The UN’s General Assembly’s 67th annual meeting provided an occasion for the US, Israel, and Iran to present their official positions on a number of issues, including Iran’s uranium enrichment policy. The consequences of this conflict are of interest to the people of these three countries, the Middle East, and the world. Apparently the concern is about the real intentions of Islamic Republic of Iran’s (IRI) uranium enrichment.
Mr. Obama’s refusal to draw a “red line” and insistance that there is still room for diplomacy was a relief, but not a surprise. His top priority is the presidential elections. Any military confrontation, with potential unpredictable consequences for him, while he is doing relatively well in all polls, is something to avoid. Win or lose a re-elected president Obama, or a lame duck one is unlikely to start a military adventure, at least not for the next few months.
It was difficult to take Mr. Netanyahu and his Coyote- Road Runner version of a bomb serious. The fact is that no informed observer, definitely not Iranian military experts, has taken Israel’s military threats serious. Bombing Iranian nuclear sites require over 1000 mile travel over either Saudi Arabia, or Jordan and Iraq, or Syria and Turkey, not to mention Iran’s own air space; perform multi sorties and return. Where would Israeli planes refuel? Any in the air refueling requires cooperation of the above mentioned countries. None can afford the public relations disaster of such cooperation. Without US’s active support it is very unlikely, if not impossible. Plus, as it has been noted by a number of observers, what about the day after? Although earlier in the year Mr. Netanyahu looked more like the “bad cop” pushing Iran towards “good cop” (negotiation with the 5+1), lately it seems he is more interested in helping his old friend Mitt Romney.
Mr. Ahmadinejad was poetic and philosophical. Was it his farewell, at least as president? Was it his nag for surprising (and usually annoying, although not this time) his audience? Or was it that he was prohibited from saying something serious? Was these his own words, or a “pre-approved” text? Why does it matter?
What is the real source of conflict? The issue, from US and Israel’s point of view apparently is danger of a nuclear Iran. The IRI is accused of attempting to build nuclear weapons. IRI’s official position is that the enrichment is for peaceful purposes. It is possible that when they started a few years back the intention was to make the bomb, to catch up with their arc-rival at the time, Saddam Husain who was suspected of the same intention. But after they were “cut’ in early 2000’s, and Saddam being overthrown, the goal changed to the acquiring the ability to enrich uranium to weapon grade level. This is an ability that over three dozen countries have and use as a potential deterrent. With Pakistan and Russia as neighbors, India, China, and Israel nearby, and US present all around them, quest for such ability is not unreasonable. In recent years, however, even this has not been the real reason that IRI insists on and continues the enrichment. Out of a number of major social, political, and economic policies of IRI this is the only one that has substantial public support. They have succeeded to sell it as a national right and portiere the US and Israel as bullies that are denying Iran its proper place. The conflict is used to create “us” vs. “them” and justify other shortcomings. Thus keeping the controversy alive on its own serves a major purpose. On the other hand it could be argued that US and its allies (Israel, Saudi Arabia,..) are demanding more than an end to the enrichment, or are serious about danger of bomb in the hand of a “bunch of crazy mullahs.” Their main qualm is IRI’s regional role that is in conflict with theirs. Issues such as IRI’s support for Bashar Assad, and Hezbollah, are examples of the real conflict. Nevertheless the enrichment problem and its solution and are in forefront. Rounds of negotiations have not produced any tangible results. Yet, in their meeting in New York City the 5+1 agreed to another round. The stick so far has been extensive sanctions.
Even though threat of a military confrontation in near future has subsided, the sanctions are suffocating Iran’s economy. The US Dollar which was less than 1200 Iranian Tumans last year was traded at over 2700 last week. Iranian economy generates little extra value. It is mostly dependent on extraction and export of crude oil and natural gas. The foreign currency earned is used to import basic necessities and materials needed for (inefficient and outdated) domestic industries. Sanctions have drastically reduced Iran’s ability to export petroleum and have made it very difficult to import anything. The harshness and pain caused to ordinary people has not escaped attention of even 5+1 authorities. For a while Islamic Republic’s authorities denied the negative impacts. But things are getting so bad that they, too, admit they hurt.
IRI is incapable of negotiating an end to the crisis. There is no “the” government in Tehran. There are a number of factions so powerful that one can argue that each is a government in its own. It is similar to feudalism, though not the classic one along geographical territories, but a degenerated “modern” version that multiple fiefdoms exist in the social space of Tehran. In addition to the official government, of which Mr. Ahmadinejad is president, there is “the house of supreme leader,” Revolutionary Guards, and a number of smaller ones. Each of these “governments” is feuding with others. Contrary to the public perception, the Supreme Leader” does not have “supreme “power. No doubt he is by far the most influential figure and without his approval no major initiative, including enrichment problem is going to be resolved. But the opposite is not true. He cannot force an issue if there is not significant support among some of these factions.
