Ali Alfoneh

Senior Fellow, AGSIW

Ali Alfoneh is a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. He is a political scientist by training and the originator of the theory of transformation of the Islamic Republic into a military dictatorship. Alfoneh first put forward the theory in the spring 2006 edition of Udenrigs, journal of The Danish Foreign Policy Society. In the United States since 2007, Alfoneh advanced the theory in a series of essays published by the American Enterprise Institute culminating in Iran Unveiled: How the Revolutionary Guards are Transforming Iran from Theocracy into Military Dictatorship published by AEI Press in April 2013. He is also the author of Political Succession in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Demise of the Clergy and the Rise of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (2020).

Alfoneh also created AGSIW’s Iran Media Review, a twice-weekly publication that monitors, translates, and reviews critical Persian-language media sources identifying important developments and trends in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Subscribe to receive the Iran Media Review Recap.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

The U.S. Prevented War, Yet Iran’s Strategic Decision-Making Process Remains Flawed

The crisis between Iran and Israel may be contained for now, but the breakdown in decision making that led to the end of Iran’s “strategic patience” carries risks going forward.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Iran's 2024 Elections: Vote Without Voters

Does a voter boycott matter in a country that is not a democracy, and is there a correlation between lack of electoral participation and political violence?

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

The End of Mandatory Hijab in Iran?

Should the Islamic Republic utilize the March 1 elections to end effective enforcement of the hijab law, it will remove a source of constant friction between state and society in Iran, but the regime will also lose an instrument of intimidating the urban middle class.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Iran: Republic of Distrust

Forty-five years after the revolution and establishment of the Islamic Republic, the regime in Tehran is not only widely distrusted but has also sown the seeds of distrust among Iranians.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Iran: Republic of God in an Increasingly Secular Society

Having failed to shape the society to its liking, can the Islamic Republic adapt to a society that is increasingly demanding separation between religion and state?

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

What Do Recent Fatalities Reveal About the Quds Force and IRGC?

Targeted assassinations of skilled engineers, seasoned commanders, and intelligence operatives are no doubt taking a toll on the IRGC and the Quds Force but not enough for Iran to reconsider its attempt at containing the perceived threat from Israel.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Iran Leadership Succession: Former President Rouhani Disqualified

While no immediate threat to the Islamic Republic’s survival, the gradual shrinking of the ruling elites presents a long-term threat to the regime in Iran.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Obscure Track Record of Quds Force Deputy Fallahzadeh

Quds Force chief Brigadier General Ismail Qaani is likely to be succeeded by his deputy, but the role Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Fallahzadeh currently plays in the organization remains obscure.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Lebanese Hezbollah Fatalities Since the Beginning of the War in Gaza

Reports on Hezbollah’s fatalities provide some insight into the structure of Hezbollah’s military units and strengthen the perception of a relatively low risk of the war expanding into Lebanon.

2024 Outlook

On January 9, AGSIW hosted a virtual roundtable with its leadership and scholars as they looked ahead and assessed trends likely to shape the Gulf region and U.S. foreign policy during the coming year.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

ISIL’s Attack Will Not Weaken the Regime in Tehran

If history is any indication, the latest ISIL attack in Iran may serve to rally Iranians around the flag against a terrorist enemy and even strengthen the regime.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Khamenei’s Succession Dilemma: To Name or Not to Name a Successor-Designate?

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei presumably wants to choose his successor, but he cannot publicly name one without creating a rival undermining his own authority.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Deciphering Quds Force Chief Qaani’s Words

Brigadier General Ismail Qaani’s public remarks offer some insights into the fundamental tenets of his thinking and ability to deal with delicate political problems, however they do not reveal Suleimani-style coded messages to the United States and Israel.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Tactical Theatrics: Iranian Proxies and Allies Respond to the War in Gaza

Iran and its allies appear to be engaged in symbolic actions against Israeli and U.S. forces rather than openly provoking a war, but these theatrics still risk igniting a regional war all involved parties want to avoid.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Is Quds Force Chief Qaani Likely to Open a Hezbollah Front Against Israel?

While there are ways Hezbollah could become involved in the Israel-Hamas conflict, neither Hezbollah nor Iran appears interested in a wider regional war.

Will the Israel-Hamas Conflict Spell the End of Regional Reconciliation?

