...For the most part, Western attention focuses on what Iran has — centrifuges, ballistic missiles, enriched uranium — as well as what it does — fund Hezbollah, assist Bashar al-Assad, arm the Houthis, or imprison the occasional British or American citizen. Administrations of both parties have spent most of their Iran energies trying to cajole or coerce Tehran to relinquish and desist, without much success.
Not nearly enough attention, however, goes to the question of what Iran is. This isn’t just about whether it’s a dictatorship. What kind of dictatorship? To get the answer right is to know what kind of pressure can change its behavior or break its back.
The conventional wisdom is that it’s a dictatorship with democratic characteristics, and that it’s riven between hard-liners who want to make it more repressive and militant and reformists who want to make it less. Western policy, according to this analysis, should do what it can to encourage and reward the latter at the expense of the former.
But the analysis fails to explain why, for instance, the number of executions in Iran rose under the ostensibly reformist leadership of President Hassan Rouhani. It doesn’t account for Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif laying a wreath in honor of Imad Mugniyeh, the Hezbollah terrorist responsible for killing hundreds of Americans. And it doesn’t explain Tehran’s hyperaggressive foreign policy in the wake of the 2015 nuclear deal, which was supposed to inaugurate its opening to the rest of the world.
A better way of describing Iran’s dictatorship is as a kleptotheocracy, driven by impulses that are by turns doctrinal and venal. Note how quickly the provincial protesters turned their sights on the supreme leader: Maybe it’s because they know better than most how thoroughly he’s fleecing them...