The Trouble with Iran

3 March 2012


It is a sensitive matter for a Westerner like me to write about Iran, especially at the present time. I, for one, am slack-jawed about the current debate in the press over war with Iran. The press is engaged in asking all the familiar Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? questions about a possible military attack on Iran. Fortunately, journalists do not make the decision to go to war. Unfortunately, they do influence the terms of the debate, so that the constant drumbeat of war in the media, by the simple fact that it is being conducted, makes war all that much more likely. (Cf., e.g., this tactical analysis from the BBC: How Israel might strike at Iran; tactical analysis is not usually the BBC’s strong suit, but in this case they did a good job, though they, too, contributed to the war talk.)

At this time or war talk, if one criticizes Iran one will be immediately suspected of siding with the advocates of war, and if one points out the ways in which Iran is succeeding, one is likely to be suspected of making excuses for the brutality and mismanagement of the Tehran regime. But I will run the risk of this danger, and since I have several times written about the innovative military capabilities of Iran (which I have summed up in A Review of Iranian Capabilities), I will allow myself the leeway to address some of Iran’s failings, and hopefully this will not be read as a sotto voce advocacy of war.

Iranians have just been to the polls in an election for the first time since the 2009 polls, which resulted in mass protests. (On the current election cf. Iran parliamentary election: Tehran voters divided and Iran elections to define balance of conservative power.) The fact that the election was conducted, and that it was not the kind of mandatory ballot with one person to vote for demonstrates the authenticity of Iran’s electoral process. The turnout was reported at 64 percent, and not the 99 percent one hears about in “elections” under authoritarian regimes. The fact that members of the opposition Green Party (mostly supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi) are under house arrest and not allowed to participate in the election demonstrates the stark limitations of Iran’s electoral process.

Iranians went to vote as Iran is under considerable external pressure. This much is well known from headlines. The war talk mentioned above is part of this external pressure. The US is also pressuring allies not to buy Iranian oil and is seeking to cut off Iran’s central bank from global financial markets. Iranian ally Syria is in chaos. Iran’s military proxies in Lebanon and elsewhere were caught flat-footed by the Arab spring and really don’t know how to respond. They want to hijack this popular movement, of course, but since they didn’t create it they don’t understand it, and therefore they don’t know how to manipulate it.

Iran is also faced with significant local and internal problems. Recently, Azerbaijan, Iran’s neighbor to the north, suggested that it might officially change its name to Northern Azerbaijan. This is driven by little more than a desire to poke a stick in Iran’s eye by implying the existence of a “Southern Azerbaijan” consisting of ethnic Azeris who live in Iran across the border from Azerbaijan. The later found another means of poking a stick in Iran’s eye by recently purchasing 1.6 billion dollars in weapons systems from Israel (cf. Iran Sees ‘Creeping Zionist Influence’ In South Caucasus) in a transparent instance of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Azerbaijan is not without problems of its own, with the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh enclave embedded within the country, but it is still able to cause headaches for Iran despite its own beleaguered status.

The ethnic map of Iran above shows that, like many of the nation-states in the region, Iran is not one “nation” but is a multi-ethnic society. Among these ethnicities are the Azeris mentioned above as well as another restive groups that would be glad to exploit any serious weakness in the Iranian state structure in order to assert their own self-determination. As I have mentioned, this is endemic throughout the region. We all know about the fractured ethnic and tribal lines of Iraq and Afghanistan; similar concerns hold for Iran and its neighbors. This ethnic diversity coupled with porous borders, pervasive smuggling, and a not inconsiderable arms market across these porous borders is a recipe for instability. Rather than be surprised by wars in the Caucasus, we should be surprised that there are not more wars, more often.

In addition to the balancing act of ethnic minorities, Iran has considerable internal discontent from the poor performance of its domestic economy. This is partly due to sanctions, but it is also due to the mismanagement of the government (cf. Iranians anxious over sanctions and mismanaged economy). The current administration has made efforts to end unsustainable initiatives, such as the ending of fuel subsidies that I wrote about in Market Economy Lessons. However, the good done my removing fuel subsidies was offset by handing out direct cash subsidies to the people. This is a transparently populist policy. It may be compared to the politics of subsidy practiced in Argentina, and the populist attempt to win over the affections of the poor in Venezuela. These are not economic models to emulate.

Iran is a large country with a population of nearly 80 million people; it is the 18th largest nation-state in the world in terms of population. This large population and the lucrative oil industry means that the leadership has considerable latitude in setting financial policies. The “resource curse” of oil money means that money just keeps coming in even if the leadership makes significant mistakes, and even if a great deal of money is squirreled away by corrupt officials. Poor nation-states do not have this latitude, but they are also spared that particular dangers of the resource curse.

Given a large, multi-ethnic population, and the money generated by the oil industry, it is no surprise that Tehran engages in the politics of subsidy in order to win and retain the people’s loyalty. They do it because they can. This is perhaps less important than the fact that those who serve the regime are ideologically loyal and ideologically motivated. Iran has long been seen as the vanguard of Shia Islam, and this is one reason that Saudi Arabia (which sometimes likes to position itself as not the vanguard but rather than guardian of Sunni Islam) would want a nuclear arsenal if Iran acquires a nuclear arsenal. These two nation-states (well, at least Iran is a nation-state, while Saudi Arabia firmly remains a kingdom) are understood to stand for very different ideals and norms in the region.

In so far as other populations throughout the region look to Iran as a vanguard, it commands a unique ideological loyalty, and this, in part, explains the motivation and the drive that keeps Iran’s militant proxies like Hezbollah loyal and effective fighting forces. Forces such of these, perhaps forces that do not even exist at the present time, but which might be called forth in response to a crisis, would probably express their loyalty to what Iran represents in the event of any attack on Iran. Just as Sunni radicals have flocked to the banner those who are seen to represent the aspirations of radical Sunni Islam, so too it is to be expected that Shia radicals would flock to the cause of Iran in the event of military conflict. This could have unanticipated and unpredictable consequences.

In considering this list of problems that faces the leadership in Tehran I once again emphasize that I am neither predicting or expecting the sudden and ignominious collapse of the Iranian government. Nor I am expecting a slow and inevitable decline. I expect that Iran will, like most nation-states, continue to muddle through as best as it can, even if it becomes the object of military action. Any action taken is only likely to stiffen the loyalty of ordinary Iranians to the government. I have pointed out in several posts that Iran’s experiment with its own political system represents a true republic, and even if contemporary Iranian democracy isn’t the sort of democracy practiced in Western nation-states, the regime is more oriented toward popular sovereignty than just about any other nation-state in the region (the contrast with Saudi Arabia is especially telling in this regard). The very fact that the Iranian administration engages in the politics of subsidy demonstrates that it must mollify the will of the people. In other words, the will of the people matters in Iran in a way that it does not matter in Syria or Saudi Arabia. This difference is important.

In the longer term future, I fully expect that, over time, the limitations the Iran has placed on its electoral system will be dismantled. Some day the Council of Guardians may well vote itself out of power as the House of Lords once did. Stranger things have happened. The point is that, given the way that the Iranian government is set up (i.e., as a republic), the way is open for it to adapt and change to meet changed circumstances, and these changed circumstances include the aspirations of the Iranian people. Although the current Iranian political system is captive to extremely conservative interests, if it is allowed to develop it will not remain ever thus, and its republican constitution is reformable by republican means.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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