The Iranian military will remain a pivotal force in 2025, even as it undergoes a significant change in its force posture and strategy. Engrained in Iranian identity is a self-perception of Iran as inheritor to a grand civilization and as a regional power. Iranians root their special status in a near contiguous history dating back more than two millennia and Iran's status as a successor to a great pre-Islamic Empire. While Iran's neighbors fell victim to colonialism and conquest, Nasir al-Din Shah (r. 1848-1896) and his successors managed to play the Great Powers off each other and thereby preserve Iran's independence.
The army became the backbone of the state under Reza Shah, himself a veteran of the Persian Cossack Brigade. While the Iranian army fought no external battles, it was essential to preserve the unity of the state from a succession of twentieth century secessionist movements and to assert the legitimacy of the central government in the face of tribal resistance.
After Reza Shah's abdication in 1941, his son and successor Mohammad Reza assumed the throne. In the years after World War II, he faced populist unrest which led, in 1953, to a U.S. and British-sponsored coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddiq. After Mosaddiq's ouster and continued challenges from both left and religious right, Mohammad Reza Shah grew increasingly despotic and dependent upon the Iranian army. Military spending skyrocketed and, while conscripts filled the rank-and-file, the Shah appointed trusted lieutenants—mostly family members—to the officer corps.
That the Islamic Revolution succeeded in 1979 when the conscripts stood down or joined the swelling revolutionary ranks. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, however, distrusted the Iranian army: many of the conscripts were opportunists who waited on the fence until they could predict victory. There followed a bloody purge; Khomeini ordered senior officers arrested and scores executed, a decision which would prove disastrous as Iraq invaded Iran.
The IRGC's Future Role
Because he distrusted the army, Khomeini and his revolutionary allies formed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and charged it with the security not only of the nation but also the revolution. He did not dissolve the army, however, and military duality followed. Iraq's September 1980 invasion of Iran obscured much of the tension that existed between army and Revolutionary Guards as both focused on the external threat the Islamic Republic faced. Still, professing fear of external enemies, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps continued to demand and receive priority in equipment and technology. Even after the Iran-Iraq War ended, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps maintained its dominant position as it prepared for external enemies, real and imagined.
Only in 2007 did the Revolutionary Guards change their force posture. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the chief of the Revolutionary Guards' Strategic Studies Center, took the helm of the force's leadership and implemented what he termed 'the mosaic doctrine.' Believing the greatest challenges to the Islamic Republic would come from within, he divided the Guards into 31 commands, one for each province and two for Tehran. Jafari was prescient: Less than a year later, post-election protests would put his theories to the test, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would pass—from the regime's perspective—with flying colors.
Is time on the regime's side?
Were the 2009 protests the beginning of the end for the Islamic Republic? Much public comment is made in the West about the tremendous social strains inside the Islamic Republic, and many Iranian-American academics act more as advocates for political reform or the Green Movement than as analysts. Nevertheless, they may find hope in certain demographic statistics involving youth and women, but often they falsely assume these trends will be constant, irreversible, or enough to overcome the opposition of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Still, analysts who believe reform is inevitable can point to a youth unemployment that reached 30 percent in 2004, the year before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rise to the presidency. Today, the Iranian government holds its statistics tighter but, with the souring economy, unemployment among the young is likely higher. Women are also a tremendous social force and are applying to the university at ever higher rates. Iranians also speak of a marriage crisis which could spark social discord: Only half of Iranians who should marry each year actually do, the financial costs being exorbitant.
But as Patrick Clawson, a former World Bank economist and Iran specialist points out, declining birthrates may benefit the regime. When Khomeini seized power, he suspended Iran's family planning programs, and the birthrate skyrocketed. During the Iran-Iraq War years, it was not uncommon to see posters depicting a good Islamic family with a mother, father, and six or seven children. Soon after the war concluded in 1988, the Iranian government realized that it could not handle such rapid population growth and authorities again authorized birth control. According to UNICEF, Iran's average annual growth rate was 3.4 percent between 1970 and 1990, but declined to 1.6 percent in the following decade, and was just 1.1 percent in the most recent decade. Today, the Islamic Republic's growth rate is just 0.94 percent, even less that the United States' 0.97 percent. Iran's birthrate is likewise below the world average. The net result is that the immediate post-revolutionary baby boom generation is now in their late twenties, many out of school but not yet with the encumbrances of family. These are the protestors in the street. In five years, however, many will settle down or simply become apathetic as they focus on more pedestrian concerns such as salary and rent checks rather on grand notions of liberty and democracy. The regime realizes that the next generation of twenty-somethings will be far smaller and therefore more easily contained. It is quite probable that Supreme Leader Khamenei and Ahmadinejad believe that if the IRGC can suppress protests for just a couple years, the Islamic Republic can guarantee itself decades more.
