At age seventeen, the fourteenth-century North African philosopher Ibn Khaldun lost his parents, teachers, and friends to the Black Death that killed as many as 200 million people. “Civilization both in the East and the West was visited by a destructive plague which devastated nations,” he reflected decades later in his seminal 1377 historic treatise Muqaddimah. “It overtook the dynasties at the time of their senility, when they had reached the limit of their duration. It lessened their power and curtailed their influence. . . . The entire inhabited world changed.”
The full impact of the coronavirus pandemic, while less devastating, will similarly be understood only in hindsight. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, which ranks tenth in both cases and fatalities, leaked government data suggest that COVID-19 deaths are nearly triple what the government claims. President Hassan Rouhani estimated that a whopping 25 million Iranians may have been infected with the virus by mid-July—nearly one hundred times the official tally. Despite the alarming figures, however, the crisis has so far served merely to illuminate, rather than alter, the longtime priorities of the ruling regime.
Leaked government data suggest that COVID-19 deaths are nearly triple what the government claims.
The Islamic Republic’s ideological pillars—enmity toward the United States, rejection of Israel, and mandatory veiling of women (the symbol of theocracy)—will not change as long as eighty-one-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the world’s longest-serving autocrat, remains Supreme Leader. But the impact of COVID-19 will likely accelerate a trend that began long ago: Iran’s transition from a country ruled by elderly Shiite clerics to one ruled by middle-aged Revolutionary Guard commanders and alumni.
The combination of the pandemic, sanctions, falling oil prices, and embattled regional allies has confronted Iran with concurrent economic, public health, and geopolitical crises. Yet this fraught moment has caused surprisingly little introspection: Tehran remain perhaps the lone government in the world actively fighting three cold wars—with the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia—each of which has appeared at times inches from turning hot.
Yet this fraught moment has caused surprisingly little introspection.
Iran will continue to make its impact felt on numerous U.S. and global security challenges, from nuclear proliferation, cybersecurity, and terrorism to the humanitarian crises and radicalism emanating from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Despite its internal challenges, Tehran will continue to cultivate regional militias—using the template of Lebanese Hezbollah—to try to fill the power vacuums created by the 2003 Iraq War and the 2011 Arab uprisings.
As perhaps the most sanctioned nation in the world, Iran has a keen interest in the November 2020 U.S. presidential election. Would a reelected Donald Trump seek a diplomatic compromise with Tehran or apply further coercion in the hopes of hastening its capitulation or collapse? Would a newly elected Joe Biden immediately rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal or instead seek to renegotiate a follow-on agreement that addresses a broader set of challenges—including Iran’s missile program and regional activities—for a longer period of time?
Regardless of the results of the U.S. election, history teaches us that authoritarian regimes that lack democratic renewal and adaptability are ultimately self-expiring. “Dynasties,” Ibn Khaldun wrote, “have a natural life-span like individuals.”
- Karim Sadjadpour