Continued from Part 1
The Iranian regime has repressed the women's movement with particular ferocity. In 2017, a woman named Vida Movahed climbed onto a utility box in downtown Tehran, removed her hijab, and waved it around on a stick. More women followed, and became known as the Girls of Revolution Street. The authorities arrested not only them and Movahed but also her lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, who was sentenced to thirty-eight years in prison and a hundred and forty-eight lashes.
Sara was nervous about meeting me in public. “It is really dangerous,” she said. “Me sitting here talking to you might get me in deep trouble.” Still, she was poised and determined, insisting that she be granted her rights. “If you want to know how we live, you have to watch ‘The Handmaid's Tale,' ” she said. “This is the real Gilead. Margaret Atwood, she wrote our story before we were born.”
Last year, a twenty-nine-year-old woman named Sahar Khodayari was arrested while trying to sneak into a soccer match and charged with “appearing in public without a hijab.” She set herself on fire and died. Afterward, the authorities finally conceded—a little. Under pressure from FIFA, the international soccer authority, the Iranian government agreed to allow women to attend matches of the national team, as long as it was playing foreign opponents. Sara described the thrill of entering Tehran's stadium for a match between the Iranian and Cambodian teams. “The soccer field is really green when you see it,” she told me. Even though the women were relegated to a roped-off area behind a goal, “everyone was screaming and crying,” she said. “It was the dream.”
I asked Sara why the authorities were concerned about something as trivial as a soccer match. “They know that if they open the doors to the stadium they should open other doors, too,” she said. “But the women of this country are not going to stop. I am absolutely prepared to go to prison.” All her friends felt the same way about the authorities, she said. “The problem they have with us is that, if women get power, they're going to take them down. That is the fact. They are going to overthrow the government.”
On April 9th, Khamenei appeared on Iran's Channel 1 to talk about the coronavirus. Since the outbreak began, Iran has been devastated by the virus, with a hundred and fourteen thousand confirmed cases, nearly seven thousand dead, and no reasonable prospect of containment. Instead of acknowledging the government's failures, Khamenei declared a triumph. “The Iranian nation had a brilliant performance in this test,” he said. “The people's coöperation has also created beautiful, fascinating, and astonishing scenes, and they can be seen everywhere.” Iran's example shone in contrast to that of the West, he said, where crazed residents had emptied store shelves, committed suicide, and “fought with one another over toilet paper.” He added, “The Wild West has been revived. That is what they say.”
From the start of his time in government, Khamenei has proclaimed his loathing of the United States. In 1987, he told the U.N., “The history of our nation is in a black, bitter, and bloody chapter, mixed with varieties of hostility and spite from the American regime.” He seems to take pleasure in recounting America's sins; during one meeting with government officials, he gave a discourse on “Uncle Tom's Cabin” as a depiction of “the realities of America and the American government.”
The sense of enmity goes both ways. Ever since the revolution, the U.S. has pressed the Iranian regime over its sponsorship of terror and its nuclear program. But Khamenei has used the confrontation to justify crushing domestic opponents and to explain away economic mismanagement. Rising tensions with the U.S. have nearly always coincided with crackdowns on dissidents and intellectuals, and with the exclusion of reformers from ballots. In 2010, Mohammad Khatami told Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment, that the Supreme Leader had once confided, “We need the United States as an enemy.”
The Iranians' ultimate gamesmanship has involved the nuclear accord. For years, Khamenei opposed direct talks with the United States but periodically made concessions, even occasionally agreeing to halt the program altogether; all the while, he led his country closer to a usable weapon. Finally, in 2013, with the country crippled by sanctions, he began signalling that he was open to talks, calling on Iranians to demonstrate “heroic flexibility.” The country's leaders hoped that a deal would produce a surge in the economy. That prospect collapsed when Trump cancelled the deal and imposed even harsher sanctions.
Several Iran experts in the U.S. told me that they believed the regime might resume negotiations after the Presidential elections this fall. Their reasons for optimism varied. Some argued that, if Trump lost, the nuclear deal could be revived; others said that, if Trump won, Khamenei would have no choice but to negotiate. Iranian officials rejected both scenarios, telling me that the Supreme Leader would never again make a deal. “The United States can't be counted on to keep its word,” Mohammad Marandi, a professor at Tehran University, told me.