This does not mean that the Islamic Republic will be prosperous let alone healthy. The failure of Iranian economy will be for two reasons: Firstly, the rise of Revolutionary Guard influence in the economy will impede reform; and, secondly, the Islamic Republic intellectual culture remains hostile to free market reforms.
The Revolutionary Guards' influence on the economy may not be a new phenomenon, but its growth has reached a critical mass. The Revolutionary Guards' intrusion on the private sector and competing state sector began at the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq War, as Guardsmen worked to maintain the organization's paramount position. Danish-Iranian scholar Ali Alfoneh has documented the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps expansion into the Iranian economy and especially into the lucrative oil and gas fields.
The Corps have not looked back. Today, as Alfoneh points out in a soon-to-be-published essay, the Revolutionary Guards has used its front companies and private banks to purchase 'privatized' state enterprises, furthering its stranglehold on Iran's economy and trade. Whereas during the Iran-Iraq War, the Revolutionary Guards were dependent upon the leadership for salary and budget, their acquisition of numerous state companies increasingly gives them an independent economic base. They certainly welcome state contributions but, money is fungible and should a leadership develop in Tehran which seeks to impose budgetary constraints on the Revolutionary Guards in order to limit the group's support for terrorist groups abroad, for example, then the organization would be able to continue its agenda independently.
The Revolutionary Guards' increasing economic interests also means that the group is an impediment to meaningful reform. It is a privileged beneficiary of a system and is hostile to competition. For this, and other reasons, it is doubtful, however, that Iran will be able to reform its economy by 2025.
The Islamic Republic has never managed its economy well. While the religious philosophy of Iran's revolutionaries is well-known, just as important was the leftist economic theory dominant in both Iranian secular intellectual and religious circles in the 1960s and 1970s. It was in this context that sociologist and revolutionary theoretician Ali Shariati blended Islam with Marxism. While Western analysts like to divide Iranian leaders along an axis from reform to hardline, as important is a second axis charting the range between proponents of a command economy and those who believe in free market principles. The Iranian leadership has always been stacked to those who, cloaking themselves in the rhetoric of social justice, embrace a command economy. The most prominent exception, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, raised hopes of economic reform upon assuming the presidency in 1989. After all, analysts argued, the time was ripe for reform: Ayatollah Khomeini was dead, and the Iran-Iraq War over. Even Rafsanjani, however, was unable to overcome the entrenched interests which promote subsidies and state industry.
Two decades later, and with the spread of the IRGC into the economy, Iran's fiscal health is dire. It is impossible to know with precision Iran's unemployment and inflation – it is not uncommon for Iranian papers to use three different figures in the course of a day – but both are well into the double digits. The Iran Statistics Agency, for example, has said that unemployment was 11.9 percent from March 2009 – March 2010, while Ali Dehghan Kia, the head of the Labor Supreme Council of Tehran, placed unemployment at over 20 percent. Even members of the Iranian parliament do not believe the government's inflation figure of ten percent; the deputy speaker of parliament predicted inflation would reach 25 percent this year. Once unemployment or inflation exceeds 15 percent, however, hysteresis amplifies the rate in the public psyche.
The lack of economic confidence in the Islamic Republic has catalyzed a liquidity crisis which, in turn, has led wealthy Iranians to invest in real estate. This in turn has made priced not only home ownership but, in many urban areas, rent as well out of the reach of an increasing number of Iranians.
