Iran faces up to its inner demons and its foreign foes
by Gordon Campbell
In the words of one Middle East analyst, Iran looks these days as if it is suffering from a type of auto-immune disorder, in which all its limbs are attacking each other. The internal conflict between splintered blocs of conservatives and reformers is also co-inciding with intense pressure from the outside world. Arbitrarily, President Barack Obama has given Iran until the end of this month to take concrete steps to resolve the West’s concerns over its nuclear programme. If not, Obama has said, tougher but unspecified sanctions will be put in place.
Furthermore, if the threat of tougher sanctions fails…the ultimate threat of military action remains on the table, with Bush era troglodytes like John Bolton confidently predicting that Israel will take military action against Iran by December, in order to knock out its nuclear sites. In that mission, Israel is seen as enjoying the tacit support of conservative Sunni regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both of whom would love to see Shi’ite Iran and its influence throughout the region being cut down to size..
As a bonus, a military strike against Iran is widely seen as doing useful collateral damage to Teheran’s regional allies, such as Hizbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza. Of course, such visionary neo-con plans do have a tendency to backfire, as in Iraq. In this case, the backlash from the Arab Street to any Israeli military strike against Iran risks taking down the conservative regimes in Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in the course of a regional war. Whoops.
To say the least, we are living in dangerous times. To Professor David Menashri, director of the Iranian Studies Centre at Tel Aviv University, there is a lot more that can be done diplomatically, before a military strike is seriously considered. The end of September strikes him as being a quite unrealistic timeframe for solving the problems at issue. “But its quite fair if you want to start a dialogue. Certainly, it takes some time to discuss the conditions and the agenda in what I’d call the pre-dialogue stage. Where you have to clarify what is the agenda, what level are the meetings, and where they are going to be held.”
So, in his view, Obama’s deadline is a signal to create a dialogue rather than a threat that the time for talking is over ? Yes, Menashri indicates, and dialogue will fail if Iran is treated as if it is being brought to heel. “Dialogue is a delicate issue, and a long time process. If anyone thinks Iran is coming to dialogue in circumstances when the issue on the table is Iran’s nuclear programme, then Iran will not come at all.” In the necessary context of mutual respect, wider issues have to be tabled. “There are bilateral issues between the two countries to be discussed, Iraq, Afghanistan..thePersian Gulf, You can barely begin to create an agenda [for these things] by the end of September.. And hopefully, you could begin to convince the Iranians into postponing their programme of nuclear enrichment, during these talks.”
Logically then… if at the end of September we are barely beginning to discuss what a substantive agenda would look like, this would rule out any military option by December. Seen in that light, the mooted dialogue and tough talk of wider sanctions appear more like a deliberate obstruction to military action, rather than a prelude to it.
Menashri tends to agree. “ They say the military option is on the table, which is good for the agenda. Everything is on the table. It’s a real threat to Iran….[but] It is not something that’s really on the cards. Who is going to do this military attack ? “In his view, not the Israelis.
So the various threats and hints issuing from the Americans are merely the stick to help along the diplomatic process? “ Yes, to push things along. But the real issue is the carrots. If you talk about this as a carrot and stick process, the carrots are not very sweet for the Iranians. The Iranian radical conservatives have even spoken about a poisoned carrot. They talk about a carrot being sent by Obama to convince the young people of Iran that ‘you have a friend in the White House.’ Because there is a link between what you have seen in the streets of Teheran with the demonstrations, and the emergence of Obama. “
Iran is a deeply paranoid state. It may have sound historical grounds – the US has interfered before in its affairs – for feeling that way. Yet currently, the besieged mindset means that threat is perceived in whichever mode the West chooses to adopt. The Bush administration overtly threatened Iran – but the current leaders of the Islamic Revolution also seem to be seeing the friendlier face of Obama as being subversive, only in a different way.
“They are paranoid,” Menashri replies, “and maybe for good reason. Iran has borders with ten countries and doesn’t have good relations with any of them. It views America as the Great Satan. And it has taught its children to see the world in that way. If you do that for 30 years, you start to believe it.” The Clinton presidency at least, he continues, came close to apologizing for the American intervention in Iran in the 1950s, which toppled the moderate, democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh and delivered an entire generation over to the tender mercies of the Shah. .
