Many of my clients were activists and leaders in their home countries. For me, one of the perks of my job is to hear their perspectives on the issues of the day. In this post, my former client Ali Anisi Tehrani, who is now a political asylee from Iran, gives his opinion of the recently-signed Iran Deal:

In the summer of 1988, the Islamic Republic of Iran drank what then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini referred to as a “chalice of poison” when it accepted the terms of United Nations Security Council Resolution 598, which marked the end of the Iran-Iraq War. Despite eight years of brutal fighting between the two neighbors, Khomeini vowed that an end to the war would not be possible unless Saddam Hussein was removed from power. Anyone who lived in Tehran during this time would remember this quote--the message had been plastered across Tehran’s walls--as well as the constant onslaught of Saddam’s missiles. To the Iranian people, defeat was not an option. Khomeini finally relented, but only after military commanders convinced him that victory in the next five years was impossible.

Ali Tehrani: Author, Activist, Starship Captain.

Khomeini justified signing the UN-brokered ceasefire by framing it not as a concession of defeat, but as a necessity to preserve the Islamic Republic and protect the best interests of Islam. Still, it was a stunning and humiliating failure for the regime, which had come into existence only 10 years earlier as a result of the 1979 revolution. Having spent the majority of its young life embroiled in this war, a significant portion of the Islamic Republic’s national identity had developed around the war and opposition to Saddam’s Ba’athist Iraq. Furthermore, given the active support provided to Iraq by U.S. and other Western powers, as well as the West’s long failure to condemn Iraq for its use of chemical weapons, the Islamic Republic’s anti-Western--and particularly anti-American--stance was also strengthened by its opposition to Iraq.

Clearly, the Islamic Republic’s acceptance of the ceasefire was a major blow to the regime’s identity as well as to the authority of Khomeini, its charismatic leader and founder.

The nuclear deal: Another “poisoned chalice”?

Since Iran and the P5+1 signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action ("JCPOA") on July 14, the nuclear deal has occupied much of the world’s attention. Politicians and pundits speculate and opine constantly about the deal. Is it a good deal or a bad deal? Who will truly benefit, Iran or the West? Does it represent the best possible diplomatic move or a huge political mistake? Will it help to stabilize the region or instead enable Iran’s increased meddling in other countries’ affairs? Instead of weighing in on these debates, which deal largely with the politics of current affairs, I would like to analyze the deal from a different perspective, one that takes into account the complex power dynamics within Iran’s totalitarian society and the indirect repercussions that the deal may have for Iranian civil society.

Many in Iran compare the current nuclear deal to the 1988 ceasefire, particularly with respect to the Islamic Republic’s capitulation on a number of its long-held positions. I believe that this comparison can be extended to the ways in which the state has and will maneuver to reclaim legitimacy and authority in the eyes of its citizens in the wake of its many international political compromises.

What to expect next?

Oops, here is the real Ali Tehrani: Author and Activist; not a Starship Captain (at least not yet).

In the months surrounding the signing of the ceasefire with Iraq in 1988, Iran executed thousands of prisoners, almost all of whom had no death sentence, nor even lifetime imprisonment, when they were lined up on death row at the Ayatollah’s order. Amnesty International recorded the names of over 4,482 disappeared prisoners during this time. The mass executions compelled some top-ranking clergy to protest. Even Ayatollah Montazeri, Khomeini’s designated successor, challenged the executions to the point that Montazeri was removed.
In what I would argue is no coincidence, the number of executions in Iran has skyrocketed this year. The growth in rate of executions in 2015 is comparable to the years following the 2009 Green Movement, which saw massive protests in response to the fraudulent election that returned incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. The Green Movement itself, as well as the massive repression unleashed on protesters by the state, received widespread international attention, and served as a major blow to the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy both inside and outside the country.

There are many ways for a state to assert authority, including by exercising power over the very bodies of its citizens or “subjects.” In Iran, this manifests through the deployment of hijab police to enforce laws around women’s dress; through severe punishments for minor crimes; or, through publicly visible executions. In the eyes of the state, this level of control over the bodies of its citizenry is necessary to reestablish the authority and legitimacy that is lost following a compromise on something so critical to the regime’s identity.

For the Islamic Republic, the two dominant narratives underpinning the regime have been confronting the West--namely the United States--and the pursuit of nuclear activities. Iran has adhered to the latter so strongly as to unite much of the world against it. The nuclear deal represents a major blow to both of these narratives, which have long defined the Islamic Republic. The weakening of this dominant ideology fundamentally hurts the legitimacy and authority of the ruler, who must act to mitigate damage to his image. By exercising power over the bodies of its subjects, the totalitarian regime attempts to reclaim power.

It is important to note that such attempts to reclaim power are not necessarily the product of conscious decisions by individuals within the government. Rather they are part of a systemic approach that is inherent to any totalitarian rule, which oversees not only what is visible, but also the feelings and minds of its subjects.

By observing the actions taken by the regime in the wake of the nuclear deal and comparing them to those surrounding the 1988 ceasefire, it may be possible to assess the evolution of the Iranian state and whether it has become more or less totalitarian.

Ali Anisi Tehrani is an Iranian journalist based in Washington, DC. His research is mainly around the theme of civil resistance and political power dynamics. Ali left Iran after the controversial Presidential election in 2009 and studied Digital Media in Sweden and the U.S. He has been living in the United States since 2012.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: