RAND Corp. international affairs analyst Alireza Nader recently coauthored a must-read report on Iran's internal power structure entitled Mullahs, Guards, and Bonyads: An Exploration of Iranian Leadership Dynamics. We spoke with Nader about Iran's leadership, and what its prospects for survival look like on the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. This interview has been edited for sake of length and clarity:
RCW: You argue alongside Trita Parsi this week that the Obama administration should target specific individuals in the regime for sanction. The administration appears to agree, as it just yesterday imposed sanctions against IRGC Gen. Rostam Qasemi. Is this a step in the right direction, or must these sanctions go further?
Nader: The new sanctions on the Rev. Guards are a step in the right direction, although additional senior members of the Guards will also have to be designated. However, additional sanctions are only one aspect of an effective U.S. strategy toward Iran, as outlined in the FP piece. Sanctions by themselves will of course not lead to a solution to the nuclear program.
Sanctions targeting individual Guards commanders involved in the nuclear program may increase pressure on the Iranian government without undermining the Iranian opposition, although it is difficult to judge whether these sanctions will be enough to change Iran's thinking on the nuclear program, which has become an issue of immense factional competition and national pride.
RCW: Many have compared today's Green Movement to the 1979 revolution. Do you agree? How are they similar, and how do they differ?
Nader: Both encompass broad sections of the Iranian population and cut across socio-economic classes. However, the Shah did not maintain much popular support toward the end of his reign, whereas the Islamic Republic (Khamenei et al.) is still supported by a significant segment of the elite and the Iranian population. Moreover, the Green Movement itself is divided, with [some] elements desiring a complete end to the Islamic Republic, as opposed to those seeking political and even religious reformation of the system.
RCW: How can the growing and evolving Green Movement factor into an already convoluted Iranian system down the road? Do you see an increasingly powerful IRGC ceding power to the reformers?
Nader: The June 2009 presidential election effectively pushed out a broad sector of the political elite, including reformists and pragmatic conservatives such as [Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani. The Islamic Republic has historically functioned as a system that represents various factional viewpoints; Khamenei's support for Ahmadienjad and the rise of the fringe right, especially within the Revolutionary Guards, have disturbed this system of factional politics. The vitality of the Green Movement has also led to discord within the conservative and "principlist" political groups that have traditionally supported Khamenei. Many of these elite may now view Khamenei and Ahmadinejad as having endangered the Islamic Republic.
RCW: Where does this leave the Green Movement? What's the endgame?
Nader: The two sides are locked in a historic struggle, but it is not clear which one will emerge victorious. Out of this struggle may emerge a more democratic Iranian government, or a militarized political system under the dominant control of the Revolutionary Guards.