Nor can foreign direct investment boost Iran's economy. While Western newspapers sometimes headline lucrative deals signed between Western oil companies and Tehran, seldom do they note years later the lack of implementation of such contracts. In private conversations, oil executives readily admit they are jockeying for position, hoping to have a foot in the door should regime change come to Iran. The fundamental problem, businessmen and diplomats active in Iran say, is that the Islamic Republic does not respect commercial or contractual law.
While some Iranian officials have sought to attract foreign investment, other power centers—especially the Revolutionary Guards—work to undercut it. For example, in 2004, the Iranian government awarded the Turkish-Austrian consortium Tepeu Akfen Vie (TAV) a contract to operate the new Imam Khomeini International Airport. But on the airport's inaugural day, the Revolutionary Guards blocked the runways with tanks and refused to allow the airport to operate for almost a year, until the voiding of TAV's contract. Likewise, that same year, intelligence ministry and hard-line parliamentarians helped scuttle a signed $3 billion agreement with the Turkish cellular phone company Turkcell.
Nor can Tehran assume that high energy prices will convince foreign concerns to invest significant money in Iran. In 2005, the Indian government signed a multibillion dollar deal for Iranian gas. After the price of gas and oil increased, Iranian authorities voided the contract and demanded renegotiation. India simply shifted its business to Qatar. The Revolutionary Guards' economic wing likewise resolved a commercial dispute with the Romanian-owned Grup Servicii Petroliere by ordering both helicopters and ships to fire on Romanian workers operating a rig in the Persian Gulf and holding its crew hostage. Every year, as the IRGC's economic interests grow more entrenched, the chance for meaningful economic reform recede. Iran's economy is doomed to disorder.
Quality vs. Quantity
Demographic changes and a moribund economy will affect both Iran's force posture and its foreign policy over the coming decade or two. During the Iran-Iraq War, the Islamic Republic relied on both manpower and strategic depth. Iraq may have enjoyed a better-equipped army, but Iranian authorities were willing to send 14-year-olds in human waves at Iraqi trenches. After all, Iran's population was more than three times Iraq's. Today, the ratio is approaching just two to one in Iran's favor. The Islamic Republic may still retain a population advantage over its Arab neighbors, but with the post-war decline in birthrates, its fighting age population has declined in relative terms. Arab populations are overwhelmingly young; Iran is an aging society. According to Central Intelligence Agency estimates, 21 percent of Iranians are under 15-years-old. In contrast, 38 percent of Iraqis are under 15-years-old.
As a result, the Iranian military will aim to increase its technological capacity. In recent months, the Iranian government has bragged about its unmanned aerial vehicle programs and its submarine programs. It also continues to make extensive progress in its nuclear enrichment program and its ballistic missile capability. The Pentagon believes that Iran could develop an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015. Even if this estimate is exaggerates Tehran's capability, continued testing if not technology sharing with North Korea or other countries will likely bring the Islamic Republic a full intercontinental capability by 2025. While Iran's leaders may not decide whether to build a nuclear warhead for months if not years, they will pursue the capability. By the year 2025, if Iran has not declared itself a nuclear power, it is likely that the country will be able to achieve a nuclear breakout capability place a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile within days of taking the decision to do so.
Does Ideology Matter?
Every regional state and global power is concerned about countries which combine
ballistic missiles and a nuclear capability. Concern increases when command-and-control is uncertain and a country's doctrine regarding the use of nuclear weapons is unclear. While academics and analysts classify Iranian politicians into factions, very little is known about divisions within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This should worry both the U.S. government and regional states, for it is the Revolutionary Guards and, perhaps, the Office of the Supreme Leader, which will have command-and-control over any nuclear weaponry. Ordinary Iranians may be relatively moderate and cosmopolitan, but the factions dominating the Revolutionary Guards—at least its upper reaches—appear to embrace a far more militant and perhaps millennial vision. It is true that the traditional religious establishment is hostile toward Ahmadinejad's millenarianism, but both Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guards bypass traditional exegesis in favor of belief which enables more militaristic interpretations of the ideas surrounding what and who might hasten the return of the Hidden Imam. As the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps consolidates control over the Islamic Republic's myriad power centers, the ideology of its commanders becomes more important in any strategic analysis.
Many analysts argue that Tehran is pragmatic. When the costs of ideology became too great for the Islamic Republic to bear, they note, Iranian leaders made compromises. Hence, Khomeini was willing to agree to a ceasefire with Iraq in 1988.