Over time, there have been hints that the regime is maintaining covert capabilities. The most recent ones surfaced in 2018, after Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, carried out a brazen plot to steal nuclear secrets from a secure warehouse in Tehran. Arriving in a semi truck before midnight, a team of agents broke into the facility and, using high-intensity torches, cut open safes. For six hours, they carted off documents and CDs, leaving just before an armed guard was due to begin his morning shift. According to a former senior U.S. intelligence official, the Iranian military launched an enormous dragnet operation, but the Israelis escaped across the border into Azerbaijan. Another former intelligence official told me that several members of Iran's security forces were arrested afterward. “There was a big purge,” he said.
When reports of the raid emerged, Iranian officials said that the whole thing was a hoax, and that the documents were phony. The Israelis maintain that “the archive,” as they call it, was a history of Iran's nuclear-weapons program until 2003, when the regime claimed to have largely suspended it. According to a Western expert, the documents detailed the existence of two nuclear sites that had been hidden from inspectors; one had produced uranium hexafluoride, a material used in the enrichment process, and the other was a facility for testing weapons components. Western officials couldn't determine whether the sites were active, but, when international inspectors, alerted by the Israelis, asked to visit them, the Iranians refused—and razed the testing facility. “There was a rush to clean up the site,” the expert told me.
Last spring, Iran announced that it was abandoning the constraints imposed by the nuclear agreement, and stepped up its enrichment of uranium. A Western official who tracks the program told me that, at the current rate, the Iranians could have enough enriched material for a bomb in less than seven months. David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, estimates that it could take half that long. Constructing a sophisticated weapon with the enriched uranium would likely require twelve to eighteen months more. A crude device could be ready to test much sooner, though—perhaps in the Iranian desert. Such a device probably couldn't be launched at an enemy, and would likely use much of the enriched uranium that Iran has. But, the Western official said, “the world would suddenly look quite different.”
Thus far, Iranian leaders apparently have not begun working to weaponize a nuclear device. Yet the uncertainty has refocussed Western intelligence analysts on a pressing question: Will Khamenei decide to build a weapon?
Most analysts I spoke to believe that he will not, unless the regime faces an existential threat from outside the country. But if he dies? “The day he's gone, then I think all options are on the table,” the Western official said.
On January 6th, Khamenei stood at the front of a huge crowd at Tehran University and wept. He was there for the funeral of Qassem Suleimani—the head of the élite Quds Force, who had, through military pressure, political maneuvering, and ruthless terror attacks, made Iran the most influential country in the Middle East. He had been killed three days before, on Trump's orders, when an MQ-9 Reaper drone struck his convoy near the Baghdad airport. Footage shared with me by an Iraqi official showed one of Suleimani's hands, charred and torn from his body, with a distinctive ruby signet ring still intact—enough to prove his identity.
Suleimani's killing provoked an outpouring of national mourning, with millions of Iranians coming to see his body as his funerary procession travelled the country. In Tehran, the line of mourners stretched more than three miles. During the funeral, Khamenei lamented, “God, the wrapped bodies that are in front of our feet are your worshippers and the children of your worshippers.” He seemed to be bidding goodbye not just to a national hero but also to someone whose popularity he could never hope to match.
Suleimani was a principal architect of Iran's foreign policy, but he was also believed to have been deeply involved in domestic decisions, including the suppression of the rebellions in 1999 and 2009. He was the Supreme Leader's closest counsellor—“Khamenei saw him like a son,” Marandi, the professor at Tehran University, who knew Suleimani, said—and was the only Revolutionary Guard general who was never rotated out of his job. A senior Iraqi official recalled once asking Suleimani why he didn't run for President. Suleimani thought for a moment and said, “Why would I do that?” The official explained his logic: “Suleimani had all the power and no accountability.”
Suleimani was also expected to help Khamenei orchestrate the selection of a successor, insuring that the next Supreme Leader suited his wishes. According to Iran's constitution, the process is as regimented as the Vatican's method for anointing a Pope: the new leader is to be selected by the Assembly of Experts, who have largely been appointed with Khamenei's approval. But most current members belong to the original revolutionary generation, and are now visibly slowed by age. Sadjadpour, of the Carnegie Endowment, described the demographics: “The median age is deceased.”
Khamenei's first choice is likely to be his son, Mojtaba, a cleric in Tehran. In recent years, Khamenei has elevated Mojtaba's profile and given him more responsibility in overseeing the government. But many Iranians believe that, after Khamenei departs, the I.R.G.C. will become enmeshed in selecting a new Supreme Leader. Some expect the Guard to try to rule outright. Several former commanders have already assumed prominent political roles, aided by the institution's ability to spend its vast resources on favored candidates. “The I.R.G.C. is not going to take over all of a sudden,” Alfoneh, of the Arab Gulf States Institute, said. “It's a slow-motion coup that's been in the works for years.”