While a diplomatic solution requires substantial compromises by the IRI, some of the more militant factions, mostly among armed forces, are in no mood for compromise. They are not afraid, or better said are willing to pay the price, of a military confrontation with the US. They are confident that after Iraq and Afghanistan there will be no ground invasion. Air attacks on nuclear and military sites of course cause damages but can’t topple or cripple the regime. Indeed such actions may enhance the power of government and armed forces over civilians. Besides, there are many American targets around Iran, in Afghanistan and Persian Gulf. Thus, even an inferior military is able to cause heavy casualties. Like any other military, they most likely over estimate their capabilities. That makes them even less compromising. It seems that at the moment they have the ear of Supreme Leader.
The more moderate factions are on the defensive, yet hopeful that they can play a role. The main figure there is Mr. Rafsanjani, once the top IRI man, and the “king maker.” He was responsible for replacing the deceased Mr. Khomeini with the current Supreme Leader, thinking that he himself would remain the real powerhouse. A major miscalculation! Although his influence is drastically reduced, he is still capable of making a difference. His reputation for compromise (among other, not so pleasant ones) and connection with Americans (he was the main contact with the Reagan administration during “Iran-Contra” affairs, and rumor has it that his connections are not all lost) are helpful for his quest. If the Supreme Leader is convinced that hardline policies are not tenable, and he can afford alienating the militants, Mr. Rafsanjani could come to the rescue. However, last week two of his children were arrested and put in jail. A not so subtle warning shut by the hardliners! But it is not over. These clashes will continue and get uglier.
Mr. Ahmadinejad is not a moderate. In fact he considers Mr. Rafsanjani as the arch rival. It was him who Mr. Ahmadinejad ran against for his first term. He attacked Mr. Rafsanjani and his family as corrupt and accused them of embezzlement. A substantial number of his votes were votes against Mr. Rafsanjani. He is not a ‘militant” either. Although up to a year ago he had their and the supreme Leader’s full support, for reasons beyond the scope of this article, he has lost them. More important, it is he and his cabinet that are in forefront of dealing with economic and political consequences of the crippling sanctions. They cannot possibly approve of the hardline policies. But he has little power to oppose them. Is there any wonder why he is “poetic” nowadays?
Opposition groups are far too disorganized and fragmented to concern the IRI. Even the “loyal opposition,” such as “reformists” are not of much significance at the moment. A great majority of people are very unhappy and hurt by the IRI policies and sanctions. No regime, never mind how brutal and suppressive, can afford an angry public for a long period of time. Yet there are little signs of public discontent. Although sanctions are biting hard and people have plenty of blame for both sides, demand is mainly from US and its allies to stop the sanctions. Little is demanded from IRI. The explanation is the nature of the conflict.
The US’s main (only?) demand, on the surface, is a resolution of the enrichment issue. This is not a priority for the people of Iran. First, they don’t share the concern. Indeed, as was mentioned earlier, the majority side with the IRI. Their gripes with IRI are not reflected in US demand(s). Had the demands be about respect for human rights of its citizens; freedom of speech and media and association, free elections, equality of citizens regardless of gender, ethnicity, and religious beliefs, then the public’s response would have been different. There is wide spread support for these rights and IRI would be forced to respond if pushed. As long as demand is to stop uranium enrichment IRI athurities do not need to worry about public’s outrage.
Predicting the future of social movements is a risky business anywhere in the world, particularly in the Middle East. Who would predict a year earlier that Mubarak of Egypt would be overthrown within a year? So a year from now Iran could be anything. A military conflict is a possibility. Full fledged invasion is not likely but aerial attacks, closing of the Persian Gulf, or even occupying Iranian ports and islands are a real possibility. None on its own would result in the collapse of the IRI. Such military conflicts could be very costly for the US, thus are unlikely. A more likely scenario is the continuation of sanctions, and enrichment. Iran’s economy, already badly hurt, would fall even further into a crisis. With opposition weak and fragmented, the factional fighting within IRI will continue and may even result in armed internal conflict. The IRI as we know it may implode. What will rise in its place could be even uglier. The hard line, militaristic faction is most likely to have upper hand, with or without the Supreme Leader’s blessing. An outright military dictatorship in Tehran along ethnic uprisings that may force a civil war in areas such as Kurdistan. Iran is located in a very sensitive area. In its south is the Persian Gulf with the oil flow and US military bases in Bahrain and Qatar. Caspian sea, Armenia and Azerbaijan (in war with each other since their independence), and central Asia are to its north. Iraq and (eastern) Turkey with its own “Kurdish problem” are to its west. And Afghanistan and Pakistan are to its east. Who can afford an Iran in turmoil and civil war?
Best likely scenario? Tie demand for the above mentioned respect for its citizens’ human and democratic rights to lifting of sanctions on IRI, and be serious about it.
G. Reza Ghorashi is a professor of economics at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.