Nevertheless, there is a tendency in the West, especially among proponents of diplomatic engagement, to embrace wishful thinking and exaggerate the Islamic Republic's pragmatism. While Iran's revolutionary leaders might be pragmatic along their own borders, the regime's willingness to pursue ideology becomes more pronounced with distance from Iran's borders. Commitment to the defeat of the United States and the destruction of Israel is not simply a rhetorical device or a negotiating position. The rise of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – and the confidence it will gain by acquiring nuclear weaponry – will skew the balance between ideology and pragmatism in favor of the former. It is in this context that Iranian ideologues have become increasingly assertive in the region, laying claim, for example, to the Arab state of Bahrain as an Iranian province.
Of course, the Supreme Leader retains ultimate control. Ali Khamenei assumed Iran's leadership upon Khomeini's death. He was a compromise candidate, not an intellectual heavyweight. His efforts to lay claim to being a marja' at-taqlid (source of emulation) upon the 1994 death of Grand Ayatollah Sheikh Mohammad Ali Araki fell flat. However, far from the relatively weak figure he was in 1989 or even 1994, Khamenei today has consolidated control and become the predominant power, using the Revolutionary Guards as his Praetorian Guards.
It is possible Khamenei could survive to 2025—he would be 86. Many ayatollahs live long lives. But, for the sake of argument, assume Khamenei dies or is incapacitated. Who or what comes next and whether they would embrace Khamenei's ideology?
Ordinary Iranians might rise up and demand their democratic rights upon hearing of Khomeini's death, but their success assumes that the Revolutionary Guards would stand down. This is unlikely. It is also likely that ordinary Iranians would not learn of their leader's death until a successor—or at least the military—was in place. Indeed, this has precedent as well. After Nasir al-Din Shah was fatally shot in 1896, he was accompanied back in a carriage, being manipulated to appear alive until security was deployed.
The Islamic Republic has never been ideologically homogenous. Holistically, however, the bounds of acceptable discourse within the Islamic Republic have narrowed with time. The Islamic Revolution itself was led by a coalition of Islamists, nationalists, and liberals of various strains. Once entrenched in power, Khomeini and his lieutenants began to purge competing factions—communists, more secular nationalists, and the Mujahedin al-Khalq. While self-described reformists dominated parliament under President Mohammad Khatami, today the Guardian Council has deemed them outside the bounds of permissible ideology. Ahmadinejad and his Principalist (Usulgarayan) faction, with Khamenei's blessing and the Revolutionary Guards' enforcement, continues to winnow down the ideological diversity of official political discourse. The Islamic Republic's government in 2025 will be far less diverse ideologically than it is today, let alone as it was 15 years ago.
In the wake of Khamenei's death, therefore, it is likely that the Iranian leadership would draw his successor from a narrower ideological pool than from that which Khamenei himself was selected. In theory, the Assembly of Experts, a body of 86 Islamic scholars, will select the new leadership upon Khamenei's incapacitation or death. In reality, however, Iranian journalists say the body merely confirms a choice made privately and quietly by the Islamic Republic's most powerful political and military leaders. As the Revolutionary Guards consolidates control, therefore, it is likely they would become the paramount influence in the selection of Khamenei's successor. They would, naturally, try to preserve or amplify their influence, perhaps nominating even a cleric from within their own ranks. Alternately, the international community should be prepared for the open emergence of the Hojjatiyeh, a faction which believes that it is possible to hasten the re-emergence of the Hidden Imam, perhaps through violence. Forced underground by Khomeini in the first years of the Revolution, today they are rumored to be gaining influence in the Revolutionary Guards and presidency and to have a patron in Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi. While analysts like to depict a reformist victory as inevitable, this is wishful thinking. It is quite possible that, absent regime change, the Iranian regime will be more hardline in 2025 than it is in 2010.
Absent outside intervention, Iran in 2025 will be an increasingly ideological and militaristic nuclear power. It will be overconfident, secure in its own nuclear deterrence and in the knowledge that its population is cowed. It will also be an economic failure. Together, this makes Iran in 2025 extraordinarily dangerous.