On October 12, AGSIW hosted a discussion on the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Arab-Israeli Tragedy, Quds Force Chief’s Victory

As long as the nature or degree of Iran’s involvement in the conflict between Israel and Hamas is disputed, Tehran will continue to reap rewards.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Envy and Admiration: Iranian Perspectives on Saudi Arabia’s Diplomatic Maneuvers

Iran may look to emulate Saudi Arabia in its efforts to reorient its foreign policy and establish a more balanced position in relations with the great powers of the East and West.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

A Quick Take on Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Since 1989 to Take Ahmadian’s Measure

Iran’s newly appointed Supreme National Security Council secretary appears to be part of the unofficial collective leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. As such, he cannot be expected to play the role of an honest broker among the regime’s competing factions.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

What to Expect From Iran’s New Supreme National Security Council Secretary

As SNSC secretary, Rear Admiral Ali Akbar Ahmadian will doubtlessly try to put his experiences and writings to good use, but on all counts, he is likely to side with his comrades in the IRGC.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Who Is Iran’s New Supreme National Security Council Secretary?

Rather than a change of policy, the appointment of Ali Akbar Ahmadian may be more about who gets credit for Iran’s diplomatic initiatives.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Sultan Haitham the Mediator

With Sultan Haitham’s planned trip to Tehran to mediate between Iran and the United States, the Omani leader appears to be following his predecessor’s path as a regional interlocutor.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Iran and Saudi Arabia: Fragile Managed Rivalry

Tehran and Riyadh have agreed to restore diplomatic relations, however, every actor who stands to lose from the agreement has strong incentives to sabotage it.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

The Iranian Opposition Abroad: Lack of Unity Limits Prospects

As long as the Iranian opposition lacks leadership, organization, and a shared vision for Iran’s future, it is unlikely to pose any serious challenge to the current Iranian regime.

Iranian Protests and Tehran’s Regional Role

On February 14, AGSIW hosted a discussion on Iran's regional relationships amid ongoing protests.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Iran’s 2022-23 Protests: Why Has the Regime Survived?

The answer to this question can, in part, be found in the institutionalized nature of the Islamic Republic as well as the regime’s externalization of the crisis, ruthlessness, and pragmatism.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Iran’s 2022-23 Protests in Perspective

More widespread, protracted, and violent, the evolution of protests under the Islamic Republic suggests a dangerous trajectory for the regime.

2023 Outlook

AGSIW hosted a virtual private roundtable with its leadership and scholars as they looked ahead and assessed trends likely to shape the Gulf region and U.S. foreign policy during the coming year.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Neither Bread nor Freedom in Iran

Protests are likely to continue flaring up in Iran as a function of the regime’s attempt at modernizing the country while denying personal and political freedoms to the children of modernization.

Succession in Iran: Who Will Be the Next Supreme Leader?

On September 22, AGSIW hosted a discussion on political succession in Iran.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Does Iran Want the Nuke and How Fast?

Iranian leaders may find the current international circumstances more amenable to a dash to nuclear deterrence. But the risks are truly grave.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Iran’s Nuclear Option: Negotiation Tactics or Strategic Shift Encouraged by Russia?

Rather than attempts at empowering negotiators in Vienna, recent statements on Iran’s nuclear program may reflect changed calculations based on Russia’s green light to Iran opting for the nuclear bomb.

What Did Biden's Trip Achieve for the United States and Its Middle East Partners?

On July 19, AGSIW hosted a discussion examining President Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s visit to Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories, and Saudi Arabia and considering implications for relations with the United States' partners in the region.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Bread Riots in Iran, Intransigence in Vienna

Are domestic protests over economic conditions likely to increase Iran’s willingness to come to a final agreement with the United States to restore the JCPOA?

International and Regional Involvement in the Middle East

“International and Regional Involvement in the Middle East" is a bimonthly workshop series launched in September 2021, co-hosted by AGSIW and the University of Haifa.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Triangular Travails: Iran, the Gulf Arab States, and the United States

Iran and the Gulf Arab states may be sincere in their attempts to reduce regional tensions, but the nuclear crisis casts dark clouds over the region’s security dynamics.

2022 Outlook

AGSIW's leadership and scholars assessed trends likely to shape the Gulf region and U.S. foreign policy in 2022.

UAE Security Forum 2021: U.S.-Gulf Relations in a Changing Region

From December 7-9, UAESF 2021 assessed geopolitical trends in the region.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Iran’s Strategic Lessons Learned

What factors explain the transformation in Tehran’s strategic thinking and behavior, and what will be the trajectory under the new president?

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Iran Gets a New President and a Supreme Leader in Waiting

Long rumored to be the favorite to succeed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ebrahim Raisi will use the presidency as a steppingstone.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Engineering Presidential Elections in Iran: Coronation of Raisi

By narrowing the range of choice, Iran’s supreme leader and the Guardian Council effectively eliminate competition and reduce electoral participation, increasing the chances of their favorite candidate: Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Presidential Elections in Iran: Procedures, Candidates, and the Persistent Clout of Key Institutions

Most speculation about the candidates and outcome of Iran’s upcoming presidential election appears premature, and assessments about potential impact on U.S.-Iranian relations seem exaggerated.

2021 Outlook

AGSIW hosted a virtual private roundtable with its leadership and scholars as they looked ahead to assess trends likely to shape the Gulf region during the coming year.

Roundtable Discussion on Iraq

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s U.S.-Iraq Business Council, in partnership with AGSIW, hosted a roundtable discussion on the latest developments in Iraq and the region featuring Ambassador Douglas A. Silliman and Ali Alfoneh.

Iraq Briefing

AGSIW held a briefing on Iraq for the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs with Ambassador Douglas A. Silliman, Hussein Ibish, Ali Alfoneh, and Ambassador Feisal al-Istrabadi.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

After the Embargo: Iran’s Weapons Agenda

The lifting of the arms embargo is not likely to result in an Iranian buying spree. But, the Islamic Republic’s arms exports in the post-embargo era may prove as significant as its potential procurements.

After the Embargo: Iran's Weapons Agenda and Its Regional Impact

On October 15, AGSIW hosted a virtual panel discussion on the implications of Iran's weapons agenda.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

As Iran’s Elite Fall Victim to Coronavirus, Succession Questions Arise

None of Iran’s leadership hopefuls can seize power without IRGC support, and any future leader of the Islamic Republic will be beholden to the IRGC.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Iran Chooses a Harsher Tone as it Reacts to the Bahrain-Israel Rapprochement

The normalization of relations with Israel provides another grievance Tehran can use to mobilize Bahrain’s Shias against their rulers.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

IRGC Academic Journals Acknowledge Protests Often Driven by Regime Missteps

Authors of articles published by Imam Hussein University of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps see the real challenges the regime is facing from the unprivileged slumdwellers and the politicized middle class and its grievances.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Iran Reacts Angrily to the UAE-Israel Landmark Agreement

The Islamic Republic has yet to realize taking such a posture toward its Arab neighbors further encourages them to align with Iran’s adversaries.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Strategic Partnership Agreement With China Represents Lifeline for Iran

The Iran-China agreement appears as a framework for cooperation. Its realization depends on external factors over which Iran has no influence.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

What Iran’s Military Journals Reveal About the Role of Missiles in Strategic Deterrence

A pilot survey of Imam Hussein University academic journals shows the limits of academic freedom in the Islamic Republic, save a few pieces reflecting the Iranian leadership’s view of the role of missiles in strategic deterrence.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Constants in Iran’s Security Policy Under the Pahlavi Regime and the Islamic Republic

Survival supersedes ideology, and the ruling elites of the Islamic Republic find themselves adhering to the constants in security policy of a predecessor they vilify.

A New Iraqi Government and the Future of the Popular Mobilization Forces

On June 10, AGSIW hosted a virtual panel discussion examining the future of the Popular Mobilization Forces and their relationship with the new Iraqi government.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

What Iran’s Military Journals Reveal About the Goals of the Quds Force

A pilot survey of the complete series of two journals published by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Imam Hussein University provides valuable information about the internal deliberations of the Quds Force.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Rare Criticism of IRGC Rooted in Iran’s Military Rivalry

The regime-instigated and nurtured rivalry between the army and the IRGC has reached a point where it undermines the regime.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

The Quds Force After Suleimani

Under its new leadership, the Quds Force is no longer a popular mobilization force but commands a multinational Shia army and remains the dominant force within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The IRGC Quds Force After Suleimani

On May 26, AGSIW hosted a virtual panel discussion examining new IRGC leadership and how the killing of Suleimani is likely to change Iran’s grand strategy and Quds Force operations in Iraq and beyond.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Keep Your Enemies Closer: Iran and the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue

While the long-term objective of Tehran may well be to expel all great powers from the Middle East, in the short term, Iran benefits from the U.S. presence in Iraq.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Iran’s Missile Program Delivers Both Triumph and Tragedy

The Iranian friendly fire incident that killed 19 Iranian sailors on May 10 points to the inconsistencies of the regime’s leadership and makes one of its sources of pride into a liability.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

The Art of the Possible: Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s Cabinet

Mustafa al-Kadhimi seems to have succeeded where his predecessors mostly failed, forming a Cabinet mainly composed of technocrats, academics, and respected national military figures.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

"The Lesser of Two Evils”: Quds Force Commentary on Iraq’s Prime Minister-Designate

For reasons of self-interest, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force officers are trying to persuade Iran's Iraq allies to support Prime Minister-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Iraq: Balancing Party Demands is a Recipe for Paralysis in New Government

Efforts by the prime minister-designate to win parliamentary support cannot come at the expense of articulating coherent policy.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Are Tehran and a Key Ally Really at Odds Over the Iraqi Prime Minister-Designate?

Tehran and Kataib Hezbollah's conflicting reactions to Prime Minister-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi reflect a division of labor rather than poor coordination.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Succession Crisis in Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces

While it took the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps less than 24 hours to replace Major General Qassim Suleimani, Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces is suffering more from its leadership succession woes.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Iran’s Patient Zero: The Islamic Republic

Strategic relations with China, domestic political considerations, and religious taboos all prevented an earlier and more effective response by the Iranian government toward the country's coronavirus crisis.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Khamenei’s New Parliament: Cohesive, But Unrepresentative

The supreme leader’s engineering of Iran's parliamentary elections may help the regime to manage the multiple crises it is facing. But there will be consequences for narrowing the circle of the ruling elites and restricting the path for political participation for Iranian citizens.

Videos content-type in which the post is published

U.S.-Iranian Tensions: The Iranian Regime

Ali Alfoneh discusses the Islamic Republic's strategic options following the killing of Quds Force commander Major General Qassim Suleimani.

2020 Vision: AGSIW Assesses Threats and Opportunities in the Gulf

On January 8, AGSIW hosted a conversation considering the trends likely to shape the Gulf region in 2020.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Who is the New Chief Commander of Iran’s Quds Force?

Under the leadership of Brigadier General Ismail Qaani, there is likely to be greater continuity than change in the Quds Force.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

The Fractured Bureaucracy Behind Tehran’s Response to November Protests

Iran's supreme leader demanded the establishment of a "war room" to safeguard the regime against economic pressure from the United States. This left politicians and bureaucracies engaged in a blame game as the Islamic Republic faced mass protest.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

The Supreme Leader’s Perilous Crisis Management

As supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cannot exonerate himself from the government’s decision to adjust the fuel price, and as commander in chief, he must shoulder responsibility for the deaths, injuries, and arrests of protesters.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Iran’s November Protests in Perspective

As long as U.S. sanctions are in place, Iran is likely to encounter more unrest. How the recent crisis compares to earlier crises in the Islamic Republic may provide insights into the regime’s behavior in future protests.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Tehran Unveils New Approach to Information Warfare

Recent protests provided the Islamic Republic with an opportunity to test drive an internet blackout and the Iranian intranet.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Unprepared: The Islamic Republic Confronts Fuel Protests

Iran’s leadership has for years downplayed the impact of sanctions on the economy. Now that President Hassan Rouhani and the regime are compelled to make economic adjustments, they are facing predictable public anger and protests for which they were unprepared.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Can the Islamic Republic Survive Economic Collapse?

Under the weight of the United States' “maximum pressure” campaign, Iran is inching toward economic collapse. But this does not necessarily entail the collapse of the political order.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Iran Reactivates Fordow Uranium Enrichment Center

Reactivating the Fordow uranium enrichment center is neither the first nor the last countermeasure of Tehran’s against Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Iran’s Imperial Overreach

As anti-government protests spread like wildfire threatening the Islamic Republic’s allies and proxies, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei faces a dilemma: use Iran’s scarce resources to stabilize regional protests or leave them to their own devices and risk a fight with the IRGC.