Culturally, is Iran’s paranoia also re-inforced by the sense of victimhood that is so central to Shia Islam ? “ Yes,” Menashri says. “Shias are much more paranoid. They have suffered so much from persecution, have always of course, been a suppressed sect. Suppressed by the Sunnis, not by the Americans. This is a good question, a good point. The tradition of Shi’ism is a sect that has been deprived.”
Plainly, a great religion – and the ruling ethos is a country like Iran – cannot readily be reduced to a culture of martyrdom. Yet the foundation event in Shia Islam is the death of the Prophet’s nephew Hussein in the pursuit of justice, and that sorrowful occasion is annually commemorated in the rites of Ashura. Menashri can see some resonance in modern Iran, amid elements common to conservatives and reformers alike.
“The Shia believe in 12 Imams, eleven of whom were murdered. The twelfth disappeared. It is a sad, very sad religion.” Even so, the Iranians are not the only ones in this crucial attempt at engagement whom he sees as being influenced by such subterranean cultural currents. “To some extent, the Americans also. They are also driven by sentiments, rather than by rational thinking…The holding of American hostages in the early stage of the Iranian Revolution is a very painful point for any American president. Iran has come to be such a very delicate issue [for the Americans] to deal with.”
Can a common interest be found ? Well, the two countries do have common interests in Iraq and in Afghanistan, Menashri replies, and could have been very good allies. Under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami during the early days of reform that began ten years ago and ended in 2005, Khatami had tried to express goodwill to the Bush administration – only to discover that in reality the authority for Iran to follow through on these initiatives was not in the hands of the president of Iran. Like so many of Khatami’s attempts at reform, the good intentions ended in frustration, for all involved.
As things stand, the four main players on the Iranian political stage are : the army chief of staff Hassan Firouzabadi, who looks more and more like a classic military strongman and is the main force behind the army, the Revolutionary Guards and the basiji militia who were unleashed on the demonstrators. There is the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the unfortunate inhabitant of a peculiar position created by Ayatollah Khomeini – and to which Khamenei was elevated above the heads of many religious leaders with far better scholastic credentials, who still hold a grudge at the slight.
Then there is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current president who has his own group of neo-cons around him, deeply distrusted by the army and by the clerics – but who is being supported as the lesser and necessary evil, compared to the reformers. Finally – and always a factor – there is Ali Rafsanjani, a former president during the 1990s who is both Iran’s richest man and a senior cleric who outranks Khamenei on clerical grounds, but not ( currently) in political clout. Of this quartet, the man calling the shots certainly appears to be Firouzabadi – but who does Menashri rate as the current leader among this group of equals?
“Real power,” Menashri begins, “ is in the hands of the radical conservatives. Not the reformers.” Yet on the opposing conservative side – in which all of the above four can claim part of the territory, there are constant shifting alliances with and against the other parts of the quartet.
The situation is unstable, and depressing. “Iran has shown its beautiful face to the world,”Menashri says with a sigh. “ The young people bave taken to the streets, demonstrating for freedom, and showing how courageous they are. I think Iranians themselves were surprised to see such a movement.” They were, of course, crushed.
“But at what price ? “ Menashri shrugs. “To a large degree, this regime has lost its legitimacy. And it was a regime that was based on morality, on values, on Islamic doctrine. It is clearly now based on the force of arms, and on militarism.” The big loser in this decline in moral authority, he feels, has been Khamenei. “Khamenei, who was a spiritual leader for all the nation, has now downgraded himself to being the leader of one faction. It is so unlike Khomeini. Khomeini always stood above the factions, and at a time of truth, he would intervene to make peace and to compromise, and to be an arbitrator.” Khamenei, who has always lacked his mentor’s spiritual authority, has now lost what little moral standing he formerly had. “ His position has now been been identified and moored in the small dirty politics of factions.
Leaving him dependent now, upon Firouzabadi ? Menashri remains unsure on this point. To him, it is unclear whether Khamenei’s actions have been motivated by genuine and mis-directed good will, or because his hand has been forced. It may be that he has felt himself to havbe been trapped by Ahmadinejad and by the Revolutionary Guards acting in concert, or acting separately.