Whenever the failure of the Islamic Republic's leadership becomes apparent, the Islamic Republic either blames outside forces or foments an external crisis. Outside analysts may dismiss this as a cynical ploy on the Iranian leadership's part, but danger grows with time. Many leaders of the Islamic Revolution had experience living in the West. They may not have liked the United States and Europe, but they understood it better than those who had never left Iran. As the leadership caste within the Islamic Republic—and especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—narrows, however, the remaining leadership has comparatively less exposure to the outside world. They live in an echo chamber fueled by their own rhetoric and may believe their own conspiracy theories.
Paranoia, overconfidence, poor economies, and millennialism are a noxious mix, but one which, well before 2025, regional states and global powers must be prepared to counter, for it is foolhardy to assume that the United States, Europe, or any regional state can accommodate the Islamic Republic of Iran as it will be in 2025.
 Ali Alfoneh, "What do Structural Changes in the Revolutionary Guards Mean?" AEI Middle East Outlook, September 2008.
 Golnaz Esfandiari, "Iran: Unemployment becoming a 'national threat,'" Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Prague), March 12, 2004.
 Iraj Gorgin, "Iran: Does Government Fear Educated Women?" Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, February 10, 2008.
 Azadeh Moaveni, "Will Iran's 'Marriage Crisis' Bring Down Ahmadinejad?" Time, June 9, 2009.
 Nancy Hatch Dupree, "Family Planning," Encyclopaedia Iranica, December 15, 1999.
 "Iran," The World Fact Book. Washington: Central Intelligence Agency, 2010.
 Ali Alfoneh, "How Intertwined are the Revolutionary Guards in Iran's Economy?" AEI Middle East Outlook, October 2007.
 Lucia Mouat, "Signs of U.S.-Iran Thaw Appear," Christian Science Monitor, December 18, 1989.
 "Markaz-e Amar Hum Narkh-e Bikari Sal Guzeshteg 11.9 dar sad 'alam kard." Abrar (Tehran), May 20, 2010; "Narkh-e bikari dar keshvar besh az 20 dar sad ast," Abrar, November 26, 2009.
 "Qanbari: Nahveh mahalsebeh narkh-e turem zir 10 dar sad chehguneh budeh ast?" Aftab (Tehran), June 16, 2010.
 "Tavarrem-e sal-e ayundeh hudud-e 25 dar sad khahad bud," Abrar, March 11, 2010.
 "Vujud 168 milliard toman naqdeenge banke markazi khalq-e pul jaded nakonad," Agahsazi (Tehran), October 6, 2008.
 "Revabat-e akhir-e sal az bazaar maskan," Donya-ye Eqtesad (Tehran), March 18, 2009.
 "New Tehran Airport Remains Closed," Fars News Agency (Tehran), May 11, 2004; "Iran to Reopen New Airport," Gulf Daily News (Manama), March 3, 2005.
 "Iran Government Faces Opposition to Turkish Investment," Turkish Daily News (Istanbul), July 28, 2004.
 P.R. Kumaraswamy, "Delhi: Between Tehran and Washington," Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2008.
 "Rig Hijack Alleged in Persian Gulf: Iran Accuses Roma-nian Company," Global Insight, August 16, 2006.
 "Sakht-e namuneh-ye jaded bombafkan bidun sarnashin va radargariz artesh ta payan shahriyar mah," Fars News Agency, August 30, 2009; "Tajiz-e zirdaryayeha-ye Iran beh salahha-ye khas," Alef News Agency, December 3, 2009.
 "Unclassified Report on Military Power of Iran," Department of Defense to Congress, April 2010.
 Ali Alfoneh, "Indoctrination of the Revolutionary Guards," AEI Middle East Outlook, February 2009.
 See, for example, John Limbert, Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History. Washington: U.S. Institute of Peace, 2009.
 Husayn Shariatmadari, "Ahvaz-i Kucheh-i Baghi," Kayhan (Tehran), July 9, 2007.
 "Iranian Cleric Yields, Turns Down Shiite Post," Chicago Tribune, December 15, 1994.
 Abbas Amanat, Pivot of the Universe. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 441.
 "Mesbah-Yazdi beeh rahbari 'eteqad nadarad," Agahsazi, May 3, 2010.