As Maximum Pressure and Maximum Resistance Max Out, Where's the Confrontation With Iran Headed?

AGSIW examines the ongoing tensions between the United States and Iran.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Tehran’s Strategy: Heroic Flexibility, Strategic Patience, or Active Resistance?

Iran's political factions appear to have their own distinct perceptions of the Trump administration’s Iran policy and try hard to take advantage of that policy in their factional struggle for power.

The Islamic Republic at 40: Succession and Direction after Khamenei

As the Islamic Republic commemorates the 40th anniversary of the 1979 revolution, the Iranian regime is facing considerable internal and external challenges.

Videos content-type in which the post is published

Political Succession in the Islamic Republic of Iran

In this video, Ali Alfoneh discusses how theocracy is evolving into a military dictatorship led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Publications content-type in which the post is published

Political Succession in the Islamic Republic of Iran: The Rise of the Revolutionary Guards

The political dynamics during the transitions in Iran in 1979 and 1989 reveal a number of similar features that will play into who will succeed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; what is new now is the role the IRGC is playing in the factional power struggle.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

The War in Syria is Transforming the IRGC into an Expeditionary Force

The metamorphosis of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps into an expeditionary force as a result of the Syrian war bodes ill for the United States and its allies in the Middle East, who will likely encounter a more confrontational Islamic Republic in the future.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Limited Iranian Losses in Iraq Do Not Indicate Lesser Strategic Interest

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps only suffered 43 losses during the fight against ISIL in Iraq. But this is not a sign that Tehran lacks an interest in Iraqi affairs.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

The Heavy Price of Lebanese Hezbollah’s Military Engagement in Syria

Hezbollah has paid a heavy price to secure the survival of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which also secures Hezbollah’s overland lifeline to Tehran.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Iran’s Support of Iraqi Shia Militias Ensures Dependency and Loyalty

CENTCOM’s release of interrogation reports of Qais al-Khazali and a survey of combat fatalities shed new light on Iran’s relationship with Shia militias in Iraq.

Back to Sanctions: How Will Iran Balance Regional Ambitions and Domestic Stability?

On September 26, Ali Alfoneh, Bessma Momani, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, and moderator Hussein Ibish discussed the Trump administration's reimposition of sanctions on Iran.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Fractured Iraqi Shia Militias in Syria

In the midst of the civil war in Iraq, and as ISIL was threatening the central government in Baghdad, why were Iraqi Shias prioritizing Syria instead of defending Baghdad?

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Rouhani, the IRGC, and Negotiations with Washington

The war of words between Washington and Tehran is giving way to a more conciliatory tone, including even hints at direct and unconditional talks between the two capitals, even while U.S.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Iran: Neither Bread nor Freedom

On July 31, the Islamic Republic was once again shaken by rallies beginning in Gohardasht, in Alborz province, and Isfahan, the third largest city in Iran, as Iranians took to the streets to protest rising prices.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Four Decades in the Making: Shia Afghan Fatemiyoun Division of the Revolutionary Guards

Iran has provided support to Shia and Sunni Afghan militants for four decades, increasing its presence to fill the power vacuum.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Using Syria as a Training Ground: The Case of the Pakistani Zeinabiyoun Brigade

The Zeinabiyoun Brigade remains one of the least known and most understudied foreign Shia militias operating in Syria.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Tehran’s Expendable Yemenis

Somewhere in Iran’s holy city of Qom the Islamic Republic is educating the next generation of Muslim revolutionaries: young people from all over the world lured to Iran by a mixture of idealism, adventure, and opportunism.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Tehran Will Fight Hard to Keep Iraq in Its Sphere of Influence

There was a time when Iran’s Major General Qassim Suleimani, chief of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was the ultimate kingmaker in Iraqi politics.

Blog Post content-type in which the post is published

Iran-Russia Divide over Syria Widens

Just as Israel intensified its air raids against Iranian military targets in Syria, Russia began distancing itself from Iran, demanding the withdrawal of Iranian and allied Shia militias from that country.