Khamenei is not the only one feeling the heat. Even his apparent protégé, Ahmadinejad, has been boxing from a very tight corner of late. A significant gap has been evident between Ahmadinejad and his own neo-con followers on one hand, and the rest of the ruling equation on the other. In late July the president finally had to sack one of his vice –presidents Rahim Mashaie, a man whose daughter is married Ahmadinehad’s son. Mashaie was forced out by Khamenei after making some fairly innocuous friendly remarks about the people of Israel. After a delay of nearly a week, Ahmadinejad reluctantly buckled, but has kept Mashaie on within his inner circle, as his chief of staff. Such defiance earned Ahmadinejad virulent criticism from the conservative Justice Seeking Students organization – and also a stern rebuke from Firouzabadi for failing to jump to obedience ‘before the ink was dry’ on Khamenei’s order.
The rounds of internal bitterness and rivalries continue – capped this week, by Khamenei deciding to form his own militia, in a fairly stunning expression of his lack of faith is in the fidelity of the Revolutionary Guards. Doesn’t all this point to Firouzabadi as being the kingpin at present?
“That’s a good question,” Menashri says with a smile. “ But I don’t have an answer. But I can tell you it’s a good question to be pursued as you have described it. The role of the Revolutionary Guards may itself be unclear. One thing we don’t know as observers – we can read the blogs, we can speak with Iranians. But there are two major institutions in which we simply don’t know what’s going on. One of them is the Revolutionary Guards. When they sit and have their tea together, what are their grievances ? They are part of society and if society is split, why not they ?
The other mystery institution, he feels, is the body of young students in the clerical schools. “What is their opinion ? Most of the Grand Ayatollahs are in the reform camp. To some degree that has influenced the young scholars.” In other words, the emerging clerical class may be just as split as the ruling political tier of religious conservatives, thus perpetuating a major form of instability in the country.
While the drive by the street demonstrators and would-be reformers has been turned back by military might, the movement for change has had deficiencies of its own. In Mir Hossein Moussavi it had the best rallying point that it could find at the time, but someone who was hardly a charismatic leader – and at crunch, Moussavi could not parlay his former insider links with the regime to any useful effect. Either to sway the course of events, or to protect his followers.
Even more seriously, the reformers could not present an alternative vision for the nation. If not Islam, where was the ideology it was seeking to present as an alternative to the Islamic Revolution ? In the medium term, the only way forward –and it may well have to wait until Khamenei dies – will be to scrap the historical aberration of the Supreme Leader post, that Khomeini so controversially created. The current level of religious involvement in politics has always been opposed for instance, by Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the nearest person to an acknowledged spiritual leader that Shia Islam currently has. This has been the main difference between Sistani’s brand of Islamic governance that he has advocated for Iraq, and the highly politicised kind of Khomeini-ism that endures in Iran, 30 years after the Revolution that gave it birth.
Menashri explains the difference, and the need to de-politicise the clerical class. “ This has been the view of the Grand Ayatollahs in Iran, the whole time. None of them supported Khomeini. [In their view] Shi’ite clerics should stand beside the government, above the government, and guide the government…But they should not be in politics because politics corrupts.”
Unfortunately, if Obama and Israel proceed in the coming months to impose sanctions or wave around the threat of military force, this will only push events in the reverse direction. Tougher sanctions would primarily hit the lower and middle classes, and would strengthen the security straitjacket of the state. Moreover, wouldn’t the threat of military action actually serve to re-legitimise the current tattered leadership and regain for them much of the moral high ground that they have lost in recent months?
“That’s a real possibility,” Menashri concludes. “We can never tell how these kind of things backlash. Because at the end of the day the Iranians are nationalists, they are Persians, they are Iranians. And as you say – as Shi’ites, they know struggle.They know a thing or two about the struggle for a just rule. They support Moussavi, who is a Shi’ite. And what is Shi’ism, if not the struggle for just rule ? And when they saw the election had been mis-used it is clear that Shi’ites more than anyone else, will go to struggle. Because it is in their blood. To struggle for justice, and for just rule.”
If the West responds harshly against the regime…‘It will be interpreted as action against the people of Iran. Or against the proud [way of] life of the Iranian people. But there is such a long list of things you can do short of military intervention….” Yet in outside world, the regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia are wishing to see Iran, and its influence curbed.
The best way of doing so, Menashri concludes, would be for there to be a just solution to the Palestinian issue. “Saudi Arabia is aware that the main enemy is Iran, not Israel. If you want to weaken Iran, solve the Palestinian problem. You will be doing a favour to yourself as well as to the Arabs – and as a byproduct, you will weaken Iran.”