied that the Green Movement is less visible now than it was a year ago, but has not been destroyed; it represents a silent majority in Iran. Reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami won a large majority when he was elected president in 1997--that pro-reform majority still exists and forms the basis of the Green Movement. 

  • Another Revolution Unlikely: Despite opposition to the regime, Iranians have already survived considerable hardship and very few want to go through the pain of another revolution. There is currently no opposition figure who can rally support for radical change.

  • Continuing Vulnerability: The regime currently controls the instruments of coercion and communication in Iran, but it is still vulnerable to surprise events, Peterson said. Real change in Iran usually occurs when no one expects it, such as the election of Khatami or the post-election street protests. In such spontaneous situations, the regime has trouble responding effectively.