Future of Iran

21 Oct 2022

The Economist spent some ink this week discussing whether or not the “end of the Islamic regime was in sight.” For some, that may be a tantalizing thought; for others, it might bring on a horror of the immense amount of suffering and disruption the end of the regime could bring (akin to the question of the probability of North Korea’s government falling).

At first glance, it seems nearly impossible to create any sort of reasonable forecast based on what the average person can know about events inside Iran. However, we can articulate scenarios, and these can help us in our thinking and planning.

When thinking about scenarios, I find it helpful to try to reduce the possibilities down to a 2-axis box, generating four large “quadrants” or “categories” that different scenarios can fit in. Right now, my thinking has one axis as “secular vs. religious” and another axis being “militaristic vs. democratic.” If the government of Iraq were to change, might it lean more secular (and possibly more democratic) with a veneer of Islam (for example, Turkey)? Might it be more militaristic and religious, for example controlled by the Republican Guards? Or, might it be more theocratic and religious–perhaps a change in the alignment of the existing powers and a “for show” loosening of restrictions? What might the gradations of scenarios be - behind-the-scenes military control to in-your-face military government? A public lessening of restrictions and a private, shadowy, “disappearing” of protesters?

Despite the realization that we can’t create any sort of accurate forecast, thinking about scenarios naturally leads us to ponder probabilities. That’s disheartening. As we can now see it, all of the forces that have the power to effect change in Iran seem loathe to act–preferring the setup as it now is, and unlikely to take any action that would dramatically destabilize the country and put their power at risk. There is just no rational incentive for them to do so. Accordingly I’ve put a massive “status quo” box in the middle, and given some thought to this question–what’s the real possibility that any power would push Iran out of the “status quo” box and into the fringe fields?

Yes, there are scenarios of dramatic change that might happen. As with North Korea, while the scenarios might lead to an end result some would prefer, they might come to much worse results–and in any event, the path to those results would be very painful. For example, the Guards could launch a coup. A foreign power could invade. Somehow, a popular uprising could generate support from a portion of the Guards or the army and launch some sort of civil unrest that overthrows the theocracy. All are possible, none seem likely, and all seem painful.

The distress of the diaspora probably comes in part from reading these trends as despondently as I do. Lots of people are making their voice heard and paying terrible prices for it. On the other hand, there is another form of distress–regardless of what happens, believers (like others) will have to live through it. I am less concerned with how we might get to a more democratic government, and far more concerned with what the path between here and the future will mean in terms of church planting, discipleship, persecution, and even access. These will be trying times.

In that vein, however, one result seems very probable (in fact, we are already seeing this): the wounds Iran’s government and militants are scratching into her people are not scars that will be readily forgotten or forgiven. You can, possibly, force obedience and compliance, but you cannot force national pride or love. In the long term, the result will almost inevitably be continued disenchantment with the government, and with the religious basis for it.