Most people I spoke with believed that the Guard would maintain a façade of clerical rule. Ebrahim Raisi, Iran's Chief Justice, is frequently mentioned as a candidate. Raisi, along with leading the judiciary, is an influential member of the Assembly of Experts. He also proved his revolutionary fervor at the end of the Iran-Iraq War, when he helped carry out the extrajudicial killings of thousands of M.E.K. prisoners and other leftists. “He's drenched in blood,” Reuel Gerecht, an Iran analyst and a former C.I.A. officer, told me.
The coronavirus outbreak has only strengthened the I.R.G.C.'s influence. In March, Khamenei gave the Guard responsibility for containing the virus, and since then it has deployed tens of thousands of troops throughout the country. A public-health specialist working for the Ministry of Health told me that thousands of Basij militiamen are moving around Iran, without any protective gear, to disinfect buildings and streets. “The guards are trying to solve the coronavirus problem in Iran by brute force,” the specialist said. In Tehran and elsewhere in the country, the Guard has attempted to control information about the virus, including death statistics, the specialist said: “The guards want to contain any damage that has been caused by the wrong decisions—or lack of decisions—made by Khamenei, and blame them on the executive branch, the President, and the Ministry of Health.”
Many Western diplomats and experts believe that the I.R.G.C. is dominated by officers intent on preserving the status quo, which has enriched and empowered them. With Khamenei still in power, most signs suggest that the Iranian state is becoming even more conservative. Before the parliamentary elections in February, legal and clerical authorities barred seven thousand candidates—more than half of those who attempted to run. Among them were ninety current members of parliament, including a number of conservatives. “Some were probably corrupt,” a Western analyst who works in the region told me. “Some were not considered loyal enough.”
Still, some Iranians believe that many of the I.R.G.C.'s senior officers want to steer the country in a direction closer to that of China: strict politics, but a freer market. The reformist leader I spoke to, who is in touch with several I.R.G.C. officers, believed that one of the generals would ultimately emerge as a benevolent strongman—“our Napoleon”—to guide Iran toward greater prosperity. The government would be run by technocrats, not clerics, and the generals would loosen controls on freedom of speech and dress. “They want to reach out to the middle class,” he said. “Think about it: the moment they get the clerics out of government, they would be incredibly popular.”
That prediction struck many Western experts as overly optimistic. The reform-minded officers inside the I.R.G.C. probably make up only one of several factions, which exist in a state of internal rivalry and dissension. If those factions are unable to agree on a Supreme Leader, then the process could go out of control. “I think the selection of a new leader needs to happen quickly—it's a twenty-four-hour thing,” a Western diplomat in Tehran told me.
The deteriorating relations with the U.S. have had visible effects on Iran's domestic politics. The latest crisis is driven by the two countries' struggle for influence in Iraq, where Iranian-backed militias have stepped up attacks on American personnel; it was these attacks that prompted Trump to kill Suleimani. Khamenei vowed revenge, and, on January 8th, Iranian missiles struck two U.S. military bases in Iraq, wounding several soldiers. Later that day, a Ukrainian Airlines plane went down near the Tehran airport, with a hundred and seventy-six people on board. The government initially denied any involvement, but reports on social media revealed that the Revolutionary Guard had shot down the plane, mistaking it for an enemy cruise missile. Angry demonstrations broke out. “Everyone was against the government then,” Sara told me.
Many Iranians I spoke to believed that the regime would strike again, in an attempt to humiliate Trump before the election in November. Some told me that it might try to take American hostages—evoking memories of the Embassy seizure in 1979, which helped destroy Jimmy Carter's Presidency. One academic with ties to the Iranian leadership said, “I think the fate of Trump lies in the hands of Tehran.”
This may be bluster, but, as Iran's economic problems deepen, the regime could find itself increasingly tempted to create a diversion. The same might be true for Trump, whose rhetoric has grown more bombastic since the Suleimani strike. In April, he tweeted, “I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.” Iranian state media responded with equal belligerence, calling the idea “a fake Hollywood tale.”
Even as Iranians speculate about who will succeed Khamenei, many believe that, whoever becomes Supreme Leader, the revolution is no longer salvageable. One of them is Faezeh Rafsanjani, a former member of parliament and the daughter of the late President Rafsanjani. Faezeh grew up amid the country's ruling élite but gradually became disenchanted with its ideology. In 2009, she emphatically endorsed the protesters. Speaking to a crowd of demonstrators, she compared Khamenei to the Shah—a cardinal insult—and denounced what she saw as a theft of the people's vote. “The protests must continue, until they realize that a fraud of this magnitude cannot be pushed aside,” she said.
The speech helped establish Rafsanjani as one of the country's leading dissidents, whose famous name made her criticisms all the more threatening to those in power. Rafsanjani became a target of unrelenting harassment, especially by members of the Basij. In one incident, captured in a video that surfaced in early 2011, Rafsanjani was walking out of a mosque when she was confronted by an overbearing militiaman. “You whore!” he growled, inches from her face. “Do you want me to rip your mouth open? Should I rip your mouth open right here? We'll ruin you! We'll kill all of you!”
Asked about the incident a couple of months later, Rafsanjani told an interviewer, “This government is run by beasts and thugs.” She was arrested, convicted in a closed courtroom of spreading anti-government propaganda, and sentenced to six months in prison. In 2017, she was jailed again, for criticizing the Revolutionary Guard; she served both of her terms in the infamous women's ward of Evin Prison.
On a gray morning, I met Rafsanjani in her office. She wore a pink head scarf that obscured her face, but her eyes burned with urgency and intelligence. (Despite being a proponent of women's rights, she wears hijab as a matter of personal preference.) While she talked, she sat—and occasionally stood—behind a metal desk covered with heaps of papers.
Rafsanjani had little faith left in the system founded forty-one years ago. “Even the people who say they are reformers are not really reformers at all,” she said. She noted that Rouhani had taken office with an overwhelming mandate for change. “I had hopes for him, but he's the same color as the rest of them,'' she said.
Rafsanjani did not blame the Trump Administration or the American sanctions for the country's problems; like many Iranians I spoke to, she felt that blaming the U.S. was a weak excuse for the regime's failure to reform itself. “The coronavirus is just one instance,” she said. “There have been many events in recent years that show that our politics have gone wrong.” Iran's increasing schisms, she argued, were the result of the regime's flawed ideas. “One is the inessentiality of human life, which seems to be one of our most seriously pursued policies,” she said. “Another is the national-security lens—we look at things that have nothing to do with politics or security through the lens of national security. And when you put these two together you start to realize why these things keep happening.”
Isolated and dysfunctional, the Islamic Republic had reached a dead end, she said: “The regime has lost all popular support, and yet it is incapable of change. The result is that the Iranian people have lost hope. We are hopeless now.”
Just before I headed home from Iran, I visited a Western ambassador in Tehran. When I told him that I was going to the airport, he said, “It's the second checkpoint you need to worry about. That's the I.R.G.C.” On my way, I stripped everything from my phone and laptop—e-mail, photographs, encrypted-chat apps.
At Tehran International, I breezed through the security lines until I got to the checkpoint nearest the boarding gate. I was waiting for my backpack to come through the X-ray machine when a man put his hand on my shoulder. “We have some questions we'd like to ask you,” he said.
I was led to a room the size of a walk-in closet, where five men were waiting. As we sat down, our knees touched. One man, sweating, with a pinched face and an ill-fitting shirt, led the questioning. Another man translated. There was no chitchat.
“We've been watching you,” the interrogator said. I thought of all the Iranians I had met after hours, who would be in danger now. “You have been seen speaking to people without permission.”
The interrogator took my phone, and one of his men carried it out of the room. I wondered how long my plane would wait for me.
“You have been seen entering restricted areas,” he said.
I thought of Nicolas Pelham, a correspondent for The Economist. He'd been granted a visa by the Iranian bureaucracy and then been detained by the I.R.G.C.—one power center seeming to overrule another. He was held for seven weeks.
The questioning continued for several minutes, as the time of my flight came and went. The interrogator asked about Masoud Bastani, the muckraking journalist. “Who gave you license to meet Bastani?'' he demanded. I was terrified that Bastani would be sent back to prison. But, as the interview went on, I realized that they didn't actually know whom I had met with.
“You have been observed photographing restricted sites,” the interrogator said.
By then, the man had come back with my phone. Grasping for something, I told the interrogator to check it.
He looked at the phone, and found nothing. For a moment, he seemed embarrassed. Then he handed it back to me.
“You were right—you were not taking any photos,” he said. “You are free to leave the Islamic Republic. Have a nice flight.”
Dexter Filkins is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of “The Forever War,” which won a National Book Critics Circle Award.